John Naughton’s always excellent Memex 1.1 pointed us yesterday in the direction of an article by David Runciman in the Guardian on Friday. The article’s thesis essentially runs as follows: the dynastic proclivities of the printed press have meant that democracy in Britain has been seriously undermined by the comparatively temporary nature of politicians:
[...] As well as having short attention spans, newspapers also have long ones. They are still there long after the politicians have gone, which means they always get the last word. At the beginning of the film The Queen, Tony Blair is ushered into Downing Street and told by his monarch that he is her 10th prime minister. It is not hard to imagine a similar scene being played out in the court of Rupert Murdoch. David Cameron, after all, is his seventh prime minister. Murdoch resembles the Queen in more ways than he might like to admit. As well as being autocratic, press power also tends to be dynastic (the Daily Mail still belongs to the Rothermeres; Murdoch is still desperate to pass some newspapers to his children, as his father passed some newspapers to him). A lot depends on being able to outlast the politicians. The web has undone plenty of things about the newspaper business, but so far it hasn’t undone that. Newspaper owners can keep their power in the family in a way that democratic politicians can’t, however much some of them (the Clintons, the Bushes) might like to try.
However, so the thesis continues, as printed news-gathering and opinion-forming becomes more and more web-based, and web-based ecosystems rise and fall with greater enthusiasm, the fierce hold which such organisations have been able to maintain over our democratic discourse will become less imposing and effective.
This leads us to realise, happily perhaps, especially in the light of youthful campaigns such as the #occupylsx movement, that – in order for democracies to function at all well – we need rolling change in all its pillars rather more than we need the traditional experience of old. That is to say, we don’t only need to refresh the politicos on a regular basis; we also need to refresh the journos and – in particular – their owners.
The problem, of course, with such a conclusion as this is how – at the same time – we take advantage of the steady hands of wisdom which most societies over time quite rightly engender.
Even as there are some cases of longevity none of us would wish to ever promote.
That, then, is the challenge of democracies across the world. Empowering the people to choose as they should in an environment of debate which – itself – does not become just as debatable.
Perhaps, again, in its rapacious pursuit of excellence, the web will come riding to our rescue.
This time not via content – nor, indeed, through software code or technological empowerment. Rather, far more profoundly, as a result of its fleeting and helter-skelter business models.
From 24-hour news to 24-hour politicians to 24-hour news-gathering organisations … it all comes full circle. Yet, it does occur to me that as we guarantee the freshness of our democratic institutions, we run the risk not only of unnecessarily starting from scratch but also losing our precious sense of history.
On the other hand, perhaps that is all to the good. Too many violences have been committed in the name of historical coherence. Maybe we would all be better off without that dead hand of experience I describe.
So does democracy need change more than it needs that experience?
Whether we like the idea or not, I think over the next few years that is exactly what we are going to find out.