TOPIC GUIDE: Media Culture
"The media are responsible for lowering the level of public debate"
PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2007
AUTHOR: James Gledhill and Helen Birtwistle
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Public trust in politicians is at an all time low and public cynicism about politics has never been higher. But what responsibility do the media have for this? Indeed, what is the responsibility (dead link) of journalists to encourage a high level of public debate and have they been failing in this responsibility? Whilst some believe that the fault lies with politicians inclined to be economical with the truth, others suggest that it’s the media themselves that spread cynicism and are responsible for a degradation of public life. Tension between the government and the media came to a head over the Hutton Inquiry [Ref: BBC News], leading to a period of self-examination on the part of the BBC and other media. Much of the subsequent debate revolved around journalist John Lloyd’s polemical case in his book What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. More recently Tony Blair described the British media as a ‘feral beast’ [Ref: Reuters], whose relationship with public life was in dire need of repair. Meanwhile some of his detractors stress that as guarantors of democracy, if anything the media need to be more ferocious [Ref: Columbia Journalism Review]. Are a robust and adversarial, perhaps sometimes savage, media part of the problem, or is it now more than ever part of the solution to ensuring a vibrant democratic culture of informed public debate?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What’s the problem with the level of public debate?
A generation of citizens less likely to vote or join political parties, public debates conducted through spin and sound bites, falling trust in politicians and rising cynicism about their motivations – it’s widely agreed that our public life and culture of debate are not all that they should be. But whose fault is this? Are the media responsible, with the BBC described by one commentator as operating on the ‘cynical assumption that politicians are born liars and rogues’? Or are we in danger of shooting the messengers [Ref: Guardian],and the real situation is that politicians and others shift the blame onto the media in an attempt to conceal their own failings?
What’s the role of the media?
Both sides in the debate agree that the media play an essential role in helping to create and sustain a democratic culture in which power is held to account, truth is discovered and lies are exposed. Part of the civic role of the media is providing citizens with the facts required to make informed democratic decisions. Increasingly, the media have gone about performing this role in a more confrontational and far less deferential way, raising questions about whether the media are distorting rather than reporting the facts.
How powerful have the media become?
It has long been acknowledged that the press – the ‘fourth estate’ [Ref: Wikipedia] – and other media wield significant power in their own right, making the news and setting the agenda rather than simply reporting it. Are the media overstepping their role, supplanting elected politicians and creating a ‘media-ocracy’ [Ref: Guardian] in which they single-handedly set the terms through which we understand public life? Or is this an impression generated because politicians have run out of ideas and arguments and now see media exposure as an end in itself?
Do the media live in a parallel universe?
John Lloyd diagnoses a split between the work of public institutions and the way in which this is reflected in the media. The media adopt a ‘they would say that wouldn’t they?’ attitude towards public figures, taking nothing at face value and always believing there is distortion or deception behind what is said. As a result, he argues, the media and public institutions exist in parallel universes [Ref: Guardian]: what happens in the world and the journalism about what happens in the world has become detached. Is this right, or is it rather the case that public institutions themselves construct their own parallel universes in an attempt to conceal uncomfortable truths behind slick PR and meaningless jargon, and that it’s the job of the media to reveal this?
Should journalists be more civic minded?
Critics of the media [Ref: Guardian] have argued that what is usually presented as a healthy clash of independent institutions in a democratic society has been turned by the media into a simple struggle for power. Journalists have forgotten their duty to foster a healthy civic culture and new institutions are required to raise journalistic standards. Defenders of the media [Ref: Scotsman] argue that in the wake of Hutton there is a danger of over reaction and that a well-mannered, civic-minded media would be a compliant media. The real assurance of democracy is having a rowdy media, instinctively suspicious of those in power.
Are confrontational interview techniques to blame for causing people to switch off?
The journalistic style often referred to as the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?‘ approach is epitomised by BBC journalists Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys. Does this approach encourage viewers to switch off? Or is it all part of the cut and thrust of debate, a regrettable but occasionally illuminating necessity in a world where politicians and other figures won’t give a straight answer to a straight question?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
10 January 2005
Tony Blair Speech at Reuters Headquarters 12 June 2007
Martin Kettle Guardian 12 June 2007
Albert Scardino Guardian 17 February 2005
Michael Leapman New Statesman 7 February 2005
The fourth estate’s coup d’état
John Lloyd Observer 13 June 2004
Peter Wilby Guardian 13 June 2007
Thomas Jones London Review of Books 22 July 2004
Mary Riddell Obsever 27 June 2004
Having a rowdy press is vital to our democracy
Andrew Neil The Scotsman 24 June 2004
Gal Beckeran Columbia Journalism Review
Never mind the scandal: what’s it all for?
Jeremy Paxman MacTaggart Lecture, Edinburgh Television Festival 25 August 2007
Social responsibility and the media
Mike Jempson All-Party Social Responsibility Group, House of Commons 12 January 2006
The Media: Public Interest and Common Good
Dr Rowan Williams Guardian 15 June 2005
Guardian 31 January 2005
John Lloyd Media Guardian 22 October 2004
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Media commentary…and commentary on the media
Hansard Society April 2005
Alan Rusbridger Hugo Young Lecture 9 March 2005
Onora O’Neill Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 4 2002
British Film Institute Screen Online
National Union of Journalists
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Will Alastair Campbell’s diary divulge the truth about life at No10?
Independent 1 July 2007
Media ‘like feral beast’- Blair
BBC News 12 June 2007
The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair
The Times 2 September 2005
BBC dismisses Howard complaints
BBC News 30 August 2005
Archbishop delivers rigorous critique of news media
Ekklesia 16 June 2005
Archbishop attacks ‘lethal’ media
Guardian 16 June 2005
BBC defends ‘adversarial’ Paxman
BBC News 16 March 2005
Change shows a year after Hutton
BBC News 27 January 2005
Grade sets out purpose for news
BBC NewsWatch 25 January 2005
Institute to raise journalistic standards
Guardian 19 January 2005
Tories open fire on BBC over ‘bias’ by Paxman
Daily Telegraph 27 November 2004
Editor sacked over ‘hoax’ photos
BBC News 14 May 2004
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