The Canon: The Crisis of Public Communication

By Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch

May 6, 2010

I begin with a confession. Before accepting this commission, I asked myself a silly question: in a field as new as political communications, is it possible to have a canon? It's a silly question because, of course, there's nothing new about political communications. One could be tiresome and go back to the Sermon on the Mount as one of the first examples of the art, but my first stop tends to be 1513 and Machiavelli's unsurpassed masterpiece, The Prince. It's full of all sorts of goodies - my favourite being chapter 17, which asks whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. And while Old Nick, as ever, hedges his bets and says both, if he is forced to choose it's a no-brainer (admittedly not in common usage in 1513). Fear always trumps love - just ask Mrs Thatcher.

However, my real choice is one of the most important contemporary texts in this field - Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch's groundbreaking work. It is canonical despite being mostly a pull-together of earlier research - some going back as far as 1969. But unlike many pull-togethers, its magisterial introduction and conclusion give it both coherence and a powerful argument, namely that political communications is in crisis - something that previously had been only glimpsed and discussed but never fully engaged with.

When I first entered the academy, as a broadcaster I carried with me the usual journalist's scepticism about the value of academic research into the media: what did they know - had they done it? But this book changed my view. The authors' work at the BBC, through five general elections from 1966 onwards, was truly trailblazing. They interviewed, observed, took notes, pondered and came up with what many of us had been vaguely aware of but which had not been, until this book, coherently articulated; that first, there was something recognisable as a political communications "system" and second, that something was going terribly wrong with it.

They described, with extraordinary panache, what today we take as commonplace: "The political communication process now tends to strain against rather than with the grain of citizenship ... While politicians often behave as if planting ever more clever messages in the media could be a miracle cure for their power predicaments, journalists often deploy disdain, scorn and shock-horror exposure as ripostes to their threatened autonomy. Meanwhile the voter is left gasping for civicly nourishing air - not expecting to be given it and surprised when it is offered. Our civic arteries are hardening."

But Blumler and Gurevitch do not leave us totally depressed; they offer us a sliver of hope. The process they suggest "appears to have incited a several-sided disgust and spurred new forms of communication, admittedly often imperfect and raucous, but pointing tentatively in the direction of democratic values". They could be describing today's online anarchy of blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Photoshop - but this was written in 1995. That's what I call real insight and the mark of a truly canonical book.

Ivor Gaber, a former BBC and ITN journalist, is professor of media and politics, University of Bedfordshire, and professor of political journalism, City University London.

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