MEDIA & DEMOCRACY: On the final day of The Conversation’s series on how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy, John Keane examines how the relationships between politicians, journalists, lobbyists and the PR sector undermine democracy.
When recently ploughing through Tony Blair’s autobiography, I hit a rare rock of truth. On the last night of the second millennium, when the government’s extravaganza spectacles were faring badly, Blair recalls with special horror his discovery that a pack of top journalists invited to attend the midnight Millennium Dome celebrations had been left stranded at a London underground station clogged with New Year’s Eve revellers.
Blair tells how he grabbed the lapels of the minister in charge, his old friend and flatmate Lord “Charlie” Falconer. “Please, please, dear God”, says Blair, “please tell me you didn’t have the media coming here by tube from Stratford just like ordinary members of the public”. Lord Falconer replies: “Well, we thought it would be more democratic that way.” Blair responds: “Democratic? What fool thought that? They’re the media, for Christ’s sake. They write about the people, they don’t want to be treated like them.” Falconer: “Well, what did you want us to do, get them all a stretch limo?” Thundered Blair: “Yes, Charlie, with the boy or girl of their choice and as much champagne as they can drink.”
Trickery and charm
In recent months, thanks to Nick Davies and other brave journalists in hot pursuit of the hidden secrets of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, we’ve learned more about efforts by key media players and top politicians like the British Prime Minister David Cameron to trick and charm the pants off each other.
The Murdoch scandal has revealed more than a few fragments of a world not normally covered by journalists, or seen with naked public eyes: a world that’s potentially dangerous for democracy called mediacracy.
The pun’s more than just a pun. It refers to the tangled webs of back-channel contacts and hidden power relations connecting senior politicians and top journalists, helped along by public relations agencies, lobbyists and other figures of public contrivance.
Although there is little clear-headed analysis of its shadowy contours, mediacracy has been gaining ground for some time in virtually all democracies. In Cameron’s Britain and Obama’s United States, just as in Gillard’s Australia and Berlusconi’s Italy, undercover skills of media management and heavily manipulated, aggressively sensationalist and fast-changing publicity cycles in politics have become routine.
How did mediacracy happen?
We could say that all popularly elected governments are today proactively engaged in clever, cunning struggles to kidnap their clients and citizens mentally through the manipulation of appearances, with the help of accredited journalists and other public relations curators. The age of organised political contrivance is upon us. How and why has this happened?
Conspiracy theories are unhelpful. Functionalist explanations are closer to the mark. Put bluntly, mediacracy is a democratic phenomenon. After all, within any given representative democracy politicians, professional journalists and citizens depend upon each other.
Audiences of citizens need journalists to get close to politicians and governing officials so that they can check their words against their deeds, to probe whether or not they are bullshitting, to help judge their competence as leaders.
For reasons of reputation and career advancement, journalists also need direct access to politicians and governments. Scoops, breaking news and lead stories are a must in the curriculum vitae of every established or upwardly mobile journalist.
But journalists need politicians and governing officials for other reasons, including the raw material that is constantly needed to fill space and programming holes. The tactic of making constant “announcements” (as Lindsay Tanner has pointed out) becomes something of a governing imperative, a method that is usually much-welcomed by news-hungry journalists because it fills voids, plugs gaps, provides copy that generates public attention.
From the other side of the divide, politicians need journalists to get their messages across to citizens.
Journalists are vital translators and communicators of their words and deeds to audiences of citizens. They attract and hold the attention of busy people, helping them to understand what politicians are saying and doing. They can of course do politicians a big favour by helping convince citizens that their representatives are doing an excellent job, sometimes (as during political honeymoon periods) by singing lullabies to citizens who, for a time, politically sleepwalk their way through daily life.
Or journalists can function as early warning detectors, even as triggers of political scandals with the power to unseat individual representatives, or to bring whole governments crashing to the ground.
That’s the theory of journalism and democracy, seen from a functionalist perspective.
In practice, the dalliance of journalists and high-level politics is always contingent. Synergy and symbiosis are not their “natural” fate. Hard work and constant “informal” priming from both sides is required. Journalists and politicians drink and dine together. They bump into each other at gatherings, in shopping malls, airports and school grounds, and at formal functions. They frisk and frolic and keep in touch; sometimes they share beds. Their working habits coincide. They think about similar things and talk to the same people, often in tight circles of friends, sources, advisors, colleagues and former colleagues.
And journalists and politicians do inside baseball (as Americans say) with an often bizarre assortment of inside players.
There are companies such as Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the leading political consultancy firm in the world with major clients on its list that include Coca-Cola, Verizon, Tony Blair and the ALP.
There are public relations agents, many of whom are ex-journalists, armed with promises of planting “positive” stories on behalf of their clients, or shielding them from “negative” coverage.
Not to be overlooked are large lobby firms such as Hill and Knowlton, the Duberstein Group and Patton Boggs; and there are think tanks, whose PR role normally far outweighs any independent thinking that supposedly happens inside their office walls.
Helped along by such players, accredited journalists and politicians, when unacquainted, make beelines for each other, in search of mutual favours, usually under the cover of discretion and silence. Sweetheart deals are struck. Press releases are exchanged, digested, recycled. Dissenting voices are ex-communicated, pushed out through the revolving doors. Misfits are advised of the penalties, such as social and professional ostracism, for wandering too far off message, from the cosy fold.
This is the point where mediacracy takes root. For that to happen, institutional regulations, or their absence, are always required. Their shaping powers are vital in making or breaking a mediacracy.
Shaping the message
The White House Press Corps in the United States and the Westminster “lobby” in the United Kingdom are exemplars of these shaping institutions. The Canberra Press Gallery and the Australian Press Council, the 22-member self-regulatory representative body of print media, are local versions of the same arrangements, whose effect is to stand guard over the revolving doors and closed circuits of information that connect journalism and high-level politics.
Sometimes the dalliance results in iron-clad oligarchy, as in the Japanese system of press clubs (kisha kurabu), an 800-strong countrywide network of journalists who as members of their exclusive clubs enjoy privileged access not just to politicians but also to government ministries, political parties, businesses, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and even the imperial household.
The kisha system reminds us of another compelling reason why mediacracy flourishes: its beneficiaries quickly sense that they have an interest in preserving their own privileges, hence they do everything to hang on to their power, even if that means sacrificing personal integrity, investigative reporting and other conventional standards of high-quality journalism.
When that dynamic sets in, journalists undermine their own authority. Publics disbelieve them; journalists are judged to be dissemblers, careless confabulators and liars.
Mediacracy’s impact on democracy
Politicians suffer a similar fate, which prompts in turn a fundamental political question: on balance, all things considered, why exactly is mediacracy, seemingly a democratic phenomenon, bad for democracy?
The worrying thing is that answers to this question are weighed down by worn-out clichés. While everybody agrees that the contours of today’s democracies are heavily mediated and manipulated by newspapers, radio, television and the internet, critics of mediacracy, Jay Rosen for instance, typically fall back on such stock phrases as the “informed citizen” and calls for a new politics and journalism based on “reality” and “facts”.
If only things were so simple.
Correspondence theories of truth and “reality” were long ago discredited philosophically; any thinking person knows that “truth” has many faces, as Kafka said.
The problem with mediacracy is not that it suppresses “true” pictures of “reality” that should otherwise be plain for all to see; it is that mediacracy hinders the circulation of other, different, equally plausible pictures of reality that are so vital for making meaningful judgements about the great complexity of the world around us.
The elitist ideal of the informed citizen
As for Rousseau-esque appeals to engaged citizens whose heads are stuffed with unlimited quantities of “information” about a “reality” that they’re on top of: that’s an utterly implausible and – yes – anti-democratic ideal which dates from the late nineteenth century. Favoured originally by those who stood for a restricted educated franchise and who rejected partisan politics grounded in the vagaries and injustices of everyday social life, the ideal of the “informed citizen” was elitist. It still is.
In the age of monitory democracy, appeals to “reality journalism” and the “informed citizen” are both outdated and too timid. What’s needed, for the sake of democracy against mediacracy, are new arguments for open systems of communication and the free flow of different points of view.
So here, in conclusion, is one possibility: the reason why mediacracy is bad for democracy is that it stifles what ancient Greek democrats called bold, courageous speech (parrhēsia) aimed at the powerful. But what’s so good about fearless “wild thinking” and untamed conjectures that are unwedded to slavish talk of “reality” and “truth”, we can ask?
There’s one possible answer: in matters of public life and politics, fearless sense-making reports about the world are the best weapon we have for countering the risks and dangers of folly and arrogance, bossing and bullying.
From the point of view of courageous journalism, mediacracy is meekness and mediocrity. In matters of government, it is malfeasance and malefaction.
Democracy is by contrast an unending experiment in taming hazardous concentrations of power. It needs wise citizens: experienced citizens who know they don’t know everything, and who suspect those who think they do, especially when they try to camouflage their arrogant will to power over others.
Here’s the rub: the whole prickly issue of journalists and governments as bedfellows is vitally important for democracies simply because know-alls who wield power normally protect their flanks by means of deception.
That’s why their chastening through continuous public scrutiny is imperative. And why, where it exists, mediacracy must be broken up, initially through public enquiries unafraid of tackling tough questions, such as whether bodies such as press councils should include a popularly elected component as well as representatives of new, independent media platforms, who themselves deserve public funding.
By enabling the production of communication with spine, democracy is a way of humbling the powerful, rendering them publicly accountable to citizens and their representatives, sometimes by forcing them to own up, or even to step down.
If this sounds implausible, perhaps we should ask for the opinions of the individuals who lost everything to Bernard Madoff, or those who were hacked by Murdoch’s journalists. Or the citizens of Tokyo forced recently to stock up on facemasks, potassium iodide tablets and Geiger counters. Or the Iraqis, Libyans and Palestinians whose lives have been damaged by war. And our own indigenous people.
What might all these good citizens, in their own different voices, say about mediacracy and its fickle effects?
This is the final part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEDIA AND POLITICIANS Essay – by Elena Chobanian
The media have been the predominant source of political information for citizens in a democratic society. Mass media has a colossal influence both on people and politics, since it shapes public opinion, and its role becomes more powerful especially during elections when political parties are sensitive in terms of how the media shows their public appearances. Ideally, the media should fulfill the political role by “disseminating the full range of political opinions, enabling the public to make political choices and enter the national life.” In democratic societies, for instance, the media is a communication channel which ensures the exchange of opinions both in power and general public, governments and political parties don’t put direct pressure on the media (depending on the country). In liberal democratic countries it informs the public and acts as a watchdog of the government. On another hand, mass media must make the political system more “transparent”, by helping people participate in political decisions, understanding the operations of government, etc. Unfortunately, in practice, most of the time the media plays different roles. It simulated transparency and doesn’t serve the political values that motivate the “transparency”, hides important information in a mass of manufactured political realities. Although, the political transparency is impossible without mass media coverage. Politicians, even governments can manipulate the coverage of information to achieve their political and economical goals through diverting audience attention.
According to some sources, there are two types of media: informational rich, which are the elites who seek information from a diversity of elite specialist media, political elites also pay attention to the media to monitor what coverage they receive, and issue that journalists place onto the public agenda. And information poor, that is voters. In this case politicians deploy the mass media to communicate with voters. Most voters are almost entirely dependent upon the mass media for information about the political process, candidates and issues.
Juergen Habermas, a German sociologist,defines the media as a space for public discourse which must guarantee universal access and rational debate in society. But, in practice, the free market rules and competition create restrictions for journalists, and commercial television channels are forced to respond to the interests of advertisers, as well as politicians.
The technological development changed the politics-media relationship. Since the rise of the internet in the ‘80-90s, the social media have involved many actors: regular citizens, nongovernmental organizations, activists, politicians, software providers, telecommunications firms, governments. In the new media environment various social networks and blogs started to play a significant role in communication and the society became an active player. Even if through the new technology – web sites and sophisticated computer programs – the politicians-voters communication has become more direct, media’s role and responsibilities are still argued. An ineffective, not classical media make politicians likely to pander and control the media.
The dominant and powerful medium of political communication in our contemporary world is television. It creates, with the internet, new forms of political reality and the virtual world. Television tends to accentuate entertainment, that kind of television keeps viewers’ attention. Television is the right place for the celebrity coverage, for political conflict and so on. Stories about backstage political manoeuvring and control offer a kind of transparency. However, they divert attention from substantive policy debates, and since politicians know how important media is to influencing citizens, television through its image manipulation helps create a new reality populated by media consultants, pollsters and others.
The internet, an anotherimportant medium for politicians,has enhanced the effects of television by shortening the news of reporting, makings mass distribution of information inexpensive making possible new journalistic sources that compete with television coverage. The internet is a mediated access to wide range of information, two-way communication channel, distribution channel for wide variety of content, low barriers to entry for access and global reach of a connected network. However, it can worsen television’s tendency to emphasize celebrity and gossip.
Media events manipulate political transparency.
Politicians stage events are covered by the media, which show them engaged in the business of governing over public policy issues. They show the politician with own family, like an ordinary, likeable person. Media events offer basic information, but in fact they offer political image and showmanship. American politics has employed media events for many years. For instance, the Clinton Administration has used media events to great advantage. Thus, thrusting entertainment in citizens, politicians keep people from watching other things.
Shanto Iyengar, professor of Political Science and Communication Studies at UCLA, researching the framing effects of news coverage on public opinion and political choice, expressed: “Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are dependent on the particular reference points furnished in media presentations.” According to him, the framing of issues by television news forms the way the society understands the causes and the solutions to central political problems.
In the late 1960s, Maxwell E. McCombs and DonaldL. Shaw studying the agenda-setting capacity of the news media in American presidential elections, in their 1977 book, The Emergence of American Political Issues, McCombs and Shaw wrote: “The most significant effect of the media was its ability to organize our world for us. The news media are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.”
Robert Karl Manoff,from the New York University, arrived at the same conclusion in the1987 issue of Center Magazine. “One of the major problems of today’s journalism is that the press is allied with the state. The press is a handmaiden of power and American politics. It reports governmental conflict only when conflict exists within the state itself.”
As to the objectivity in journalism, it is based in favor of the status quo and against independent thinking. During the presidential campaign in 1988 journalists rose the anger among voters instead of bridging the gap between public and politicians, which means that the public is losing its grasp on the democratic process. Even when the media does offer analysis, it may not offer people large opportunity for action. Hence, it doesn’t strengthen the public dialogue. During elections, the media in general removes its focus from the classic, ideal role as society’s guard dog and focuses on the parties inner issues. Reporters have no choice but to cover the people chosen to lead government, but smaller parties seem to suffer in the everyday news stream.
Tricks used during elections.
Sometimes the crowds of people (rallies) are made up of campaign workers and volunteers, so that the TV cameras don’t capture an empty room. They’ll be dressed so they appear to be moms and dads, factory workers and teachers, but that can be just an illusion on TV and magazines. You can see his wife baking cookies for charity in their newly remodeled kitchen and get her secret recipes (Obama’s recent ads serving food to homeless people). Those people are carefully chosen so they appear in photos and in news coverage. He can talk about his family and his hopes for a better world for all of citizens, appearing a relaxed and human candidate. The more social sites followers and likes, the better.Another trick is to say that the candidate is really busy and can’t take any questions at all, so he can be on time for his next event. Campaign experts know an exclusive interview will be given more space in a newspaper or more time in a TV newscast than a day-to-day campaign story. That’s free publicity! Thanks to campaign laws of the media, ad space has to be sold at the lowest available rate, and media outlets have very little control over what is said in a political advertisement.
Indicators of media logic are journalists dominating politicians in news reports regarding the length of speaking time or fragmented reporting of a political discourse at the expense of debate. Media logic is increasingly guided by a commercial logic, and globalization reinforce that effect as global forces within national media systems promote the commercialization of broadcasting. For example, in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland there is a “democratic-corporatist” central european media system, where the press freedom developed early and journalistic professionalization is strong. Spain, France and Italy belong to the polarist-pluralized media systems where the press is elite-oriented with limited overall circulation, and television dominate the media market. America and Germany show patterns where candidates run controlled campaigns for which they are punished by journalists. Denmark, Great Britain, Switzerland and France show more interactive campaign styles where the journalist is still dominant and the candidates often need to defend themselves in press-politics interactions. Italy and Spain show very interactive campaigns and the journalists grant candidates rather long sound bites.
In an analysis of more than 30,000 news features about the ruling government aired on Danish radio over the past 20 years, a team of scientists have proven that critical coverage in the media leads to a decline in public approval ratings. The government has easy access to the media. The new study denies the theory that more media coverage is always good for the government.
Shotts and Scott Ashworth from the University of Chicago, analyzed the common assumption that a healthy media would make office holders less likely to pander. They constructed a theoretical model using well-established principles of game theory and found that if the media always produced correct commentary on policy choices, there would be less motivation for politicians to pander since voters would know what policies were in their interest. That freedom allows the politician to avoid pandering and take actions that are good for the voters without fear of being criticized by the media.
Arthur J. Heise, associate professor at Florida International University in Miami, sees the role of the media as a “public management function. “Many in the news media could agree that they are not covering the affairs of the state as fully, as penetratingly and as aggressively as they might”.
The following model assumes that media commentators are unbiased to present the news (classical role of the media and journalist) and people act rationally in their best interests, even though sometimes the media acts as a “yes man”. The figure 1 shows that the politicians-media relationship is closely, especially related to the debate on freedom of speech in a globalized, “liberal democratic” world.
Fig.1 Fig.1Interdepedendence of politicians and media in a globalized world.
Fig. 2Classical model of media and journalism
The figure 2 shows that the media’s responsibility is to connect equally the citizens and politicians, trying to create a balanced coverage during an election campaign to make sure that they listen to all parties. But, again, this is only the ideal model of the media, how it “should be.”
According to some specialists in the field, mass communication today operates autonomously due to commercialization, professionalization and technical innovation. In political world, mediatization can even have some positive effects by providing politicians with an additional arena in which to reach their goals and by making politics accessible to ordinary people. So, based on the media’s own economic logic, that it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the needs of the democratic process, it has led to the worry that mass media is profoundly transforming political communication into liberal democracies, undermining the functions of political institutions.
Media and politics will always have close connection, at least for the next five years, even if both view each other as adversaries. As the media is the most important source of political information for the wider public, politicians need it as a tool to get the exposure to win elections and gain as much power as possible. On the other hand, as a watchdog in politics, the media has the duty of criticizing decision-makers in society, but it will be possible only if the media and journalists are independent, because the majority of mass media channels are created by politicians/political parties to serve their own interests, which means the authorities generally control media coverage and repress its independence.
As to ordinary citizens, passive recipients of information, they are simply an audience to what Bill Moyers, an American journalist, has called the “monologue of televisual images.” Television determines what people believe to be important by paying attention to some problems and ignoring others, and the decline of party-controlled media and the rise of “independent”, commercially-minded media have transformed mass communication. However, there are still some independent journalists, who dislike being instrumentalised by politicians, present the facts without fear or favor of politicians. And one more thing: neither journalists, media, nor politicians are perfect, just like every ordinary individual in our real world.