Media development blogger James Deane has written an excellent piece which deals with a range of issues. One of his major concerns is the decline of investigative journalism, and so the diminishing role of the media to hold power to account. His concern specifically is the need for accountability on aid – governments’ accountability to citizens, and donors’ accountability to beneficiaries. Many of the points Deane raises are important for all NGOs and CSOs to consider.
One of Deane’s key points is that there is a wealth of information available on a range of development issues, that would enable citizens to hold the powerful to account — statistics, surveys, budget data and so on — but seemingly little demand for this information. He says one of the reasons for this is there are few efforts to convey this information to people in a form that is accessible.
I believe Deane is right and I believe that we who work within civil society need to make a lot more effort to ensure that we do make such information accessible. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen great research projects, books written and published, surveys conducted, at great expense — only for those involved to then say, “what now — how do we disseminate this information? We don’t have a budget for dissemination”. The dissemination and communication needs to be built in to the project right from the start — with a decent budget to make sure can be done effectively. Otherwise all that money will have been wasted on research, books and papers that sit on shelves and gather dust.
Of course, we also all believe that the media have a crucial role to play in helping us disseminate our information, in helping us raise our concerns. Deane points this out as a crucial way of creating demand for the information. But he then goes on to point out a danger in this — that civil society, government and donor agencies begin to see the media simply as an agent for them to convey their information to the people. In other words, the media becomes just a development instrument.
Deane’s point is very important. In every training workshop I facilitate, people complain about the media — that they’re not interested in the information on offer, that they get the information wrong, that they’re simply interested in selling papers or advertising, and not in uplifting society. These are all problems, but at the same time, they’re problems we have to learn to live with — have to learn to overcome, without interfering with the independence of the media, without seeking to control journalists. As Deane points out, it is crucial for the media to be more than just a conveyor of development-related information, or as he puts it, “a conduit for [our] campaigns and concerns”. This is because an independent media is a crucial part of the “democratic fabric” of society.
Thus, we need to learn how to get the media to investigate serious issues and how to persuade them to cover our “campaigns and concerns,” but we need to do this in ways that support and respect media independence. To do otherwise is to threaten the future of democracy and accountability altogether.