Does media participation promote democracy?

During his ten years in office Tony Blair has opened up public debate in Britain to broader participation, argues Brian McNair.

On May 1 Tony Blair cel­e­brat­ed his 10th anniver­sary as prime min­is­ter of Great Britain. Blair is often accused of try­ing to manip­u­late the media and pub­lic opin­ion, but he should get cred­it for hav­ing increased pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in polit­i­cal debate, accord­ing to Bri­an McNair, Pro­fes­sor of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Strath­clyde, Glasgow.

With a lec­ture titled “The demo­c­ra­t­ic poten­tial of media par­tic­i­pa­tion”, McNair con­tributed to a sem­i­nar on pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing and the Inter­net at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007.

McNair focused his lec­ture on the dif­fer­ent roles ascribed to par­tic­i­pa­tion in debates about democ­ra­cy. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in elec­tions is essen­tial to democ­ra­cy, and the media have always had a cen­tral role in inform­ing and moti­vat­ing the elec­torate. For vot­ers, media par­tic­i­pa­tion has usu­al­ly tak­en place once removed, by fol­low­ing and reflect­ing on debate pro­grammes on TV and radio. But vot­ers now pre­fer to take part more direct­ly, for exam­ple through live ques­tion and answer ses­sions with lead­ing politi­cians. In Britain, Blair pio­neered this format.

In the late 1990s, polit­i­cal talk­shows inspired by US for­mats were intro­duced in the UK, McNair not­ed. The com­mer­cial chan­nel Sky con­tributed strong­ly to this. The new forums were less ordered, more volatile and provoca­tive. Peo­ple called in with ques­tions and the pro­duc­ers act­ed as gatekeepers.

Ear­ly in his first peri­od as prime min­is­ter, Tony Blair start­ed appear­ing in live TV debates where ordi­nary peo­ple could ask ques­tions. One such pro­gramme was “Ask the Prime Min­is­ter”, broad­cast by ITV. Blair has also appeared in pro­grammes such as BBC News­night where he has answered the pub­lic’s often strong­ly crit­i­cal ques­tions on issues like tuition fees and the Iraq war.

This inno­v­a­tive approach is in line with the per­cep­tions of broad­cast­ers: peo­ple have grown tired of tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal cov­er­age and expect a more per­son­al style. Blair has con­tributed to more com­mu­ni­ca­tion between ordi­nary peo­ple and the polit­i­cal elite than exist­ed before, McNair argued. Has that had a pos­i­tive effect on the legit­i­ma­cy of the polit­i­cal process? Yes and no, accord­ing to McNair. The strat­e­gy has one the one hand worked for Blair — he won three elec­tions. But despite the open­ness, many see him as slick and manip­u­la­tive. The new trans­paren­cy has not stopped the down­ward trend in vot­er turnout in the UK. But peo­ple have grown accus­tomed to the pos­si­bil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with the prime min­is­ter and the elite. To return to an aloof style is no longer an option for lead­ing politi­cians, McNair said.

Broad­cast­ers have also tried to apply the pop­u­lar real­i­ty TV genre to polit­i­cal top­ics. But one such attempt, the show “Vote for me”, was not a suc­cess. Still, the idea to use the enthu­si­asm gen­er­at­ed by enter­tain­ing TV for­mats to cre­ate more inter­est for pol­i­tics remains an inter­est­ing one.

In recent years, broad­cast­ers have wok­en up to the phe­nom­e­non of grow­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion online, espe­cial­ly by young peo­ple. They now try to embrace the emerg­ing dig­i­tal for­mats, not least the BBC with its Cre­ative Future project.

When broad­cast­ers adopt the online for­mats, will that strength­en democ­ra­cy, McNair asked. That’s too ear­ly to answer, he rea­soned. And if it turns out to be a suc­cess, how will we know? Increased vot­er turnout isn’t the only way we can mea­sure the effects of more media par­tic­i­pa­tion. Many polit­i­cal issues aren’t par­ty issues, many are glob­al, and we have expe­ri­enced a growth in issue-spe­cif­ic pol­i­tics. You might choose not to vote in elec­tions but still be a ful­ly informed cit­i­zen work­ing for a char­i­ty, McNair point­ed out.

See also:







  1. […] Does media par­tic­i­pa­tion pro­mote democ­ra­cy? The busi­ness of participation […]

  2. […] Does media par­tic­i­pa­tion pro­mote democ­ra­cy? more… […]

  3. […] Does media par­tic­i­pa­tion pro­mote democ­ra­cy? more… […]

til toppen