Paul Gillespie: Political communication and a deliberative public sphere are at the centre of your philosophical reasoning. What role does this imply for quality media?
Jürgen Habermas: It is easier to detect the mote in the eye of the other than the beam in one’s own. This is why the destruction of political communication in the United States in particular – a case in point being the ideological indoctrination of the population during the debates over [President Barack] Obama’s health care reform – is more apparent to us Europeans. But the breakdown of public discourse is also progressing quite rapidly in our own countries. The major national newspapers, which played a decisive role in forming political opinion over the past century-and-a-half, have come under economic pressure and have yet to find a business model that would ensure their survival on the internet.
PG: Is there a case for public subsidy schemes to protect them from the effects of market rationalisations?
JH: In contrast to commercial television, the programming of the public broadcasting companies has not yet completely lost sight of the fact that its audience is not only composed of consumers but also of citizens. They are even bound by law to offer their audience not just entertainment but also information, education, and cultural programmes, and thus to provide solid underpinnings for the formation of independent political opinions. On the other hand, this BBC – or, in Germany, ARD and ZDF – model is not easy to apply to newspapers, which have to secure their independence in the private sector. But we should all wake up to the fact that the disappearance of an argumentative press represents an extremely acute danger for democracy. There are isolated experiments that seek to combine public subventions for the leading press with guarantees of their ongoing editorial independence. We should put such experiments on a broader footing before the New York Times or Le Monde or El País or the Frankfurter Allgemeine are rationalised out of existence or go bankrupt.
PG: The economic crisis puts public discussion of European integration at the centre of political debate. Can this politicisation of mass public awareness contribute to a deeper political union of the EU?
JH: In every country the tabloid press is eager to exploit any opportunity to foment nationalistic and xenophobic prejudices. In Germany, the Greek crisis provoked the Bildzeitung to such excesses, and the politicians allowed themselves to be carried away by this climate of opinion. Especially in times of crisis, reasonable proposals can gain the upper hand only if the national press keeps a clear head, together with the government and the major political parties. It should not let itself be taken in by populist slogans and it must maintain a halfway deliberative climate in the country. In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the political parties to ensure that the population does not succumb to its fear reflexes and that it makes decisions only after reflecting on its own long-term interests. But past experiences leave me sceptical. To date there has not been a single European election or referendum in any country that wasn’t ultimately about national issues and tickets.
Habermas pronunciará mañana martes una conferencia bajo el título “The Political: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology” a las seis de la tarde en el Auditorio Clinton del University College de Dublín.