The quote with which I begin represents a general viewpoint, which many members of the general public may find hard to believe. When considering our society we immediately think of the government as it’s sole dominant force. Surely it is they who create our policies and mould our society into what it is today? We pay little attention to the role of the media in society and perceive them as mere tools that government is able to use in order to put across their message. In this essay I intend to highlight the extent that the government relies upon the media and ways in which the media affect and often create a call for new policies.
I will show the relationship between social policy and the media and focus upon specific cases in order to strengthen the analysis. I’ll draw upon previous research and statistics combined with personal opinion in order to address the question accurately. The power of the media has developed dramatically over the last hundred years but the British press achieved its real freedom around the middle of the nineteenth century. There was a growth in paid advertising, which meant more money, which resulted in increased power and independence for the press.
Asquith believes that it was from the increased advertising that the press was able to emerge as the “fourth state of the realm”. They no longer were totally reliant on political funding and were able to write freely about the government, following this newspapers became “great organs of the public mind” (New Cambridge modern history). However, it is evident that even then the press influenced government’s policies. In 1819 the editor of ‘The Republican’ was prosecuted under the governments policy for ‘seditious and blasphemous libel’, yet following this circulation of the paper rose by over 50%.
Government became aware that the media “… thirsted or nothing more than the valuable advertisement of a public trial in a court of justice”(Curran & Seaton, 1997). As a result there was a shift in government policies and the number of prosecutions dropped dramatically to a mere 16 in the period of 1825-34 from 167 over the previous 8 years. There are also instances in which government attempted to control the influence of the media by means of economic constraints such as newspaper stamp duty and taxes on paper and advertisements. For example, between 1789 and 1815 stamp duty increased by an unbelievable 226%.
The same theories of media control are adopted by governments of today. Certain constraints are employed by political institutions in order to gain some measure of indirect control and influence over the media. Today it is by form of advertising revenue regulation or taxation by political authorities. The government has the power to increase fees, which will result in lower quality output by media groups due to rising costs and decreasing income. By the mid-Twentieth century the power of radio had been explored, Hitler being the first politician to do so, and quickly became the main source of information.
Governments around the world made use of the medium and their relationship with media was enhanced. The growth of the media in Britain was synonymous with the growth of technology. In 1926 the first television demonstration was greeted with apathy and considered a tool for the rich. However, in 1953 the broadcast of the Queen’s coronation was a great turning point as the public saw the implications and possibilities television held. In 1950 a mere 10% of homes had a television, yet by 1963, just ten years after the coronation, 90% of homes had a television.
As the interest of the people grew so too did the interest of politicians in the influential powers of the media. Today the stories we read often concern groups we may perceive as vulnerable or ‘at risk’, such as children. The media presents its stories in a manner that we are able to sympathise with and often feel we are able to relate to. This was evident in the case of Sarah Payne, young girl kidnapped and brutally murdered. The media worked with the Payne family and ensured that the case was highly publicised and always in the publics view.
The impact of this on the public was phenomenal and as a result media took it a step further in demanding new laws on paedophilia, ‘Sarah’s law’. The campaign was started by ‘News of the world’ and its main aim was for a community to have the right to be informed if a registered child sex offender moves to that area. “Its every parents right to have controlled access to information about individuals in their neighbourhood, including convicted child sex offenders who may pose a risk to their child”. The government reacted by implementing certain elements of what was being called for but are “still resisting the heart of Sarah’s law”.
There was a case similar to this in America following the death of Megan Kanka who was murdered by a known sex offender. As in Britain the media attention was enormous and consequently resulted in ‘Megan’s law, which allows parents the right to information of child sex offenders their neighbourhood. This isn’t an isolated case, as there are many instances in which policies have been created following a media campaign. The first case of its kind to receive media coverage was that ‘The Cleveland case’, which became the most widely reported story in post war British history.
Hard pressed’ (1998), stated that this was due to the “contested diagnoses of physical and sexual abuse, the highly charged debates about the legitimacy of state welfare agencies intervening in family life and the very public involvement of local MP’s”. Following the reporting of this case there was a twelve-fold increase in registered cases of child sexual abuse (Creighton & Noyes, 1989) and in 1989 the government passed an updated ‘Children’s act’. Another example is that of Maria Colwell in 1972. Following her death the media coverage was huge and thus public concern was immense.
As a result, during the 1970’s the number of place of safety orders trebled (B, Franklin, 1997) and in 1975 the government introduced the ‘Children’s act’. The media reports create a public demand for the government to respond and enact in order to calm public anxieties. Franklin and Lavery (1989) call this ‘Legislation by tabloid’. As previously stated the media affects and shapes politics more than has been commonly realised. The media don’t always influence people in a positive manner and often enough bad press for certain groups can result in a change in public opinion concerning them.
An example of this is social workers. A survey by ‘Community care’ said that 93% of social workers blame the media for their declining public image (King, 1989). Research has shown that from all the press reporting of social workers from an average daily newspaper, the ‘Daily mail’, a mere 2. 2% of its contents could be described as ‘beneficial coverage’, with the majority, a huge 71. 2% described as ‘adverse’ (Figures taken from ‘Hard pressed, 1998). The media continually portray social workers in a negative manner and not only will this influence public opinion but it also affects the social workers.
It can lower their morale and also lower the number of applicants for the field. This will in turn affect the government as employment figures will be down in the sector and they will have to finance an advertising campaign in order to increase interest and numbers. This highlights the intensity of the relationship between the two and allows us to understand how reliant they are upon one another. Each has the power and the means of destroying the other by public manipulation or by means of policies directed against the other.
The relationship is so complex that often the public’s needs can fall from sight and trouble may then begin. As Weaver (1994) stated “increasing alienation and cynicism of citizens is likely to occur”. I have highlighted instances of policy’s being passed as a result of media impact and firmly believe that this remains the case in modern day Britain. This implies that the government is losing sight of what should be their main concern, the public. Policies are created in order to please mass media and therefore improve how the public perceives the government.
The media now has such an influence over politics that a negatively worded story can destroy a politician over night. This was shown in the case of Ron Davies, the past secretary of state for Wales, who as a result of a controversy in his private life, and the media attention it generated, was forced to resign. This further emphasises the impact the mass media have on government and politics and the potential it has to alter the outcomes of political events. It is felt by many, especially those who are the target of a media campaign, that there is too fine a line between public and private lives of politicians.
The laws of libel in Britain are far stricter than those of America, yet many still believe these should be tightened. The government introduce such policies as ‘The official secrets act’ (1911) which is still in use today, as means of media control to ensure that no unauthorised or classified information is obtained by journalists. However one must question is this enough? When does the self-regulatory freedom of the press become intrusive? Politicians are far more concerned with the press than ever before due to the fewer restraints on what can be published, which in the eyes of a politician is a possible danger to their reputation.
They become easy targets, and at the discovery of a scandal concerning them they become extra sales for the press. In certain cases the politicians are able to use the power of the media to their advantage, as was the case with Clinton following the Lewinsky allegations in 1998. The media relished in breaking the story of scandal and for weeks it was splashed across the press. The non-partisan nature of the media ensures that politicians aren’t able to control the media but merely use it to influence, Clinton did so successfully and as a result sustained his image.
Throughout the scandal Clinton’s popularity didn’t falter and public opinion of him ranged around 60% and occasionally 70%, even when he was on trial for impeachment (R. Lawrence & W. Bennett, 2001). Many believe that Clinton’s popularity was enhanced by the way in which he managed stage presentations and speeches, which were broadcast by the media. Just days after Lewinski’s allegations he gave a rhetoric speech emphasising that there was a great distinction between private and public categories, urging his devoted public to place the Lewinsky scandal in the private category (1998 state of union address).
Politicians also make use of media services around election time, when our screens and papers our filled with the words and faces of the candidates. Many critics fear the influence of the media on political policy, in particular the way in which favourable election results can be gained through laudatory media presentation. With the developments of mass media politicians have an understanding that they can “… reach more people via two minutes on television than they could meet in a lifetime’s door-to-door canvassing” (Jones & Kavanagh, 1991).
Campaign and media managers now play a crucial role in the election, as image has become one of the key factors in politics. Political strategies now usually incorporate media strategies as well. The Conservative Party began this trend with the employing of advertising firms such as Saatchi and Saatchi, and media gurus like Tim Bell. Labour also focused on this area of politics and during Neil Kinnock’s tenure as party leader (1983-1992) an ex-television producer, Peter Mandelson, was appointed to improve the presentation of the party with the post of ‘Communications director’.
As, prior to the 1987 general election the press had created and reinforced the image of ‘loony left’ and ‘ militant left’ in Labour politics, which became a standard feature of their political coverage. Labour consequently reappraised its strategy and attempted to detach itself from an ‘extremist’ wing. This affirms that one would be correct in saying we are living in an “age of press politics” (Kalb, 1992), in which politicians are giving media presentation precedence over their policies. Although the media and government are in very different categories they are greatly intertwined in many aspects.
The media are generally secure in their jobs and need not be legitimated by the consent of others outside their own employing organisation, however certain policies created by the government ensure they have a certain element of control over their actions. Politicians are in a very different position, their jobs are much less secure and it is the media who have the power to take them away from them. They are also greatly dependent on a continual renewal of the consent of their supporters, the public, who are influenced by the media.
Considering the media are the main link politicians have to the general public they must ensure they present themselves accordingly or votes will be lost. Politicians who want to attract public attention first have to attract the attention and interest of journalists and editors who aren’t necessarily politically minded. The media are also partly responsible for determining which political demands in society will be aired and which will be relatively muted. They are so closely linked with political processes that they must be regulated in a more appropriate and a valid way.
Media have gradually moved from the role of reporting on and about politics, ‘from the outside’ as it were, to that of being an active participant in, shaping influence upon, indeed an integral part of, the political process” (Blumer & Gurevitch, 1995). It would be wrong to assume that one has the upper hand over the other, I believe that this isn’t so, and the relationship between the two is mutually dependent. They need each other’s services and dependability, and share an understanding of the public that perhaps we don’t perceive.
Often enough both combine to send messages to the public that wouldn’t be possible without the other. The relationship between the two was used greatly following the tragedy of September the 11th, when the world wide media were able to convey to the public the sheer extent of the suffering. The government worked with the media and provided information, access to the area and press conferences. The relationship is a very complex one as the press understand that political scandal will result in increased sales yet also want to remain on friendly terms with politicians in order to gain co-operation.
Politicians are very similar in that although they are rightfully suspicious of the self-regulating body of such influence they are also aware that positive media gains popularity in the eyes of the public. Their roles are very different however they are both funded, and therefore run, by the public and so their goals and objectives are similar. Both are ultimately driven by the force of power and money and consequently are easily corrupted. We must be aware that what we read, watch or hear is often misconstrued for certain effects, be it to sell papers or create support for a political party.
I am able to conclude that the relationship shared by the media and social policy is one of dependence, certain hostility and complexity. The media has seen a rapid expansion over the last century in how it is able to shape the presentation of the government to the public and as a result impels the government to accept the media’s power and attempt to manipulate it to their advantage. The media is as much the tool of the government as the government is a tool of the media.