People imagine that their opinions are their own, not those
of corporate moguls who compete to colonise the public sphere. We are not as
free in thought as we think.
German philosopher and political scientist J�rgen Habermas
is often credited for his immense contribution to sociology and critical theory
among other areas of scholarly endeavour. His most memorable achievement,
however, is his introduction of the concept of the "public sphere," a
phenomenon, he argued, that rose in Europe in the 18th century and was forced
into an untimely hibernation by the same forces that led to its inception.
Habermas's public sphere enjoyed convenient yet reasoned
specificity in time and place: 18th century England. The formation of bourgeois
culture coupled with an expansion of liberal democracy gave rise to an
increasingly educated populace with precise interests, rights and expectations.
Using coffee houses and other public places as mediums for dialogue, the
English bourgeoisie managed to create their own public sphere, which eventually
contributed to the formation of public opinion. Other Western democracies,
notwithstanding France with its undeniable history of active citizenry, were
soon to be part of the growing movement.
Of course, Habermas's concept, like any other groundbreaking
realisation, generated debate, and an intense one at that. Some argued that
there are indeed various "public spheres", overlapping and
simultaneous. Others argued against the existence of such a concept altogether.
The debate is, obviously, much more elaborate and unlikely to end any time
soon. But Habermas's ideas and their outreach -- first introduced in his book The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of
Bourgeois Society (1962) -- persist in relevance and import.
The rise and endurance of the public sphere of the 18th and
19th centuries was momentous in the sense that it finally defined a relationship
between the state and the public on somewhat more equitable grounds than hence.
Public opinion finally mattered, or so it seemed. The way that such opinion was
communicated required fewer mediums and even less middlemen.
Regardless of where the public sphere begins and where it
ends -- for at times it failed to fairly represent women, minorities, labourers
and other historically marginalised groups -- it at least succeeded in
establishing and defining the boundaries between the "life-world" and
the "system"; the first representing the mutual solidarity of those
involved in making the public sphere and the latter concerned with the state,
its apparatus, and its own concern with power and authority.
As expected, the relationship would have to be that of push
and pull, whereby the life-world would fend for and attempt to expand its
social and political significance while the system would incessantly attempt to
colonise the public sphere and its life-world. One would rightly expect that a
healthy democracy is one that offers a balance of power between the public and
the state, enough to keep those in power in check, and to protect society from
a state of chaos.
Evidently, well-established democracies were little
interested in reverting to past historic experiences with feudalistic and
authoritative regimes. The 20th century was proof of that assertion as much as
it was of the rapid colonisation of the public sphere by other means aside from
brute power and coercion: that of capitalism.
Capitalism saw the uneven distribution of wealth, and thus
power. While the bourgeoisie public sphere of past centuries had long conceded
to an ever-expanding life-world, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a
few, once again, redefined the relationship between the public and authority.
The system had finally managed to penetrate the virtual solidarity of the
life-world through newfound rapports struck between the state and the new
capitalists. Those with the money found it more beneficial to keep public opinion
in check to appease the state, in exchange for a share of power and privilege
that can only be granted by the state; thus the populace might think that its
opinion counts, but in actuality, it matters little.
This may explain why Habermas, among others, spoke of the
"rise and fall" of the public sphere at a time when we seem to have
more access to media platforms than ever before. In short, what remains of the
public sphere is the illusion that there is one.
Habermas's ideas require no compelling reason to be
discussed; they are compelling on their own. However, an article in The
Guardian on 1 July by Lance Price, former media advisor to the British prime
minister, brought the topic back to mind. Price asserted that media tycoon
Rupert Murdoch was arguably the most powerful man in the media world today.
Murdoch, an Australian-born US citizen, literally owns a significant share in
public opinion through his control of the world's largest media conglomerates.
"I have never met Mr Murdoch, but at times when I
worked at Downing Street he seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His
voice was rarely heard [but, then, the same could have been said of many of the
other 23] but his presence was always felt," Price wrote.
Murdoch "attended many crisis meetings at the Home
Office -- the influence of the Murdoch press on immigration and asylum policy
would make a fascinating PhD thesis," the author of the best-selling The
Spin Doctor's Diary added. "There is no small irony in the fact that
Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to address Mr Murdoch and his News
International executives in the first year of his leadership of the Labour
Party and that he's doing so again next month [July 2006] in what may prove to
be his last."
Shocking as they may seem, the revelations of Price, a man
once intimately involved in the workings of the British government, appear
utterly consistent with the strengthening bond between the mainstream media and
governments in Western democracies. Such a bond is equally, but especially visible
in the United States.
But the relationship between states and media become even
the more dangerous when both team up -- and not by accident -- on the same
ideological turf. Murdoch is a right-wing, pro-Israeli (widely known to be a
personal friend of Ariel Sharon), pro-war ideologue. In 2003, every editorial
page of his raft of 175 newspapers around the world touted the same pro-war
mantras. Some might have innocently deduced that the "world's media"
were all inadvertently converging on a consensus that sees President Bush as
someone who is "acting very morally [and] very correctly", to borrow
Murdoch's own language, and that such convergence is a reflection of the
overall international public consensus on the matter. Reality, however, was
Of course, Murdoch, who owns numerous newspapers, TV
stations and news services throughout the world is not the exception, but the
norm. In fact, a greater convergence is constantly taking place in the media
world in the United States, which gives a few individual media conglomerates
unprecedented ownership of thousands of radio and television stations,
newspapers, magazines, etc. While some still laud the "freedom of the
press," little aware of who owns what, democracy is being greatly
compromised: the "life-world" is conceding like never before to the
ever-encroaching "system," and a true "public sphere" is
almost non-existent, at least in any meaningful form.
While states cannot prevent events or guarantee absolute
power for themselves, they've understood the inimitable value of the media in
its ability to forge a favourable climate of public opinion that seems
incidentally consistent with that of the state. In exchange, the commercial and
even ideological interests of those who own the media are always guaranteed. As
long as such a correlation is not fully recognised and disabled, true democracy
will continue to experience a frightening decline, whereby meaningful
participatory democracy is replaced by mere democracy rhetoric used to satisfy
political, ideological, and ultimately imperialistic ends. Without a crucial
awakening that gives the public back what is rightfully theirs -- its opinion,
its public sphere and its democracy -- this downward spiral is likely to
The writer is author of The Second Palestinian
Intifada: A Chronology of a People's Struggle and editor-in-chief of