How can media inspire accountability and political participation? Findings from massive BBC programme.

March 1, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

A recurring pattern: I get invited to join a conversation with a bunch of specialists on a particular issue (eg market bbc media action logosystems). Cue panic and some quick skim-reading of background papers, driven by the familiar fear of finally being exposed as a total fraud (some of us spend all our lives waiting for the tap on the shoulder). Then a really interesting conversation.  Relief!

Last week it was the role of the media in governance, a conversation at the Ministry of Truth BBC, organized by the excellent BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity. Recording here.

What emerged was a picture of increasing churn and fragmentation – a media and information ecosystem that is casting off vestiges of linearity (a few big newspapers and one or two big TV and radio stations) and becoming far more complex (social media, online, local radio, ever more channels of everything).

In response, just as with governance and markets, those trying to promote change and development are starting to think in terms of systems rather than linear theories of change. It’s no longer good enough (if it ever was) to look for the lever to pull to trigger change (a new law, an article in the FT). Instead, just as with governance, there is a twin track emerging:

BBC media action 2Enabling environment: Broad brush support through legislation (right to information, media independence, protecting sources), access (spread of 4G, literacy) is a role for outsiders that doesn’t require them to fathom the complexity of local media systems.

However, the consensus in the room was that this is not enough – echoes of the Twaweza debate a few years back, where they found that the theory of change ‘giving people access to information → social and political action’ failed because they hadn’t thought about the assumptions behind the arrow.

So what else is needed? An excellent summary of the evaluation by BBC Media Action of a massive 6 year, DFID-funded project on using media to increase accountability by inspiring political participation (it reached >190m people in 12 countries) provided some interesting clues (full evaluation here):

  • Enabling discussions and brokering relationships, not just providing information (seems like we’re learning from the experiences of Twaweza)
  • The centrality of local context – eg some societies and cultures (and political systems) like confrontational media formats, while others prefer collaboration. The implication for funders is the importance of local staff and local partnerships – outsiders are never going to understand the system
  • Critical Junctures (eg elections, natural disasters or protest movements) provide the natural rhythm for engaging both with media and politics

An associated research report claims ‘audiences participate more in politics than people who do not listen to and/or
watch its programmes, even when taking other influencing factors – such as age, income and interest in politics – into account’. Not sure whether that is attribution  or association (eg what if a third factor, like church or other organizational membership or family background, leads people both to watch socially aware programmes and take part in political action?) but will leave that to the evaluation geeks.

Digging into the numbers a bit further, the evaluation also found a mixed picture on the equity impact of its media participation rates bbc media actionwork: larger increases in participation were seen in groups that traditionally participate less, but on the other hand, the increase in participation was greater among men than among women (presumably because of other constraints on mobility, time etc).

Other points that came up in the BBC panel:

Commercial sustainability is crucial. No point an aid organization going in and funding lots of good stuff if it either collapses or is coopted by some oligarch when the project comes to an end.

The debate was conducted as if there are facts (that can be established with absolute certainty) and  lies (ditto), but in practice there are substantial grey areas in between. For example any prediction about the future (Brexit will do X to trade, GDP, immigration etc) falls well short of hard fact, in my book. Most public opinion polling probably does too. Without going all post-modern about it, we need to acknowledge that a lot of public debate takes place in the grey area, which for me merely underlines the fact that narratives matter as much/more than numbers.

Final thought: the dance felt familiar, even if the dancers were different. This same shift in thinking, from linear to systems, has been going on among different disciplinary groups working on governance and institutions, markets, gender etc etc. I fear that they are each separately learning the same lessons the hard way. What would happen if we got them all into a room? Probably one of two options – the bad one would be if they each started vigorously lobbying each other – ‘you need to do more on our issue, can’t you see how important it is?’ So how could you design the conversation so that they stand back and learn from each other and maybe save some time and effort?

For starters, you would need the right convenor – an institution or individual perceived as impartial and credible, who brings everyone together to take stock on and compare the parallel linear→system transitions currently under way. Has anyone already done this?