Can the media influence politics? If so, how? If not, why not?
There are numerous academic theories as to the relationship between politics and the media, and whether or not one is a dominant partner greatly influencing the output of the other. Some purport that the media hold extraordinary amounts of power in the political arena, however many other believe that the power they wield is in fact minimal (Newton & Van Deth, 2009). What cannot be disputed is the idea that the media and its audience are interdependently connected; the media will alter their message to suit a specific audience, while the public are more likely to invest in media which reflects their viewpoints. Generalisation is something which should be avoided when discussing the media’s relationship with politics, as while the term media traditionally may have been used in reference to newspapers and radio or television programmes, (Newton & Van Deth, 2009) it now encapsulates social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. There are those who may argue that media simply represents the political views of the public, and while that may be true in the cases of social networks, many may challenge its truth in relation to mass media news outlets. In this essay I will attempt to conclude myself as to the extent of influence media has on politics, and evidence how I have come to that conclusion.
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In the UK, the link between media and politics is undeniable. For a major newspaper to alter its political allegiance is a sizeable change, which would be expected to dominate all forms of media. For example the decision of The Sun, Britain’s most widely circulated newspaper and therefore the focus of my study, to remove its 12 year support for Labour in 2009 created national news, and ultimately forecast the downfall of the Labour government. It is worth noting that The Sun has supported the party that eventually forms the next government in the last 7 General Elections; something which suggests that The Sun hold great influence over the political opinions of their readers. However, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the Conservative vote was not as effected as one may imagine, with an average32% of Sun readers saying they would vote Conservative through that period (Ipsos MORI, 2010). While this research may suggest that The Sun is a newspaper which will ruthlessly alter its allegiance in order to be on the winning side of an election, I would argue that this is not necessarily the case. In the 1992 General Election for example, The Sun had been consistently anti-Labour and Kinnock, including their infamous ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ headline, despite the polls suggesting either a minority Labour government or a very slim Labour Majority. The attacks on Kinnock in the final days of the 1992 campaign were widely regarded as responsible for Labour’s unexpected defeat (McKee, 1995), and even Neil Kinnock himself announced in his departing speech that ‘the Conservative-supporting press has enabled the Tory Party to win yet again when the Conservative Party could not have secured victory for itself on the basis of its record’ (Whitney, 1992). This would be used as an example for the theory of agenda-setting, whereby a media outlet has an opinion which it pushes upon its viewership, and attempts to influence which issues are considered important. Agenda setting is achieved by attaching priority to certain stories which may reflect the opinion which the media outlet wishes to push – in this instance the opinion that a Labour government would have been bad for Britain.
Another example of how the mass media have exerted a great influence over British politics, and politics in general is the growth in the publication of scandal within Westminster. Prior to the Profumo Affair in 1963, the media and the public very much stuck to the idea that the private lives of politicians should be exactly that; private. The great public interest in this story however, meant that this affair was the watershed of political scandal, with journalists taking ever further measures in order to reveal the next big scoop. Albeit not immediately followed by a huge stream of revelations, the boundaries of privacy in the lives of politicians had been broken by the media and have not been the same since (Stanyer, 2012). This could be said to be an example of priming with, in the 1990s especially, the scrutiny over the dealings of Conservative politicians from the left-wing press leading to an environment whereby Majors administration was seen to be one full of sleaze and mistrust. This was achieved with revelations such as the Cash for Questions scandal and the backfiring of John Major’s Back to Basics campaign. This is priming as rather than directly stating the conservative ministers were untrustworthy, the media simply dripped out stories to highlight this way of thinking (Newton & Van Deth, 2009).The mistrust of Conservatives created by the media environment of the 1990s is perhaps best characterised in the result of the 1997 general election in the historically safe Conservative seat of Tatton, in which the Cash for Questions tainted MP Neil Hamilton lost out to an independent, Martin Bell, standing on an ‘anti-sleaze ticket’ (Mann, 1999).
The coverage of scandal can also be used in an argument to suggest that the media has little influence over political thinking. Those who believe in the reinforcement theory which states that ‘mass media can only reflect and reinforce public opinion, not create or mould it,’ (Newton & Van Deth, 2009, p. 196) would point to the relatively recent shifts in what journalists publicise in relation to scandal in politics. While prior to the millennium scandal was often focused on the private lives and sexual misdemeanours of the political class, as such behaviour has become normalised in open society, the media has taken less of an interest in it. The public have gone from being shocked by behaviour that may be considered immoral, or not ‘Christian’, to now being shocked by primarily criminal activities. This has directly led to the kind of journalistic research which resulted in the Expenses scandal in 2009. The enormity of this story reflects the moral leanings of the British people in the 21st century, and was a story picked up by media outlets nationwide – all of which will have held different agendas. Some may say that this proves to an extent that the media cannot control or influence, but merely just publish information which will reinforce public opinion.
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On a more international scale, it is difficult to ignore the way in which social media forms and revolution have gone hand in hand, specifically in the Arab Spring. It is not a recent idea that the new media of the late 20th and 21st centuries would create new dimensions from which politics can be influenced (Poster, 1995). In Egypt, ‘cyberactivism’ first came to existence in2004, and offered an alternative to the state-controlled media; allowing people to express opinion unpopular with the government. From 2008 onwards, in the shadow of a global economic crisis and an increasingly repressive government, there was a growing number of protests in which a key role has been played by new media forms (Khondker, 2011). It cannot be questioned that social networking was a pivotal player in the organisation and publicising of the protests across the region. One reason for this was the state control of traditional media, which left social media as almost the last voice of the people. On a ground level ‘Facebook was used to schedule the protests’ and ‘Twitter to coordinate’ (Khondker, 2011), and then following on from this traditional media was utilised to present the uprisings to an international audience who in turn supported the uprising. In this case, and similar ones across North Africa, new media held great influence over politics. It mobilised opposition groups, allowing them to build a group identity as well as coherence.
The influence that such new media can exert over politics in times of revolution and uprising should not, however, be overstated. It is important to point out that for such events to unfold, certain revolutionary conditions and the inability of the state to react to the actions of the people must be present. In this sense the media is merely a tool of the revolution, not a predetermined necessity for a revolution to occur (Khondker, 2011). Personally I believe that the media, both new and old, does not have a monopoly over the thoughts of the people and instead just provides them with a voice from which their ideas can be spread. The fact that revolutions have occurred throughout history in times before social media, such as the French and Cuban Revolutions, tells me that new media is more of an enabler than a driving force behind such events (Himelfarb, 2011).
To conclude, I believe that the influence of the media over politics depends greatly upon the political situation in the region that it is being published. In more politically stable areas, such as the UK, while the media may have a certain agenda their consumers are likely to only access and take note of media that reflects their personal views. Mass media must cater to a certain readership in order to be sustainable as a business, and therefore cannot obviously attempt to mould public opinion. This is evidenced by the fact that in all post war elections but 1, the party with the greatest media support has formed the next government (Butler & Butler, 2010). Despite this, the media can play a vital role in influencing politics, as displayed in the aforementioned Arab Spring. I believe this is a sign of the future, in which conventional media will play a comparatively small role to that of social media, in Africa and beyond.
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