Public Sphere: Principles in Practice & Resistance

Updated: Apr 16

Introduction

When Habermas coined the Public Sphere, could he have imagined the transformation from the coffee shops of London to a piece of glass in the palm of a hand with access to the worlds knowledge and a platform for everyone to exchange their opinions? Habermas must regard this technological transformation of mass media as a democratic utopia for the public sphere. Or would he?

Despite having the world at our fingertips, is too much information the new too little? Are we utilising the public sphere as intended or self-gratifying amongst our posse in echo chambers? And is access to the public sphere genuinely all-inclusive, open to everyone?

The answers are both yes and no. One could argue we live in an information Wild West, having its impacts on the public spheres ability to function as intended. Yes, we are seeing resistance in application from the mass media but we are also seeing mass media driving the principles too. Where some see resistance, others see the protection of property, income and livelihood. This brings up the balance between a Pubic Sphere and other freedoms such as the freedom of ownership and indeed protection.

American author Harry Browne once said; “Everything you want in life has a price connected to it. There's a price to pay if you want to make things better, a price to pay just for leaving things as they are…” Life requires compromise, weighing up pros and cons for every decision. To sustain certain freedoms, certain costs must be made.

Garnham makes the point that Habermas’s public sphere, was built around “bourgeois males.” Although the public sphere liberated the middle class from feudal and hierarchy control, the dominance of the public sphere itself remained predominantly homogenous until recent decades. However one can’t help feel an over-correction is having a reverse effect.

This essay hopes to explore the information wild west and the price of a true public sphere. Through examples of mass media application and resistance to the principles, I investigate who is driving the resistance?

Traditional Mass Media

Mass media drive the public sphere through a public interest agenda setting, holding both state institutions (Government, Garda etc) and corporate bodies to account. Investigation news like RTE’s Prime Time takes it a step further in uncovering illegal and unethical abuses in position. To their credit, most mass media demonstrate an effort to apply the principles. (At least on face value) The fault may lay with public representatives, elected to serve the public but fail in their duty to implement the principles they preach.

Sky News UK organised a petition in 2018 for an independent commission to be established to ensure “TV debates become a regular fixture of UK elections.” The petition gaining over 143,000 signatures, enough to require debated at parliament. Parliament, however, declared “Televised election debates are a matter for political parties.” A clear omission of responsibility, exasperated by the Tories threat to review Channel 4’s broadcasting remit in response to their use of an Ice sculpture to represent Boris Johnson who fails to attend their climate debate during the 2019 elections.

An Irish example demonstrates a cherry-picking approach to the public sphere. During the 2018 Irish president election the incumbent president refused to attend the Claire Byrne Live debate. The controversy was exasperated when the president's campaign team rang in during the debate to rebut claims made on air. The incumbent on the one hand does not want to engage in the debate but feels entitled to contribute on his terms only when it benefits his campaigns agenda. These examples demonstrating both resistance to the public sphere, but highlights an authoritative behaviour and attempt to control the sphere not by unelected corporates, but by public representatives bound by public vote upon receipt of power.

But Traditional mass media are not perfect either. Joe Duffy’s Liveline is a national treasure for public discussion. Although mocked for its sometimes trivial matters, it does offer real people the opportunity to voice real opinions. But it is not free and open, it is controlled by a gatekeeper (RTE) who decides what gets published and how. We may feel this show is a true public sphere but does it indiscriminately discuss any topic or merely give an illusion of a filter-free discussion.

World Wild Web

The internet has overhauled all concepts of the public sphere in the last 15 years. Generic newspapers are now tailored newsfeed and the one-page letter to the editor’ is now a comments section below every published article. The article itself mere catalysis for an even larger discussion from ‘Joe public’. YouTube for example has been described as “citizen journalism at its finest” (Anthony, M. G, 2010). It created the ‘influencer’ allowing the masses to broadcast to the world and engage with their audience in real-time.

A utopian application by mass media of public sphere principles because it is accessible to all without restriction… Theoretical. One would not call it barrier-free. Conditions are required for access, such as;

  • An internet-enabled device.

  • A subscription to a service provider.

  • Be located where said provider can provide a service.

In Ireland, a smartphone starts at €50 (Alcatel 1 from Tesco Mobile 8 January 2021) and a typical service subscription at €20 (Vodafone X Prepay. Vodafone and other networks offer cheaper plans but with data limits.) a month for unlimited connectivity. The biggest barrier is the location. According to CSO 2019 in Ireland, 9% of the country has no internet access of any kind. Of those; 26% complain broadband is not available in their area or the cost is too high. This figure may not take into account the “exorbitant prices… and unreliable broadband services” (McNamara, M 2020) experienced by some of the remaining 91%. ComReg commissioned three reports on the feasibility of 30Mps internet across Ireland. They found to reach 95% of the population would cost €188M but reaching 99.5 would cost an additional €323M. (Based on broadband coverage by population, vs geographically which would cost €1.9B to achieve 99.5%) This highlights the issue around cost. The cost of getting everyone fair and equal access to the internet will ultimately compromise resources on other public-funded projects. It is about striking the right balance.

In other countries, internet freedoms are curtailed. North Korea and China hold very tight control over their citizen's access, while a growing number of western countries are restricting some aspects of the internet all in the name of democracy, safety and truth. In Ireland for example Three Ireland customers will notice certain sites and apps restricted due to Three’s censorship. This mainly affects adult sites, however, sites discussing issues of bodily concern around sex or dating apps too are inaccessible due to this censorship. Online forums like Reddit and boards.ie (Public sphere at its finest) goes into a lot of discussion on this matter. Three’s corporate responsibility policy around child protection states pay as you go plans by default include internet filters. Such restrictions can be removed upon request, but this requirement demonstrates the authoritative power mass media corporates holds over their customers.

The EU’s controversial Article 13 copyright directive has been regarded as a stepping stone towards censorship for everyone. Although the objective was the protection of intellectual property and despite the law having extensive exceptions, the strategies involved to execute this law (mainly responsibly been placed on the hosting platforms themselves for their users content) will have adverse side-effects on users who fall under this exception. By default, their content will be censored and again will have to actively pursue action to be uncensored.

Like the American Wild West of the 17th century, the internet having its advantages of freedom for new opportunities also has its disadvantages as an open platform free of regulation and scrutiny. As the Roman philosopher, Seneca once said: “A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in a killer’s hand.” Internet-based Mass Media services are been misused by some for evil. Terrorists communicate and organise atrocities, extremists incite hate and spread misinformation, predators stalk their victims and at the very least minors can access content unsuitable for their developing minds while corporate and agglomerates like Cambridge Analytics demonstrated the extent of government and corporate surveillance and manipulation of our activity and data.

This results in outcries from the public for greater regulation and control over this newfound medium. You see not everyone wants absolute freedom, some like the comfort of a walled garden. Apple has been criticised for its control and restriction over its app store and hardware, but in this example, most of its users are willing to compromise on this restriction for a safer and more reliable service. But despite all this, the internet as a whole is a really good example of a mass media adoption of the public sphere principles. Within it, we have several sectors which again demonstrate a clear resistance.

Music industry.

The music industry’s transformation over the past few decades highlights the cost and impacts of a true public sphere. We are bombarded with the rhetoric of artists never having such a low barrier to entry.’ This is technically correct because anyone can make music and distribute it to a world audience all from their bedroom. But this comes at a price. Although some may be happy to share their art with the world for free, there is a cost to producing music and the majority of artists need to make a living. The price for a low/no barrier to entry is a challenge in monetising this art because in this public sphere anyone can easily distribute their music and the sheer masses of artists means it's harder to compete for the finite attention of the audience. This is because of the monitory model from the mass media platforms. What was once the purchase of a song or album at a set cost is now priced per listen and takes 2.59 million streams of a song to earn $1,920.( The monetisation of music streamed on Youtube, reported by the Seattle Times)

Both platforms and labels have been criticised for exploiting artists for profit, however, some research (Marx, P. 2016) have suggested otherwise when you take into account the cost of doing business. Traditionally artists required a label or publisher to aid in recording an album and distributing it to stores. The internet broke the model and although some report great opportunities for new artists to go it alone, the need for publishers/promoters (The gatekeeper) hasn’t gone away, in fact, one could argue it's needed now more than ever, to promote one's brand above the masses. The “main barrier to entry in the music sector has been the ownership and protection of artistic content in the supply chain.” (Lewis, 2005)

Threats to the Public sphere

Free speech is a precious right quickly defended at every opportunity to the point where at times some of the most outrageous extremists justify their rhetoric on this basis. Mass media are continuously looking to censor those whom they believe are ‘damaging democracy’ and inciting hate. On the surface it seems ‘only right’ to do whatever it takes to stop lies, hate and terrorism from spreading, however at what cost? Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Now, censorship of extremists wouldn’t be a loss of ‘essential liberty’ for example when YouTube banned conspiracy theories, Alex Jones, in 2018. However, where does one draw the line? YouTube has also banned videos claiming the 2020 US election was a fraud. On closer look what Youtube has done is banned videos suggesting result altering fraud. (Fake news) However, in itself, this is a growing level of censorship towards the open discussion. Surely in the public sphere; lies and misinformation can be defeated by frank, honest, but most importantly of all open discussion?

The new information poor

Thomas Jefferson said; “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” The founding father of the ‘free world’ doesn’t mean in literal terms, the sentiment implies that bombarding oneself with so much information can be just as uninformative as no information at all.

Take the mass media response to COVID-19. Daily, every news outlet of every region is talking nothing but COVID. Different ‘experts’ broadcast their opinion on the virus and what response the government ‘could’, ’should’ or ‘will’ do next, regurgitating the same message. The Irish government themselves have demonstrated utter incompetent, one with U-turns in decisions (Like handling the leaving cert in March 2020 and the 3 days return to school in January 2021) and misleading guidelines like their 5 level system for lockdowns which not once have been executed as described, instead of executed with confusing amendments and exceptions. Perhaps the fault lies with the media who are covering every trivial moment in the government's discussion making process. This only serves to confuse an already stressed public. One has to ask if this information overload a proper execution of the public sphere in the current climate or a way to gridlock it. Perhaps its strategy to ensure compliance? A public sphere is only entitlement in times of normality?

The most sinister side to this suspension of the normal public sphere is the silencing and removal of highly regarded experts in their field for questioning or voicing an opinion contra to the status quo. Dr Martin Feeley, (a senior Health Service Executive) was forced to resign after he criticised “draconian” restrictions, suggested Covid-19 was less severe than flu and his views on herd immunity. Dr Marcus de Brun was forced to resign from the Irish Medical Council for criticising the governments “gross overestimation of the national case burden.” And Prof. Dolores Cahill A “worldwide renowned expert” and professor at UCD was asked to resign from the EU scientific committee for claims she made about COVID-19. These are not a novice or rogue scientist, they are well respected and experienced experts in their field. They are just a few of the many experts around the world demonised for having an option that opposes the mainstream COVID response.

Science was built on the same principles of the public sphere most importantly been open to peer review and scrutiny. I’m not suggesting the above experts were right or wrong in their views, but silencing and erasing is not the correct approach. I’ve said before that the truth can only be found in frank open debate, otherwise, trust in the system is broken and only leads to conspiracies and misinformation. BBC report of “Thousands of scientists and health experts” who hold “grave concerns" about Covid-19 lockdown policies in a global anti-lockdown movement. But little to no discussion is made on this and Mass media outlets are also implicit in their failing in the journalist duty to call out this behaviour. It is an example of this growing cancel culture.

Cancel Culture and the church of Woke

In the last decades, the public sphere has been reshaped heterogeneously in favour of diversity and equality for all fractions of society. But are certain groups resisting the fundamental principles. Perhaps from compulsive reprisal, the Woke movement is becoming more like a religion in its attitude toward discussion and opinion… Political correctness and offensiveness is the new Heresy and blasphemy, throttling the freedom of open discussion and destroying anyone who doesn’t align absolutely with their teachings. The “Adria Richards incident” highlights how quickly online shaming leads to real-world damage to peoples lives. Adria Richards a participant of a technology conference overheard a private conversation between two other attendees, which see deemed sexist. She photographed the two and posted on Twitter accompanied by a shaming statement, which leads an online discussion that turned nasty. One of the individuals photographed was terminated from their employment. Adria was targeted by online hackers who held her employers random until they fired her, which they did. This demonstrates a culture of shaming and disproportionate punishment for an offence. Although this is a discussion in itself, it does highlight the effect Mass Media is having on the public sphere, but not by corporate agglomerates, instead of by the individual members of the public sphere, utilising the new Mass Media platform.

Conclusion

Modern Mass Media have redefined the public sphere. Looking at all the examples, it is clear to see that not all Mass Media outlets embrace the principles, instead of resisting application. A surprising number not only apply but drive application and instead resist state restrictions. If we balance all social values not just that of the public sphere, we may be less inclined to find such resistance a negative thing for society as a whole. In terms of corporate, much of the resistance is in the protection of property and wealth, while a surprising amount of resistance comes from the public sphere itself, from elected members who rise to state and positions of authoring, leading one to wonder, if, by our very nature, resistance to the public sphere is inherently human.


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