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Media regulation: A Hegelian perspective

As I write, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, is dealing with the aftermath of an elementary school shooting, in which the shooter Adam Lanza killed 27 children. If that was not tragic enough, there has been one more victim, but this time at the hands of the media: Ryan Lanza, simply because he happens to have the same surname as the shooter.

According to Wired, various big name media outlets, such as CNN, Huffington Post and Slade, somehow identified Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page as the page of or for the shooter. This was picked up by social media and soon Ryan and even his Facebook friends were receiving, euphemistically, not very nice comments. Wired’s assessment was that in 24/7 news environment and a fast-changing story, media organisations were so hungry for information that they were not carrying out basic journalistic checks. But this is not a unique to the US. There have been plenty of incidents in Britain where the media have ignored or bent the law, in this case principles of journalism, for the sake of a story. The most obvious, recent, examples came out in the recent Leveson Inquiry, such hacking into people’s voicemails and taking personal, often intimate, information, without permission.

To me, these are clear manifestations of a Hegelian master/slave dialectic. A master entity, or entities, is only interested in its other – the slave – for what the slave can produce for it. The master’s life depends on the work of the slave. In this case, the slave is anyone from whom media organisations want information. The slave is valued according to how much information can be provided; the more open it is, the higher its media currency.  And, media organisations then value themselves against each other based on the quality of the information they provide. The problem is that they are not so much concerned with their relationship with the slave beyond its nature as an object of a story or provider of information. If the slave suffers adversely – or even refuses to work – it is considered a minor inconvenience at best, because there are others to take its place.

Sometimes the media justify their actions by pointing to us as readers, that we want to know. Perhaps to an extent that is true, but the question is whether we are interested in wrong information (what’s the point) or information that has been obtained at the expense of someone else’s suffering (if we are, then why have not used any of the Nazis’ research on eugenics? Just saying) Furthermore, one could question how much of the information that comes through media organisations is important, perhaps it is just another consumable. A further justification is that people who provide information have their own agenda for using the media and so it makes them fair game. We tend to call them celebrities, i.e. famous people. But the word ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous’ is becoming a broader and broader category. But, just as men (and probably still) would idealise women and put them on a pedestal, only to exploit them, so perhaps the media idealises celebrities.

The media acts as a master over people because it needs their information. The irony is that, as Hegel argued in his dialectic, the media is also a slave to people, because it not only depends on us for information, it also determines its value by how much we want its information. If we were to stop producing for it and then consuming what it produces, a media outlet or organisation would die. Or would it? On the one hand, a media organisation, by definition, mediates information between those who provide it and those who consume it. However, there is third party: those who fund that mediation of information, the advertisers and business owners. As long as media organisations can depend on the money – and PR – provided by commercial organisations, it almost does not matter that they do not think about their relationship with the public.  As long as they have the funds to exist, they do not need our information or our trust or love.

But I say almost. Just as there is a dialectic between the public and the media and the media and business, there is a dialectic between business and the public. After all, the business need the public to buy their products and/or to trust them. In this sadomasochistic love triangle, between the public, media and business, Hegel would argue that there is always a risk of dialectical breakdown somewhere. But it is that fear of breakdown – and the potential consequences – that prevents for the most part any one entity from pushing its luck too far. Sometimes breakdown does occur, but it is never so catastrophic that the system cannot repair it. There is also something posthuman about it in that now the public can be the media, those who work for media organisations or businesses can be people, media organisations are businesses, people have interests in businesses as employees, shareholders and future entrepreneurs, and so on.  But it is the creative tension in the system that actually ensures that – whatever else happens – everyone eventually recognises the right value of each other. If things went so smoothly, where would be the fun in (blogging or writing) about that?

The problem highlighted by Leveson and Wired is that media organisations ignore the law for sake of more and more information. However the media is regulated, the role of the law is to remind media organisations and journalists that they are in relationship to other entities and they have a responsibility to them. Whilst information is important, it is not more important than the underlying dialectic.

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