Fraudcast News – how bad journalism serves our bogus democracies

My name is Patrick Chalmers. I have worked as a journalist for the last 20 years, just over half of that time with the Reuters news agency, since become Thomson Reuters.

I spent the last few wondering what on earth my work, and that of my chosen profession, should be about. The result is Fraudcast News, a book about both democracy and journalism. During the next couple of months it will be made available free to read online or in paid-for eReader and paper forms. This blog will chart its progress from draft to final publication.

I am making the book available under a Creative Commons Licence, meaning it will be free to share for non-commercial purposes with attribution to the original source. I am inspired in this approach by the U.S. media writer Dan Gillmor.

Why democracy and journalism? Because I don’t think there is any point in the second unless its main role is to be a watchdog of the first. That begs the obvious question of what democracy truly is.

It’s a term we use very lazily, usually without thinking. My own preference is to give it something close to its original meaning – which is power in the hands of the people. I don’t believe what our modern politicians call democracy, what we routinely accept as democracy, is anything close to that original meaning. This has huge implications for our current modes of government – something I explore in depth in the book.

Journalism does a very bad job of tackling the accountability deficit in modern politics. It fails to do what should be its core function – to scrutinise our governors and the governance systems that hold them in power. That is the nub of Fraudcast News.

As for the book itself, the following is a synopsis for how it stands as of today, before its full, final edit. Any ideas or suggestions you might have to help it on its way would be very welcome.

Fraudcast News
How bad journalism serves our bogus democracies

By Patrick Chalmers

Synopsis

Emerging from Copenhagen’s Tårnby train station into the early morning sleet of December 2009, I have only a vague idea of my role for the hours ahead. Should I be a news reporter or protestor in this attempt to force an entry into global climate change talks a couple of miles away? Despite 20 years in and around mainstream journalism I can’t decide, the police sirens and nervous chatter from a several hundred-strong crowd only worsening the confusion.

To the backbeat of a heavily policed civil disobedience march that pulls me towards breaking the law myself, we meet the book’s twin themes – the collapsing credibility of our governments and the failure of conventional journalism to acknowledge and examine the governance crisis that collapse implies.

For me, journalism’s failure is personal. Having taken years to break into the profession, I find its great boast of speaking truth to power little more than a charade. A journey begun as an eager novice left me pondering my vocation’s credibility problems and lack of purpose. Experiences reporting on government in Britain, the Europe Union and globally left me allergic to hearing the word “democracy” without accompanying qualification. Those I covered on assignment – the politicians, bankers, business leaders and their like who wield power in today’s world – drove home my sense of representative democracy’s broken promises. The multiple contradictions eventually forced me out in search of alternatives.

Fraudcast News maps out this personal journey, offering a human foil to the broader failure of our politics and the journalism accompanying them. Part personal confessional, part manifesto, the book suggests how we, as media audience members and content generators, can challenge our corrupted governance structures. For the growing band of humanity despairing of conventional government, this book says not just how we might hold our governors and media to account but also how to replace them.

Book structure

Introduction
We meet the author and his relationship with the book’s twin themes – representative democracies’ collapsing credibility and the failure of conventional journalism to acknowledge or examine the glaring governance deficits that collapse implies.

Chapter 1 – Doorstepping journalism
We follow the author’s trail from budding reporter to staff journalist as he dodges serial traps and career killers in the form of unpaid work placements, pricey media studies courses and jobs galore in public relations. Neither the route nor the destination offers any journalists’ paradise, with media ownership and income sources just two of the filters throttling the wide diffusion of vibrant, diverse and politically dissident media.

Chapter 2 – Europhile turned foul
At last inside the business, the author tries to hone his imagined role as societal watchdog within the constraints of daily work for a global news agency. On the way, we start our tour of modern, multi-level governance structures, the EU’s base lack of democracy being a glaring case of grossly deficient accountability.

Chapter 3 – Fear and greed correspondent
With the book’s critiques of conventional journalism and governance in place, we shift to London’s global bullion markets for a view of the formidable powers of banks and traders. An explosion in barely regulated financial derivatives, subverting the very industries and markets they claimed to have been designed help, foreshadows the global financial crisis to come.

Chapter 4 – Malaysian dilemmas
A Kuala Lumpur posting shows up the real-world effects of financial crises and possible responses, taking in bodies such as the IMF and World Bank. Yet for all Malaysian politicians’ dissident credentials, and shared ground with global justice campaigners, their domestic repressions show the real limits of representative democracy. The main lesson: neither Reuters nor any other mainstream media is fit to tackle such issues.

Chapter 5 – Our democratic delusions
Cut loose from conventional media, we look at the origins and realities of democracy. Why is it that modern, representative democracy compares so badly with the Ancient Greek original and for whose benefit? Among those despairing of conventional politics and journalism are the people who have turned instead to civil disobedience and direct action. Are those the only options for would-be change makers?

Conclusions
It’s easy to criticise the state of modern politics and journalism – far harder to fashion solutions either for individuals or groups of people. The array of possibilities considered include ideas for nested networks of citizen-journalism news agencies, operating from local to global levels via all governance layers in between. Their work would highlight accountability problems, public responses and alternative forms of governance.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Fraudcast News – how bad journalism serves our bogus democracies

  1. richard sinclair

    wonderful concept.
    i suggest you google “begs the question” by the way.
    my father, born in leith scotland, had the middle name “chalmers”.

  2. Hi Richard – thanks for your interest. So I google “begs the question” and it throws up a lot of stuff, including the Larry Wohlgemuth blog ItBegstheQuestion. Is that what you mean?

    If you’re father’s middle name was Chalmers, the echo will be in our respective DNA strands somewhere I’d guess!

    • vagabond666

      I assume Richard is referring to the fact that “Begging the question” is technical terminology within the field of philosophy, and that the layman’s assumption that the phrase is some sort of equivalent to “raises the question” is considered incorrect usage. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question for further information.

      In my opinion, it’s as lost a cause as the definition of hacker with respect to computer science, but then I’m not a philosopher so what do I care. (Although I do have a friend with a PhD in the field, and it is fun to deliberately misuse it to rile him up).

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  7. I think what Richard is getting at is that “begging the question” refers to a logical fallacy (in which your hypothesis assumes what it sets out to prove).

    In other words, it’s technically wrong to use it as a substitute for “demanding that we ask” or “raising the question”. Instead it refers to the opposite situation (where we’re asked to assume).

    This questionable beggar wrote at length on the subject (after folding all manner of assumptions into Nixon’s speeches, and before that PR copy):

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/26/magazine/on-language-take-my-question-please.html

  8. Rory

    An interesting concept. Looking forward to your conclusions. As you say, very easy to criticise the current; far harder to offer credible (and real world) alternatives. Are the current ‘democracies’ with flaws, better than other alternatives or are we all drifting blindly into an ever more polarised society?

    • Hi Rory

      Thanks for your interest and your question.

      For the latter, I’m not sure it’s an either/or thing.

      Our current “democracies” are in fact, to use the fundamental Greek term, effective oligarchies. They represent rule by a few monied parties/interests/individuals as opposed to the many.

      While we in the West seem happy to bandy about that label when it comes to Russia and its billionaires we don’t think to apply it to our own systems. Sure we have periodic elections but what real choices do the opposing candidates present? Very little bar business as usual is my thinking. That is to say nothing of everything done in our names between votes.

      We have to change our governance system to something much closer to the original meaning of the word democracy. It will not be easy. What we have now is plainly not working for any but the gilded few. Our journalism should routinely acknowledge the failure of existing systems and energetically seek out and promote better alternatives. That is my idea of good journalism.

      Failure to change could lead to the ever-more polarised society to which you allude, with all the potential for chaotic violence that that implies.

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  10. Dear Patrick,

    I look forward to reading more of your book as and when it is posted. The issue you describe is one that is regularly spoken and written about and yet, unsurprisingly, almost never reported. I am sure you are familiar with Media Lens and the great work that is being done by David Cromwell and David Edwards in revealing and questioning the half-truths of conventional mainstream reporting and their role in supporting the dominant forms of power.

    You are utterly correct to point out that we do not have democracy but an elected oligarchy. As Rousseau once said ‘The English are only free once every 5 years’. It is a point I have tried tirelessly to point out to anyone who might listen. The media wield the word democracy like a saber along with various other weapons in their armoury; human rights, freedom of speech, justice, providing no justification whatsoever, they do not need to. Democracy = good, anything else is evil. Anything that threatens the illusory concept of ‘democracy’ is also branded evil. Anyone who questions the concept is likewise branded evil or a clown – as is the case for people like Chomsky who is routinely mis-quoted, smeared or simply overlooked by the mainstream media because of his comments that do not conform to the prescribed message.

    It is truly dangerous for these words to be come stripped of meaning and given imunity from scrutiny for, as Mill once said, without the constant brarrage of free enquiry what is ‘live truth’ will become ‘dead dogma’. Dogmatic belief inspires unyeilding loyalty to causes at which point the likes of Bush can quite openly defend an illegal and unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in terms of ‘protecting human rights’ and ‘defending democracy’ knowing that an unquestioning and complicit media will automatically play along. Yes innocent civilians may be dying but it’s for democracy – it’s for a good cause. They may be dead but they will have died free. Books like yours are important in uncovering the deceit behind these terms and stripping them of their potency.

    All the best,

    Tom

    • Thanks Tom

      My lack of speedy reply in no way indicates that I hadn’t read what you said or that I disagreed, it’s just this self-publishing lark can be a time black hole. Yes, Media Lens are definitely on my radar and Chomsky too. I hope to do justice to your expectations when the book escapes the editing process in the next few weeks.

      Love the Rousseau quote, my only quibble would be that he was rather overstating the case for first past the post, or indeed elections per se, as an expression of political freedom. The Greeks, Aristotle and friends, were wise to the traps set by elections and smart enough to limit their use to just a few functions in their city states, generals and the chief accountant by and large. Sortition, or political service as some sort of jury-service equivalent, was their preference. 2,500 years later we’re way behind the ball. We’ve alot of work to do!

      Cheers

      Patrick

      • That’s interesting Patrick – I came here via your comment on Nafeez’s blog entry on Transition Network about the Crisis of Civilisation (film and book).
        I had to look Sortition up. But I’ve long thought that a reformed ‘House of Lords’ (Upper House) should be just the opposite with compulsory service selection say for three years just like jury service. Sounds mad but if you think it through and ‘solve the problems’ it leads to interesting results – perhaps occasionally billionaires compelled to serve for say 900 pounds a week or imprisoned! The unemployed paid 45,000 a year for 3 years to express their view. Exceptions in exceptional circumstances. In service training for those who need it!
        Coupled with a ‘representative’ lower House, partly of professional politicians, would make the Upper House the true ‘Commons’ and give us a possibly workable balance of (unpopular?) participatory democracy and (popular?) representative democracy.
        You’d need to take the money and the lobbyists out of the equation too and probably weaken the party-line (whip) system. Maybe alternative voting sytems and more Coalitions but ‘Sortition’ sounds perfect for the ‘Lords’. (any Tom, Dick or Harriet a ‘Lord’ for three years!)
        Regards and good luck with the book.
        Trevor

      • Yes Trevor – I had to look sortition up too. It’s a horrible, ugly word for what is rather a beautiful idea.

        And yes, what you suggest would be a hell of a lot better than the status quo, though I would question why we need professional politicians or political parties at all, they have a tendency to capture and concentrate power away from ordinary individuals, with all the negative consequences we know only too well. Law-making is not rocket science and you could call on legal and procedural experts, or a pool of them to prevent them becoming power-centres themselves, for the trickier bits.

        By the way, I’m talking to several transitioners about the possibility of local media trainings, probably starting in London given the density of initiatives. The step on from free screenings is to train locals to be reporters whose work is then screened locally and maybe more widely. Give me a shout if that would be of interest.

  11. dissident93

    Patrick, this sounds like a very worthwhile project.

    I agree with much of Tom Rennell’s comment, above. But I would raise a note of caution over Media Lens. Theirs is more an ideological approach than an empirical one. This is clear from two of their main premises:

    – “professional rigour” in the Western media “does not exist”.
    – “mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased”.
    (Sources below*)

    These aren’t just over-generalisations. They are Media Lens’s empirically unsupportable *axioms*. They may take Chomsky as a starting point, but they go beyond it to a sort of Fundamentalism. And the result is often a series of errors and distortions – as reality fails to live up to the “correct” ideology. I’ve documented Media Lens’s errors at length, eg in this ZNet article:

    http://tinyurl.com/ml-errors

    And in this piece for the Comment Factory:

    http://tinyurl.com/media-ml

    See also my blog for some revealing history on Media Lens:

    http://dissident93.wordpress.com/medialens/

    *Sources:

    http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060125_paved_with_good.php

    http://tinyurl.com/6g95k35

    • Hi Robert

      Thanks for your supportive remarks and thanks also for your Media Lens caveats, which I feel are well made. For all that, they have helped me a great deal in my evolution from salaried journalist to, well, whatever it is I am now without the salary.

      Funny that you should turn up here, I was reading your site only this week. Good stuff.

      I would be happy to continue this conversation one-to-one, I will take the liberty of firing you an email via your site this week.

      Cheers

      Patrick

  12. BobbyDarin

    Hi Patrick,

    I only just noticed you had replied to a comment I left on Roy Greenslade’s blog. We were discussing whether or not it would be appropriate for an organisation like Reuters to hold to account the Malaysian government.

    I understand your point that news agencies have a broad-ranging influence, and the big ones are powerful organisations. If I’m right in understanding you, your view is that because they have this power, they have a responsibility to wield it.

    That’s a fair enough viewpoint but it’s idealistic and espousing it is unlikely to have any effect. I view agencies as the first stage tier in the news gathering process – they cover as much as they can as quickly as they can. It’s then for the second stage, the newspapers, to assess and analyse that information and put it into a context. That’s the opportunity to shape things, to influence society and make a difference. It’s not a failure of journalism for an agency to report what the Malaysian PM is saying and not add balance in that take of copy. It would be a failure if a newspaper did that for its readers.

    What you said about the relative importance of financial and news subscribers to Reuters was very interesting. I imagined the skew was less pronounced but then again financial organisations have a lot more money than media companies.

    I’d be interested to know if you think AFP had better coverage of general news in Malaysia. My experience of reading the wires is that, as you say, Reuters is very business focused, while AFP is more international and generalist in its outlook, and AP is thorough but more US-focused.

    Perhaps something to look at would be how the world might look if newspapers continue their decline in the west, and only the big agencies were doing any meaningful reporting. Would they continue to act entirely commercially or would they come under pressure to act more as a watchdog?

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