A critical analysis of the role of mass media in liberal democracies based on liberal theory and political economy

Conventionally, mass media was perceived as the Fourth Estate, implying that it is separate and autonomous from the three main branches of government.  While such is the idealized theoretical understanding of the definition of mass media, the reality is stark and discouraging.  Far from its founding ideals, journalism here in the UK, as elsewhere in the world, is conducted within a narrow framework of rules in concert with political and corporate powers.  Its primary role in a liberal democracy would include unwavering upkeep of ethical standards, unbiased reporting of political developments and a detached commentary of the cultural aspects of society.  But, evidence from electronic and print media today reveals that the media houses have largely failed to live up to their defined roles.  This essay will expound on this thesis by way of citing relevant examples from scholarly sources.

 One of the talking points amongst the intelligentsia is the dangers posed by lack of diversity and representation in the mainstream media’s coverage.  The phenomena of media concentration, which has seen greater consolidation in the last decade, gives rise to production of news content that serves the interests of select media elite.  This concentration of power in the hands of large media conglomerates makes it easy for them to set the political agenda on the national scale as exemplified by Rupert Murdoch’s near monopoly ownership of media space inBritain.  It is no surprise then that the issues that they cover are infested with their personal biases, prejudices and interests.  The general public, made helpless by this system, are presented a narrow political agenda that holds no real significance for them (Eldridge, Kitzinger & Williams, 1997, p. 27).  In other words, while the media has the power to elicit a policy response from the government, the outcomes tend to benefit the media elite and ruling classes rather than people.  Only a few news stories get picked for publication/broadcast among numerous other pieces competing for the same space/time.  The journalists in charge of deciding the news content are subject to personal biases, external coercions (both implicit and explicit) and other constraints that influence their decision making.  For these reasons, there are only a minority of journalists who adhere to standards of objectivity and professional integrity, while the rest succumb to various pressures consciously or otherwise.  This decline in journalistic ethos is seen across geo-political entities and cultures, making it a cause of concern for all (Eldridge, Kitzinger & Williams, 1997, p. 28).

The primary roles of Journalism are to inform and educate the general public about domestic and international political developments.  Apart from these functions, the mass media is also expected to serve as a dissenting voice against excesses of power.  In an ideal world the press would act as a faithful servant to the general public, earnestly endeavouring to inform and educate them.  But the state of media in contemporaryBritainis far from ideal, which is reflected in the news product (TV news programme or newspaper) as well as the processes involved in making the product (including editorial policy, government censorship, advertiser pressure, etc).  Instead of the media framework being set by democratic mechanisms from the bottom-up, we actually have a system that is directed by corporate and political interests.  It is no surprise then that the general public is increasingly growing sceptical of the motives that decide editorial frameworks.  Coinciding with the decline in public confidence on media industry is the disturbing trend of incompetence among journalists.  This phenomenon is more obvious in the electronic media – especially Television – where many talk show hosts don’t have the requisite expertise and range of knowledge to hold forth on issues of international diplomacy and economics.  These “celebrity journalists” seem to pick and choose stories that serve their own career prospects as opposed to keeping the interests of the viewers in mind (Shaw, 1999, p. 6).

The state of mass media inBritainshould also be gauged in the context of its participation in ideological propaganda.  Ideology as a sociological term has been interpreted in many different ways.  But the following is an approximate definition of the term: Any system of beliefs, values and habits that are based on a particular political or religious school of thought. Media in general and Television in particular has always been used to propagate ideologies.  Although the word “ideology” has come to carry negative connotations, the propagated ideas need not necessarily be detrimental to the interests of the audience (Payne, 2005, p. 81).  A very good example of this positive use of ideology is the British government run propaganda machinery during the First World War.  As the strength of the British army grew weak in confronting an imposing German hostility, the military administration had to resort to Conscription as a means of restoring its strength.  But a glimpse at the history of media in the backdrop of public administration and consumerism will show that the positive application of ideological propaganda is an exception than the rule.  For most part, the conservative owners of leading media houses want to ‘preach their viewers what is good conduct and what is not.  The way they do it is by ‘showing’ what acceptable conduct is.  While the merits and demerits of their beliefs are subject to debate, their role as the moral custodians of society is highly objectionable.  The worrying aspect of this subtle coercion of values into the citizenry is that the viewers are not even aware of it, which makes them vulnerable to ideological indoctrination (New Statesman, July 24, 2000, p. 129).

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