Democracy and the role of impartial media

By Sue Inglish, Independent Governor

It is a great privilege to be asked to become an independent governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I have been a broadcast journalist for most of my career covering elections at home and abroad and my experience has shown me that wherever you are in the world, a thriving democracy needs free, independent and impartial media.

As a producer for Channel 4 News in 1986 I was in the Philippines covering an election which pitted the corrupt and violent regime of President Ferdinand Marcos against the widow of one of his political opponents.

Benigno Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila airport as he returned to his country from exile. Cory Aquino, a woman of tiny stature and huge courage, dressed in her trademark yellow, campaigned fearlessly and drew huge crowds at her rallies.

For the international media flocking to Manila it was a great story and the eyes of the world were on the Philippines. The local media too, particularly radio, played a key role in the election.

As we filmed voters at the polling stations on election day, reports came in from election observers around the country of intimidation and blatant electoral violations by Marcos’s supporters. Despite Mrs Aquino’s undoubted popularity, Marcos was declared the winner. It seemed that dictatorship had trumped democracy and the will of the people had been ignored. But thousands took to the streets in a display of People Power. With the world’s media broadcasting every move in the drama, the US government abandoned its support for the regime, Cory Aquino was sworn in as president and Marcos and his wife, Imelda fled the country. One of the most telling images was of the crowds flocking to the presidential palace, staring in amazement at Imelda Marcos’s collection of thousands of pairs of shoes, a testament to 20 years of greed and corruption.

“For a democracy to function properly, it needs a well-informed electorate”

I left the country with a certificate proclaiming me, along with hundreds of other foreign journalists, a “hero of the Philippine People’s Revolution”. The course of democracy there has not been easy in the intervening years but in 1986, there was no doubt that the Philippine people were the real heroes.

Twenty years later as head of the BBC’s political programmes, I was responsible for political, parliamentary and election coverage. The BBC’s role is to provide all its audiences on television, radio and online with impartial, accurate and comprehensive news and information.

Impartiality in all its news coverage, particularly political journalism, is at the heart of the BBC’s values. Viewers expect the BBC and other broadcasters to examine robustly the policies of the political parties helping them to understand the complex issues of our time. Audience research carried out during the current general election, shows that the BBC is still the most trusted source of news and information.

In 2010 during the UK General Election campaign, for the first time, the leaders of the three largest political parties agreed to take part in three live televised debates. The programmes were watched by a total of 22 million people and were particularly popular among younger viewers and people who usually do not watch traditional political output. Viewers said they were better informed about the key issues as a result.

For a democracy to function properly, it needs a well-informed electorate. In an era of social media and so-called fake news, now more than ever, people need trusted sources of news and information.

I am looking forward to bringing my experience as a journalist to the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in strengthening democracies around the world.

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