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10 June

When journalism fails

AKP believed its own propaganda. The electorate did not

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) must be scratching its head. Everything was going its way.
 
If hours spent speechifying could be turned into votes, AKP would have received the support of not 41 per cent of the electorate but virtually all. In the run up to the 7 June poll it had near total dominance of the airwaves.  President Erdoğan defied the strict mandate of his office to be impartial and waved the flag at rally after rally on AKP’s behalf – every line of his bombast broadcast live.
 
The largest of these gatherings was the conversion of the publicly–funded celebrations for the 1453 conquest of Istanbul into a lavish party political extravaganza complete with military jet acrobatics.  Interviews with Erdoğan on private Turkish television stations gave the graphic expression “brown nosing,” new meaning.
 
“What a honey of a man,” cooed the sycophant-in-chief Mehmet Barlas on a late night talk show in the presence of the great man.  The proprietor of Star newspaper and Kanal24 television confessed himself all too eager to sacrifice his own family on the altar of the Erdoğan presidency. The carefully composed front pages of the loyalist AKP press took their cultural cues from Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer.
 
Still, getting the most votes after more than 12 years in office is not a mean achievement but the party’s clear expectation was that it would be returned with yet another clear majority. With such well-funded media support and with the shameless exploitation of state resources to sound its own trumpet, why would it think otherwise?
 
Yet its own history teaches that AKP should not be surprised of its relatively poor showing. It was first elected to power in 2002 with few newspapers and fewer television stations willing to tell its side of the story. To win, AKP had to walk the streets, organise support from the ground up, grab hearts and minds. Of course the 2000-2001 economic crises predisposed the electorate to give the party a chance.
 
If AKP has succeeded in the last decade in creating a national media in its own image, this was (in its own mind) only doing to others what had been done to it. The Erdoğan government’s rough handling of the Doğan media group –harassing it with tax fines and chipping away at its non-media businesses— was a form of retribution for what was all too often opportunistic support for those who opposed AKP’s ascendancy.
 
By 2015, the tables had more than turned. AKP was in charge of both public and private media including state television and the Anatolian (News) Agency.  Yet at the ballot box it was unable to use that control to persuade a large enough section of the electorate that its cause was just. One reason is that its ruthless hegemony of the media, also devalued the media’s ability to deliver a credible message. The ratings for that Barlas interview were abysmally low. Who pays attention to yet another Sabah or Star newspaper rant? The president gave speech after speech but the viewers turned the sound down low.
 
And so AKP became scared of what it could not control—including social media which gives voice and editorial autonomy to anyone with a smart mobile phone and two thumbs. Instead of joining the discussion it tried to ban Twitter. Rather than answer the opposition charges of corruption it had state-run television cut the leader of the opposition off – literally— in mid-sentence.  It organised the dawn raids on newspapers it did not like, tried to send editors-in-chief to life imprisonment for publishing stories it found embarrassing. It insulted the intelligence of its supporters, using the headlines to maintain that people actually approved of the opulence of their leaders – not just the president in his gold-plated palace but the head of religious affairs in his sparkling new Mercedes.
 
Dealing with the foreign press posed a special problem. Erdoğan accused Die Zeit of hypocrisy, the New York Times of being a tool for Jewish capital. A recent editorial in the Guardian has asked for an apology for being accused of having written things, which were in fact entirely fabricated by a pro-AK Party columnist who is now an MP.
 
The AKP press created noise not opinion, a two dimensional backdrop to its election campaign. It could stop people from hearing other views, but failed to persuade them to commit to its own.
 
It’s not that its strategy failed completely. It won close to 41 per cent of the vote. However that is the reach of the propaganda machine. That machine has now sputtered to a halt. Without a majority in parliament and the sort of patronage and control that it brings, it is difficult to see how the party can buy more fuel.
 
So it sounds like hubris that the party in league with the president can dismiss the 7 June ballot as an unfortunate anomaly and rush to victory at a snap election.
 
AKP came to power one year after its formation in 2001. It did so by promising to improve people's lives. It would be an injustice to its record in office to say that it did not keep some of those promises. There are things it did terribly wrong but also things it did right. One interpretation is that as it ran out of ideas – and became visibly corrupt— it tried to hang onto power by becoming increasingly authoritarian.
 
Many of its key figures, including the prime minister, have never known opposition politics – or learned the lesson that in a democracy, power and office rotate. Having done their best to shout down the opposition, AKP is afraid it will receive the same treatment.

These fears may be justified, but they will have to be confronted. If AKP cannot learn the lessons of adversity and to cherish true freedom of expression, its future deserves to be bleak.
  

Tags: 7 june , election , turkey , preseden erdogan , journalism ,

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