The democratic swindle

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Opinion | 21/12/2015
The media – an instrument of democracy – is used by the ruling elite to undermine the interests of the majority in a democracy.
PADMAJA SHAW looks at three election campaigns in the West to illustrate how this works

US Presidential candidate, Democrat Bernie Sanders


In the globalised world, democracy suddenly became an export commodity. Even a casual examination of democracy in practice in the so-called democratic nations will make it obvious why.

The global order of free trade, free speech and free and open borders that came with renewed intensity post-1990s, led to an insidious expansion of global markets.  These markets have perfected the art of disciplining the democratic aspirations of local communities and subordinating those aspirations to the profits of global players.  

The media and the information industry have emerged as central to this process. Hailed as major institutions of democracy, the media have been systematically put to use to undermine the popular will. This is indeed a classic instance of what Karl Marx, describing the American system, called a ‘democratic swindle’, where the very instruments of democracy are used by the rulers to undermine democracy. Several examples from the democratic countries seem to prove this time and again.

The election to the Labour Party in the UK a few months back brought Jeremy Corbyn in as leader with a landslide victory. Wherever Corbyn addressed rallies, he drew significant crowds and brought back many who had distanced themselves from Blairite Labour back into the Labour fold.

The mainstream media in the UK, including the BBC and the Guardian, tried their best to initially ignore him and then to declare him unelectable and finally, when he became the leader of the Labour Party, to attack all his policy positions. Corbyn stands for inclusive accessible education, health and housing policies that help ordinary people, and he has a long record as a peace activist which included chairing the Stop the War Coalition for several years. He has taken a clear stance on how to achieve peace against the current mood of war-mongering after the Paris terror attacks.

The mainstream media in the UK have demonised him and his politics despite the enormous public respect he commands. They have picked up trivia about his public persona such as the way he dresses or the extent to which he bent in respect on ceremonial occasions as proof of his lack of patriotism. This deliberate concentration on non-substantive issues even as he reiterates the important issues that matter to the people and what policy change is required for public welfare every time he speaks, shows up the media to be subservient to the war-machine that owns the state. Public welfare and public opinion are of scant use for the corporate media.

Both the BBC and the Guardian had to back off after a public outcry about the unfair coverage being given to the Corbyn campaign. While this is the state of the more “credible” media houses, those that are beyond the pale like the Telegraph and the Sun continue to smear Corbyn’s every move.

Another campaign in another democratic country that is getting similar treatment from the media is the Bernie Sanders campaign in the USA. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic candidate for the US presidency,  has steadily built his campaign over the last several months, raising welfare issues like student loans, healthcare, banking regulations etc and has been drawing an unprecedented response, much like the Corbyn campaign.

He is avoiding taking big campaign finance from powerful lobbies. Much of his support is from small donations (some two million donations not exceeding $30 dollars) from a large number of individuals and civil society organisations and unions. He is also taking a different position about America’s perpetual wars.

Recent reports about the campaign coverage show that while the outrageous xenophobic hate-mongering by Donald Trump received 234 minutes, the coverage given to Sanders, who has higher public support was just 10 minutes.

A similar scenario prevailed in Canada till Justin Trudeau won.He was described as ‘unelectable’ by all the major media in the run up to the election even as they orchestrated the campaign of the conservative incumbent. The young leader promised more humane politics, less war-mongering and more welfare for the people, much like Sanders and Corbyn. And the popular support endorsed his politics, which the corporate media tried to denigrate in various ways and to convince people that such politics are not in their best interests.

Again, the mainstream media gave more coverage to the looks and lifestyle of Trudeau than to the substantive issues he was raising in the campaign. The coverage of his victory called it variously ‘stunning’ or an ‘upset victory’.  The people knew what they wanted. It was only a stunning upset for the media as the people did not buy what the media was selling to them.

Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News, is believed to have said famously, before we debate the idea of free speech, we have to address the idea of “who controls the master switch.” In the present world, it is the global financial system, the global binding treaties, and their instruments of execution in nation-states that hold the remote. Corporate media are a platform for promoting their global agenda. The overwhelming span of corporate media drowns out all other voices. Free speech is notional and is accessible only to the powerful.

Welfare is a bad word for the corporate media. Economic reform and liberalisation to benefit corporate interests and perpetual defence spending in the name of unending wars is something that the media endorse.

As a writer cogently puts it: “The beauty of a system like ours - controlled by propaganda rather than Big Brother-style censorship and violence – is that it looks for all the world like freedom. … The corporate media system may appear to be comprised of a huge variety of newspapers, magazines, websites, TV and radio stations. But in fact these are all corporate media, and all corporate media share similar interests and pursue similar goals in alliance with the state. What looks like consensus is most often a lie – a phoney reflection of corporate dominance and mindless groupthink.”

Someone grandly called the media the fourth pillar of democracy. All the institutions of present day democratic states themselves are controlled by corporate power. Much of media have become merely a mirror, an ugly celebration of the subversion of popular will.

Along with free trade and open borders, free speech is very much a part of the democracy package as globally defined. Where the Western powers are forcing regime change in the name of democracy, as long as the success rate for the manipulation of national politics through the media is high in newer democracies, democracy will be a much-celebrated export. The day it ceases to serve the democratic swindle, other ways will be found.


Padmaja  Shaw is a media scholar, columnist, broadcast journalism trainer, and a retired professor of journalism.



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