A free press was described by Sir Winston Churchill as 1’one of the great democratic principles with a distinctly British character.’ Today however does the media help or hinder the democratic principles in this country. In Britain today the media is under scrutiny constantly as to ensure it does not affect the democratic process ongoing in this country. However it can be said that there is mass media involvement in the political process, as many actors now suggest that politics has become dependant on the media and would not be able to function without it. Indeed Seymour-Ure said 2’the mass media are so deeply embedded in the political system that without them political activity in its contemporary form could not carry on’. This is a very strong statement, but can be justified by the sheer importance and attention placed on the media in today’s society.
The two main sources of information and communication today are television and newspapers, as these two were citied by the public as being the far most important media influences. The media has become a very important vehicle for politicians to use when trying to contest elections in Britain, as on television a person can reach more people in two minutes than in a lifetime of canvassing, as well as newspapers taking sides in elections.
Most media companies today are huge conglomerate firms working in a million pound industries, with this kind of backing and power to use media sources to influence voters, important media moguls are now becoming directly involved in the political process. The BBC however, is not privately owned. The government have influence over the BBC as the party in power can elect people to the board of directors and also elect the chairman of the board. This allows the political party in power to choose a person for this role who is like-minded to the parties’ ideas. This creates a bias in the BBC, just like biases in privately owned firms. Powerful media moguls can have some power over government if they use their fortune and media awareness to back governments into corners.
A high profile example of this is when Bernie Ecclestone donated one million pound to the Labour Party. Months later it turned out that Bernie Eccelestones’ Formula One industry had become exempt from new tobacco advertising laws in sport. As Eccelstone directly employs thousands of workers in Britain as well as being involved in the media, it allowed him have an influence on certain political issues.
However, the privately owned media does have a regulatory body called The Independent Broadcasting Authority that checks on the firms. Under the 1981 Broadcasting Act the IBA ensure ‘balance’ and ‘due accuracy and impartiality’ in the media. This was set up to stop big firms becoming to powerful in the political arena, although it can be questioned about its validity and effectiveness in ensuring equality. However television can be slightly biased when cult television shows define a politician’s image to the nation in a bad or good way, e.g. ‘Spitting Image’. Some would say this is bias whereas others look upon it as harmless fun. It would be difficult for the IBA to stop this, as the media should be about free speech and reflecting the majority views in society, allowing a range of issues to be addressed on television.
This is very much a theme in the Pluralist view of the media in Britain. They believe the media should represent popular views, informing society about the work of government. They believe the media should not be owner concentrated like the dominance model but there should be many media companies independent of each other, forming different opinions. Not just allowing a few stations to dictate to the masses reached through such mediums as television and newspapers. The effect of both models provides different outcomes on society if they were fully in practice. The dominance model suggests a strong order and social class structure. Whereas the pluralist model is more diverse with less predictability, allowing people to form opinions.
I think in Britain today there is a mix of both pluralist and dominance systems to the media, but pluralists may just have the edge at the moment. ITN’s David Nicholas said that his news firm were 3’90% of the time telling the people what we think they will want to know’. This suggests a certain dominance view however it is important to realise the pros and cons of both ideas. For example the dominance model could become too regimented and take away peoples freedom, however on the other hand the pluralist model could lead to a development in radical ideas that create certain amounts of anarchy in society. This is why it is important to regulate the industry to stop the media becoming too powerful. It can be said the 4’the media has shaped public images of politics and political personalities and therefore has influenced the nature and course of political life.’
I think this statement is true and cannot really be challenged as certain politicians like Peter Mandleson were driven out of the cabinet by media hounding, not to mention the amount of elections that have been swayed by media spin. I think the media situation is not completely fair and just, although it is more accountable in Britain that it is in America. People who run private media firms have there own interests and will continue to pursue those interests regardless of most legislation brought in to act as an indicator of corruption and bias in the media.
This is why I think it is important to keep the BBC publicly run as it has far more scrutiny placed upon it than other stations. If it did become privatised I think Britain will become more like the United States in the way its media influence people in power far more than in the UK. I do favour the pluralist view in terms of freedom of people to share different views but I think that too much manoeuvre will disrupt government from its business.
Overall I think Britain has a good set up of the media in place so that people hear about the genuine issues affecting the country in a fair and unbiased way, allowing them to form opinions in order to create debates in government. However, the convention that Parliament is sovereign is under threat from media influences. For this convention to remain the watchdog firm will have to maintain power in an increasingly powerful environment.
Lord Windlesham, Broadcasting in a Free Society, Basil Blackwell- Oxford 1980
Jones et al. Politics UK second edition, University Press Cambridge, 1991
Colin Seymour-Ure, The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945, Blackwell Oxford, 1991
Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, Politics and Television re-viewed, Sage Publications 1984