Is democracy on the slide?

If the public have little or no understanding of the decisions and institutions that govern our lives and we continue to ignore the warning signs, how long before we can no longer say with honesty that we live in a democracy?

Daniel John is a law student who writes on democracy and society since the 2008 financial crash

In my mind democracy is not so much a system of governance, but rather the result of a system of governance. It appears to me, and many others, that in the past three to four decades the word democracy, despite retaining its dictionary definition, in practice has become something else altogether.

The control of the systems and institutions that have a dramatic effect on all of our lives have been handed over to undemocratic and private institutions, such as the IMF and The World Bank for example; institutions that are something of a mystery to most people.

Since 2007 the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published the “Democracy Index”. It aims to provide a snapshot of democracy worldwide and as of 2012, according to the index, democracy is at a standstill. The causes of democratic decline put forward by the EIU are probably not that revelatory; the lack of confidence in political institutions exacerbated by sovereign debt crises and political participation decreasing are no real surprise; but from this a depressing picture of sustained decline emerges, with no sign of abatement.

Some may argue about the kind of metrics used to measure an international decline in democracy, and the conclusions one can draw from the EIU’s research may vary. I say this to highlight what is sometimes referred to as the ‘blind-spot’ of objectivity. In a world of so much information, truth and understanding seem to be more elusive than ever.

It probably wouldn’t take more than an hour or two to find a study from an equally reputable institution that contradicts the study by the EIU. Anyone who spends their time monitoring the ‘digital info-tsunami’ that is the internet would probably concede that a fair description of the internet could be that of millions of people hurling ‘think-tank report’ after ‘independent research’ after ‘sound bite’ at each other in comment boxes all over the web, peppered with ‘ism’s’ and conspiracy theory-driven paranoia.

Repetition

This is probably why most people still rely on traditional media for their information. The reassuring sight of a ‘talking head’ providing insight and comment from experts, MP’s and the public is a much neater and more digestible form of information provision; but this has its own, equally worrying drawbacks.

Despite news coverage being a 24 hour operation, the same stories are repeated throughout the day. You would think, with all the material on the internet, that the conventional news would be able to provide the viewer with a near endless stream of fact-checked, verified stories on a daily basis, instead of the yawningly repetitive ‘voxpop’ news that makes up the better part of the mainstream news.

Some of the reasons for this gap in news coverage are discussed in the book Flat Earth News, a book by the journalist Nick Davies. According to Davies, a large number of news outlets are now a source of “distortion, falsehood and propaganda”. The pressure of deadlines and the cutting back of staff have made it impossible for journalist’s to check facts and chase stories of real public interest. The news nowadays comes directly from PR offices and are published almost without question or review, the public’s obsession with the sex lives of z-list celebrities is used as an excuse to not cover more important issues – the fear being that if they do not pander to the public’s base interests, the readers and the advertising revenue will go elsewhere.

The limits of the mainstream media

The Positive Money campaign is one of the many victims of this shift in journalism and news coverage and the vastness of the internet. Irrespective of whether you agree with Positive Money’s position or not, it comes as a surprise that a legitimate campaign on a subject that is so relevant to the public interest and at the front of people’s mind at the moment, that it receives absolutely no coverage in the mainstream media.

Positive money are but one example but there are many more, such as the successful ’38 Degrees’ campaign to make eight multinational corporations pay the tax owed on profits from the Olympic village in 2012, despite the government giving them this perk in the first place. None of this makes the news, and when it does it is fleeting, despite it being a story fitting into the media’s narrative arc.

If society loses the means to question decisions that affect our lives we have reached a dangerous place. If the public have little or no understanding of the decisions and institutions that govern our lives and we continue to ignore the warning signs, how long before we can no longer say with honesty that we live in a democracy?

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