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‘Free’ enterprise is not ‘freedom of a wild ass!’

Aug 18, 2011 8:26:00 PM - www.ft.lk

Our ‘poli-socionomic’ dialogue
You will recall that like Capt. Kirk in his Star Ship-Enterprise,’ we also ventured into new territory with our first discussions under this theme ‘poli-socionomics,’ which appears to have caught on somewhat; thus, on behalf of those of us who still dare to think, I must thank those editors who carried it.

A brief introduction for those joining us afresh, the basic idea is to promote a hybrid discussion of two subject groups; of ‘socio-economics’ (study of the reciprocal relationship between economics and sociological pursuits like philosophy and ethics, aimed at social reconstruction and improvement) and of ‘political science’ (study of state, government, political systems and their behaviour).

The last few weeks have been ripe with material for any ‘poli-socionomist’; what with the Murdoch media circus and phone tapping, oligarchic middle-eastern governments turning military power against their own citizens, US debt rates falling to unprecedented levels beckoning constitutional amendments even to carry on, and the latest ‘rise of the proletariat’ in suburban London and Mid-West UK

We will keep our discussions dynamic and ‘alive’ by analysing some everyday issues we encounter domestically or globally, on a ‘political-socio-economic’ platform; hopefully with the ultimate aim of realising some good for some of us (at least), if not the greater good for all!
The last few weeks have been ripe with material for any ‘poli-socionomist’; what with the Murdoch media circus and phone tapping (now domestically exacerbated with the opposition leader’s revelations of a media-coup following the last election), oligarchic middle-eastern governments turning military power against their own citizens, US debt rates falling to unprecedented levels beckoning constitutional amendments even to carry on, and the latest ‘rise of the proletariat’ in suburban London and Mid-West UK; is this what Marx saw so long ago that erupted in the former Soviet states, finally returned to the birth place of that political thought?
As all of this will be too much to encapsulate in one article, we will need to tackle them periodically as different points under this theme. Hopefully the same editors will carry it (should they be so social-conscious driven) but even if not, we will circulate them via our usually friendly medium of electronic mail. My usual disclaimer precedes, that you may read, ignore, disagree, comment or criticise (which I would welcome) as your free-will dictates; all of which we are constitutionally entitled to do as ‘free citizens’ of this ‘Democratic Republic’.
A (accuracy) + B (balance) = C (credibility)
Bearing in mind the equal importance of a strong opposition, as a necessary corollary to a progressive government, in order for true benefits of such a ‘governing system’ to filter down to its intended recipients (us – the citizens) and coming in the wake of the Opposition Leader’s allegations (we note – they are still ‘only allegations’) against certain attempts by the media to unduly influence the electoral process, I thought of dealing with this subject, popularly referred to by many as ‘free media,’ in this part of our dialogue.
Over the course of history we have moved away from ‘participatory politics’ (as existed at the advent of republicanism and democracy in ancient Athens etc) to this contemporary area of ‘representative democracy’; basically then the entire Greek city-state went and sat around (possibly indulging in good brew and olives, grapes, cheese, etc.) discussing affairs of the state but now, since all of us can’t afford to do this, as some of us actually have to work for a living; we ‘elect representatives’ and pay them to do this for us (hopefully less indulgence in the ‘good life’ and more in affairs of the state).
Thus, since we actually don’t directly participate in such affairs any longer, we can only be aware of such happenings and follow the progress of our state-machinery via the media; hence the popular contemporary poli-socionomic thought that a true and independent media forms the ‘fourth column’ of a functional democracy (the other three being the executive, judiciary and legislature).
There is more importance placed on this ‘fourth element’ since it is assumed that unlike the other three ‘organs of government’ (which by its very name attribute some semblance of connectivity to it) the media will remain independent, neutral and beyond the reach of political power and afford us the ‘right choice’ when making our decisions; that it will not unduly attempt to influence the democratic thought process of the elector when he attempts to form his government.
I recall with fond memories our little ‘Journalism Unit’ at the Colombo Arts Faculty then headed by a giant in the area of mass communication Prof. J.B. Dissanayake. When seeing some of those faces now on popular TV, or hearing their voices over the air-waves or reading their argumentative writings; the mind naturally wanders as Wordsworth’s daffodils to our carefree days in that unique sub-culture called ‘campus life,’ our own ‘free world’ where very little could limit our ‘free thought’. One of the first lessons we were taught as young journalism undergraduates was this formula, that:
A + B = C
Accuracy + Balance = Credibility
So you tell me from your experience, does this really happen now?
My vacation with Plato and Hitler
Much to the disgust of my family, these two gentlemen also accompanied us on our recent vacation, in the form of a cheap copy of ‘The Republic’ of the former that I had picked up in my wanderings into second hand bookshops on Chancery Lane and ‘Mein Kampf’ by the latter, that my juniors (hopefully not with sinister motives) ‘presented me’ on my last birthday; this formed my holiday reading!
What contrasting viewpoints you would think, Plato follower of Socrates and teacher to Aristotle, initial propounders of the democratic political thought as opposed to Hitler, common enemy to even such thought and father to dictatorial Nazism? Well, digest the following for a moment, in relation to our above discussion on ‘the people’ and their making of choices!
Plato holds heavy criticism for the judgment of ‘common people’ and writes that since they have no expert knowledge of areas such as foreign policy or economics, they will decide on ‘impulse, sentiment or prejudice,’ and that democracy in fact ‘encourages bad leadership’!
He proceeds to write that such a ‘popular leader’ picked through such unsound reason will always attempt to retain popular favour by the easiest way, such as telling the people what they like to hear but not what they actually need, likening them to ‘salesmen’ who sell the people comfort but not tell the truth; thus ultimately not yielding the best possible result for the people. Hitler is also in principle on this same thought process, though he advocates it in his own ruthless way. Rather than my trying to interpret it, perhaps its best said in his own words (I quote relevant excerpts only from Mein Kampf):
“…the psyche of the broad masses is accessible only to what is strong and uncompromising…in like manner (to a woman’s emotional decision making) … the masses of the people prefer the ruler to the suppliant and are filled with a stronger sense of mental security by a teaching that brooks no rival… they have very little idea on how to make a choice… they feel very little shame at being terrorised intellectually and they are scarcely conscious of the fact that their freedom as human beings is impudently abused..” (Unquote – comments within brackets are mine).
So then, if both these diametrically opposite political thinkers highlight the lack of proper judgment by ‘the people’ to make a right choice and how they can be motivated by sentiment, emotion and impulse to make mostly an incorrect choice; what then does it say of the importance of the media that is the primary weapon based on which ‘the people’ ultimately arrive at their choice in this representative democratic system of ours?
On how many occasions have we actually noticed very covert and sweetly ‘sugar coated’ attempts by some media (some not so hidden) to influence our ‘thought process’ in our democratic choice? Indeed just a simple look at the recent past will show us how subtle moves by ‘interested media groups’ have managed to ‘mould their pawns ‘in the public eye as so called ‘presenters’ or ‘anchors’ on various programmes, to thereafter place them before the unassuming public at the right time in the electoral process and secure their election – for our benefit, you think? Then there are cases like the recent ‘Channel 4 affair’ that appear to have quite a different set of interests motivating it, if indeed, as we insist, those pictures and stories are fictitious and baseless.
The media that is supposedly ‘free’
I am the strongest proponent that all forms of media, whether they be state run or private must remain ‘free’; indeed the above arguments of Plato and Hitler that the people can be easily influenced to making wrong political decisions can only be negated by such an ‘independent’ media. However we cannot be poli-socionomically naïve to ignore the reality of market forces (when it comes to private media) and state interests (when dealing with the state owned enterprise), when considering this question.
I was quite perturbed at a recent comment made by someone attached to a private TV station, when I pointed out several instances where the viewers were in fact being exploited against media ethics and the norm (which is done by almost all the channels now); where ‘news’ was in fact not really news, but more propaganda of what that station was doing and a promotional campaign for the station; basically an advertisement under the guise of ‘news’! Her immediate response was ‘well if you don’t like it, just change the channel!’ The argument followed that the channel would not lose anything by my not viewing it, which is possibly quite correct, and indeed they will possibly have one less critic!
However is it really that simple, this whole equation? Could this be considered a responsible reaction from any media institution, that they will play whatever they like (or do as they wish), the choice is ours whether to watch them or not; basically that this is ‘free enterprise,’ they will use this Republic’s airwaves in any manner they saw fit and if we didn’t like it; well, just too bad, just watch something else.
Is the constitutionally all powerful Sri Lankan Citizen that helpless in reality – NO SIR, I beg to argue not! Unlike in some other countries we may not have entered into singular (or individual) contracts with any of these channels or media groups to provide us news and entertainment, which would thereby allow such consumer certain ‘contractual rights’ as to coverage (indeed that would be a healthy move, if it could be thought of); however even now, qua State, that has contracted ‘on our behalf’ in regulating and licensing various parties to carry on the industry of a media network, the ‘sovereign Sri Lankan’ has a bit more to say in this than simply that.
Indeed that is the whole purpose of maintaining a complaints mechanism against the press, in addition to whatever other legal remedies that may be available in different given situations. However I’d like to venture into a possible further angle of this argument if I may, particularly on this ‘freedom’ aspect.
It is difficult to come to terms with the argument that we, the sovereign Sri Lankan can be construed to have permitted such a ‘wild ass freedom’ to any entity for the use of our airwaves or dissemination of information via some printed medium; for it is in fact us that grant (or not) such permission in law; by ‘temporarily handing over’ the duty of granting permission (or not) through a legislative mechanism of company registration or some approval by an executive authority (like a ministry); even within this ‘capitalist driven’ system of a ‘free market economy’.
Laissez faire capitalism and ‘free’ enterprise – Not a ‘wild ass’ freedom
When heavily regulated state-centric commerce and industry gave way to laissez faire capitalism, liberalising economies and allowing the engagement of ‘free trade’ devoid of (or with minimal) state intervention, my humble argument is that it was not intended to create a monster with the freedom of a ‘wild ass’; to bulldoze through everything on its way towards its own ultimate benefit at any cost, as some apparently seem to think.
When looking at how the Murdoch network seems to have operated in the so called ‘free media capital of London’ and the daily unravelling circus of their notorious activities, funding political campaigns, bribing police officials, etc., it appears now that even subsequent regulatory mechanisms such as the Press Complaints Commission in UK adopted by such ‘free market capitals’ (who initially preferred models of bare minimal intervention – saving only matters such as external security, sovereign contracting, etc., to the state); there now appears to be more of a need to hold on to the reins to a greater extent.
My reasoning for this is based on the constitutional principle that ‘the state’ that holds the sovereign right of its ‘citizen’ on trust, must ensure that he is protected from exploitation, thus fermenting my constant argument that ‘the citizen’ is the ultimate repository of ‘the power to govern’; that no one should consider themselves above that ‘ordinary citizen’ and that the state should never allow any other, whether state, international or corporate personality to do so.
Articles 3 and 4 of our Constitution has been very clearly interpreted by the Supreme Court several times over, to mean that ‘sovereign power’ is inalienable from the citizen and only periodically entrusted to a government BY THE PEOPLE, to hold and exercise on their behalf.
In Senarath Vs Kumarathunge their lordships held that “the power remains and continues to be reposed in the People …its exercise by that particular organ of government (Legislative, Executive or Judiciary) being its custodian for the time being, is for the People.”
This is why at Article 27 (7) of the Constitution that deals with the Directive Principles of State Policy, etc., the law, demands that the state shall “… eliminate … the exploitation of man by man or the state…” In pursuance of this constitutional argument, the right to grant some entity the use of our airwaves or to carry on a printing press (or not) therefore remains with us ‘the people’ and when such permission granted is being used to our detriment, I can’t agree that we must just stand back and watch helplessly. If the sovereign power to grant such permission ultimately remains with us, then we must surely have some further authority than that to cure a possible violation of that permission so granted!
In conclusion therefore, we do not wish to repeat the same mistake that some of these so called ‘free media’ indulge in, that is ‘trial by media’ long before it is done even by the due process of law, at times when it’s even sub judice; however if the allegations against these errant ‘media groups’ are in fact so, whether they be international or domestic, ‘Channel 4’ beamed overseas against our national interests or local stations or press acting contrary to the citizen’s rights in purposely orchestrated moves to thwart or subvert public opinion astray from reality; then it is high time that the state performed its fundamental constitutional duty towards us and ensured that we ‘the people’ are not exploited by any man or group; however supreme or influential they may think they are! In the event the state doesn’t, then the citizens should (and perhaps indeed I hope that one day they will)!
(The author is a practitioner in Sri Lanka. He obtained a Master’s Degree in Laws (Hons) from King’s College London and was granted conversion as a Barrister. He also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, Int. Relations and Journalism from the University of Colombo and a Postgraduate Diploma (Hons) in Int. Relations, Political Science and Conflict Resolution from the BCIS. He is a life member of the Bar Association of SL (BASL), a member of the International Bar Association (IBA) & formerly of the Association of Sri Lankan Lawyers UK (ASLLUK). He was awarded ‘The Outstanding Young Person’ (TOYP) for Legal Accomplishment in 2008. He may be contacted on chrishmalw@gmail.com for any clarification on his writings.)