The Public and its Problems

BY: Kwame Akuffo Anoff-Ntow, (PhD)

In 1927, John Dewey, a famous American educationist and democrat published a book under the above title. In the book, he argued compellingly that for any democracy to thrive and live up to its normative goal of governing for the good and interest of the people, its public must be prepared to play a central role in defining it, and through constant and fearless interactions, interrogate their concerns.

Above all, Dewey urged the need to recognise that public interest is not about what interests the public. It is what is in their collective, communal interest and benefit. This distinction is important especially when democracy as a system of government is practised against the neoliberal market canvas that in logic, genuflects to the dictates of the market and privileges what the biggest aggregate of individuals are willing to pay for.

Whilest at one end of the spectrum public tends to be defined as an aggregate of individuals, thereby blurring its distinction from a mob, a crowd, or spectators, at the other end it is often conceptualised as a grouping which comes about for a purpose. In the Habermasian (1989) public sphere, a public is evoked when two or three gather as interactants to discuss issues of social and collective importance. Ideally, Habermas argues, the interactions of such a public sphere should be characterised by critical rational debate, aimed at consensus building. In the opinion of Dewey, a public must and should be defined by their "shared consequence".

In Dewey's optimistic view, a public is defined by whether or not they share the consequence of their actions: directly in cases "which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction" or "others beyond those immediately concerned", i.e. indirectly. (1927: 12). Thus it is perfectly possible for private acts to have indirect or much larger social consequences.

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With this vision, passengers on an airplane constitute as much a public as the workers of an organization, or the depositors of a ponzi scheme. When the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana opens with "we the people of Ghana", it is evoking the same public spirit by not just identifying the people as the source of Ghanaian sovereignty, but it also underlines the existence of the people as a collective; a public, and bequeathes to them the responsibility of playing an active role in the country's democracy.

The imperative to act as a responsive and responsible public; citizens if you like, is antithetical to Lippmann's pessimistic view of a public as " a phantom": a disinterested, disengaged and indolent grouping akin to a mob at worst or mere spectators at best. For Lippmann (1925), the democratic "myth" throws up a 'disenchanted man' who is told that they must have an active role in public decision making but has neither the time nor a full grasp of the issues to show interest. Such a "phantom public" are spectators in the democratic experiment at best: disinterested and simple-minded to the point of indolence and virtual nonexistence. Thus, depending on which end of the Dewey-Lippmann continuum the pendulum swings, who constitutes a public, as well as their normative and functional roles in the democratic experiment could differ significantly. To be fair to Lippman, he acknowledges the possibility of a public act "when men take a position in respect to the purposes of others" (198), except that in his vision, its the elite who often tend to "manufacture (such) consent" (Herman and Chomsky, 1985) through the manipulation of pubic opinion.

I am persuaded that when the President of the Republic called on Ghanaians during his inauguration to act as citizens and not spectators, he was invoking the Deweyian public imaginary and directly calling on Ghanaians to give true expression to the Constitutional preamble "We the people of Ghana".

These past couple of months, I have had to confront the question of whether or not there exists in Ghana, a Deweyian public or we are increasingly gravitating towards a phantom version. I notice that many of the things my generation took for granted growing up are no longer available or in vogue. From public spaces such as recreational centres where children can wander after school to play, to public libraries where interest in the art of quiet engagement with an author's world is grown and nurtured, the idea and substance of publicness has shrank in dangerous ways. However, it is in the use of media and communicative spaces that the idea of publicness suffers the most neoliberal distortion and paradox.

Ghana is quick to boast about how liberal its media landscape has become since the 4th Republic. The narrative is often supported by the growing number of radio, television and newspaper outlets. The ready conclusion is that media plurality denotes choice, deepens democracy and expands the frontiers of individual freedom. In this same script, public and market are used interchangeably and operationalised as the largest number of individuals willing to pay for some form of service(s). It assumes the pedestal of a"disciplining democracy" when "good" governance is interpreted through the lenses of such neoliberal market values (Abrahamsen, 1995).

But what is the real value of plurality if it doesn't reflect in diversity? In other words, does it matter if all the media outlets are busy mimicking one another and scheduling the narrowest scope of programs in annoyingly the same formats? Does it matter even further if increasingly, the same individuals or groupings are consolidating their ownership of different media? I am arguing that these issues of who owns the media, concentrated or not and whether pluralism reflects in diversity of ownership and content sit at the heart of our mediated democracy and the kinds of information we rely on as Ghanaians to navigate our social and political lives. I further argue that for our democracy to become truly deliberative and well mediated, it is important that the right definition of public is determined and maintained. It is for this reason that I focus on the oldest and largest media institution in Ghana, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, GBC.

Although the GBC is referred to as "state-owned", it is my considered opinion that the Constitution of Ghana imposes on it a public service duty. Aside its national footprints, such duties as providing fair and equitable airtime to political parties and serving minorities puts it in pole position as a PSB. Within the current media ecology where private-commercial and community compete with state-owned or PSB, it is important to understand and appreciate the roles each is to play within the media ecosystem, and to put in place the requisite codes and legislation to chart and regulate the landscape.

I fear that the conceptualisation of public interest as what "interests the public" rather than what "is in their interest and benefit", has tended to create a legislative and policy regime which privileges private, commercial media at the expense of public service and community media. This tendency is most obvious when one interrogates whether or not public broadcasting is "(de)-insitutionalized" and if so, how it is funded.

Although the National Media Policy attempts to regulate how much of public interest content commercial, private media are to generate, it is common knowledge that the National Media Commission is ill equipped to monitor their content, let alone identify and enforce such breaches. What this means is that whiles in spirit, the National Media Policy de-institutionalizes pubic service to the extent that private and commercial media are duty bound to also generate public interest content, in practice, it is not enforceable. In short the de-intstitutionalization of public service broadcasting has been undermined by lack of enforcement to the point that public service media has become institutionalised. Put another way, rather than being a genre, public service has effectively become an institution. This condition imposes crippling responsibilities on such a media entity especially when its funding dwindles exponentially.

Besides paying for salaries of workers, GBC's main sources of revenue are commercials and rentals. Unlike in the not too distant past when it utilised all its internally generated funds (IGF), today government decree proscribes such complete use, and caps it to 66 percentage use. In the face of political scheming that effectively truncated the collection of television license fees, GBC in practise is not different from any other commercial broadcasting entity since its programs are funded entirely by commercials: advertisement and sponsorship.

This is demonstrated by GBC's programming scope which has become narrower over time, giving more airtime to advertising and tried and tested programming formats such as telenovelas, musicals and cheap talk shows that are often "staged" to be confrontational and agonistic (Mouffe, 2002) rather than informative and edifying.

By staged, I make reference to how through topic framing and empanelling, program producers assemble "experts" with irreconcilably oppositional views and like wrestlers in a ring, allowed to go at one another with a moderator who is either too indolent to intervene, or too ill-equipped to steer the "spectacle" in a useful direction.

Welcome to audience ratings! If this worthless spectacle passes for a program it is because that is what is perceived to interest the public: the choreographed contestation between irreconcilable opponents before the camera by an ill-informed and equipped moderator. By referring to such program panelists as "fast talkers" involved in the practice of "circular circularity", Bourdieu (2003) is referencing both the quality of the so called experts, and the self referential nature of the claims they make on the medium of television which is wired to feed into other programs, reinforcing itself in the process.

What is my point? It is that in the absence of public subsidies such as television licences, a public service broadcaster such as GBC quickly morphs into another commercial entity, scheduling the narrowest scope of programming because of its hedonistic reliance on adverts and jingoistically joining the gravy train which uses audience ratings instead of program reach as its mark of success (Blumler, 1993, Croteau and Hoynes, 2004, Gitlin, 1990) Such a timid mindset does not only reflect in the types of programming that such a media institution mounts, it also comes through in its inability to see and take opportunities, or if they do, are too poor both mentally and economically to seize them.

So that while global best practice is quickly establishing online content as an extension of traditional broadcasting, the state-owned broadcaster has not made any significant efforts to benefit from the "multimediality" and "hypermediality" of the internet as a driver of its traditional content (Mabweazara et al., 2014). Even when it attempts to extend itself online, its online versions are very often clones of traditional stories, with minimal or no multimediality accompanying such stories.

More than anything else, it is its inability to understand that "reach" which is one of public service broadcasting's principal pillars is far more than the geographical reach of their signal. It is more importantly, the opportunity for its listeners/viewers to participate in the discourse such programs are intended to generate. The fact that GBC's online presence fails to provide such an interactive interface with its audience can be said to signify its paternalistic mindset in times of yore, where it simply fed its audience with what it considered to be useful with little or no feedback.

Times have changed, and if Ghana hopes to deepen its democracy to make it both deliberative and liberal, it will require empowering the GBC to become truly public service. This will require populating it with some of the best minds in the country, providing it with a regular and predictable source of funding, and opening its programming up to those who have the expertise to generate content for GBC's schedule. In a sense, the Broadcasting Bill which continues to lie in limbo addresses some of these concerns, albeit insufficiently.

Who owns the media, its culture and practitioners, and more importantly, how it is funded sits at the heart of whether or not our democracy will continue to be choiceless and illiberal (Zakaria, 1997) because of the insistence that what counts for a media institution to survive is audience ratings not how useful and beneficial its programs are even if it targets minorities. As McChesney (1999) clearly pointed out, a Pubic service broadcaster which is not funded by the public ceases to be public.

We shouldn't lose sight of how heavily mediated our world has become. Whether we recognise and feel part of this "imagined community" (Anderson, 1982) called Ghana depends to a large extent on our access to, and competence in our media engagement and use. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I am arguing that who owns the media, the access and participatory opportunities they present, as well as how such media are funded become important definers in how media users actualise and define their "publicness". I fear that the Deweyian-Habermasian version of public is fast giving way to an indolent, individualistic version that threatens to undermine the central pillar upon which our democratic ethos rests. "The duty of a citizen is to keep his mouth open" Gunther Grass aptly argues. Rise up and be a part of the public.

- Kwame Akuffo Anoff-Ntow, PhD May, 2019 Accra, Ghana.


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