Last night ABC’s Q&A scored its usual high ratings. Not for the first time, the ABC’s flagship public access current affairs program gave primetime commercial TV a run for its money.
It’s not without its critics, of course, but Q&A can justifiably claim to represent, in symbolic terms at least, what its producers advertise as “democracy in action”.
It provides a space where the Australian people come together, in the studio and beyond, to hold their politicians accountable, live and unedited. They ask the questions, Tony Jones tries to get straight answers, and power is held up to scrutiny. It is what I called in a book about British political media published in 2000, referring to the BBC’s Question Time (on which Q&A is modelled), “the sound of the crowd”.
In the days before the mass internet and social media this kind of public participation program constituted a welcome break from the tendency for political media to mean men in suits talking to other men in suits about weighty issues of concern mainly to, well, men in suits.
No disrespect to Barrie Cassidy and the “Insiders”, who have traditionally dominated the “serious” public sphere in every liberal democracy, but Q&A, like Question Time, by giving ordinary people prominence and requiring elected politicians to engage with them, addressed a long-standing deficit in our political culture.
The sound of the crowd can be raucous and noisy, however, as well as articulate and incisive. And as ever more accessible and unregulated digital tools have evolved there are troubling signs that our democratic culture is morphing into something rather less civil and deliberative than one sees on the average edition of Q&A.
Nothing wrong with a heated debate, mind you, nor with controversial opinion. A healthy democracy flourishes on it. And TV producers like nothing better than a Zaky Mallah or a Duncan Storrar to stir things up live on air.
But something else is becoming evermore visible, which I will call the democratic paradox. A book of that name published in 2000 by Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe observed:
On one side we have the liberal tradition constituted by the rule of law, the defence of human rights and the respect of individual liberty; on the other the democratic tradition whose main ideas are those of equality, identity between governing and governed and popular sovereignty. There is no necessary relation between those two distinct traditions but only a contingent historical articulation.
Sixteen years later, it seems that our mediated democracy is increasingly enabling the expression of illiberal, demagogic, populist viewpoints on key issues of our time such as migration and multiculturalism.
In the US the Republican nominee welcomes the support of the Ku Klux Klan as he fuels an anxious citizenry with irrational and racist fears of Mexicans and Muslims.
In Australia the resurgent One Nation has revived the white Australia paradigm, seeking to scare the hell out of us about the spread of allegedly un-Australian phenomena such as halal and sharia.
In Europe, from where I’ve just returned, Britain has been persuaded by the likes of UKIP and Nigel Farage (last seen endorsing Donald Trump on the US campaign trail) to leave the European Union.
North of the border with England, Scottish nationalists bang the drum relentlessly about the oppression of the hated Westminster parliament, demanding another independence referendum so Scotland can be subordinated to the Brussels parliament instead. Marine Le Pen may well be the next French president.
Nationalism, nativism, white pride, fear and hatred of the “other”, building walls and borders to separate people – thanks to the digital technology we now enjoy, these ideas flow around the globalised public sphere of the digital age with an intensity not seen since the second world war.
Populist politicians like Pauline Hanson and the reality TV star Donald Trump use social media with skill to tap into raw emotions of the type rarely seen on the more rule-governed spaces of the public sphere such as Q&A.
Liberals, and most conservatives, find it difficult to respond to the rhetoric of “Lock her up” and “Let’s Build a Wall, a beautiful wall”. Tony Abbott infamously associated himself with Julia Gillard’s misogynistic opponents and their “Ditch The Witch” posters, but would, one imagines, find Trump’s sexist dissing of women who disagree with him hard to swallow.
None of this should be permitted to outweigh the benefits of our digitised democracy, which has given ordinary people unprecedented levels of access to public speech. The internet and social media have provided new communication channels for progressive organisations such as IndigenousX and GetUp, bringing new kinds of pressures to bear on political establishments everywhere.
The use of the internet doesn’t guarantee success for any political cause, as the reformers of the Arab Spring found to their cost. But it is perhaps significant that we live in a political environment where a once-radical idea such as same-sex marriage has won majority support, and that sexual identity advocacy groups have been early and enthusiastic adopters of social media.
I do not claim direct cause and effect there, but note only that the digital space is one where hitherto marginalised groups and lobbies can network, build communities, and become newly visible to broad publics, bypassing the gatekeepers of the established media and changing the public conversation.
So there’s much to be optimistic about, and I don’t wish to suggest that Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” are running the online show.
It’s just that we are beginning to see, perhaps, the unforeseen, unintended consequences of a networked, digitised, globalised public sphere in which anyone can say anything short of full-on hate speech and be taken seriously.
Extremists are thriving on the back of online provocation, as the webmasters of Breitbart and the like demonstrate. We’re reminded, as Mouffe wrote in 2000, that there is no necessary connection between liberalism and democracy. Nor is the democratic process a sufficient defence in itself against authoritarianism.
The proof of that observation is this: that the most accessible and easy to use communicative environment human beings have ever enjoyed is also one of political extremes in which he, or she who shouts loudest gets heard by the most people. It’s democracy, Jim, but not as we’ve known it.
The question of how to manage this environment in the interests of all is now urgent. How do we get the affordances of digital democracy to work for everyone, and not just the shouters? How do we get free speech without the hate speech? How can digital democracy represent the diversity and passion of popular opinion while protecting the rights of vulnerable minorities?
This Thursday evening in Brisbane, QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre hosts a public debate on Democracy and the Media in the Digital Age.
Public Event, Queensland State Library, Thursday September 15, 6pm-8pm – Democracy and the Media in the Digital Age.
Join distinguished guests Professor John Keane of Sydney University (The Life and Death of Democracy, 2009), David Fagan (former State Editorial Director of News Corp and Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology), Simon Holt (Editor-in-Chief, Brisbane Times, Fairfax), the Honourable Paul Lucas (former Deputy Premier, Queensland), Liz Minchin (Queensland editor, The Conversation) and Amanda Gearing (Walkley award winning journalist and author of The Torrent: Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley) to discuss how digital technology is impacting on our democratic process and the media which support it.
Have the rise of the Internet and social media strengthened our democracy, or made it chaotic and unruly? Has the culture of the hashtag and Facebook helped to engage people in politics, or strengthened the voice of demagogues such as Donald Trump? Are the established print and broadcast media losing their authority and influence as online voices and sources of news proliferate?
Registration: click here to reserve a free place.
Authors: Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology