Television, Politics and the Dumbing-Down of the Electorate
There has been a good deal of speculation in recent years concerning the negative impact of the media, especially television, on politics and political culture in British society, writes Liam French.
Poor election turnout rates and political apathy, particularly amongst young people, is often attributed to the increasing attrition of political culture brought about by the trivialising effects of the media. Politics now has to be packaged in order to grab our attention amidst the many media and communication channels that dazzle and distract us.
To this end, politicians come to rely more and more on PR consultants, press advisors and image-management experts. In today's media saturated society, image management is paramount and manifests itself in various practices such as 'the walk-about' (or ‘the ride-around’ in David Cameron’s case), the press conference or carefully stage-managed public appearance at a high profile media event.
Whatever the occasion, image consultants and media advisors know how to best package the product and get the message across and politicians have to resort to their skills and know-how if they want even half a chance of surviving in the promotional jungle. As a result, politicians tend to promote their parties and policies in ways not unlike a brand image for a well established washing powder or shampoo. Politicians and their policies are now, more or less, like products which have to be sold to the electorate.
Television, in particular, is frequently cited as being detrimental to politics, political culture and public life. Deemed to be essentially ephemeral in nature, television is often accused of reducing politics to personalities and images.
Television's perpetual menu of sounds and images is transmitted across the nation into the living rooms of a jaded and disengaged electorate whose attention can only be grabbed and held by arresting images, sound-bites and simplistic content.
There is, of course, a kernel of truth in all of this. Television has certainly impacted upon the sphere of politics as it has in just about every other facet of social experience and everyday life. In the reporting of politics, television has shifted from an outside position of detached observer, reporting on or about events, to an inside position, subtly shaping and influencing, in complex ways, politics and political events.
Television tends to sacrifice in-depth political analysis and coverage for more theatrical accounts concerning personalities and confrontations between individuals. In the reporting of politics, television adds entertainment values through the dramatisation of events in order to raise interest levels.
It does this by focusing on personalities and conflicts, real or imagined, between individuals. Arguably, television's concern with image and appearance tends to reinforce the primacy of appearances and personalities over political substance and content.
‘GOLDEN AGE’ OF POLITICS
But there are a number of misplaced assumptions behind the claim that television has dumbed-down politics. To begin with, there is the assumption that there once was a 'golden age' wherein politics, and by implication, politicians, was somehow more authentic, more genuine than it is now. In effect, an era where the political message was more important than the medium, where substance and content were more important than surface or appearance and where image and personality had no bearing on political campaigning and how people voted.
And yet, in many respects, there is very little 'new' about politicians and leaders needing to present a carefully constructed self-image to the public. The importance of visibility in politics and the management and presentation of a carefully concocted public image to the populace can be traced back to ancient times.
The media sociologist John Thompson points out that image management is the most ancient of political arts. What is new in the current media-dominated and image-saturated cultural landscape are the rules and terms of engagement for both politicians and the electorate, whose hearts and minds (and votes) they hope to capture. This is because visibility is now significantly more important, the audience considerably larger, and the stakes so much higher.
GREATER PUBLIC SCRUTINY
In many respects, the traditional distinctions between politics, culture, everyday life, the media and the market place no longer apply. Television is not solely responsible for this, but it has played a part in the process.
Television has been called the great ‘leveller’ - a medium that voraciously reduces material to its own frames of reference and concern with image, spectacle, surface and appearance. In terms coined by the literary critic F. R. Leavis, we might say that television 'levels down' - it reduces everything to the lowest possible common denominator in order to appeal to the mass audience.
But it isn't so much a case of levelling down as it is a case of 'flattening-out'. The cultural boundaries and contours that once demarcated politics from commerce and the market place on the one hand, and politicians and political culture from ordinary, everyday-lived culture on the other hand, have now been well and truly broken down.
The media, and in particular television, have played an instrumental role in this process and, arguably, this is not such a bad thing. If anything, television has facilitated the exposure of politics and political activity to even greater public scrutiny.
Abuses of power are brought into view. Political shenanigans and wrong doings are relayed, mulled over and dissected in the white heat of the media spotlight. Television's ability to relay images and sounds from around the globe means that the consequences of foreign policy or the impact of military intervention can be instantaneously viewed and evaluated by millions on a global scale. Political gaffes, outbursts, leaks and scandals proliferate and reputations can be forged and destroyed in the space of a week.
In sum, television has been effective in breaking down much of the mystery surrounding politics and political activity. Politicians are now accountable for their words and actions. If anything, visibility and image management is far more precarious today than it ever has been.
The fragile construction that is the public image of the politician is subject to close scrutiny and is more vulnerable now than at any other time before. No matter how well-crafted the public persona, no matter how well-oiled the publicity machine, there will always be the possibility of that off-the-cuff remark being caught on video-tape, the unanticipated egg-throwing protester bursting into the frame during a pre-planned walk-about, unscheduled questions from awkward journalists and so on.
Rather than bemoan the effects of television on politics, perhaps we should view its impact and influence more positively. Politicians now have to give much more consideration to dealing with the media in general and television in particular.
Politicians, more often than not, have been drawn away from their traditional domains, (or power bases), and into more visible spaces in order to give interviews or address the public and, as a consequence of this, they are far more exposed. Put simply, politicians are now much more accountable to the electorate because of the increasing visibility that television affords them. Sometimes this works in their favour. Sometimes it doesn’t.
NEW MODES OF ENGAGEMENT
In certain respects, television has facilitated the broadening out of politics and political activities and our access to it through its inclusive, (albeit mediated), coverage of events, social problems and social issues.
Television also reminds us that politicians are, after all, only human and fallible. Instead of mourning the decline of politics in the television age, it might be more productive to acknowledge that political communication is changing beyond recognition. New modes of engagement are emerging and new definitions of what constitutes politics and political communication are required rather than accusations of dumbing down backed up with nostalgic reflections about what politics used to be like in the 'good old days' before television.
- Liam French lectures in Media and Sociology at the College of St. Mark and St. John. He is the co-author of Television Studies, Key Concepts, published by Routledge.