Free choice without free information?

Can we make rational choices without information?

I try to avoid writing about political events on this blog as this is not really a forum for my personal political views but a blog about my observations about libraries and information in general (as well as a reflection on my studies).  However, as time goes by I guess this is going to be increasingly difficult.  As the cuts start to bite and local authorities close libraries based on spurious financial grounds, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the topic without sounding partisan.  I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything!

Anyway, one story in the news got me thinking about information in a more general way.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that fast food companies are being asked to ‘help write UK health policy’.  The report goes on to say:

The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease, the Guardian has learned.

In an overhaul of public health, said by campaign groups to be the equivalent of handing smoking policy over to the tobacco industry, health secretary Andrew Lansley has set up five “responsibility deal” networks with business, co-chaired by ministers, to come up with policies. Some of these are expected to be used in the public health white paper due in the next month.

One of the likely casualties of this (frankly bizarre) decision is traffic light labelling on food packaging.  Whilst some manufacturers have employed the system, many are opposed to such labelling (for obvious reasons, it may rather hurt their sales of processed foods).  It was recently reported that the food industry spent 1 billion euros lobbying the EU against mandatory labelling of this type.  Unsurprisingly (and somewhat depressingly), they won.

The argument is often made that this is about avoiding ‘top-down lectures’ and allowing people to decide for themselves about the food they eat without being subject to state ‘nannying’ (even children).  However, how can people make free choices without free information?  It has often puzzled me that the argument is often made that people are free to make their choices and that the state shouldn’t interfere with their fundamental right to do so.  In many ways, this is laudable.  But without providing the public with the information they need, how can we expect them to make rational choices?  Particularly when the void is filled with misleading advertisements by the food industry.

For me, I think there is a worrying trend emerging recently.  Whilst Murdoch’s paywall hasn’t exactly been a resounding success, with less than 105,000 readers actually subscribing there will be many in the newspaper industry hoping that this does come off.  And what then for those that cannot afford to subscribe to any of the newspaper content protected by paywalls?  Suddenly they will find their information sources radically reduced.  As I have written before, there can be serious consequences for a democracy when its people are unable to access information freely.

Add into this the fact that libraries all over the country are being ear-marked for closure, and there is a real problem over the horizon.  Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has access to a computer, let alone an internet connection.  Statistics released earlier this year revealed that 9.2 million people had never used the internet and 27% of households had no Internet connection at al.  These are not insignificant numbers.  There is a very real digital divide at play here, one that the politicians are not only failing to address, but are also seemingly entrenching (if not actually widening).  Commentators and politicians need to stop pretending that everyone has access to an Internet connection, or indeed have the required level of digital literacy – let’s not forget that around 56% of the population of the UK have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass.

It seems ironic that although we live in the age of the Freedom of Information Act, we seem to be regressing in the amount of information that is in the public domain.  With information increasingly seen as a commodity that has a price, we are gradually seeing information put out of reach of the average citizen.  That this recent drive to put a price on all sources of information, whether they be digital or physical, comes at a time of questioning the relevance of libraries is a worrying and disturbing trend.  Once information about our democracy is hidden away behind paywalls, requiring costly equipment with which to access it, what then for those that cannot afford to access it?  And what then for a society with an increasingly poorly informed electorate?  I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of information as a commodity, but I am sure it is not particularly ‘fair’.

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3 thoughts on “Free choice without free information?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Free choice without free information? | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian… -- Topsy.com

  2. “And what then for a society with an increasingly poorly informed electorate?”

    This is probably totally un-PC response, but my initial reaction to this question was ‘look at America’. My husband is from LA, and he’s appalled at the US news coverage of the recent mid-terms and the atrocious lack of any kind of understanding of the issues on show by members of the public being interviewed (from both sides, Democrat and Republican/Tea Party).

    • I don’t think that is particularly un-PC. One only has to observe the level of debate on the other side of the pond to the disaster that emerges when information is not provided. The emergence of the Tea Party in the United States is a perfect example of the consequences of creating a poorly informed electorate. With our education system set to mirror that in the US, alongside our willingness to destroy important sources of impartial information – libraries of course, but also the BBC, the warning signs are there.

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