Twins in a spin

The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics
October 18, 1996

The launch of The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics raises three questions. First, why had no one thought of this before, second, why is there no equivalent journal in the United Kingdom and, third, why choose such a strange title?

The title is strange because Americans insist on describing the mass media as the press, and doubly surprising given that the conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic is that radio and television are as significant a factor in the electoral process, if not more so, than the printed press. Hence publishing a journal with this title does suggest, to British readers at least, that its range might be more limited than it in fact is. All of which is slightly perplexing given that one of the co-editors is herself a distinguished British academic. The other niggle about the short title Press/Politics is the simple clumsiness of including a forward slash, which we all now associate with web-sites.

Nevertheless, I regard this journal as highly welcome; not only in terms of the quality and range of the articles in its first three issues but for the overall goal it has set itself: "to leapfrog the sadly parochial borders that now separate scholars from journalists." The two co-editors themselves represent a bridging of the theory/practice divide in the world of political communication. Pippa Norris is one of the most ubiquitous and respected of scholars in the field, who, through a number of election campaigns, has worked with broadcasters, bringing the rigours of academic analysis to the television studio's world of instant judgement. Marvin Kalb has moved in the other direction, from being one of CBS News's most distinguished correspondents to the directorship of the innovative Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

The contents of the journal fall into four categories, longer pieces of research, shorter articles, reviews and "personality" features/interviews and articles. It is these last which are the most innovative but oddly the least successful part of the mix. So far, these have included interviews with President Bill Clinton and secretary of state James Baker; there have also been articles by the late Yizhak Rabin and secretary of defense William Perry. But it has to be said the cast is more impressive than the dialogue, for the interviews are in fact written responses to submitted questions and that is how they read, no doubt having been processed through the hands of an army of aides, assistants and spin doctors. Clinton, for example, is asked why he thought the most popular talkshow hosts in the States (who have played a significant part in establishing the political climate) always seemed to come from the populist right. It is a fascinating question opening up debates about whether there is something innately more complex about left-of-centre ideas that do not sit easily with the one-line assertiveness that makes talk-show hosts so seductive. Clinton's answer is, to be kind, mundane. He concludes, after a reference to freedom of speech: "As far as I can tell, radio is a free market, and in the long run, the best ideas will win out."

However, there are significant pieces from both luminaries of the academic field such as Doris Graber and Shanto Iyengar and from equally distinguished practitioners such as Barrie Dunsmore of ABC News, Barry Scwhied of Associated Press and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois.

British perspectives are well represented with an interesting, if unsurprising bias towards comparative work. Three of the most distinguished scholars of British political communication - Dennis Kavanagh, Holli Semetko and Ralph Negrine - all address the so-called "Americanisation" of the British political process. Negrine argues that the debate about the "Americanisation" of British politics is an oversimplification. They suggest that the changes in American and British politics, which in some cases represent convergence, are more usefully conceived as their similar responses to the processes of globalisation, fragmentation and loss of identity.

Kavanagh also examines whether British politics is moving closer to its American counterpart, concluding that the two political cultures are so different that much political culture is simply not exportable. He contrasts the power that American media consultants have vis-a-vis their elected politicians compared with their British counterparts. "British advisers," he writes, "make policy suggestions at their peril." But surely that is precisely the significance of the rise of New Labour's terrible twins, Messrs Mandelson and Campbell, in that they do participate in the policy suggestion, if not policy-making process and are changing the nature of the relationship between Labour politicians and their advisers, and consequently between the politicians and the media. The next few years will provide rich material for any British journal of political communication. Until we have our own home grown product we shall no doubt rely on the excellent coverage we can expect to find in Press/Politics if the standard set in the first three issues is maintained.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and political consultant to ITN.

The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics

Editor - Martin Kalb and Pippa Norris
ISBN - ISSN 1081 180X
Publisher - MIT
Price - $116.00 institutions $61.00 individuals

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