Controlling mass media explosions

Sex, Lies and Democracy - The Sociology of Journalism - Media policy - Media Regulation, Public Interest and the Law

November 5, 1999

For more than two decades there has been a tradition of critical writing on media sociology and media policy issues. But these are uncertain times for that tradition.

Media critics have often found a ready audience, but recently - all the books under review mention the controversy following Princess Diana's death - there is the vexed question of defending the public service tradition in the face of huge global media corporations and the proliferating channels of the new digital era. And within media sociology there is sometimes the sense that older, "ideologically" based critiques of media power have run out of steam. Capturing this shift is the broader aim of Brian McNair's book. It is also an introductory textbook to media sociology, an aim it fulfils admirably, being clearly written with a good range of examples.

After a brief (perhaps too brief) discussion of the media's social effects, most of the book deals with how journalism is produced. The latter is arranged over five chapters covering professional culture, the political, economic and technological environments of journalism, and sources. Although the discussions are sometimes rushed, they contain striking material: partic-

ularly on the new culture of journalism in Russia after the collapse of communism, and a debunking of the idea that newspaper owners do not influence journalists.

More problematic is the book's aim to reorientate the sociology of journalism, whose history McNair sees in terms of two models: the liberal model of unfettered, market-based competition, and the radical critique of media institutions'

ideological role in

reinforcing wider power structures. McNair argues that, while power is always at work within journalism, its workings are too "chaotic" to benefit one power bloc over another. In fact, they often destabilise elites, rather than reinforce them.

This idea is hardly original and McNair's discussions are simply too short to justify this conclusion, let alone his optimism about journalism as an agent of "chaotic democratisation". The rights of the media public in all this remain unclear.

One merit of David Hutchison's impressive introduction to media policy debates is that it highlights how the public is normally silent in them.

Media policy is a sprawling area, ranging from the regulation of media ownership to press accountability and wartime censorship. Hutchison sensibly prepares the ground for students with care. Parts I and II cover more than two centuries of historical background and the complex setting of contemporary debates at a pace that some may find too discursive, but most new students will find helpful.

The introductory chapters also contain effective comparisons between the experience of different countries. Chapter seven compares the approaches in Europe, Canada and the United States to balancing individual rights to privacy and expression with social responsibilities.

The second half of the book comprises five well-chosen case studies, including a critical account of the United Kingdom's Press Complaints Commission, an international comparison of attempts to regulate the newspaper marketplace, and a chapter on UK censorship of film and broadcasting. Particularly welcome is a chapter introducing the various parties on the regulatory scene (including the one party usually not consulted - the public). A final chapter offering useful guidance on further reading is also welcome.

Hugh Stephenson and Michael Bromley's recent edited collection, Sex, Lies and Democracy makes a lively contribution to current controversies over media policy, particularly on press accountability and public participation. The book's authors are from France, the US, and Germany, as well as the UK, and its tone is critical - at times even polemical.

This is clearly an area where debate is needed, and this collection will be of use to journalism students, particularly those interested in the historical background of contemporary debates. There are interesting essays by John Tulloch on the Press Complaints Commission and Michael Bromley on the development of letters pages as channels of communication between press and public. There are also pieces with a broader sweep, such as Claude-Jean Bertrand's on the range of "media accountability systems" in various countries.

As an intervention in policy debates, however, the book is less useful, lacking a clear focus. History and polemic sit uneasily with detailed material on how professional codes are implemented by or taught to journalists. But overall the book is to be welcomed; it helpfully includes the National Union of Journalists' and PCC's codes verbatim.

The most considered approach to media policy is Mike Feintuck's Media Regulation, Public Interest and the Law . Feintuck is an academic lawyer, but takes a broad view of his brief, concentrating on the legitimacy of media regulation in an age of globalisation and channel multiplication.

He offers a detailed and critical assessment of the problems and confusions of recent media regulation in the UK including digital television franchising and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. There is useful comparative material on regulatory approaches in the US and the rest of Europe (Feintuck is sceptical about the EU being a major force in media regulation). Although the discussion is quite technical, it is well organised, and should be a useful resource for more advanced students and academics in the field.

The book's wider contribution is Feintuck's important, if embattled case for renewed public regulation of the media, covering both market structures and media contents. For him, the key is "the fundamental, democratic principle ... that a diverse, high-quality range of media are available to all citizens". This justifies, in his view, a strong agenda of media regulation, focused ideally on a single UK regulator. More speculatively, Feintuck argues that media institutions have a duty of "stewardship" of public space, an argument recently raised against large landowners to justify better access.

Feintuck's argument will leave some unconvinced, but for updating the public regulation case with vigour and clarity his book is to be welcomed.

Nick Couldry is lecturer in communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Sex, Lies and Democracy

Editor - Hugh Stephenson and Michael Bromley
ISBN - 0 582 29332 4
Publisher - Longman
Price - £12.99
Pages - 181

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