Varnished truths

The Crisis of Public Communication
April 12, 1996

Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch are arguably the most acclaimed students of British television's coverage of general elections. When they use the phrase "crisis of public communication", the rest of us need to sit up and listen. The claim forms the centrepiece of a fascinating collection of essays in which Blumler and Gurevitch have sought not just to bring together their writings covering the field of political communication but also, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, to ask the question, where has it all been leading?

Their story begins at a time when the BBC was still in its formative stages in terms of election coverage. Until 1959 the corporation had strongly believed that any coverage of a general election campaign was a breach of the Representation of the People Act and therefore had to be avoided. And the prevailing climate among BBC journalists at the time was one of deference to politicians and extreme caution lest anyone should raise the spectre of bias.

Gradually life inside Television Centre began to change. The authors highlight three changes they regard as significant. First, there was the growing professionalisation and with it a sense of self-confidence among broadcast journalists who became more certain in their judgements about their own notions of fairness and correspondingly more robust in dealing with politicians' complaints. Second, there was a general loosening in social attitudes, largely resulting from the changing attitudes associated with the 1960s, which had the effect of undermining notions of deference, and some would say respect, towards politicians. And third, there was the "infiltration" of current affairs journalists, coming from a very different tradition to that of the reporter, into the BBC's daily election coverage This infiltration reached its culmination in 1987 with the arrival of John Birt and the eventual merger of the two departments, with current affairs emerging victorious in its power struggle with the more "conservative" forces of television news.

Current affairs journalists had a different approach to journalism, which the authors characterise as "disdainful", as opposed to the "sacerdotal" attitude of the BBC's previous coverage. The "disdainful" approach seeks to report the campaign, to make judgements about the quality of the politicians' offerings and to distance the journalist from the process by seeking to reveal the parties' own media machinations. But this has produced a reaction from politicians, personified by the rise of spin doctors.

Parties now restrict access to programmes and channels that have displeased them; they create news stories "in-house", which are fed to friendly journalists; and they pounce on the utterances and initiatives of their opponents with a speed and precision that means that by the time the next bulletin comes round, the "rebuttal" has not only been formulated but delivered. And all this, say the authors, is at the expense of the voter, who suffers from a lack of rational debate and the artificial creation of party differences where none truly exists.

Hence the "crisis" set out by Blumler and Gurevitch. But it could be argued that the implicit assumption behind any notion of "crisis" is that things used to be better. Better before when? Before the explosion of cable and satellite outlets? Before the Murdochisation of the tabloid press? Before the birth of television? These are all factors identified by some as being inimical to the development of mature public discourse. And yet ever since the birth of the popular press, the mass media have been evolving and changing, and politicians have been lamenting the changes; they greeted the birth of radio by banning the new medium from collecting news or from broadcasting on issues of national controversy. Moreover, even if the parties are today more successful at getting their messages across, is this necessarily a bad thing? At least the politicians have, at some stage, been elected. And is it not the case that general elections are the one time when politicians should have a relatively unfettered right to speak direct to the electorate?

For students of political communication one of the central moments of contemporary British history came in the winter of 1978 when prime minister James Callaghan returned from a summit in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Confronted by reporters at London airport about the growing wave of public sector strikes sweeping the country, he replied: "Crisis, what crisis?", words that were to haunt him in the next general election. A similar verdict might be offered on the thesis of Blumler and Gurevitch. But there are two small problems with such a dismissal. First, Callaghan never uttered those words; they were written by a Daily Mail subeditor. Second, and more important, there is a crisis in political communication - just ask any voter.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmith's College, London.

The Crisis of Public Communication

Author - Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch
ISBN - 0 415 10852 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £12.99
Pages - 237

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