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The impact of the media on politics.

THE mass media are our eyes and ears on the world as we have seen in recent events, such as the Libyan uprising and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It is impossible for anyone directly to know all that is going on in politics (or any other matter)--one cannot be everywhere all the time. Therefore, we are all reliant on the mass media to keep us informed. The mass media also filter facts and make sense of the world for us. The overall theme of this essay is that we are not so much living in the midst of a dramatic new revolution--but rather in a period when old trends have rapidly accelerated. For example, politicians often complain that the media want something done to fit in with their own deadlines. Deadlines are not really such a new problem. A currently popular movie is the Oscar-winning The King's Speech which deals with the stammering of King George VI. The movie does not deal with the speculation that his father's death (King George V) was prompted by the injection of drugs to bring the King's life to a speedy close within 15 minutes--and so enable the death to be reported in the morning edition of The Times. (1)

This article examines three major drivers of change--technology, content and media finance--and then sees how each has an impact on politics. It concludes with a comment on the need for a politically engaged public.


The essence of 'mass media' is the process of communication of information (true or false) beyond one person. A conversation between two people in the same location is not, under this definition, 'mass media'. However, the ability of that one person to communicate with two or more people does make it 'mass media'. Thus, sermons in places of worship over the millennia would constitute 'mass media'.

What has become more significant is the mobilization of technology to assist communications. For people who feel overwhelmed by the pace of modern communications technology, I recommend William Powers' practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. (2)

One of his case studies is the invention of Western printing by Johann Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century. Gutenberg observed how wine was made via presses and so converted that technology to printing material, not least the Bible. By 1500 the first wave of printers had produced 30,000 different titles and millions of copies. In 1517 the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther challenged the power of Rome. (3) Luther's message was soon captured in print. Books were a good way to spread rapidly new thinking on theology. The resulting Reformation transformed Europe and, among other things, gave rise to a new form of political governance: the nation-state system (often called the 1648 Westphalian System). (4)

The pace of technological change has continued to accelerate. For much of Western history, the fastest rate at which news could move was the speed of the horse: be it ridden by a single messenger or drawing a vehicle of some sort. By the nineteenth century, news was able to travel at a faster rate via railways carrying newspapers or (very expensively) by telegraph. Twentieth century radio and television then transformed mass media. On March 11, 1956 the film version of Sir Laurence Olivier's Richard III by William Shakespeare was broadcast on US television and it was watched by about 40 million people--it had a larger audience on that one day than all the people combined who had ever seen the play in the previous 352 years.

The Internet era is still in its infancy and so it is currently unclear where that will lead. The Internet's growth is just one aspect of 'Moore's Law', named in honour of Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, who predicted in 1965 that computing power would double in power and halve in price every two years. One dramatic example of the power of doubling that I use in my presentations is the story of lilies growing across a pond and doubling in size every day. On the 30th day the pond is completely covered: on what day is the pond only half covered? The 29th day. This means that a person could look at the pond for three weeks and not see much sign of life. Bui suddenly on the 27th, 28th, and 29th days there are signs of change. There is currently speculation on how the doubling power will eventually culminate. This doubling power is the subject of the new documentary movie about the millionaire inventor Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil has predicted a major change in the nature of humankind because of advances in computer technology by about the year 2029.

One current impact of the increased computational power is improved capacity for prediction. A similar 'law' to Moore's Law is 'Kryder's Law', named in honour of Mark Kryder who successfully noticed that the storage capacity of hard drives has been doubling every two years. This has enabled breakthroughs in collating and 'mining' information, rather than any dramatic breakthrough in the actual techniques of prediction. For example, the Princeton economist and wine-lover Orley Ashenfelter has developed a computer programme to predict good and bad wine 'years' based on certain raw data--he does not need the 'swishing and spitting' experts to assess the good 'years' for wine. (5)

Turning to the impact on politics, politics seems to be the last refuge of the amateur. All other trades and professions require some training and even formal qualifications. Politicians just seem to limp along picking up the trade as they lurch from one crisis to the next. Their real skill (if they have any) is in winning elections--and not governing (for which there is no formal training for politicians). Politicians in office seem to be just like empty vessels into which information is poured. Some of the information comes from civil servants and advisers.

Meanwhile, increasingly the media set the pace of politics. We would not run a company in the way we run a country, with politicians bouncing from one headline to the next. The mass media are the new agenda-setters: they do not tell people what to think--but they do tell people what to think about. Additionally, politicians used to be leaders and now they are followers: they find out where the crowd is running and get in front of it. Politicians used to tell people what they needed to know--now they tell them what they want to hear.

These general points may be illustrated in the life of Winston Churchill. In the 1930s he had a traditional leadership role: he was one of the first British politicians to warn about the dangers posed by Hitler. But most voters did not want to hear what he had to say and so he was marginalized for most of the 1930s. He paid the price for being a traditional 'leader'. Of course, with the outbreak of war in September 1939 he was recalled to the Cabinet and he became Prime Minister in May 1940. His prophetic role was vindicated.

Contrast that traditional leadership role with the current technique of politicians who use opinion polls and focus groups to determine what their policies should be. In election campaigns, fears are played back to the people by politicians as a way of identifying with the voters. 'Leadership' now seems to be presented by media personalities.


The average Western person today has the capacity to know about more events in less time than any previous person in history. The speed of technological change has meant that information on distant events can travel at a faster rate in more diverse media. The whole world is now in theory within a person's grasp.

The Internet's long tail' is an example of how the world is being transformed. In economics, the Pareto Principle means, for example, that about 20 per cent of a shop's customers are responsible for 80 per cent of the shop's sales. The implication is that the target should always be to identify the key 20 per cent.

Chris Anderson of Wired magazine has argued that, thanks to the Internet, the 'mass market is turning into a mass of niches'. (6) The economics of the mass market means that manufacturers and suppliers have concentrated on a handful of local customers and their tastes. In the Internet era, there could be a market for (say) a book on southern Welsh church stained glass windows in the eighteenth century. The customers are no longer just those of the immediate vicinity of the publisher and book shop--it is a total of about 2 billion people (almost two-sevenths of the world's population) and growing as the Internet connects more people. Search engines now enable a person to connect with others with a similar, specialist taste.

One impact on politics has been a move from 'broadcasting" to 'narrowcasting': a move from a small number of stations transmitting to a large number of people, to a large number of stations transmitting to a small number of people. Each Western country has now a variety of radio and television stations. Twenty-four-hour broadcasting has replaced the more static formalized programming (for example, news programmes at 6 pm for the whole family). People now 'graze' on the news, rather than 'feast' on it: they move in and out of consuming the news as they themselves want it (and not when it suited the suppliers to provide it, such as at 6 pm). Parents and children no longer share a common universe of discourse. They may even live in different parts of the home, consume different mass media (television, video games etc.) and rarely come together as a family. There are now very few 'national' events in the media (outside sport).

Roger Ailes (of Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd) recognized the importance of the new era of narrow-casting. Fox knows its audience and provides its distinctive (some might say controversial) stories that suit its bias. (7) There is of course nothing intrinsically new here; as Evelyn Waugh pointed out in Scoop, the satirical 1938 novel of sensational journalism and foreign correspondents: different newspapers write stories for different readerships.

What is different now is the de-massified nature of the mass media. A basic problem for politicians now is how to mobilize citizens for mass action for unpopular policies, for example, budget cuts? It is difficult to convey a sense of urgency when the attention of many citizens is elsewhere. Another impact is the sheer flood of information. People feel overwhelmed by all the news of conflicts and disasters and so become de-sensitized to what is happening.

Combining the changes arising from speed and context, there has been the impact on the role of narrative. There are now so many 'facts' and many interpretations: data can be found to justify virtually anything. Narrative holds the facts (true or false) together. Hence the importance of having a good story: it doesn't need to be true--only for it to sound true. Hence the rise of 'spin': creating a good story. (8)

Lying and mobilizing hysteria are not, of course, a new political activity. In 1739 the UK went to war with Spain over the alleged mistreatment of a British sailor ('War of Jenkins Ear'), who may or may not have really been badly treated by the Spanish--but the British media thought he had. In August 1964, the US alleged that one of its ships had been attacked by the North Vietnamese and so President Johnson used the episode to step up his war in Vietnam. It is likely that there was no attack--but the media were willing to believe that there had been. What is now significant is just the routine nature of lying in politics (or 'framing the narrative'). The single most important theme in the recent 'Wikileaks' scandal has been the revelation of the distance between the published statements and what politicians and civil servants really did think was happening.

The 'Wikileaks' scandal is also a sign of the impact of new technology. When Daniel Ellsberg in the early 1970s 'leaked' the Pentagon Papers on the US involvement in the Vietnam War, he had to photocopy each page by hand on a Xerox machine in secret and this took weeks and he needed assistance from at least one other person (Tony Russo) to carry out the task and the thousands of pages filled several cartons. The alleged 'leaker' with the 'Wikileaks' scandal, US Private Bradley Manning, simply downloaded a vast collection of official documents at the speed of light (that is electronically) onto a USB while remaining at his workplace in Kuwait and pretending to be down-loading Lady Gaga pop music.

Media Finance

A characteristic of wealth in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries was the potential financial benefit of owning a media outlet. Traditionally wealth had come in the agricultural era from owning farm land and then (following the UK Industrial Revolution in 1750) from owning factories. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, private individuals and families could become extremely wealthy through owning newspapers and then later radio and television stations. Now it is the new communications technology.

A way of viewing this change is via two contrasting paradigms: 'Reith' versus 'Murdoch'. Lord Reith was the first administrator of the BBC. He laid down its basic, conservative ethos: people should have what they need and not necessarily what they wanted. He was supporter of traditional 'high' culture, such as opera and Shakespeare. It was noble--but (for young people and some of their parents) very boring. Rupert Murdoch, now an American (in order to own US mass media) is the son of the Australian newspaper proprietor Sir Keith Murdoch. Murdoch is a believer in the market system: making available what people want to buy. He makes no value judgements on what people want. Providing they have the money he will supply it. He is both the publisher of some of the most virulently garish 'popular' newspapers and magazines and yet also one of the largest publishers of the Bible. He sells people want they want. The 'Murdoch' paradigm--for good or ill--is now increasingly the favoured economic model for the mass media. In February he announced a new venture: a daily newspaper which will only be available to iPad users at a weekly cost of 99 cents.

One impact on politics is that news programmes are now virtually a branch of the television entertainment industry. The language of war has entered sport, and the language of sport has entered politics: people are less interested in who is right or wrong--but who is going to win. They feel they do not have enough time to weigh the substance of the political arguments--they simply prefer to see who is going to win.

Another impact is the importance of 'celebrity'. A cynic might claim that the Romans had 'bread and circuses' to keep the people fed, entertained and diverted from politics; now we have 'celebrities'. 'Stars' are very important to lift some people out of their boring everyday lives. Note that the real stars are a long way from Earth: some people need others to look up to in their isolated splendour. If Madonna bought her groceries, say, at the local shop, she would no longer be a 'star' for the people in that locality. There has to be an aura of mystique, distance and uniqueness. Meanwhile, there is a declining interest in current affairs. In the Cold War 1945-90, the news could kill you but not so now. Therefore the media have to try harder to maintain viewers--celebrities are less intellectually challenging.

A third impact is the rise of 'tabloid media'. There has been a move from facts to emotions; a move from a journalist asking 'Tell us what happened' to 'How did you feel when you saw what happened?' The emotions help keep the viewers or listeners engaged. A calm Reithian dry exposition of events would lose most audiences nowadays. They would learn more but they would be entertained far less.

A Politically Engaged Public

The story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers has been told in the award-winning movie The Most Dangerous Man in America. Ellsberg, who never again acquired full-time employment after his whistle-blowing 40 years ago, was disappointed about the response to his release of the documents. Most politicians were unwilling initially to take up his invitation to read the material. Luckily for him some of the main US newspapers were willing to do so.

The media require an engaged public, otherwise 'freedom of the press' is a waste of time. The media and public were then interested because Americans were still being killed in the Vietnam War. But the recent 'Wikileaks' scandal has caused far less interest because people are not so engaged. Sport, celebrity and Hollywood gossip seem far more interesting than proof of the deception in politics.

Even if politicians do try to do the right thing, without an engaged public there is little to be gained for them. A recent book has examined one of the most intriguing speeches in modern American history. President Jimmy Carter in July 1979 tried to warn his fellow Americans about the looming economic and environmental dangers confronting the country. (9) The speech ironically contributed to his failure to get re-elected.

Carter's experiment in public education failed--and the person who beat him in the 1980 race for the presidency, the former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, would entertain no negative thoughts. Reagan argued that his election showed that it was 'morning again in America'. 'Americans wanted dreams, no matter how fanciful. Movie acting as patriotism, celebrity worship as heroism: there were not strange things to take hold in a country where Hollywood was the nation's capital as much as Washington'. (10) The roots of the 2008 economic crash were laid down by the Reagan Administration's quixotic belief in the 'market', de-regulation and rolling back the Roosevelt reforms made during the Great Depression.

The US, in retrospect, has lost three decades in retooling the economy for this new era by being unwilling to confront the issues that Carter raised in July 1979. President Obama has tried in his 2011 State of the Union Address in effect to again address some of these issues--but the prospects for lasting effect are not good. In the new media era it is difficult to mobilize a nation for drastic economic and environmental reform.


(1) Charles Higham, Mrs Simpson: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor, London: Pan, 2004, p 136.

(2) William Powers, Hamlet's Blackberry, Melbourne: Scribe, 2010.

(3) Ibid, pp 124-136.

(4) See: Keith Suter, Global Order and Global Disorder: Globalization and the Nation-State, London: Praeger, 2003, pp 17-30.

(5) Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers: How Anything Can Be Predicted, London: John Murray, 2007, pp 1-6.

(6) Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand, London: Random House, 2007, p 5.

(7) Kerwin Swint, Dark Genius: The Influential Career of Legendary Political Operative and Fox News Founder Roger Ailes, New York: Sterling, 2008.

(8) For example: Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, All the President's Spin: George W Bush, the Media and The Truth, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004; Lance Price The Spin Doctor's Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

(9) Kevin Mattson, 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr President?' Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

(10) Ibid, p 107.

Dr Keith Suter is Managing Director of Global Directions Pty Ltd:
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Author:Suter, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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