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Reading this former Reuters reporter’s analysis of the news industry is like watching an episode of detective series Columbo unfold.
Like the seemingly innocent Inspector Columbo, Patrick Chalmers at first comes across as disconcertingly naive. But, just like the deceptive detective, his eye for detail and dedicated approach become clear only late in the storyline.
His book, Fraudcast News, charts the Scottish-born Chalmers’ journey from rookie reporter to angry activist as he gradually realises the mainstream media’s support for a corrupt establishment.
Today, Chalmers can still come across as ingenuous, but when asked whether people are thrown by his deceptively innocent personality, he replies: “My deceptively innocent personality? Cue laughter by pantomime villain.
“I emphasised my naivete because I was naive, and maybe I still am. This is me. Remember, though, that it was a child who told the emperor he had no clothes, opening the door for others to say what they’d all been thinking.
“I’m also aware that people are more receptive to criticism from those who admit to having made the same mistakes themselves, as I certainly did.”
Chalmers’ mistake was to assume he could report in the public interest for the mainstream media. He makes so much of his early political naivete that young activists may be surprised by its extent. But such ignorance is common among even seasoned corporate media journalists.
The difference with Chalmers is that he not only sees and admits his shortcomings, he also has an excuse. He had graduated as an engineer, so his focus for most of his young life had been science, not politics.
However, after a late switch to journalism, he eventually landed a job at Reuters as its European environment and transport correspondent, “starting on April Fool’s day 1994″.
In covering the European Union, Chalmers gradually realised – unlike most of his colleagues – that its version of democracy was a sham.
“What shocked me in how things turned out was the way EU bureaucrats went over the heads of elected ministers,” he writes.
“For Europe’s political elite, the idea of citizens having a say was fine for rhetoric, propaganda even, but never for reality. Their behaviour was a classic example of why we must always scrutinise politicians for what they do, not what they say.”
Reuters reported what politicians said and left the scrutinizing of their actions well alone. It is this unaccountability, by politicians everywhere and the reporters who follow them, that is the main thrust of Chalmers’ book.
He recounts how, as Reuters moved him from Brussels to London and on to Malaysia, he began to scrutinize the notion of democracy itself. He found that the commonly held notion of democracy is not the accountable version originally defined by the ancient Greeks – democratia comes from demos “the people” and kratia “power or rule”.
Instead, it is more like the version defined by Harvard political scientist and sometime government adviser Samuel Huntington.
“His widely cited definition of democracy is profoundly unambitious. He defines it as a system whose most powerful decision-makers are chosen through fair, honest and periodic elections…
“Huntington’s democracy is nothing like what we could enjoy with truly accountable governance, something we deny ourselves by accepting his democracy-lite version.”
But Chalmers does not rest the blame solely at the feet of the elite.
“We should all ask ourselves if we personally believe in a system that values our views only as much as our neighbour’s,” he writes. “Perhaps in our hearts we would prefer that ‘democracy’ mean government heed our views while ignoring those of that person living across the road. If it’s that, we shouldn’t kid ourselves we want democracy. Knowingly or not, we fancy something more tyrannical.
“It’s not a flippant question for journalists or would-be ones to ask themselves. The reality is that many probably share their elite targets’ disdain for ordinary voters.”
In looking at more accountable systems emerging around the world, Chalmers mentions Australia’s Senator Online Party. Anyone who is on the electoral roll can register on its website. Policy is determined by any issue that gets more than
10,000 online votes. Its elected senators also vote on bills according to online votes – a minimum of 100,000 votes are needed with a clear 70% majority either way.
However, if people now consume the media that reflect their political views, wouldn’t we end up with a Rupert Murdoch-like government under such a system?
“It’s not as simple as people buying the media that reflect what they feel,” Chalmers responds.
“Maybe a person chooses on the basis of the crossword, the sports coverage or celebrity interview, getting their serving of elite-biased politics coverage folded in alongside.”
There is also the common accusation that people would not have enough time to take part in more accountable democracy. But a more equitable society would free up the time needed by allowing people to work less.
And as Chalmers says: “We are having the cost of our lack of involvement in politics rammed in our faces. People are eager to take decisions out of politicians’ hands. They have to realise that also means they have to get off their backsides themselves and get involved.”
Better journalism would also have to go hand in hand with more accountable democracy in order that people take well-informed decisions.
“Without decent information being made available to a wide audience cheaply or for free, this work will be very difficult,” says Chalmers. “That is where we stand at present.”
Disillusioned with Reuters, Chalmers eventually decided to quit, but was advised by a colleague to wait for a redundancy to come up. His severance pay included a retraining allowance, which he spent on attending the Z Media Institute in Boston. However, he still seems to have doubts about the effectiveness of non-corporate media.
“It’s not so much that I have doubts,” he says. “It’s more that I think we somehow need to do much, much more of it. The audiences for non-corporate media are still tiny versus what they need to be. We must ask why that is rather than blame everything on mainstream media.
“Journalism is still an elite activity, even if that is gradually changing. We need to make change happen faster, to popularise reporting and to do journalism ourselves that speaks credibly across social, political and cultural divides.”
Chalmers is now practising what he preaches, producing activist media cheaply or for free from his base in south-west France.
Democracy may have been murdered, but it seems a solution to that crime could come – as with Columbo – from the most unlikely quarters.
You can download Fraudcast News cheaply or for free at its website.
Video: Patrick Chalmers introduces his book Fraudcast News, and gives some ideas for building better media sustainably.
Mat Ward writes for Green Left Weekly.