With reference to the major competing theoretical perspectives on the role of the mass media, comment on the degree to which the media ease or hinder the process of governing in modern Britain.
In this essay, I intend to identify, examine and refer to various major theoretical perspectives regarding the role of the mass media in order to assess the extent to which the media eases or hinders government and politics in Britain today. I will identify the main issues that this topic gives rise to and relate these to the current climate of British politics to illustrate the role and power of the media. It is undeniable that the mass media has a considerable impact on government in Britain today although it is difficult to establish the degree of its effect.
According to Heywood the concept of the mass media can be described as “societal institutions that are concerned with the production and distribution of all forms of knowledge, information and entertainment”. The ‘mass’ aspect in the term ‘mass media’ refers to the way that the media provide information and entertainment, not for a small exclusive audience but for all who wish to avail of it. Political socialisation has been described by sociologist Haralambos as the manner “by which people acquire their norms and values” as well as their beliefs and political leanings.
It is generally accepted that the ‘mass media’ is a very important (albeit secondary) agent of political socialisation. Through “a combination of social and technological changes, the media have become increasingly more powerful political actors and…more deeply enmeshed in the political process.” Whereas, before the introduction of mass literacy in the late nineteenth century and more recently, broadcasting media such as television and radio, “primary” agents of socialisation such as the family and social class were the most important factors in deciding a person’s political leanings, such ‘primary agents’ have been replaced with ‘secondary agents’, in other words, the mass media. The development of the mass media as a political factor in recent years has been nothing short of extraordinary with the advent of populist publications and ‘new media’ such as satellite and cable TV, the internet and ‘infotainment’ such as the televisation of the Louise Woodward and OJ Simpson murder trials as well as the media frenzy over President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Jones and Kavanagh (1998) claim that “television is most peoples’ primary source of political information (between 60 & 70%) with the press coming in second on 25% to 30%)” . It is widely held that the influence of the mass media on government and politics in Britain and indeed, across the world, is not to be underestimated.
While a variety of theoretical perspectives concerning the mass media exist, the main examples are ‘market’, ‘elite values’ and the most discussed ‘pluralist’ and ‘dominant ideology’ models. Pluralism is said to encourage party competition, societal diversity and the participation of ‘the people’ in the debate and discussion of politics which could lead to a more thorough understanding of government and the political process. The pluralist theory suggests that power in a democratic society should be evenly dispersed through representation of the ‘electorate’ by elected politicians rather than placed in the hands of a ruling class. In “The Federalist Papers”, James Madison expressed the need for the adoption of separation of powers, bicameralism and federalism into politics in order to ensure a fair, equal and non-corrupt system of government. Such concepts can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, however in more recent times the theory has been related to Montesquieu, a French author who in 1748 wrote his book “De L’Esprit de Lois” based on Britain’s system of government where he applauded the existence of separation of powers in British government in order to preserve the “liberty of the English people”. Even prior to Montesquieu’s works, John Locke in his “Second Treatise of Civil Government” (1690) writes in Chapter 12, paragraph 143, “It may be too great a temptation…for the same persons who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt themselves from the laws they make and suit the law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage”. Both Locke and Montesquieu are calling for increased participation by the electorate in politics whereby they may question the actions and motives of those in power, preventing tyranny and dictatorship. Modern day Pluralists such as Robert Dahl would hold the view that the mass media provides an arena for the discussion of political issues and policies and through the distribution of information ensures an “informed citizenry” while fulfilling a ‘watchdog’ role on government. A classic example of the media satisfying its function as government watchdog was the resignation of US President Richard Nixon after the Washington Post published an investigation into the Watergate scandal in 1974. Pluralists argue that ‘new media’ such as the ever-growing number of satellite TV stations and especially the internet has strengthened pluralism and aided political competition by providing both political parties and protest groups a relatively cheap and effective platform on which to voice their views as well as an extremely fast way of communicating information to the public.
The ‘dominant ideology’ model can be closely associated with Marxism and holds a conflicting view to the pluralist model. This model argues that the mass media is an agent of socialisation designed to promote passivity amongst the proletariat, thus serving the desires and interests of the bourgeoisie, the elite ruling class. Marxist socialist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci believe that the media promote upper-class ideas and maintain the position of the bourgeoisie in society. Ownership of media exponents such as newspapers (Rupert Murdoch’s monopoly on the British press) and radio and TV (AOL-Time Warner and Viacom) help to shape and determine the social and political views presented to the public. It can be argued that media power is concentrated undemocratically in the hands of the owners who aim to influence the public as well as exploiting our consumerist society by profiting from the mass media. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in ‘Manufacturing Consent” (1994) outline various factors which lead to distortion in the media, including “the business interests of owner companies…and news and information from ‘agents of power’ such as government and business-backed think tanks”. Due to such factors it seems that bias and distortion of the facts by the media is almost inevitable.
The ‘elite-values’ model conflicts with the dominant ideology model, rejecting the idea that ownership is the major influence in the content of the media and arguing instead that any bias or distortion in the media is a result of the disproportionally represented groups that occupy senior positions in various exponents of the mass media whose own personal viewpoints may be overtly or covertly expressed in newspaper articles or TV programmes that they hold editorial control over. This remains a commonly held belief among elite-values theorists although three different views on the model exist. The feminist elite-values model holds that the dominance of men in senior positions in the mass media has led to women’s opinions and issues being ignored and has given rise to aggressive journalism and interviewing. Similar version of the model believes that middle-class men prevail in senior positions which could account for the conventional views that are presented in the media that are not the same as those of ordinary people but rather the more conservative views of middle-class intellectuals.
The final main theory that exists on the role of the mass media is the ‘market model’ which, according to Budge and Mc Kay, differs from the other models in suggesting that “the media do not create or mould political opinion but merely reflect or reinforce it”. This is sometimes known as ‘reinforcement theory’ and proposes that people are more likely to read newspapers, listen to radio stations and watch TV programmes that project similar political views to themselves, so instead of totally shaping their views they merely confirm them.
In today’s ever-evolving technological society, the media fulfils a crucial role in providing politicians with a platform upon which to present and ‘sell’ themselves, their party and their party’s policies to the electorate. Jones and Kavanagh suggest that “politicians can reach more people via two minutes on television than they could meet in a lifetime’s door-to-door canvassing”. As well as the increased audience that can be reached through broadcasting, Budge and Mc Kay write that “two-thirds of the electorate believe that television news is unbiased, compared to a third who believe the same about newspapers”. The ‘masses’ therefore, consider the broadcast media of TV and radio to be more reliable sources of information than the print media. The mass media are said to have changed the ways in which elections are fought as well as their focus. Elections in Britain today can be said to be similar to Presidential elections in the USA, with great emphasis being placed on party Leaders rather than constituency candidates or the party collectively. Jones & Kavanagh say the major reason for this is “because television conveys political news in such an abbreviated form, it is inevitable that it should focus upon party leaders who also inevitably have come to represent their party’s brand image”. It is widely accepted that the appearance and perception of a party’s leader can is imperative to the image and success of a party. An enigmatic ‘telegenic’ leader such as Tony Blair can improve the image and credibility of a party while a less attractive leader (such as ex-Conservative party leader William Hague) may not have the same effect despite perhaps being a clever politician with a keen intellect. The televisation of the House of Commons has created a need for politicians to be more charismatic as any mistakes or incoherence can be seen by a large national audience of potential voters. Topical political programmes such as ‘Question Time’ also push politicians into the media spotlight.
In recent years, the parties themselves have availed of the services of the mass media, with the Conservatives employing media guru Tim Bell and advertising firms such as Saatchi & Saatchi to help improve their election campaigns. How could one forget the Conservatives’ play on ‘New Labour’ during the 1997 election drive as the Tory campaign posters declared “New Labour? New Danger” while depicting Labour leader Tony Blair as a red-eyed satanic creature.
The print media, especially the popular ‘red-top’ tabloids have changed the way that they report on politics, seeming to focus more on politicians’ private lives and any ‘scandals’ which may help sell more newspapers rather than party policies or political issues of the day. Recent examples of this exposure include the revelations that former Conservative Prime Minister had an extra-marital affair with party member Edwina Currie as well as the ‘Cheriegate’ saga which uncovered Cherie Blair’s dealings with conman Peter Foster.
The question of whether the role of the mass media eases or hinders government in Britain today remains. There is absolutely no doubt that the media has a huge effect on government and politics in Britain, through informing and influencing the electorate, presenting politicians to the public, exposing their misdemeanours and highlighting their discrepancies. Critics of the media would hold that the media’s presentation of political issues has decreased and suffered in the name of scandalous ‘kiss and tell’ stories about politicians’ private lives that are designed to increase profitability by selling more newspapers or gaining more viewers. However, increased television and newspaper coverage of general elections, party policies and the everyday running of British government can be seen by some to be a positive factor in ensuring transparency of government, preventing abuses of powers, helping to create an informed electorate and safe-guarding the rights of the citizens Britain. In many areas, the mass media in all its’ forms does seem to have a direct effect in helping to ease the process of government in Britain.