The people and the Fourth Estate

Democracy and Media Decadence, by John Keane (Cambridge University Press, €21.58 pb / £17.99)

Joe Carroll

Is the growth of digital communications, now dominating many of our lives, good or bad for democracy and liberal-style politics? 

This is the broad question posed by this demanding book. The answer is that this growing ‘communicative abundance’ is already undermining what we like to think are our democratic freedoms because ‘media decadence’ is covertly able to exploit and manipulate the cyberspace we spend so much time in.

Media decadence

Nearly half the book is close analysis of this ‘media decadence’ and the sinister role of the ‘mediacracy’. Jargon is an inevitable part of most books by academics specialising in media studies. The author wants to show that “the techniques and tools of media-saturated societies are being used by powerful forces in ways that are having harmful effects on democracy”.

Citizen journalism

‘Citizen journalism’ using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. can make politicians and the ruling elites sit up and take notice of what is really happening outside their cosy parliaments. But watch out for media decadence. These citizens with their laptops, I-pads and smart phones can also be “plunged into narcissistic narrow-mindedness”. And, of course, they can be anonymous bullies.

There are previous examples of abuse of media power, such as the early 20th Century, when “print journalism and radio and film broadcasting hastened the widespread collapse of parliamentary democracy”. This is a reference to the rise of the totalitarian systems in Germany and Russia which aimed to enslave the rest of the world.


The author poses the question: “Is the media decadence of our age a harbinger of profoundly authoritarian trends that might ultimately result in the birth of phantom democracy, that is, politics in which businesses are publicly unaccountable and governments claim to represent majorities that are artefacts of media, money, manipulation and force of arms?”

Looking closer to home, we can ponder on the poor record of the media, with some individual voices as an exception, in being cheer leaders for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, as property advertising and spin-offs boomed. 

It is part of media decadence that dissenting voices are ridiculed and whistle-blowers are silenced, often using all-pervasive public relations tools.


It is the strength of this book that media decadence is exposed for how it conceals itself in this age of communicative abundance and ‘mega-projects’.  This has led to catastrophes both in the physical and financial worlds. 

What is there to be done about it?

Here the author is tentative and less convincing. What is needed is for “wise citizens to take advantage of communications abundance to get involved in public affairs, initially by making public noise, smart public noise, well-targeted din and disquiet loud enough to shatter the eerie silences that can so easily cause things to go so terribly wrong for so many people”.