Patrick Chalmers: The problem is representative democracy, the solution is journalism and democratic innovations – part I

The Scottish journalist tells Baricada why he left Reuters disenchanted, what the democratic innovations are that inspire him to search for system change, what positive journalism means, how the revelations of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden changed the world, whether the people are always right even when they vote for Trump and Brexit, and much more

Patrick Chalmers is a Scottish journalist who worked for Reuters for 11 years (1994-2005) as a foreign reporter with postings in London and Kuala Lumpur, and reporting assignments elsewhere. During that period he covered the environment, financial markets, international trade, economics and politics. Disillusioned with the editorial values at Reuters, not least on fairness and balance, he left the agency and settled in South-West France with his family. There he wrote his book Fraudcast News: How Bad Journalism Spoils Our Bogus Democracies, which is a biographical critique of democracy and journalism and is accessible online. He works in freelance journalism, environmental consultancy and development organisations, teaches at several Toulouse universities and campaigns for fairer government systems and more accountable journalism. He blogs at this address, while his alternative blog Fraudcast News is here.

Baricada met Chalmers as he was preparing to start of a series of trips, interviews and video recordings that in the end would become a series of nine documentary films about various forms of democratic innovations around the world. Baricada has published his interview in two parts, the second one being accessible here. The audio version of the whole interview is available here.

Mr. Chalmers, to work as a journalist for Reuters news agency still sounds like a big realization. You worked in Reuters in the ’90s and at the beginning of the 21st century. Why did you leave?

The short answer to that is that I couldn’t do the journalism that I wanted to do. And that was because Reuters wasn’t interested, as far as my experience of making suggestions to the editors was concerned, in doing the sort of journalism that I thought was necessary.

And what about the long answer?

The longer answer is that I had written, by that time, about global negotiations for climate change, about global negotiations on trade, about financial markets, particularly about the London stock market, but also the global commodity markets, including the gold market. I wrote about other subjects as well, but in each of those sectors that I mentioned there were problems as far as I could see with the way the decisions were taken regarding those sectors. I was starting to put questions to myself which were about the decision-making processes going back to democracy.

I was asking myself the question, “what is democracy?” I was finding myself wanting to go to speak to anti-globalisation protesters, people who in France are called altermondialistes, in English anti-globalists. I don’t like this title and I think it is not accurate. They are people who are unhappy with global capitalism and the way global capitalism was working. They were the sort of people like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, like those who were protesting in Seattle against a new round of global trade talks, people who were protesting about the lack of activity on sorting out global climate change, who were complaining about the power of international financial markets over the governments of sovereign countries. They were all kinds of different people.

As a journalist in Reuters I was talking to my editors and was saying that I think we should cover these people better and do a better job reporting on the overall picture of what is going on with globalisation. I proposed it in very different forms and I didn’t get anywhere. After suggesting it in different ways, in different places – e.g. I starting proposing it while I worked in Malaysia, I decided that I would be better off to leave the company and try to understand better why my dream job wasn’t a dream job.

The 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests (photo: Wikipedia)

So, you became the author of the book Fraudcast News: How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies and you also started making a blog, called Fraudcast News. To what extent are these projects your answer or solution to the problems you came across while working in Reuters and other media?

I would say they are very initial solutions. They are more like my own self-examination and research into what was the nature of the problem. What I found in the title of the book – the bad journalism element was in a way not only a criticism of my profession, but also a criticism of my own personal journalism, of my lack of political depth. I got pretty self-critical as to how politically ignorant I was as a practising journalist. I was ignorant of the problems of journalism and of the realities of politics. The book and the blog you mentioned were more like an ongoing process of examination of why I ended up getting frustrated and why I left what on the outside looked like a dream job, which is to me, being a foreign correspondent with Reuters.

So, at this moment I understand you are developing a project about the promotion of journalism as a way to strengthen democracy. Could you say something more about this project, which focuses on certain democratic innovations? You could probably also say something more about the innovations you are researching.

With pleasure. I concluded from my book that journalists were not doing a good job. I also concluded that what we call unthinkingly ‘democracy’ is not democracy at all. Democracy means government by the people. We live in what we loosely call democracy, in fact representative democracy, which means you have elections periodically and you send people to represent you, to run the government and take public decisions on your behalf. Neither of those is what we intuitively understand as democracy, which is power in the hands of the people.

So from a linguistic point of view, I understood from writing the book that “democracy” should be used with quote marks around the word. When the Greeks invented it, “demoskratos” meant government by the people. A more correct way of describing our society would be to use a Greek word like oligarchy. So that is power in the hands of the few, an elite few. So the elite few are running the political system on behalf of the elite few, rather than on behalf of the whole of society. It is Aristotle who gave these terms – democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, monarchy, aristocracy, 2500 years ago.

So I went back to the first principles and definitions of democracy and I asked, “do we live in a democracy?” I do not personally think we live in democracies. I am British, I live in France. I don’t think either the UK, or France can truly claim to be democracies – that their societies and people have a significant amount of influence on the public decision-making in the public policy process. I think it would be far more accurate to talk about them as oligarchies.

That’s where I started. I realise in terms of conventional people that’s quite a “radical” thing to say. But my univeristy degree was in Engineering, even though I never practised as an engineer. What engineers do when something isn’t working, like a car, is that they lift the bonnet and they look at the engine and say, “Why is it not working?” I was looking at our political systems and saying, “This is called a democracy – why isn’t it working?” Then I started looking under the bonnet.

First of all, it’s not democracy, it’s representative democracy. You can look at its definitions. You’ve got American academics like Samuel Huntington, who defines it as periodic free and fair elections in which anyone can stand as a candidate, in terms of eligible adults, and the existence of freedoms to publish, to speak, to assemble, to organise (to have a political party, trade union or political movement of some sort). So representative democracy has this cute word “democracy” in it, and that is a nice thing, but the reality is not government by the people, it’s government by representatives.

Then I started thinking, “What does it really mean to have people represent you and get periodically elected?” If you go back to the ancient Greeks – they used lotteries: they didn’t use elections. There were very few offices in ancient Greece’s city states that used elections, and not lotteries. Ancient Greeks considered elections aristocratic. They thought that elections favoured candidates who were beautiful, who could speak well, who were well educated, who were rich. These would be the people who were most likely to be elected. Sounds familiar today, let’s face it.

The reality is that elections favour those sorts of people versus lottery or sortition, as it is called by academics, which favours a much more representative sample of the eligible population. I tried to go through all these sorts of definitions of democracy and political systems to try to work out where the problems were.

Having made this diagnosis of the pathology of our political systems, I asked myself – I was a journalist and I wanted to be a journalist – what I should then do. My conclusion was to look for examples of something which isn’t representative democracy. There are experiments going on around the world, using lotteries. I plan, over the next year and a half through until late 2018 or early 2019, to go to different places around the world, to do short video films, to print articles and to look at real life experiments with real public decisions where lotteries are being used. The idea is to ask to the people involved why they are doing them, how they think what they are doing is better than a decision process involving elections, and whether we could use what they are doing there in other parts of the world.

I realise we – the journalists – are human beings, so we are subjective, like everybody else and there’s no objectivity. So I declare in advance my sense that lotteries are better than elections. I want to go out as a journalist and examine that idea, and that’s the idea of the project.

Patrick Chalmers interviews an activist for the refugees’ rights (photo: YouTube)

Do you think that the people are always right, even when they vote for Trump or when they support Brexit?

It’s a very good question. I am not going to answer it, but I am not going to dodge it either. The two examples you throw at me are what political scientists call an undeliberated decision. It means that there’s not the opportunity to gather provable facts or at least dependable information. There’s not the opportunity to talk to other people in your society about their points of view, in order to come to some sort of consensus of opinion about what might be a sensible course of action.

A referendum like Brexit or an election like the American one are undeliberated political processes. If you have a process like that, it means that the effect of money can push the decision in one direction or another and that the effect of media, either controlled by rich individuals or subject to the pressures of advertisers, has a huge effect on the way the people vote.

In the USA in the last election cycle of 2016, I think they spent collectively something like 6.7 billion US dollars. I got that figure this week from the Open Secrets site. That is an estimate how much money the cycle cost in terms of spending on candidates and political actions. That is a lot of money. It obviously comes from somewhere. I am from Scotland: we have a reputation for being very careful with our money. People don’t spend money stupidly, on the whole. They think they are getting something for their money. So 6.7 billion dollars wants a result!

And the same in the Brexit vote, though not the same amount of money. There was a big amount of money on both sides. There was also very biased, inaccurate media. So what you get from the people who vote is an attempt to make sense of something which makes no sense, because there is no opportunity to establish proper facts, to deliberate, there’s very little trustworthy debate – it’s a Punch and Judy show (where puppets punch each other and make the children laugh much like the clowns in a circus). So people decide to switch off their televisions and not even vote, because what they are seeing is the sort of stuff you would have hoped to have left behind at school or in the playground.

Do I understand correctly that only an enlightened group of people can withstand the big financial and business interests? On the other hand, I got the impression that all the democratic innovations that you talk about in a 2016 article of yours in The Guardian are local. Is the battle for democracy lost at national and supranational level so that there could be victory for the people only at the local level?

I’ll answer the second question first. My answer is no. But local is where probably things have to start. When I am looking at questions of democracy and political systems, I stretch the timeline. The word ‘democracy’ is about 2500 years old. You and I, Vladimir, will probably not live 100 years. That’s a long human life. We have to be patient. For me this is the start of a big change that’s coming through.

If you look at many of the Western democracies around the world, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction. I live in France and there have just been presidential elections and there are a lot of unhappy people. In the second round of the election it was Macron vs. Le Pen, and a French political commentator described it as choosing between Uber (the taxi company) or Hitler. So on the one hand you have neoliberalism and on the other hand you have some form of fascist.

Does it have to be local? No, but at the moment it’s more likely to be local, because that’s where you can have experiments taking place off the radar. This is where people can establish working practices and proof of concept.

I also don’t think it’s only up to the enlightened to resist the media. I am an optimist by nature. I think that human beings, regardless of their background, education and the rest, are fundamentally wise. I think there are circumstances that make us more or less stupid, rather than us being innately wise or stupid. If you, as I do, believe in democracy, then part of that process is to trust the intelligence of the humans around you and to accept your own positive and negative characteristics, but also to do the same with regard to others. In other words, to make allowances for your own and for your neighbours’ stupidity, but also to make them for your own and your neighbours’ intelligence. So it has to be a process of trust. And it comes locally as well, because you can meet people and you can establish relationships and do that.

Maybe I didn’t answer your previous question completely, which is ‘are the people right?’ The point with Brexit and Trump is that I personally am not going to condemn a fellow voter for voting Brexit (to leave the European Union) or Remain (for the UK to stay in in the EU). There are legitimate arguments on both sides. In Trump vs. Clinton I am not going to condemn somebody for voting Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump. The people I will aim at as a journalist to criticise are the politicians seeking elected office. Often they know exactly what they are doing. When Trump talks about Mexicans as rapists and all the rest, he knows exactly what he’s doing. I would condemn Donald Trump, but I would not condemn, necessarily, the people voting for Donald Trump. I would talk to them and I would look for better systems to encourage dialogue.

You mentioned France and I was astonished to learn that there were four million ballots that remained intentionally invalid. Are you aware of certain democracy innovations and searches among the French people at this moment?

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. I’ve just pulled up a graphic from one of the French media – France 24. There you’ve got ‘Abstentions: 25.4 per cent. Spoiled: 3 per cent. Blank: 8.49 per cent’.

It’s not necessary to comment on the fact itself. I’m just giving it as a context. What matters is whether the French people are also searching for alternatives not only within the current party system, but in other forms.

I would say yes. One of the candidates – Melenchon, was proposing a system of random selection for his constitutional reform process. I didn’t go into details on any of the candidates’ programmes, because I am not a big fan of elections. I don’t have the right to vote in the French presidential elections and France is just one among all of the countries in the world – it just happens to be the place where I live. But I do know that political innovation is a live topic in France. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with conventional politics and a lot of people are looking for alternatives.

To read the second part of the interview, where Patrick Chalmers shares his views and experience on left-wing journalism, Wikileaks and Snowden’s revelations and explains why journalism can still change the world, click here!

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