Author: BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Learning James Deane, July 6 2016 - James Deane’s personal reflection on the role of media in divided societies in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
I’ve spent many years writing about, researching and supporting media in countries of crisis. I’ve especially focused on divided societies. I’ve argued that the character of the media, the information available to people and the capacity of people to communicate across divides in their countries does much to determine how societies either fragment or unite.
Now my own country finds itself in crisis and I find myself, like millions of my compatriots, confused, concerned and uncertain as to how to navigate the future - for myself, for my family and as a citizen. I remind myself that what we are going through right now is as nothing to the experiences of some of the countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where BBC Media Action works. I find consolation and inspiration that many of those countries have found ways of rebuilding themselves after immensely more traumatic experiences of war and despite ongoing poverty. The UK is in a very different position but, for all the privilege we have as a country, there is real a sense of dislocation among many of us, a deep-seated uncertainty about who we are as a country, our place in the world and especially about one or our most prized sources of self-identity - our tolerance.
But if I ever had doubts that the role of a media in a country in crisis is somehow unimportant or marginal or that I might have made a mistake spending years trying to support media systems that enable informed citizenries, that allow economically and politically marginalised voices to be heard and that create the platforms for public debate that enable people to understand each other - those doubts have been expelled.
I am not going to diagnose or critique different British media organisations here, nor enter the much-traversed territory of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit outcome. Some will argue parts of the news media have voiced and reflected the anger and dispossession of millions of British citizens who have felt ignored and marginalised from the political, social and economic mainstream of this country in recent decades. Others will claim that they have fuelled tension and blame in society and distorted the information available to their readers. Some will argue that the fact that one of the commonest Google UK search terms on the Friday after the Brexit vote was “What is the EU?” provides an abject example of a collective media failure to inform its citizenry before the biggest political decision of a lifetime. Others will point to one of the most vibrant, if difficult and bad tempered, political campaigns in our history muscularly played out through a free, diverse and noisy cauldron of democratic debate.
But I come away convinced more than ever of three things.
The first is that media matters when divided countries go through a political crisis. In the jargon of the development world, the idea that media are unimportant in shaping governance outcomes is an indefensible proposition. The fact that so little development attention is paid to supporting independent, democratic media capable of informing public debate in divided societies seems ever odder in the 21st century information age.
The second is that I have never been more proud to work for an organisation linked to the BBC especially since the referendum vote. There will no doubt be post-mortems and research theses in the future examining the performance of our public service broadcaster during this national trauma. But in my view, the crisis has demonstrated as never before (at least in my lifetime) the importance of a genuinely independent national broadcaster that exists to serve the public with factual information and provides a trusted platform for public debate for a country that has rarely seemed more divided and at odds with itself.
Finally, I have never before been more convinced of the value of what BBC Media Action does around the world. Britain’s international reputation and standing in the world has clearly been seriously affected over the last week, but what my organisation stands for – trusted information, balanced and informed debate, reflecting the perspectives of all in society – seems ever more relevant to the challenges facing divided societies in crisis.
I now know just a little more about what it means to live in one.
Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in media and communication in development.
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