Dangerous Liaisons

Seeing as it’s summer school season in Ireland, when the country’s faculties for critical thought are in full and glorious bloom, and the nation huddles rapt beside the wireless to seize on morsels of the life of the political mind, carefully curated by the redoubtable broadcasting services, I thought I would put together a couple of pieces relating to the critical awakening in Spain that has flowed from the 15-M movement.

The first one is from the opening statement of the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation. It was held just over a week ago in the Puerta Del Sol, designed to coincide with the Debate on the State of The Nation taking place in the Spanish national parliament, which is a short dander up the street. According to its organizers, the intention was to host an alternative, critical and constructive debate that dealt with the real problems of the population. It would be the citizens themselves who spoke, at the margin of the political speeches taking place in the parliament at the same time. More than a thousand people turned up to take part in the debate, and 60,000 watched online. There were a few different themes – Economics, from citizens to commodities; Social rights versus privatization; Politics and the media – dangerous liaisons; Citizenship – between life and the euro.

It is worth noting that there was a State of the Nation address in Ireland too, this week. It was held at think tank par excellence the Irish Institute of European Affairs. The IIEA is funded by, among others, AIB, Bank of Ireland Treasury, Goldman Sachs International, IBEC and Shell E&P Ireland. As many of you will be aware, I am hardly We The Citizens’s greatest fan. However there was lots of questioning this week about the legitimacy of the assemblies that were being held, with a frequent claim being made that there was already a citizens’ assembly: the Dáil. But yet the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs can stand up and give something called a State of the Nation address at a private think-tank gathering, and no questions were raised with regard to its legitimacy. What better place for Eamon Gilmore, then, to emit the following:

“We have been the beneficiaries of European solidarity, without which we would have been unable to fund the State.’’

If ‘solidarity’ entails, among other things, a programme designed to drive down wages and living conditions for the vast majority of people living in the State and a crippling debt burden forced on the population by the European Central Bank in order to save financial institutions, you would have to wonder what sort of thing Gilmore would classify as indifference: a neutron bomb?

Here is the opening statement, from the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation, sourced here.

Why the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation?

Because we want to denounce the chasm that separates citizens from political representatives. Because the problems of citizens do not echo in the debate in the Congress of Deputies, which is laden with electoral calculations and political marketing. The social and economic fracture that this crisis is provoking is incompatible with an institutional debate that is plagued with insults and point-scoring, perfectly predictable and that has no room in the script for answering the pressing demands of the citizens.

As such, we want to set out critical debate and thinking. We do not resign ourselves to submissively accepting the self-interested discourse that maintains only one type of politics is possible. We fight determinedly against monolithic thinking that seeks to gloss over any hint of disagreement, and we uphold intellectual creativity that questions the existing social and economic models and persists in the search of just and sustainable alternatives.

The reflections of speakers and collectives, which are authored solely by the people who share them, will help sustain this necessary debate. Their insights will be subjected to the enriching criticism of all, in the knowledge that through this, rather than weakening them, we will help to strengthen them.

With this debate we reaffirm our democratic convictions in the face of those who applaud and support the illegitimate power of the markets. Those who with their uncontrolled greed have plunged us into this grave crisis cannot, on top of that, usurp our right to decide. They have ransacked our economies and they now seek an even more ambitious booty: to deprive us of our status as citizens and relegate us to that of mere consumers.

As such, against the twilight government of the speculators and rentiers, we lift our hands to speak and raise our voices in this public square, transformed, now, once again, into the symbol of the legitimate expression of the will of the citizens.

If political power does not listen to the clamour rising from initiatives such as this one today, the barely three hundred metres of distance between this debate and that of the Congress of Deputies run the risk of becoming an unbridgeable abyss.

This is an event of the people for the people.

We are aware of the little time we have to deal with so many subjects that are a source of concern for the citizenry, and we apologise in advance to all the platforms, collectives etc that would have liked to participate but will not be able to.

This is the talk from that same event by Pascual Serrano, a journalist who writes extensively on media power. Sourced here.

“Real Democracy Now” has to reach the media too.

In dictatorial regimes, despots with their armies, police forces and judges silence troublesome social collectives, they relegate to silence those honest intellectuals who criticize them, and they do not provide the thousands of citizens who confront power with the opportunity to speak. For its part, dictatorial power never ceases to claim that those who criticize it are a minority, that they use violence and that they want to subvert order. It is curious, but it is precisely this, in our supposedly democratic regimes, which is the function of mainstream media outlets.

At one time it was believed that the media was going to be the fourth power, that is, the citizen power that would exercise vigilance over the other three: executive, legislative and judicial. We have discovered that in this system that they call democracy, these three powers neither represent us nor are they legitimate, because their decisions have no relation to either the promises with which they were elevated to their position, or to the desires of the citizens. But it is worse still with the fourth estate that was supposed to oversee them. If the first three have been placed in the service of the markets, the fourth is simply the market. The watchers have become the shock troops of the market, the fundamentalists of the regime that is strangling democracy. And they have become this because they are not even media businesses – their owners are business conglomerates with shares and interests across all sectors, from telecoms multinationals that control the channels for transmitting information to key banking groups for the finance sector. And their viability depends on big advertisers from businesses such as oil, cars, and big supermarkets. These media are no fourth power – they are the power of money.

They have no interest in truth, nor in democracy. On the contrary, they will defend those banks that evict those who do not pay their mortgages, they will defend big businesses that use sackings to improve profits, and corporations that destroy the planet in order that they keep on buying advertising, private hospitals and universities which will surely put in more advertising than public service and moreover will have the same owners as the banks that finance theem.

And of course, these media will support all politicians that propose more power for the market and less for the citizens. The newspapers, television and radio stations, with their columnists, editorials, commissioned reports and manipulated news will throw themselves like hyenas against anyone who dares attack the privileges of the market, because they are created to defend them.

And all this happens via media that no-one has chosen. Because we don’t choose them when we go to the kiosk or we turn on the television: they live through and for their banks and advertisers. Media that no-one can control, that can lie with impunity and without counterweight.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the right to receive “information and ideas”. But in order for citizens to enjoy the right to receive information and ideas the right must be guaranteed to others to broadcast information and ideas. And that right, as we all know, is provided by an oligopoly of a few media firms. Because the media do not practice the right to freedom of expression, they exercise the right to censorship, since they decide what gets published and broadcast, and what is not. After that we have the Spanish Constitution, the first constitution of a European country that includes the citizen right to receive “truthful” information. But there is no legislation that develops this: in the previous legislature Izquierda Unida set out the Journalist’s Statute for approval in that parliament. This laid out systems of public control and participation that would guarantee the independence of the journalist from his/her firm and the truthfulness of reporting. The Statute was approved at committee level and the two big parties took it on themselves to never bring it to a plenary session and it was consigned to oblivion. The result is the media’s loss of credibility.

June 8th last, the most-watched programme on our screens was Weather 1, on TVE1, which swept all before it with a 20.8% share. Thirty television channels and citizens reach the conclusion that the most interesting thing on was the weather forecast. Years back the weather forecast was a joke because we used to say it never got it right, but now we have realized that it’s the only reliable thing on TV.

We also hear talk about ethical and deontological codes for journalists. But in media enterprises there is only one code that operates, and it’s the same as with any enterprise. If what you do displeases your boss, you’re out. That’s the only code that works when job security is not guaranteed.

We should not be naïve – media under the empire of the market will never satisfy the need for truthful information among citizens. They need to be profitable, and for this they need to win audiences at all costs through trivia, spectacle and morbid interest. They cannot confront major shareholders who are the protagonists and beneficiaries of a neoliberal model that is incompatible with democracy. They cannot ill-treat those who furnish them with advertising revenue –big media does not live because of us, a newspaper costs the double of what we pay for it (the other half is paid by advertising) and in the case of television and radio stations these are free because their money comes from other sources, and we already know that whoever pays gives the orders.

And here comes the big question: what is to be done? My answer is: democratize them. We need a real democracy now here too. Just as we must prise away from the market its power over the decisions of governments, we must prise away its control over communications media. Only a public bank can serve citizen interests and not that of its shareholders, only a public school [not in the UK sense – HG] can assist a deprived immigrant child, only a public hospital can attend to a disadvantaged old person when they get sick. And only a collective public media will be able to represent plurality and will allow us to demand truthfulness. Public and controlled by the citizens, with editorial councils where social collectives are represented, with a financing that does not depend on banks, where the citizen’s right to inform and be informed is attended to.

Because either the media are ours, or they are against us, against the citizens.

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July 2011

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