Mass media and politics in a turbulent age

The mass media plays a vitally important part in the political process. Many would view it as a crucial influence on politics and a check on the power of government, so much so that in the US it is called, unofficially, the “Fourth Branch of Government”, not part of the institutions of government of course, but a very important check on the political process.

The media, such as TV, radio, newspapers, social media, websites and blogs, publishes news, produces comment, and informs. It is arguably the main way that voters learn about what is happening, listen to the views of commentators, activists, politicians, members of the public and others, and acquire information on which judgements can be formed. They can also participate through many of these channels. The media themselves influence the political process, through such ways as the transmission of information and opinion, such that politicians and activists play close attention

Not surprisingly, politicians seek to influence the media to ensure that they get a favourable coverage. Thus in democracies there are laws to protect the “freedom of the press”. The US First Amendment says, in part, that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. In the UK, while there is no constitutional guarantee, it is the absence of regulation that is striking. The abolition of licensing in 1695 and eventually all remaining financial levies ended by 1861, resulted in the spread of a broad popular press that match the growth in the unfettered right to vote of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Constraints have continued in areas like the law of libel

Freedom of the press today

Temporary restrictions were enacted in the UK during the two World Wars to maintain morale and prevent information being release that could be of use to the enemy. While these were repealed in peacetime, it point up the tendency of government to restrict the media in areas of national security.

Interestingly the UK is ranked by Reporters without Borders as 40th out of 180 countries on press freedom, the US being 43rd.

Two measures in particular have aroused concern in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Act and the upcoming Data Protection Bill. Concern has focused on the increased restriction on investigative journalism and whistleblowing and the ability of the security services to obtain and retain digital data, a concern highlighted by the revelations of Edward Snowden (2013). It is often stated that there needs to be a more rigorous system of oversight, in particular independent oversight of those that already monitor the system within government, to prevent foul play.

Social media

A major shift in the media has occurred with the rise of online social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as online news and comment sources and blogs, and a commensurate decline in the physical press, newspapers. This decline has even resulted in Rupert Murdoch re-designing his business in deference to the rise of “Big Tech”. While in many ways the internet has created a rich ecosystem of information and opinion, it has also thrown up concerns about the grip of large technological companies, the exploitation by authoritarian states’ propaganda, such as Russian “troll farms“, and “fake” news to influence opinion.

You can read more about recent concerns over data mining and psychological profiling to produce highly targeted political advertising here

To read about the increased political party spending on advertising on social media in UK, click here

Ownership of media companies

Mass media has shown a recent tendency towards a concentration of ownership. As well as the dominance of Facebook and Twitter in social media, traditional media has seen a similar though less powerful trend.

In the UK, certain families or individuals hold massive power. The Murdoch family control the Times, Sunday Times, the Sun, the Harmsworth family the Daily Mail, and the Barclay Brothers the Daily Telegraph, giving a very strong pro-Conservative bias in journalism. Among the “liberal press” (in UK terms), The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust and not by a proprietor as such, and the Financial Times by the Japanese company Nikkei. The Mirror is owned by Trinity Mirror and is the only truly Labour paper.

Regulation and self-regulation

Traditionally the UK press has regulated itself and fought off attempts by the state to control it.

Following the hacking scandal, in which tabloids like the News of the World, the Sun and the Mirror were found to have hacked the phones of celebrities and those in the news, the Leveson Inquiry was set up (2011-12) and recommended a system of state regulation. This has not come about, and instead there is a strengthened system of self-regulation.

You can read more about some of the issues here.


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