The Role of Mass Media in the World of Politics

The mass media plays a very important role in everyday life. It is often the only form of education which is available to some, and as such has a very powerful influence over people”s beliefs and opinions. This influence is never more evident than when analysing the relationship between the media and politics. Politics can justifiably be described as THE main determining factor in our lives, the major influence over many facets of day to day living, such as finances, healthcare and employment.
The media is the major source of information about political affairs, and as such has control over what we actually know about the political system and what we may never find out. As a result of this, it becomes inevitable that the media has a certain ‘hold” over the political arena. The media can judge, approve and criticise. It can make or break political careers, even parties, and the information which the media provides helps the public to form attitudes, responses and opinions towards political events and actors. Thus it becomes very important for the political parties to keep the media ‘on-side”.
It is obvious that the media does have some impact on politics, but the main question should be to what extent, how does it manifest itself and why should we care anyway? For the purpose of this essay the media will be described as the press, TV and radio. On the face of it the media is there simply to communicate, or act as a transmitter of information between the political world and the consumer. However, probably since the end of the second world war, it has become clear that the media can often have a hidden agenda when reporting politics.

Indeed, one of the most contentious issues over the last few years, at least since I have been ‘consuming” media products, has been the debate over media ownership. This has been particularly evident in the press, the most notable case being the Rupert Murdoch ’empire” – News International. I will start off by discussing the case of the press, as I believe that this is traditionally where much of the impact on politics has occurred, although I will discuss later how this may be changing.
One major area of concern about press reporting of politics is the apparent ‘dumbing down” of the coverage, even amongst the broadsheets, and the effect that this may have on politics. In 1993 Labour MP, and current Home Secretary, Jack Straw published a short research report into the press coverage of parliament, ( Negrine, 1998,p1). In doing the report he discovered how Parliamentary issues were now covered to a much lesser degree than in the past, going from between 400-800 lines per day in The Times in 1988, to fewer than 100 lines in 1992.
This seemed to show that the broadsheets were following the tabloid example of dumbing down. This has led to the worry that the press is trivialising the political process in the UK. Politics is becoming increasingly personality led, rather than policy led. An event may have political significance or importance, but it will only really be seen as such if the press frames it in a way that makes it interesting and palatable to the reader. It therefore becomes a fact of political life that personalities are more interesting to the majority of the public than policies.
This has inevitably led to a change in the political landscape, initiated and perpetuated by the media. There are now several key features to politics in the late twentieth century which were not there before. ‘Political marketing”, the use of ‘negative campaigning” and the introduction of spin doctors have all led to fear of an ‘Americanisation” of the political process. As well as the press, TV has played a major role in ushering in the age of the soundbite. The media has opened up a larger, more accessible audience to the politicians, which many of them find hard to resist.
Institutions such as the House of Commons are becoming less and less a way of relaying policy issues and raising concerns, as the political arena is increasingly acted out in the media. Which publicity seeking politician, trying to gain support for their party, would choose the Commons over a highly publicised TV programme such as Question Time, or a high circulation newspaper such as The Sun. There has also been a decline in local party politics, as political communication has become more and more a national rather than local event.
The American way of leader based, rather than party based politics has become a reality. This has been evident in the way that Tony Blair has become a media star, never more so than when his wife recently became pregnant. The celebrity image of the Prime Minister has also led to accusations that he lacks real political substance. Some would say another example of the ‘trivialising” of politics has been the introduction of TV cameras into the House of Commons. When it was first proposed in 1966 it was heavily defeated on the grounds that TV cameras would ruin the unique and intimate atmosphere of the house.
In 1989 the house first appeared on television. Strict guidelines were issued over what could be shown, including the use of head and shoulder shots only and the banning of reaction shots. There was great unease amongst the sitting MPs, including the then Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher, who said at the time: “.. if you are not careful you can freeze with TV there…. it is going to be a different House of Commons, but that is that”, (Politics UK, 1991, p208). There was a gradual thawing of hostile opinion towards the TV cameras, with some exceptions.
David Amess, MP, protested that the cameras had managed to, “.. trivialise our proceedings and spoil that very special atmosphere that we had here”, ( Politics UK, p208). The main political parties now recognise the crucial role the media has to play in their success and have reacted accordingly. Political strategies now incorporate media strategies. They try to manipulate the media in order to create a favourable image of themselves. In order to achieve this we have seen the introduction of professional media managers.
The media dominated world of politics now needs professional management. Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are two such media experts. They have been partly responsible for transforming the Labour Party from being unelectable to gaining a runaway victory in the 1997 general election. Indeed it has been said that Tony Blair spends more time in meetings with his image and media advisors than he spends discussing policies with his cabinet, which may be a worrying trend for UK politics. There are several ways that these people can attempt to manipulate the media.
One such way, many would say to the detriment of the democratic process, is the manufacture of debates which are stage managed to ensure a friendly audience and the communication of well rehearsed answers. There is also a great deal of emphasis placed on image management, and specifically the image of the party leader. This is very evident when looking at the current leaders of the two main parties in the UK today. Despite the best attempts of Conservative central office to jazz up the image of William Hague, he still retains the image of a dull, almost incompetent twit.
On the other hand Tony Blair has the image of a dynamic, if slightly shallow, leader. This tends to ignore the fact that Hague is possibly a more intelligent and thoughtful politician than Blair. Another good example of this is the differences between Ronald Reagan and Michael Foot. Reagan was a remarkably unskilled politician, but, being a trained actor, he was very good at conveying what was essentially a simple message. Foot, on the other hand, was a very skilled politician and public speaker.
However, his unkempt appearance was not at all media friendly, and after defeat in the 83 general election he was cast aside in favour of a more media friendly Neil Kinnock. Reagan had two successful terms as US President. Many fear that this indicates a move away from real political issues towards a fickle political world where image is everything and political substance nothing. It is clear that a personality clash or a sex scandal can now be more damaging to a political party than an actual policy disagreement.
But should we be very concerned about this, and exactly how much of the shifting political tide is down to the media. Some observers point to the fact that plain, unassuming politicians such as John Major and George Bush have enjoyed immensely successful political careers. This may suggest that the public can only be fooled to a certain degree by slick media management, and may eventually get sick of being ‘force fed” so called perfect politicians, with little or no political ability.

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