Author: BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Research James Deane, originally posted September 14 2017 - On the International Day of Democracy, James Deane sets out six ways in which a resurgent public interest media can help improve accountability and foster transparency.

Strategies being used to improve accountability and foster transparency are not working well enough.

Corruption is on the rise, people do not feel that traditional institutions are delivering effective accountability, and there is a decline in trust in institutions as a whole. Authoritarianism and populism are resurgent.

The solutions to these challenges are huge but I want to set out six things which need to happen if democracy support is to become more effective.

1. We will pay more attention to the behaviour of people who do not want to be held to account.

People who do not want to be held to account buy up the media, intimidate journalists and civil society activists, and close down civic and information spaces. They do this because they know these often present the greatest threat to their interests. Democracy support needs to get better – more organised, more strategic and more effective – at countering such attempts. At present multiple parties are sowing misinformation, disinformation and confusion to foster their own agendas. Some of this is international – the role of Russia is often highlighted. Much of this occurs within countries. Our research documents how media and communication environments – both traditional broadcast and online – are increasingly co-opted by political and other factional interests.

The economic markets capable of supporting independent media, especially in fragile states where BBC Media Action mostly works, have not yet materialised. It is largely politics, rather than economics - let alone the public interest - that shapes the media people have access to. We are concerned that support for building independent media is falling among western donors at exactly the time when it is most in peril, when business models are most fragile and where its contribution to effective governance is increasingly recognised and evidenced. The opposite needs to happen.

2. We will refresh our understanding of just how critical and effective public interest media is in holding power to account and fostering functioning democracies.

This has already begun. We have seen the dramatic contribution investigative journalism has played, and the outstanding work of organisations like the Global Investigative Journalism Network especially around the Panama Papers. But, in many fragile states, investigative journalism is very dangerous activity and it is not a replacement for a functioning independent media sector focused on serving a public interest. BBC Media Action supports independent media especially in conflict affected and fragile states. Last year we worked with more than 100 media partners – state, commercial, community and online – and reached almost 200 million people with our governance programmes. More than 80% of people who listened to programmes agreed they played a role in holding government to account – 32% strongly agreed that they did. Our data shows us that people exposed to these programmes know more, discuss more and participate more in politics than those who do not.

3. We will look again at the relationship between open societies, especially a free media, and political stability.

The excuse often used by regimes that constrict free media and civil society is that they are maintaining stability and deterring terrorism. We will understand better the relationship between corruption and radicalisation. We will see that shutting down freedoms, media and public debate and shrinking civic space will, as it always has, allows corruption to thrive. Corruption breeds radicalisation. Many laws passed in the name of increasing security that close down civic space, will breed more corruption and fuel radicalisation.

4. Digital media could still deliver properly on its promise in delivering improved accountability and transparency.

But only when the digital promise (or – as some increasingly regard it - threat) moves from an innovation/hype-based debate to an evidence-based one. 2019 will see the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. We need to start looking much more seriously at what really works and what does not across the whole accountability and transparency agenda - including digital.

5. The open government movement will move from a supply side set of solutions to a demand side one.

Many transparency and accountability initiatives like the excellent Open Government Partnership have focused on opening up government, and particularly in ensuring governments make information – on budgets, on services – more available so ordinary citizens can hold expenditure to account. That supply of information has not yet been matched by a demand for it. Increasingly there needs to be a focus on enabling journalists and civil society actors to make sense of the information made available through open government initiatives and make it relevant to those people who most need to act on it to make accountability work.

6. Finally, we will understand that without rebuilding trust in our institutions, and trust in the information that people – especially young people - have access to, trust in democracy will be fundamentally challenged. Tackling the trust deficit will be central to any notion of success in the future.

This blog is an edited version of remarks made to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy conference, “Global Values in an Uncertain World” (September 12-13 2017) marking the occasion of the foundation’s 25th anniversary.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action Insight blog.
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