Political Communication and Social Theory

December 16, 2010

In some ways it's surprising that David Attenborough has not yet turned his camera lens on the strange relationship between politicians and journalists that can be observed in the wild, at elections, party conferences and in Parliament. In Attenborough's absence, Aeron Davis has had a good shot at observing the dating, mating and hating rituals of the beasts of Westminster.

"Less is more" is one of the clichés of the communications business - in other words, communication is most effective when fewer words are employed. Seldom is this wise nostrum observed in academia, but Davis is a happy exception. This is a slim volume but it packs a powerful punch, combining sociological and political theory, extensive fieldwork and anthropological observation.

Based on more than 100 interviews with journalists, politicians and civil servants, he has produced a first-class series of essays that should be at the top of any good political communications reading list.

Territories both familiar and unfamiliar are covered. The leit-motif of much writing in this area - the "crisis" of public disengagement and disillusion with the formal processes of democracy - is comprehensively covered. But Davis also explores areas often neglected in the study of political communications - the role of celebrity and international political communications, for example.

Perhaps the most interesting is one that looks at how the organisational and working culture of politicians and journalists at Westminster affects their day-to-day relations.

Davis goes where few have trodden before, by investigating whether these two groups - involved in what was once memorably described as "wrestling in the mud" - actually like each other, and if they do, or don't, does it matter? As a reformed mud-wrestler, I have no doubt that any success I had in extracting information from my sources was dependent on what social skills I could muster - an interest in football was then an invaluable asset for political reporters.

I agree with Davis' dismissal of the attempts by some scholars to see the rise of "spin" as beneficial to the democratic process, based on the notion that spin provides the media, and hence the public, with more information about politicians' reasoning. This is a chimera of transparency. I recall one political editor telling me that he welcomed the attentions of the spin-doctors "because I want to know what the politicians are thinking". That's fine, but if they are the people he regards as his most authoritative sources ("primary definers", as Stuart Hall once called them) then the spin-doctors are happy but democracy suffers.

Only in one area do I take issue with Davis. He is at his most confident integrating theory with fieldwork - less so when he takes on an observational role. For he has peered through his metaphorical binoculars to try to interpret the daily Westminster rituals and, in my view, he has mistaken the intermingling of MPs, advisers, journalists and campaigners in the bars and restaurants of Westminster as representing a Habermasian-style "parliamentary public sphere". But it is an illusion. He was looking down at a sideshow of democracy. The real decision-makers - senior ministers, top civil servants, City kingpins and media moguls - do their business, today, as ever, behind closed doors, well away from the prying eyes of MPs, journalists and even political communications academics. This apart, it is an excellent book.

Political Communication and Social Theory

By Aeron Davis. Routledge, 200pp, £75.00 and £21.99. ISBN 9780415547123 and 47130. Published 22 July 2010.

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