Thursday, 11 June 2009

Arguments for Democracy

"Arguments for Democracy" by Tony Benn: A Review
This is an interesting and controversial book. Be warned: readers may be surprised how often they are in agreement with Mr Benn's arguments, despite the fact that they would wish not to be. But the discerning reader will judge the book on its merits, and not be swayed by media presentation of Tony Benn as "extreme left-wing".
An interesting section of the book deals with the danger to democracy posed by what Tony Benn considers to be an often blinkered and biased press. His presentation of the case is well argued, and substantiated by clear evidence.
Tony Benn argues that the owners of papers often "use their papers to campaign single-mindedly in defense of their commercial interests and the political policies which will protect them." Lest this seem far-fetched, he quotes Lord Beaverbrook (past owner of the Daily and Sunday Express) who said quite openly: "I run the paper purely for the purpose of making political propaganda, and with no other motive." Moreover, this bias in the press is not simply party-political. As an example, Mr Benn points out that, during the Common Market Referendum in 1975, "every daily and Sunday newspaper came out in favour of Britain's membership, and denounced all those who warned that Britain's interests would be gravely damaged if we remained within the EEC." This example supports Mr Bonn's contention that the papers often do not inform the public, but rather support and promote just one particular point of view. He concludes by warning that "if a variety of perspectives are not provided, the public information function becomes debased into a mere propaganda machine."
We should take note of Mr Benn's point and remember that there is invariably more than one side to an argument, so that we should look for another point of view to see that it has been fairly reported. As a local example, it might be questioned whether we have heard, in the press, both sides of the case for flooding Queen's Valley. And when a local paper campaigned for seat-belts, did they report fairly on problems and dangers of wearing seat-belts? Whatever side one takes in such issues, it would be useful if the press could present each case with sober clarity, rather than resorting to a simplistic reduction of important matters to support editorial policy. An apt illustration of this would be the use (by a local Jersey paper) of metaphors taken from the boxing ring. Words were used  such as "fight", "battle", "round", "gloves off", "points", "majority decision", "victory", "attack". This sort of reporting obscures facts, centres on personalities, and polarises the issues; it suggests to the public that there are only two opposing sides, and denies the possibility of any centre ground.
Contrary to popular opinion, Mr Benn does not wish to "nationalise" newspapers or curtail their freedom; he simply wants to see news reporting (as opposed to editorial leaders) to be quite separate from editorial comment. Above all, he would like newspapers to "help a nation understand fairly and clearly the political alternatives that people are trying to put before them."
In other chapters, Mr Benn considers the power of the prime minister, the role of the civil service, trade unions, the EEC and the effect on society of science and technology. It is a challenging book, and an opportunity to listen to Mr Benn speaking for himself, even if you disagree with him.

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