The Declining Mannered Separation between Media and Politics and its Democratic Repercussions
By Prof. Amal Jamal, Ilam's Dirctor
In a meeting with a member of the Knesset, Ofer Shelach, from the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party on June 2nd 2013, I asked him about the reasons behind his decision to abandon journalism after many years and move to politics, which is much more demanding and competitive. Shelach’s answer was honest and reflective, indicating the power gap between those who know, but cannot influence what they know, and those who may not know, but can determine what happens. Shelach admitted that he was satisfied with his work as journalist, but he was not able to act upon what he knows in order to shape reality in accordance with his own personal beliefs. Politics is where decisions are made, and therefore if you want to influence what is happening you have to be in that field. Shelach is one of a growing number of journalists who have decided to move to the center of the political system and become professional politicians. Four prominent Israeli journalists took the same path in the January 2013 elections, following tens of them in the past. This is not an Israeli phenomenon only, but is well known from other countries.
My conversation with Shelach, and his answers especially, provides some thoughts on one of the most interesting, but democratically sensitive phenomena of our times, since it may add to the legitimacy crisis, which is challenging democracies. That phenomenon is the decline of institutionalized differentiations between various professional fields, and the shift of capital – social, cultural and material – from one field to another. This mirrors the thinking of two influential sociologists that sought to enlighten us, as to the risks we face in the age of globalization. The first has to do with the theory of fields, developed by Pierre Bourdieu, a French philosopher and sociologist, who compared society to a magnetic-material world, where energies (power) are concentrated in various magnitudes and shift from spatial field to another. Bourdieu introduced the idea of cultural capital as the tool that enables the multiplication of power when transferred from one field to another. In other words, Shelach’s move from the media field to the political field was facilitated by the cultural capital he has accumulated throughout the years. This capital is invested in the new field, where its impact will be multiplied. This reading of the shift enables us to see that such moves have been always part of the human reality. Army officers are the best example of this transfer of capital from one field to another. Business people have always used their material capital in order to influence decision making in the political field.
The second sociologist is Zygmunt Bauman, who takes the idea of fields one step further, explaining the concept of “liquid reality”. Bauman points out the decline of rigid differentiations between various social and cultural fields, demonstrating that we live in a reality where traditional, formal definitions of professional differences have been eroded. Even if we accept the opinion that the modern age was characterized by the institutionalization of human life, the postmodern epoch has led to the decline of borders and divisions, leading to the exposure of the liquidity of human reality. This reading enables us to move ahead and make the claim that formal differentiation between fields was only a mechanism to stabilize social and political reality, and that there has never been a clear-cut division between journalism and politics. This claim leads me back to the conversation with Shelach, which is evidence that even though one shifts from the media field into the officially political field, the former is also inherently political.
Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate between being political and being engaged in politics as profession. Politics as a vocation means making decisions that determine how other people’s livesshould look like. It is the allocation of resources for a specific policy instead of another that defines the political profession. Does this mean that the journalistic field is not political? Of course not. The media has been and remains very political. Besides being a cultural industry, the media frames public opinion and facilitates setting the political and public agenda. Many media specialists have gone so far as to claim that the media shapes people’s consciousness, leading to tangible political consequences. This means that the media and the political fields have been always intertwined, and the traditionally claimed separation between them has been utilized as a mechanism to facilitate the legitimacy of the media discourse.
This decoupling of the media from politics in the name of objectivity, neutrality and professionalism is about the depoliticization of the political. This is one of the most crucial and influential forms of power, as influence. This type of power may be different from power as domination – which characterizes the regular political field. Nevertheless, journalists have much influence on our reality, and their dissatisfaction with power as influence, along with their proximity to politicians, makes it very tempting for them to want to translate their cultural capital from one field to another, and from one form of power to another.
The process of journalists moving from the media field to the formal political field is very important in contexts where the dominant pattern of shifting from one field to another has been from the military field to other fields. When looking at the number of senior army officers in Israeli politics, one cannot help but notice the strong militaristic network in Israeli politics and economy. This network has led several scholars to speak about an army that has a state, instead of the other way around. Despite the critique of the large number of ex-military personnel in the political field, the civic scrutiny on the military, one of the important principles of democracy, makes it possible to see positive ramifications of this shift. If ex-officers commit to civic and democratic ideals, their professionalism may facilitate better scrutiny over the military.
Despite the positive dimensions of the rising number of prominent journalists deciding to join political parties and become professional politicians, reflecting the rising influence of the media industry, this trend may have negative consequences. First, it is reflective of the deep crisis in media institutions in Israel, an important factor admitted by several of the journalists who moved to the political field. In their view, their move comes to help save the media from sinking. According to this view, the presence of an increasing number of prominent journalists in the political field could help save the media from a disastrous breakdown through less stringent regulations. However, this means increasing the involvement of government in the media world through indirect and direct financial aid, decreasing its autonomy and as a result its ability to act as a government watchdog.
This trend may be a good way to make it clear that “the emperor -of separation- is naked”, but it is harmful for genuine public deliberation, which is the foundation of democratic politics. It is a trend that gives well known journalists the power to hijack the democratic political process by confusing the public between their previous journalistic role and current political activities. Furthermore, it gives the new politicians the ability to utilize their capital from the journalistic field to manipulate the media based on their interests in the new field.
Therefore the trend of journalists moving from the media field to the formal political field could have counterproductive consequences. Not only does it dispel the claimed, contrived separation between fields, thereby facilitating the delegitimization of the media, but it may also lead to strengthening the politics of celebrity. This phenomenon of celebrity, well known worldwide, inflicts much harm on the substantial dimensions of politics, which are about deliberating and reconciling genuine rather than superficial differences in postmodern societies.