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Democracy and the Press

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It’s interesting that on National Press Day the President reminded the press to practice more self-censorship and one way of doing it is by reporting more ‘appropriate’ news. The press, SBY said should be ‘dignified, useful and responsible.’ ‘It is the press that should control itself for the good of the nation. The people want the press to provide accurate and objective information.’

It is an interesting comment for two reasons. Firstly, because it came from the mouth of someone who, if it weren’t for this country’s democracy would not have got elected as president to begin with.

Secondly, because we get an inkling of what democracy in the eyes of this country’s leader should be like: less like a fiesta of democracy but more like a funeral gathering or dinner at the in-laws where words spoken must be appropriate and one’s behaviour dignified, useful and responsible. The press somehow, like an unruly and rowdy guest, is spoiling the party. And unless it shaped up and displayed better manners will not doubt be shown the door. What the president, and the country must remember, including the people claimed to be in want of accurate and objective information, is that the press is not the unwelcome guest at an exclusive party that needs to be reminded of the appropriate dress code and suitable behaviour, but the press is actually the host and the planner of this fiesta of democracy. In other words, it is not so much up to the press to be dignified, useful and responsible than for the elected players of democracy to practice those exact behaviours for the good of the nation. Otherwise they might just be shown the door.

The voice of the people is the voice of God they say. Hence the pursuit of democracy and it’s other enlightening and liberating aspects. Democracy however is also the voice of the masses and the lowest common denomination in taste, intelligence and judgment. It is noisy, packed with bad taste and brimming with sensationalism. That was why Plato was very much against it, preferring philosophers and the mentally brilliant to hold the rein of the nation.

The thing is it is difficult for the press to survive just by providing the people with accurate and objective information, to practice self-censorship and control, especially when the competitors are numerous and audience ratings translate into business revenue. Moreover, with technology and the demand for information that is faster than now, it becomes far more important and easier to present the story as it unfolds in the form of ‘live’ and ‘breaking news’ – fascinating but ultimately lacking in depth, devoid of context and most of all short-lived.

For example, in covering the sickness and the death of former president Suharto, some conspiracy minded people were convinced that the media, with their shady ownerships, had gone out of their way to manipulate the public’s emotion by spamming the air waves with endless live coverage of the old man’s final moments all in order to change history and the way we judge him. Too many hours were devoted to this former dictator and corruptor they said, at the expense of many other worthier news and information.

While it was true that so many hours and so much resource were spent by the media to record Suharto’s latest medical conditions, the coverage overkill was more a testimony of how long it took for the sick old man to finally give up the ghost than any deliberate conspiracy to portray him in a particular way. It would have been a lot simpler, and cheaper for all, if the poor man had just passed away and got buried quickly, seeing most of the media had had their obituaries and biographies ready to print or air for the last few years anyway. But once the press had their camera on a live coverage, it was impossible to turn off and come back another day. For that might have meant missing the last gasp of breath, the final moment, the climax of a breaking story and of course, losing to the competitors.

There is no need therefore, to credit the press with more intelligence than it really has or to have high expectation of its behaviour. Cutthroat competition for both audience and business are seeing the press gone the paparazzi way. Suharto got a good coverage more for his celebrity status than anything else. For a few weeks he was Britney Spears and Princess Diana providing us with morbid fascination and audio-visual catharsis. When he was finally buried it was with a sigh of relief that the press wrapped up the story once and for all, packed up their cameras and not look back. It might not have been appropriate, useful or good for the nation but looking at the ratings, it was what the people wanted.