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.
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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.