The Western media – Power without countervailing power?
There is one thing we have learned from the French Revolution and similar events in other countries: there should be no power without countervailing power. But if we look closely at our media, we realize that even though they always advocate the necessity of countervailing powers, they enjoy absolute rule, especially when reporting about remote regions of the globe, and nobody can prevent their worst abuses.
Our newspapers: paper tigers or brutal dictators?
In the name of media freedom and freedom of opinion, they will oppose stiff resistance to every attempt to introduce any mechanism of check and balance. This does not mean that I advocate the reintroduction of censorship. Our media are a countervailing power which is absolutely necessary in order to denounce the various abuses by politicians, big companies and other powerful entities which would prefer acting in the dark. Censorship consists in subordinating the media to the arbitrary power of the government, which would prevent them from playing their fundamental role.
However, our most prestigious newspaper betray our most fundamental values like the importance of human life and the human rights in total impunity. Since this will discredit us in the eyes of the huge majority of the Chinese population, this is simply not tolerable (see our articles The right to health – how can we hold the governments accountable?, Europe and human rights – the history of a silent amputation and The Western media, an obstacle to a good relation with the Chinese public opinion?).
Everybody has got the right to have his or her own ideas and to express them publicly, this is not the question. It is quite well known that most journals and magazines have got their own political orientation. The opinions which are expressed in their articles are therefore not necessarily "balanced", but this is their right. However, if somebody pretends to base his opinions on data which is considered to be reliable in order to give more weight to his arguments, this data must be used in a correct and rigorous way. In particular, in reports about China, this basic rule is much too often violated, and those who feel wronged have no way of defending themselves.
Letters to the editor are published at the discretion of the newspaper; in the case of a TV channel, this possibility does not even exist. Moreover, the length of these letters is generally limited, which severely impairs the ability to argue in a meaningful way. The biggest problem however is that the readers of such letters are used to a large diversity of opinions, and some of them are clearly the work of partisan voices not very regarding to the kind of arguments they use. As a consequence, once our media have agreed on a certain way of talking about a topic, there is no way of rectifying this orientation, even with solid arguments.
This fact is well known, but does not seem to bother the experts in this field. Among all those with whom I talked, no one seemed to consider seriously the possibility that our media could "agree on" spreading objectively false information for decades. This is due to the way in which these experts supervise our media: they will never compare their content to external information sources. Instead, they limit themselves to analyses of the content of various media. Through cross-comparisons, you can very well measure the relative diversity offered by the different media, but you can not detect systematic problems.
How can we solve this problem? Since it is out of question to let the government control the media, this task must be performed by the justice system. A person who feels wronged by the media can already now sue a newspaper, but what if a person considers that our media advocate a concept of human rights which does not correspond to the fundamental human rights texts and which violates the international obligations of the country where these media are published? Our website is full of examples where our media spread highly problematic information about our most fundamental values, but also about many distant countries, especially about China, quite often for many years or even decades, without any notable dissenting voice.
It is quite obvious that we need tools in order to avoid this kind of systematic problems. The first question is: who can sue the media? When our media amputate the human rights, who is "wronged" by this? Is it the whole humanity? Can somebody sue a newspaper "in the name of humanity"? If our media present Falungong, a highly problematic sect which has caused terrible damage at a huge scale in the Chinese society, as an innocent yoga club, who can pretend to be "wronged"? Can only a person who has suffered under this sect initiate a legal procedure, or can the government where these problems occurred step in?
Another question relates to the possible sentences. Should journalists be held accountable personally, i.e. by throwing them into jail? In my opinion, this is not a good idea. Should the media responsible for spreading wrong information be fined? In Western countries, many newspapers fight for their financial survival or independence. This situation, requiring among other things a reduction in the number of foreign correspondents, will not help them to improve the quality of their reporting. The best solution would probably be to sentence them to publishing a rectification using a standardized expression like "Our newspaper/TV channel has been sentenced to this rectification by the civil court of … because our article …, dated …, contained some information which the suing party could prove to be wrong. We wish to apologize to our readers and rectify the information given previously as follows: …"
However, the biggest problem nowadays is not the absence of such a legislation, but simply the fact that when confronted with the sheer absolute power of our media, nobody dares to criticize the most prestigious media. If somebody attacks the celebrity magazines or free newspapers, he is assured to have the backing of the traditional newspaper. The latter, however, are virtually invulnerable. Even publishers and academicians involved in research in this field seem extremely reluctant to denounce obvious abuses, when the promotion of each book, research project, research institute or university depends on these same media.
This fear can at least partially explain why researchers will not compare the information given in our media with external sources: they might stumble across problems which will entail quite critical conclusions. As long as they use only the information found in the media themselves to analyze the media, they will always get some nicely balanced conclusions: some media will stick out with a more balanced reporting, whereas some others will be criticized because of their use of undifferentiated clichés. In this way, the most prestigious newspapers will always be in the top ranks, and these are precisely the newspapers the researchers need to promote their work (see our article What do media scientists do against abusive reporting by our media?).
In order to break this unholy alliance, we will concentrate here on newspapers with a good reputation and on research projects analyzing the reporting about remote countries like China, since the inhabitants of these countries are least able to make themselves heard in case of gross abuses. This does not mean that mass circulation newspapers, celebrity magazines and free newspapers offer a better reporting, far from it. However, they are under close scrutiny, whereas prestigious newspapers rule like absolute, unchecked masters, without any countervailing power.
However, all the work done here is only a temporary measure, made necessary by the absence of legal tools providing direct leverage against abusive reporting. If we want to improve the quality of our media and repair the damage done to our relation with the public opinion in China and many other countries, legal tools as described above are absolutely necessary.