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‘Politics influence the media in the UK’. Describe and evaluate the validity of this statement.
The media as an important channel for public awareness of the political world have been regarded as the main targets the government and politicians tend to control, and even in the United Kingdom where the journalism industry has a long history serving for public service. As the public relations has integrated with political areas and been increasingly prominent, the government can manipulate media more easily and reach a new high in this special era, which has made the media fall into a dilemma where they lose the right to supervise public powers. Admittedly, the influence posed by politics is enormous and severe for British press. This essay will discuss backgrounds of what contributed to the political impact on media in the first place, then explaining how politics impose impacts on media and to what extent have the media been affected. It also will analyse the emergence of this influence from three perspectives: politics, public relations and media.
Politics influence media for many reasons, some of which are naturally caused by media themselves. Generally, media rely on official materials and information from news agencies when they are reporting news, and increasing demands for productivity of reports are responsible for this (Lewis, Williams, & Franklin, 2008). Due to the growing intense competition, media tend to maximise their profits, which means that journalists have to face huge amounts of work. Therefore, the information made by PR practitioners was used to fill ‘news holes’ by political journalists because they need stories, and at the same time, public relations practitioners became a printing machine and generated enormous stories (Blumler, 1989). In this case, pre-packaged sources of news have been seen as an acceptable and convenient choice for journalists processing news (Lewis et al., 2008). However, this could raise some problems. Due to the fact that those pre-packaged sources are mainly produced by PR industry and news agencies which represent the interests of government agencies or other personal institutions, the independence and credibility of journalism has been questioned by public (Waymer, 2013). Since some people suggest that adopting those pre-packaged sources could offend the professional culture of journalists, violating the independence and editorial autonomy of media (Gans, 1979), most part of political reports could be written by public relations editors such as interviews on politicians, stories about politics and even the main point of journalists (Lloyd, 2004).
In terms of reporting political news, pre-packaged news sources have occupied a significant proportion in news coverage. Senior PR practitioner Hobsbawm (2012) said that “at least 60 per cent and more commonly 80 per cent of any broadcast or broadsheet outlet has got a PR element in it”. PR materials behind the news have severely influenced the quality of news, because PR works as a constructor of social reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Tuchman, 1978). Indeed, information sources provided by PR industry have severely influenced the quality of news and drawn a veil over the truth, as Davis (2002) mentioned that the status of the fourth estate media is based on an independent autonomous image when they seek out news, but the liberal description of journalists has been severely undermined by the growth of the PR sector.
There is a trading relationship where journalists gain news sources and politicians’ image being maintained, while PR as an intermediator in this cooperation. In this partnership, journalists, politicians and PR practitioners gain interests respectively and play different roles. In the first place, public relations, a fundamental factor should be clarified. PR just like a professional makeup artist decorating their outfits and maintaining their reputation (Kim and Kiousis, 2012). From a theoretical perspective, PR is about reputation and it is a necessary part of most of businesses organisations, companies as well as some political institutions in the modern society, because every organisation including non-profit charities or business companies ultimately relies on its reputation and self-image for success (Waymer, 2013). It is understandable for those organisations to use effective PR to improve their images, because in this business world, perceptions of customers, clients, and the public have crucial influences on their purchasing decisions, driving their minds to judge whether good or bad; however, PR has the ability to change perceptions and understanding of the public, and help those organisations earn reputation. This is why PR has become an indispensable part of modern business world, but it is noteworthy that PR has been widely used by official institutions such as governments, public service and politicians, which raises plenty of questions and debates.
PR has been recognised as the primary factor and an effective measure for politicians who intend to impose effects and pressure on media, in other words, PR is a connector during this relationship. It receives instructions from controllers which normally played by politicians and sends announcements or news materials to journalists, so it basically serves the government or politicians who give their right of enforcement (Oborne, 2012). Furthermore, PR also as a processor or producer, collecting and processing stories which have beneficial impacts on their employers, which means that those stories could become from voices of politicians or official institutions. PR practitioners process political announcements and documents in the most authoritative and politically attractive news sources, and this is why PR can be naturally chosen and published by journalists and still attracts a huge number of readers (Hobsbawm, 2012). PR materials successfully become significant sources of political news and also become the supervisory power to monitor journalists, controlling their coverage within a steerable range and preferably with positive effects.
On the other hand, when PR has become one of political factors which affect media coverage, journalists have received important news sources and subsidies to some extent.
As Gandy (1982) mentioned that authorities and politicians provide an information subsidy to news organisations including conferences documents, political announcements, video news releases, press briefings, lobbying and even some opportunities to interview politicians. There is no doubt that the information subsidy is the most effective beat, and it is also the result of cooperation between politicians and PR practitioners. This subsidy refers to initiative disseminating information which is newsworthy, self-serving or potential advantageous, and its contents include official announcements, press conferences, government statements and even some private life of politicians (Sissons, 2016). Consequently, journalists use the accessible information to produce the most appropriate news for politicians’ interests, due to the pressure of productivity. Another reason of why journalists choose pre-packaged information as news sources is that media have a strong sense to coverage news by using the most authoritative, appropriate and reliable sources of information, so as to ensure the objectivity and impartiality of reports, but it is ironical that these desires have misdirected media to reliable sources, social realities and political status defined by PR practitioners (Kim & Kiousis, 2012). If media have a sense to resist for their situations, politicians can cut information subsidies and precipitate media into desert of information, which is unacceptable for media. As Baistow (1985) pointed that journalists have risked their social status and been steered by the fifth estate of public relations, the objectivity of media has become a cynic. Indeed, media, as the fourth estate, occupied a pivotal position in British society, losing the ability of playing with political rights (Lewis, Williams and Franklin, 2008). Since enemies of media are so powerful that the balance of power is easily broken, media have lost their initiative in reporting (Mcnair, 2016). Meanwhile, authoritative sources of information have mostly come from PR practitioners. As a result, to some degree, media lack the critical right to criticise on governments and politicians because PR which serves for authorities can cut off the supply of information sources. In this way, criticism of authorities might be not able to see.
It is also noteworthy that politicians, as manipulators, have become the main beneficial owners during this relationship. Admittedly, the political power and public relations have allied in the long history of British politics and sustained for long period of time, bringing success and flourishing for authorities but also deteriorating the development of British media (Heller, 2016). Basically, policymakers under this alliance is aimed at how to effectively manipulate the media, because the government always believes that they can capture the awareness and opinions of public as long as the media can be effective controlled (Kim & Kiousis, 2012).
In order to shape their own positive image, especially during reporting political news, politicians have taken many measures. Firstly, the government imposes centralised control on the dissemination of mass media and they expect to master the right of interpreting information and strictly control the media; however, in a democracy country like Britain, the government or politicians have no right to censor or control mass media directly. In this case, under the guidance of PR practitioners, the government had achieved the purpose of controlling media through conducting strict restrictions on subordinate departments (Lance, 2005). For instance, during the administration of Blair, Alistair Campbell as the prime minister press secretary imposed his control plan, so the government can strictly stipulate the subordinate functional departments which are responsible to propaganda events. The main reason why the government took these measures is to ensure that all media outlets involved in politics are spoken for the government, and the position of media is a consistent line with authorities (Mcnair, 2016). It could be demonstrated that all important interviews and appearances which could be broadcast on media should be sent to Street number 10 before making any agreement of authorities; all the major speeches, government statements and new policy initiatives in the policy content should be promptly given a clear attitude or instruction from PR practitioners; the declaration drafted by journalists should be given to press office for approval (Oborne, 2012). Superficial, these regulations aimed on the employees of press office or people work at propaganda department, but in fact, it completely controlled the dissemination of media. It is difficult to find the government’s flaws, because there are no formal documents of the government. In the time of Brown’s administration, the government strengthened its self-protection and posed a law which prevented the media from spying the content of the government’s forthcoming policies (Oborne, 2012). Furthermore, in order to deepen the control and avoid any error in reporting, almost all government statements or representations have been carefully planned and rehearsed by PR experts, which means that the public could never see the real image of politicians and governors (Mcnair, 2016).
In addition, the government also tends to process and standardise political information. Still taking Britain as example, The British government has set up several information agencies, such as the central information office (Halstuk and Chamberlin, 2001). The original intention of establishing these information agencies is to ensure that conveying information to the public in a proper way, and requirements of these agencies is to convey information about government activities and government policies timely, accurately and objectively. Conversely, since Mrs Thatcher era, no matter the central information office or political news service, has been transformed or remoulded by politicians, which destroyed the independent and objective positions of journalism, turning into a propaganda tool controlled by politicians to sell their ideologies (Young, 1990); saying nothing of the new labour era, Blair’s government not only renamed the information and communication agency but also defined the propaganda role (Oborne, 2012). In 1997, the government emphases functions of agencies and infiltrate them into every area of society, and it is claimed that central information agencies should build cooperative relationships with PR exports to provide more efficient solving projects. Afterwards PR practitioners have been employed as special advisers by politicians; therefore, the relationships between media and governments have been reconstructed, and media struggle in a tougher situation. It is also impossible for media to receive real and genuine information about politics, so they would be obliged to report pre-packaged information. Through this way politicians and governments can impose soft monitoring thereby influencing the decisions of journalism.
In conclusion, political factors did have a severe impact on
British media, and this phenomenon has become a unique symbiotic relationship
and spread its influence on all areas of society. If politicians are the
deciders, the PR practitioners, as the experts who live in government press
offices, would be the transmitters and processors of information. They have a
role of news planning masters and experts of poll canvass and image
consultants; they interpret political sources for media, communicate with journalists
and advise them for reporting news which benefit politicians; they have a
significant impact on reports and dissemination of political news. For
journalists, although they could enjoy the free and convenient information
subsidies, the evil effects they have to accept. Their independence and
integrity have been suffering, and they lost the power of supervising
authorities and the right of serving democracy and for worse.
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