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

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


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?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


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.

Media Guardian

10 January 2005


The Media and public life

Tony Blair Speech at Reuters Headquarters 12 June 2007

Blair’s message for the media

Martin Kettle Guardian 12 June 2007

Strip naked for democracy

Albert Scardino Guardian 17 February 2005

Time to pension off Paxman

Michael Leapman New Statesman 7 February 2005

The fourth estate’s coup d’état

John Lloyd Observer 13 June 2004


Blair still doesn’t get it

Peter Wilby Guardian 13 June 2007

Short Cuts

Thomas Jones London Review of Books 22 July 2004

Don’t shoot the messengers

Mary Riddell Obsever 27 June 2004

Having a rowdy press is vital to our democracy

Andrew Neil The Scotsman 24 June 2004

Feral beast? Try Lemming

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

Paxman answers the questions

Guardian 31 January 2005

Reuters Memorial Lecture

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.

What are newspapers for?

Alan Rusbridger Hugo Young Lecture 9 March 2005

A question of trust

Onora O’Neill Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 4 2002

Jeremy Paxman

British Film Institute Screen Online

Code of conduct

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.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.


© 2005-2023 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login