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Carlo de Benedetti, Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso, Reuters Institute speech, 23 November 2009

Carlo de Benedetti, Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso, Reuters Institute speech, 23 November 2009

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UNIVERSITY OF OXFORDREUTERS INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF JOURNALISMREUTERS MEMORIAL LECTURE 2009
Newspapers and Democracy in the Internet Era. The Italian Case”
By Carlo De BenedettiChairman Gruppo Editoriale L’EspressoOxford, 23
rd
November 2009 – St Anne’s CollegeIf everything is changing around us in the world of information, does it also mean thatthe relationship between citizen and democracy is changing in any way? This is thefundamental question facing us in the years which have seen an unbelievablemultiplication of centres of information, a decline in printed news, the unstoppableadvance of the internet, and public opinion fragmented over the various websites,influenced by blogs and grouped into the new social network communities. Everythingis changing, except one point which remains the same: information is a right of allcitizens, information is a function of democracy.According to some scholars – and I cite Robert Dahl to represent all of them – to have agood democracy, citizenship is not sufficient because it is more useful to have an“illuminated citizenship”, made up of subjects who are informed and thus are aware, orrather are aware precisely because they are informed. We are all equal as citizens, thatmuch is obvious and thank goodness this is the case. But only citizens who have theinformation needed to understand certain phenomena can really give life to that delicateelement, indispensable for western democracies, which goes under the name of publicopinion. If citizens are not aware, we are not talking about public opinion but aboutcommon sense, which is something completely different from the point of view of thephysiology of a democratic society, and also from the point of view of the relationshipbetween citizens and power.In the last twenty years the growth in information has been explosive in terms of quantity, and this is in itself a value, because it is accompanied by a greater ease of access, a multiplication of sources, and a concrete realization of pluralism. But if thequantity of information is important, the quality is also fundamental, indeed a particulartype of quality, which helps people to distinguish, understand and form a judgement: i.e.organized information, which means information inserted in a broad scale of referenceswhich not only give visibility to the protagonists but also to the interests whichinfluence them, relating these interests to the general interest, going back to precedentsand making projections about consequences, taking ultimate responsibility for acomment. In short, giving the reader a summary of the general context in which the factor event takes place.
 Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009 by Carlo De Benedetti
 
 
Starting from a fact, which flashes naked and unembellished across internet screens –unmatched in terms of speed and immediacy – or across TV screens or radio waves, anewspaper organizes this fact, giving the reader an overview which aids understandingand puts it into context. It thus creates an authentic information system that enablescitizen-readers to map out the issue and by reading about it form their own independentand complete final judgement. This passage is the difference between knowing andunderstanding, between looking and seeing, between being informed and being aware,to the point of ultimately being able to take responsibility for a reasoned personalopinion: which may of course not be the same as the opinion of the newspaper, becausethe exchange between a newspaper and its readers is not merely a question of passingon views - that is not its function.The exchange is in the quality of the information given to the citizen to foster hisindependent free understanding of the facts. A newspaper cannot and does not aim tobind readers to its own opinion because it is not a political party: it is much lessalthough in reality it is much more than that – albeit with totally different functions –because the relationship between the newspaper and its readers transforms the wholeinto a live community where the one influences the other, in the name of what itactually is that is bought and sold on the news-stands, which is to say an identity, asystem of ideas which organizes and prioritizes the news of the day, putting it in order.In the name not of a political orientation, which fortunately ended with the century of ideologies: but rather in the name of a way of viewing the world and one’s own country,in the name of a window on life, of a system of values, of that which Piero Gobetticalled (in a way that means a lot to us at
 Repubblica
) “a certain idea of Italy”.Bearing in mind that in a democratic society it must be politics that sits at the head of the table, because it is politics that must deal the cards and look after the pack, becauseonly politics can regulate the free-for-all of legitimate interests at play, reconciling itwith the general interest.Thus we can understand what a scholar like Neil Postman meant when he said thatdemocracy is “print-related”: because the mind of the citizen-reader who is at the heartof community issues in the western world is print-related. Indeed we could say that thereaders of newspapers are the ideal subjects of a democracy, citizens who are awarebecause they are informed. Going one step further: the citizen reader is probably thehomo sapiens of this century, in which at a superficial level we are celebrating the endof newspapers.If this is the relationship between newspapers, citizens and democracy, if this trianglecan hold up against the crisis and the triumph of the internet, what sense is there in theold question which gets asked of newspapers: “Who do you support?” It is high time weabandoned this question and moved on to the real question for liberal democracies toask of a newspaper: “Who are you”? Because it is only if I really know the nature, thesoul and the culture of a newspaper, its editorial history, the transparent identity of itsownership, only then can I understand what its “idea of the country and of the world” is.Only then can I finally understand why the paper takes certain positions, and is for oragainst these or those people. Not as part of an abstract ideological design but becausethe way it is leads it to support a measure, to pass judgement on another one and toconduct a political and cultural battle.
 Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009 by Carlo De Benedetti
2
 
 
Because in this confusing phase of globalization, loss of identity, and crisis,newspapers have discovered that they have an amazing role as cultural mediatorsbecause they are so close to daily life, so flexible in adapting to facts as they followthem, because of the almost technical connection that they can create between eventsand ideas, for the intellectual energy that they can summon up, for their crucialtranslation of scientific or academic language of the experts for consumption by thegeneral public. Mediation even in the literal sense of the term: because the internet inthe richness of its blogs and the ranking by number of clicks inevitably rewardspolarization and the most radical and extreme positions, while newspapers select,summarize, prioritize, make choices – and in so doing introduce elements of rationalityand rationalization and take democratic responsibility. In Italy, where the political partycrisis means that all of the parties are new and have no cultural or historical background,the newspapers have been processing events for readers, interweaving them withopinion and values as a point of reference, reinterpreting the controversial everydayissues of post-modernity in an ethical, cultural and political key.One could say that by doing this in the tiny space they have at their disposal, the paperswork on the cultural foundations of a community, trying to give the reader, disorientatedby the lack of sound and permanent points of reference, those elements of experienceand intellectual cohesion which make it possible to view events in a way that is notpurely one-off and emotional. A particularly useful function at a time when, as ZygmuntBauman says, “nothing lasts long enough to be fully acquired”.If all this is true we can understand why the conflict between newspapers and powerstill exists even in the internet era, as their relationship remains perforce a difficult one.Indeed if this is the democratic function of newspapers, apart from their obligation togive the news, those in power (of whatever political view) are bound to find it anuisance, an inconvenient filter between what governments call the people and what thepapers consider as citizens, and the sphere of government. The Italian situation is evenmore complex, even starting with structural data. For years now, the ratio of newspapercopies sold to population has not exceeded 10%, which is a Mediterranean ratio,nowhere near the 28.9 copies per one hundred inhabitants sold in Germany, the 30.3 inAustria and the 41.2 in Sweden.This phenomenon can be partly explained by the space that television occupies. Italy isa country in which television devours a proportion of the whole advertising pie which isunequalled in any other democracy. According to World Press Trend 2003 the shareheld by television in the US is no higher than 36 per cent, in Germany it is just over 33per cent, while in Italy in 2007 it reached 54 per cent, forcing the newspapers to raisetheir prices in order to survive, and making it virtually impossible for the weaker sectorsof the population, the hardest hit by the economic crisis, to buy them. In the very specialmedia diet of the Italians – studied by Censis in 2004 - 9.1 per cent of the populationonly watch television, 37.5 per cent never read a book and do not even know what theinternet is. This is what Censis defines as a condition of “television isolation”, anisolation common to 46.6 per cent of the population who have exposure to a singlemedia instrument on which they depend for all items of information and opinions onpublic affairs.
 Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009 by Carlo De Benedetti
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