Lack of balance in referendum a threat to democracy

In a mass media society, singing the virtues of change is among the more constant refrains of public discourse

In a mass media society, singing the virtues of change is among the more constant refrains of public discourse. In part this is to do with the ideology of media, which is wedded to promoting novelty and innovation.

This can be beneficial, of course, in avoiding sclerosis and stagnation, but we should not entirely overlook the fact that media organisations, being mostly commercial entities, have a vested interest in the promulgation of an existential restlessness calculated to cultivate markets for the consumer durables they survive by promoting.

Fundamentally, these rarely mentioned factors account for the persistent and frequently high-pitched clamouring for “change” to be noted in the output of many media institutions.

The other week, to give just one random example, a disc jockey on a national pop radio channel was to be heard fulminating that, since the Constitution is 75 years old, it is out of touch with the times.

He did not say how often he believed we should write ourselves a new constitution so as to keep in touch with “the times”. (Perhaps in a future programme he may advocate having a new constitution every day, with the referendum conducted before breakfast via Twitter.)

There is a widespread sense these days that changing the Constitution is always by definition a good thing, almost regardless of the content of proposed changes. But this can have disastrous consequences – as, for example, the adoption of the euro as the national currency, which began with the so-called Maastricht amendment of 1992.

There is a danger that, in a media-dominated society like ours, the constant canvassing of ideological propositions in opposition to prevailing norms may stealthily come to supplant the formal democratic process.

Very often, by the time an actual constitutional amendment is put to the people, there has been manufactured a widespread sense that the change has already been accepted.

The cumulative effect of the input of commentators, politicians, vested interests and disc jockeys amounts to an overwhelming convocation, persistently insinuating that the proposed change is an unexceptionable and unambiguous good.

Each new amendment is thereby propelled by a determined tailwind, which accords the proposal an irresistible dynamic.

Imputation of negativity

Invariably, too, a dramatic reduction is effected at the outset of any campaign, whereby the amendment is encapsulated in a series of sentimental pieties, vague promises and solemn warnings about the consequences of the proposal being rejected.

And, since most amendments involve arcane legal meanings, this tendency ensures that the electorate has scant opportunity to look critically or in detail at the potential consequences of what is proposed.

A major difficulty also is the imputation of negativity to those who oppose such amendments. The very fact that the sides are divided into Yes and No, with the opponents of amendments always designated as the “No side”, has a profound and immeasurable effect on the public consciousness, creating a sense that opposition to a proposal, regardless of its merits, is ipso facto a “reactionary” position.

An impression is frequently conveyed by nods and winks that the “No side” is eccentric, vexatious and unrepresentative, and that the inevitable inequality of arms between the sides is itself an expression of the democratic will.

But, in all such situations, the “No side”, regardless of motivation, is fulfilling a vital democratic function: that of protecting the Constitution from possibly inappropriate change or unjustified attack by powerful and/or monied interests.

The “No side” in a referendum is comparable to the defence in a criminal trial, in that it offers an interrogation of the Government’s case. Until the moment when the people agree to adopt any proposed change, the Constitution as it stands remains the “will of the people” and must therefore be regarded as having at least as much claim to a defence as any proposed amendment has an entitlement of advocacy.

Ironically, it is the duty of the Government – among whose functions is the protection of the Constitution – to protect the rights of those who seek, in any given instance, to defend the Constitution as it stands. We have seen much in recent times of how this works in practice.

In the recent referendum, the Government was joined on the “Yes side” by the parliamentary Opposition, virtually all the media, the Catholic bishops, international philanthropists and sundry vested interests.

These campaigners had access to apparently unlimited funds for advertising, posters, leaflets and other means of promulgating their arguments. (This is altogether separate from the issue at stake in the recent McCrystal case, which dealt with the additional factor of the Government’s illegal use of public monies to promote a Yes vote.)

The “No side” had no funds, no formal organisational backing and not a single poster the length and breadth of the land.

It is obvious that this situation is potentially detrimental to the integrity and coherence of the Constitution and the wellbeing of our democracy.

The condition of our economy is among the more visible evidence of the dangers of leaving the defence of the prevailing “will of the people” to an under-resourced assortment of committed and concerned citizens entirely dependent on the good conscience of media operators to get their arguments across.