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The Role of Media's Service in a Democratic Society

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According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the media is defined as ‘the main means of mass communication regarded collectively’ , whilst democracy is ‘the practices or principles of social equality.’ Therefore, the question asks whether in today’s society (which is a democratic one due to our government, our right to vote and free speech) how important the role of the media is in assisting us in upholding democracy. Brian McNair listed five functions of the media in democratic societies which he claims are’; to inform, educate, to act as a platform for public political discourse (public sphere), to publicise the actions of governmental and political institutions (behave as a watchdog) and to advocate political viewpoints, all of which will be discussed in depth throughout this essay.

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Addressing McNair’s five roles, the media as the ‘fourth estate’ is the idea that though the media is not an official part of the political establishment, it still has as significant influence upon society in the same way that the government does. In Journalism and Democracy, it is argued that ‘It was, indeed, public demand for information about and discussion of power and political affairs which fuelled the development of the modern media as means of reportage, analysis and critical scrutiny, and in the late twentieth century, far from being abandoned on the altar of crass commercialism, coverage of politics has increased.’ This statement suggests that the rapid growth of mass media in the modern age is a result of praise by the public for objective news and to be informed about the political circle, and that they are not only interested in being entertained by the media, but also in having the ability to understand and analyse the decisions that are being made by the leaders of their country. An article written by Jürgen Krönig for the Guardian suggests that the fourth estate is a huge threat to the government due to its growing power and influence. Krönig rightfully notes that ‘in the “democratic age” news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically. Papers don’t “report” news, they quite often present it according to their preferences and prejudices. The growth of columnists has led to the birth of a “Commentariat”.’ This implies that even though the media is still largely dominated by political events, the way they are presented now compared to in the past has changed entirely, as journalists now present affairs in a more honest tone, appealing to what people want to see rather than being controlled and manipulated by those in power to present it dishonestly or subjectively, to win over support for certain parties or ideas.

The public sphere is another of McNair’s five roles of the media. The concept is that the media is a part of our social life where public opinion can be formed, and we can discuss our opinions to come to agreement about what the ‘general interests’ of the public specifically are. In Journalism and Democracy, Brian McNair argues that ‘not only that the quantity of political information in mass circulation has expanded hugely in the late twentieth century, but that political journalism has become steadily more rigorous and effective in its criticism of elites, more accessible to the public, and more thorough in its coverage of the political process.’ His point implies that as the media has grown and expanded, its focus has changed from being mainly to entertain, as it now also acts as an informer, making consumers much more politicised. It can also be interpreted that McNair is stating that journalists have become braver as they are now much more critical and willing to share their own opinion rather than staying neutral as readers now demand more outspokenness and controversy to form their own political view. In addition, it is contended that ‘the emergence in the late twentieth century of a politically sophisticated and media-literate public, de-ideologised and (as its members increasingly see themselves) de-classed, further undermines the elite–mass, educated–uneducated distinctions which have traditionally structured the public sphere.’ This quote is saying that as the public have grown more politically aware due to the effect of the media, the historical divides of class and education have began to erode, which has impacted the public sphere as anyone can now comment on the political world as we all have access to a breadth of information and facts, regardless of our backgrounds. This is further supported by Hartley who has argued that ‘the old-fashioned divisions between the public and the private sphere, male and female cultural domains, politics and fashion, news and entertainment, have to be rethought in the context of the postmodern media.’ , as well as in news and journalism where it correctly notes that ‘audiences are comfortable with, and increasingly expect the articulation of, viewpoint and opinion.’

The free press model is the concept that to be able to serve as a fourth estate, the media needs to be separate from government interference entirely. The model promotes the press as being a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where we can access different views and as much material as possible, making the media essentially democratic and fair. Street defined the free press as a ‘system of communication that allows for a diversity of ideas and opinion and that is not an agent of a single view or of state propaganda.’ Habermas recorded ‘as early as in the last third of the seventeenth century journals were complemented by periodicals containing not primarily information but pedagogical instructions and even criticism and reviews’. This shows that for centuries the press has started to detach itself away from the establishment and over time, published gradually increasing controversial material that is not only facts or articles to entertain, but critical reviews and analysis of current affairs. Simon Heffer is also cited as he pointed out that ‘in Britain, political journalists are ruthless in their criticism of bad government, and quite often use humour to make their point. In America, the deference shown by the Press to politicians is almost suffocating – and jokes, despite the rich potential of the field, are right off the agenda.’ This also proves that despite attempts to remain objective and to stray from being bias, British journalists are also honest with their readers which allows the public to gain a better picture of political issues unlike American journalists who seem to be too fearful to present in any way which does not agree with the political agenda. The free press model is also supported by Alexander’s theory which states that ‘to the degree that the news media is tied to religious, ideological, political, or class groupings it is not free to form and reform public events in a flexible way. Without this flexibility, public opinion becomes ‘artificial’ and ‘biased’: it will be keyed to a part over the whole’. This reiterates the model’s ideas that if the press is influenced by the authorities it will be unable to be objective and democratic in its message as it will likely, whether it is conscious or not, try to enforce a political ideology.

Finally, the public service model is a system that is funded by the public but still has editorial and operating independence. An example of this would be the British Broadcasting Corporation which is funded by British taxpayers paying their TV license. The idea of the public service model and organisations like the BBC is that they are for public interest rather than attempting to gain financial reward, and this is demonstrated in the range and genres of programmes shown and no advertisements. In News and Journalism, a speech made by Michael Grade is quoted; ‘due impartiality is, and must remain, one of the cornerstones of BBC journalism’ and ‘whatever the pressures, the BBC must remain a trusted supplier of impartial information on all its platforms’. These statements reinforce the belief that the media must act neutral when providing us with political information and suggests that the BBC has been successful in doing so, by using the public service model.

To conclude, the media plays a vital role in helping to inform and educate its consumers about current political affairs which helps society to remain democratic as the public are knowledgeable enough to form their own opinions. Even though it has been argued by some academics that journalism can never be entirely neutral because sub-consciously journalists and broadcasters may project their views and there are social constructions, it is important that the media appeal to their audience which now demand more opinions and views anyway to help them construct their own beliefs and by journalists criticising and commenting about what they think of events themselves, they are exercising their right to free speech, which is ultimately one of the most important parts of a democratic society.

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