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.

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