Thursday, September 23, 2004

Silent democracy, noisy media

Since I use Jürgen Habermas’s notion “public sphere” in my PhD-studies, I went to a seminar at Turun Yliopisto today where the researcher and member of parliament Arja Alho gave a speach on the issue.

Arja Alho was Minister of Finance in Finland in the mid 1990’s but she resigned from this post as a result of the scandal around the so called Sundqvist-deal (in 1997 I think it was). She took a break from politics, took up her studies and got her doctor’s degree in sociology this year. Her thesis is called "Silent democracy, noisy media" where she looks at four Finnish case studies. Two are political decisions and two are political scandals.

Although she’s both a researcher and member of parliament today, she gave the speech as a researcher, based on her dissertation. Unfortunately, she spoke really fast and I didn’t get everything she said, but here are some hasty notes:

  • She uses the notion of Jürgen Habermas, "public sphere", in her dissertation. She feels that the Finnish translation "julkinen sfääri" doesn’t quite capture what she means by the notion so she develops it: Public sphere is to her a common theatre for debate and discussion and to which everybody has access. By participating in this public sphere, the citizen can influence political decision making.

  • Even though the public sphere is a dream, hard to implement, there are still grounds to at least try to realize it.

  • In Finland, the public sphere is almost to a 100 % the media. Sure, there are public places like the square market but people nowadays meet at shopping malls, and not at libraries and saloons.

  • She poses two rhetorical questions: Is a representative democracy enough? Can the citizens participate more? She calls for more discussion between the politicians and the citizens.

  • According to studies, Finns’ trust in politicians is quite low. Perhaps it’s time for the decision makers to ponder the reasons to this, and to listen to the feedback? It’s time for them to become partners in discussions.

  • She gives a brief recap on her first case study, Finland’s entry to the European monetary union in 1995. Alho found that the politicians forced through the decision to become a member of this union in secret. There was no discussion in the public sphere before the decision. The politicians didn’t discuss the union in the public sphere and therefore, the citizens didn’t get any information to base an opinion on.

  • Another case study was the privatization of Sonera, a telecommunications company. Apparently, she focused on how the media disclosed that the director of Sonera, and the former minister, Pekka Vennamo had laid his hands on quite a nice sum of stock. Vennamo and the responsible minister resigned.

  • In her disseration, she concludes that the political elite in Finland is small. And what’s more, there’s an oligarchy in the oligarchy in the Parliament. Some members of the government don’t have access to information and the communication needed to make a decision.

  • Another conclusion is that media is more entertainment-focused today. The media present fairytales about the good and the bad guys in politics, even though political decisions rarely are either good or bad.

  • All in all: We have a technocracy rather than democracy, and the media is noisy rather than analytic. When it comes to media, the noisiness is due to the demand on profit. This breeds a poor democracy.

Alho got many questions, can’t remember them all. The essence of her answers is that the starting point for politicians should be to bring arguments to the public sphere. Thus, those citizens who want to can read them, reflect on them and give feedback. Bringing arguments into the public sphere is not done by increasing the information flow but to promote communication and discussion. She wishes that the decision makers would be more of a discussion partner with the citizens who wish to influence on the politics. She calls for interactive reciprocal action.

In another answer, she develops her critique on representative democracy. She says that it is not enough to vote, lean back and see how the 200 representatives do in the next 4 years, and then exchange them if the result is not satisfying. She draws parallels to Ulrich Beck’s notion of “risk society” here.


Yenayer said...

Interesting .. and I agree with the fact that representative democracy is not sufficient. I pointed to an article written by Nobel Prize José Saramago about the necessity of reinventing democracy.

But i must confess that i am a bit surprised that in a small and highly educated society like in Finland, democracy experience the same drawbacks as in large countries.

Paeonia said...

I agree with you there. In Finland, there's the local government election coming up in 4 weeks, and you barely notice it in the media or around the coffee tables.

What's more, I've heard many say that they won't even vote, and these are not young people denouncing politics as unsexy or boring. I guess many of these non-voters feel disappointed and let down too many times.