In this essay I will discuss, with reference to recent events, whether the public sphere is viable in the twenty-first century and whether the press serves as a watchdog on the state.
Traditionally the public sphere is conceptualised as a theoretical space where discourse takes place, particularly political discourse, and a space where people can organise themselves for political change. It is argued by Jürgen Habermas, on whose ideas most contemporary notions of the public sphere are based, that ‘by “the public sphere” we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed… in which private individuals assemble to form a public body’ (Habermas, 1974). It has been suggested that the role of the press within the public sphere is ‘a defender of public interests and a ‘watchdog’ on the workings of the government’ (Kinsey, 2005:84). This has led to the press being known as the ‘fourth estate’ (ibid.). However this notion relies on the press being free and autonomous. It is argued that the press, which ‘helps to inform the public of issues, articulates public opinion and therefore can guide and act as a check on government…can only fulfill that function if it is independent and free from censorship’ (Kinsey, 2005:84-85).
The press emerged out of necessity to provide information, particularly in regard of trade. Gossip about trade news became formalized and the press appeared to take advantage of the need for information regarding commerce. It has been argued that ‘the initial appearance of a popular notion of ‘public opinion’ took place in Britain during the late-seventeenth century’ (Allan 1997:297). A key reason for this development, it has been suggested, is that ‘the enlarged spacialisation of early capitalist commercial relations necessitated the distribution of news in a far more public form’ (Allan 1997:298). While the initial stages of the press focused on trade, by the turn of the eighteenth century journals had moved into politics, which appealed to the middle class of the time, and were ‘established as commodities in their own right for the ‘educated classes’’ (ibid.). It is argued that the ‘emergence of the press – and the newspaper press in particular – was part of the inexorable rise of accountable government and democratic society’ (Barker and Burrows, 2002:93).
Thomas Paine criticized a “distinction between public and private” in the early public sphere (Larkin, 2005:51). For Paine this implied a disconnection of the private from the public on political matters and he argued that ‘the solution lay in making the public sphere more accessible to middling and lower sorts who were frequently excluded from the public discussion of matters of state’ (ibid.). It may be argued that now it is easier than ever of these “middling to lower sorts” to engage in political matters. The wide access to information on the internet makes it impossible for anyone to be excluded if they want to concern themselves with political interests. An example of this in practice is the emergence of the occupy movement. The movement uses websites such as Occupy Together (Occupy Together 2012) and Meetup (Meetup 2012) to organize their politically motivated protests. In fact the very reason they are protesting is because they are “middling to lower sorts” or the “99%” as they put it (Hedler 2011).
A more modern critique focusing on the British public sphere may focus on the tabloidisation of the press as accountable for Paine’s old idea of the “distinction between public and private”. An explanation of this critique is as follows:
Popular tabloids remain by far the most widely read of print media, and thus central to the evaluation of the political public sphere. The conventional wisdom among academic analysts and journalistic observers…has been to dismiss their value as democratic resources, and to scold the demagogic and propagandistic nature of their editorial content. It has also been suggested that these titles are intentionally used to ‘distract’ their readers from the serious business of politics by their focus on ‘pseudo-voyeuristic insights’ into the private lives of celebrities, the sexual deviations of randy vicars, and so on. (McNair, 2000:18)
This explanation seems to call into question the notion that the press serve as a watchdog of the state as it suggests that the highest selling newspapers deliberately attempt to distract their readership from politics. Given this explanation it appears that the majority of the press does not serve the public sphere role as the ‘4th estate’.
A more extreme view would contend that ‘in countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media…makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant élite’ (Herman and Chomsky, 1999:166). It also suggests that the role of the media is to ‘inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society’ and that ‘in a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda’ (ibid.). This theory, known as the Propaganda Model, runs counter to the notion of the press as the ‘4th estate’ as it suggests that the media are not capable of critical insights into the practices of powerful elites because it is not separate from governmental and corporate interests. In other words, some of the elites the media should be monitoring are the ones it is serving.
A recent example which could be cited to support the idea that the press is the watchdog of the state is the reportage of the former defence secretary Liam Fox’s relationship with his friend Adam Werritty. Despite having no government position Werritty claimed to be Fox’s advisor, regularly visited the defence ministry and was present at 18 overseas trips (BBC 2012). This case seemed to be in the public interest as it exposed a very unprofessional practice within the government and the possible use of taxpayer’s money for non-government business. However after it emerged that a “mystery man” was staying at Liam Fox’s flat on a night when it was burgled (Dunn and France 2011) rumours began to circulate about Fox’s sexuality and the Daily Mail ran the story with the headline: ‘’He loves his wife’: MP defends Liam Fox…’ (Drury, Shipman and Cooper 2011). These kinds of stories do nothing to support the watchdog of the state role of the press as Fox’s sexuality has nothing to do with the reason he was brought into the spotlight in the first place. They could be better described as ‘pseudo-voyeuristic insights’ which distract from the seriousness of politics. Furthermore a propagandist theory of the media would suggest that even if the articles did focus on the political wrongdoings of Fox they still only function within the status quo of the current system, which the elite interests behind the media wish to uphold, because the press is not autonomous from corporations and political interests.
It is also argued that “the journalistic institutions of the contemporary public sphere are information-suppliers in a multi-layered media market, structured by socio-economic audience characteristics such as social class, professional status and educational level” (McNair, 2000:14). From this viewpoint it must be noted that because papers are run as businesses it is important for them to cater for their audiences, who are largely disinterested in politics. This also runs counter to the notion that the press should be autonomous from corporate interests in order to perform its democratic function as the 4th estate. An example of this is the representation of the occupy movement within the media. The Daily Mail, for instance, trivialize the story within their papers to appeal to their readership, the majority of which are over the age of 55 (The Newspaper Marketing Agency Limited 2011) and are not interested in, or do not understand, the nature of the protests. Instead of focusing on the underlying issues of the protests the newspaper runs stories on inconsequential aspects of the movement. For example they run with stories with lead quotes such as ‘Occupy protesters are thieves and rapists’ (Associated Newspapers Ltd 2011). These kind of stories do nothing to enhance the ‘4th estate’ role of the press as they offer no insight into the political nature of the protests.
A further example of corporate interests effecting the news is the sparse reporting around the occupy movement, especially in the United States. It has been argued that the U.S. mainstream media ‘dedicate their headlines to tragedy, celebrity cat fights, and “terrorist” acts instead of focusing on what can be called American history in the making’ (Destroyer 2011) and that ‘the peaceful gathering of the working-class masses to hold the corporate establishment of robbing the poor and giving to the wealthy accountable for their misdeeds is quite a feat in the 21st century’ (ibid.). This is an extreme viewpoint; however it does highlight the inadequacy of the press in not reporting sufficiently on this worldwide movement which has so many political implications. This example seems to mark the extreme failure of the press to perform as the watchdog of the state in the 21st century, thus diminishing its role within the public sphere.
The internet can serve as a more viable public sphere as anyone can share their views, political or otherwise, instantly with a vast audience of internet users. It has been argued that ‘new technologies have great potential for democratic communication’ (Herman 2003) and that ‘the Internet and the new communication technologies are breaking the corporate stranglehold on journalism and opening an unprecedented era of interactive democratic media’ (ibid.). The impact that these ‘new technologies’ can have is exemplified by the occupy movement. However there are arguments against the viability of the internet as an information source which can have an effect on public opinion. One of these arguments is that information needs to be put through the filter of media conventions. An example of this is the notion of gate-keeping; the need for an editor to filter down the vast amounts of information and events in order for the public to be able to consume the news in a way that can inform their political opinions. However it appears that there are more influential factors that can influence editorial decisions than adhering to a ‘watchdog of the state’ notion. For example the notion of catering for readership, as I discussed in reference to the Daily Mail, and the notion that the media serve a ‘dominant élite’, as the Propaganda Model suggests. With this in mind it appears that the function of gate-keeping is a factor which actually decreases the viability of the democratic role of the press within the public sphere.
In conclusion it appears that the traditional conception of the public sphere is somewhat outdated, though still perhaps still viable. On the other hand it seems that the press do not serve as ‘the 4th estate’ because it is impossible for what is called the press, even in its internet format, to serve as the watch dog of the state because of outside political and corporate interests controlling their content, as the Propaganda Model points out. However the notion of the public sphere may still be viable in the twenty first century through other mediums, most importantly the internet.
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