Dhaka Courier

Can ethical media function in an unethical society?

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It's common to hear this gripe cutting across every section of society. Everyone complains that media is dishonest, unethical and immoral. It probably is. And a few more too. But given the state of things in Bangladesh, one wonders why media would be chosen to be the one superman with an added dash of morality amongst the general mess. Bangladesh is not an operationally ethical society. Yet the desire to see this media as holier than us remains an interesting puzzle.

Most public perceptions and studies are quite sure that Bangladesh is an endemically unethical society. This applies not only to the governance structure but all other transacting institutions. This means the private sector is also part of the overall state umbrella which is structurally ethical but not functionally so.

Within that space the facilitation of power is not formally prescribed but depends on informal relationships. These are based not on principles of ethics but convenience. Hence the nature of functioning of the state is such that ethics can't exist as it threatens survival of the structure. Hence we are not just a functionally unethical society but moving towards a structurally unethical one. Yet one of the enduring aspects of society is expecting certain segment to be ethical while most others not.

Media reflects society?

Much of the discussion about the media's nature reflects the social aspirations of the majority, who have less confidence in many governance institutions. Media as we know it is seen more as the one clean institution which is missing elsewhere. It's supposed to do what all others have failed to. This unrealistic expectation is produced by lack of ethics elsewhere rather than an idea about the media's actual role.

In Bangladesh, media has had several transitioning role. However, the gold standard according to public perception was its role in pre-1971 Bangladesh when it spearheaded the anti-Pakistan movement. During this period, media particularly middle class media was a steadfast ally of the movement, a participant if one wills and not a disinterested observer and reporter. It's this blending with politics of state making that has given the character to the media which is not applicable to post-state birth scenario.

The transition between the state-birthing process and the state-building one needs to be understood before one stamps media with an ethical/unethical stamp.

Post-1971 ethics and media

Media requires investment which comes from the wealthy class whose wealth making process is not transparent. Media investment is not for the noble objectives which the public wants media to focus on but what the owners want to. It's this dichotomy that creates a perceptual conflict.

The chances of media becoming " noble" as understood by society is low but media can perform much better if it was more efficient and at a better capacity. It means that while media will play an opportunistic and partisan role when it comes to politics and certain vested interests, it can be far more productive on other issues. However, it's here that the media lacks most in delivering products. Two issues are good examples.

The financial sector is in dumps and many of the owners are also involved in the mess. But media continues to cover it regularly. What they do is to treat it as a sensational news sector rather than a problem of governance one. The result is we know a lot of statistics about how much has been stolen, who stole it and how etc but not about the sector's regulatory structural failure which allows such thefts to take place.

Similarly, there has been a lot of reporting on rape but very few analysis of why it continues happening. A lot of focus is on who got raped and how with it being treated as a semi-salacious news like conventional reporting on extra-marital affairs. In reporting this way, the many conflicts and contradictions are missed. The result is, the media is just following audience triggers and in this case clicks rather than providing quality information.

Why is this happening?

Media work has ceased to be either a 'noble "sector where sacrificing idealists work or a sector which is high profile or well paid. Media ownership is more lucrative and so are the linked sectors like advertising and digital media management but not media itself. It's not attracting the kind of quality personnel that could lift the sector. Unfortunately, economics has driven it to the stake. Just as mainstream is shifting from paid media to social media, quality is shifting there too. Its increasingly becoming irrelevant.

This is not about change which is why expecting the media to be better than what it is now would not just be unrealistic but unfair.

The governance space is not ethical which is why constructing ethical roles is an error. It's within this rather unpleasant reality that the noble warriors if they exist needs to be found and followed.

  • Ethical
  • Society
  • Media
  • 1971

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