Half a century ago, the Canadian philosopher and researcher Marshall McLuhan highlighted the role of the media as much more than mere transmitters of political events, as their presence and action generate a communicational impact that is not necessarily in line with the interests of the political establishment. This is something to reflect upon on the occasion of Journalists’ Day in our country.

By Jorge Gillies Arancibia

McLuhan famously stated that “The medium is the message”. The constant tension between press and politics in democratic contexts, from the Watergate affair to Donald Trump’s ongoing confrontation with the US mainstream media, is a case in point.

Obviously, for dictatorships and autocratic regimes of all kinds, the mere existence of an independent press is impossible to tolerate. The examples are there for all to see. But also, for economic interests and criminal structures, such as drug trafficking or environmental destruction, journalists are enemies to be eliminated. Often literally. Examples abound on an international scale as well.

In this context, the role that messengers, i.e., communicators, have assumed in Chile by establishing de facto leadership in political communication is striking.

Long gone are the days when the authorities summoned media directors to La Moneda to silence the dissemination of certain news, as happened in 1991 during the Aylwin government in connection with the kidnapping of Cristián Edwards, or three years later during the government of Frei Ruiz Tagle, as a result of the so-called “Pinocheques”. And the frequent telephone calls from the centres of power, warning against the publication of uncomfortable news or reports, no longer have the same effect as before and generate counterproductive reactions, which call their authors into question and subject them to scorn.

On the one hand, this is due to the increasing horizontality and delocalisation of the media as a result of the digital revolution. The growing importance of social networks as spaces for political communication takes space and impact away from the traditional media. In times of globalisation, it has become impossible to hide information.

But this is mainly due to the growing inability of politics to drive and motivate. The main references of this activity have become those journalists who openly take sides in political events, thus gaining the trust of their audiences in times of extreme difficulty such as those experienced, not only in Chile, as a result of the pandemic and the economic crisis generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Morning and evening shows and podcasts that escape the classic format of political programmes have gained huge audiences and catapulted their hosts to fame, literally filling the vacuum left by the political establishment.

And to reverse the metaphor, it is the messengers who are out to kill the perpetrators of bad policy. Politicians should consider this aspect seriously, since when they fail to consolidate their leadership, it is other actors who occupy that role, among them journalists and communicators.

Jorge Gillies Arancibia, Academic of the Faculty of Humanities UTEM