Reflections on the public sphere III

 Reflections on the public sphere III

As you will know, William Hamiliton, then owner of the Wall Street Journal, was brutally honest: 

“A newspaper is a private enterprise owing nothing whatever to the public which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner, who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.”

And thus, the oft- flaunted doctrine of an existing free press is utopian.

The commercial wing of media has won the battle of the newsroom like an ogre that forced its way into the bedroom of a virgin princess. And, oh la la… an unholy relationship emerged. 

Perhaps it is this reality that, before he became a mogul, Murdoch in 1961 warned the news media thus:

“Unless we can return to the principles of public service, we will lose our claim to be the Fourth Estate. What right have we to speak in the public interest when, too often, we are motivated by personal gain?”

To tame this runaway mischief, ideas of a fifth estate have been afloat for a while in the academia. A reconstructed public sphere serving as a neutral market place of ideas is more desirable than ever.

Jürgen Habermas, he of the Structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into category of bourgeoisie society fame, had a different hope. He banked on a virtual public agora for such discourses that would focus on rational intercourse of ideas, too critical for a democratic environment.

Theatre of the absurd

Yet, Habermas’ dream that would have come true in form of the Internet is just but an anti-climax. Social media, at our disposal, is a theatre of the absurd. The hoped rational-critical engagement is conspicuously amiss, as users turn it into a battle ground of absurdities and primitive expletives. It gets worse during the electioneering period.

Of course, the Internet would have been the baby of hope especially with the explosion of affordable smart phones, increased connectivity and affordability. It’s not.

Instead, the space that had promised Canaan has become a tinderbox. Users fan the embers of hatred with blinkered slurs and shallow thoughts that demonstrates a lack of interaction with civility and decency.  And thus, a good platform has also turned out to be manipulative narrowly advancing selective interests. It has also become a theater of the idle, monster who lack any philosophical anchorage apart from the relish of splattering expletives to, mostly, imagined foes.

Yet, information, in its most transparent, objective and uncensored form is critical for the very growth and survival of society and democracy. One wonders, whence will the ideal platform emerge, in such a design that the elite and the busybodies of the Internet superhighway will not hijack.

Erick Wamanji

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