Introduction It can be argued that at a general level politicians in the contemporary world now need to respond to the demands of the media in a way they did not formerly. Politics has become ‘mediatised’, to use Meyer’s (2002) term, with the media’s inexorable logic strongly influencing the way the political classes conduct themselves, and in significant ways, politics is now carried on through, and with reference to, those media (Schulz 2004). There is also a growing sense that the performance of the media is crucially significant, since the representation of politics has direct consequences for effective democracy and political accountability. Disquiet about this performance is evident, with some commentators feeling that the media is fixated with process over substance (Blumler and Gurevitch 1995), and that, as a consequence, politicians will be too. Yet the direct role of the media in policy development is under-explored, as various contributors to this volume attest, and clearly the dynamics of the processes involved are not as well understood as they ought to be. Figure 4.1 illustrates, in a necessarily simplified form, the constellation of players involved in these processes, and the way they are connected. The public can influence the media in a number of ways (B). Media content is, in part, influenced by audience demand expressed through the market. As a corollary, journalists are highly attuned to what the public want to read and watch, expressed in their sense of what newsworthiness is or has news value. Last, the public can have a direct impact via their direct involvement in coverage, as vox pop. The media, for their part, can encourage citizens groups or sectional interests to organise and mobilise – the recent petition against road pricing in Britain perhaps being an example (G). Sectional interests may also mobilise, but do so to influence or lobby government more directly (H). And governments, in turn, can encourage the integration of sectional or organised interests into existing policy networks (I). But they are also responsible for programmatic or legislative output, which directly impacts upon the public, one and all (C). As we might expect in a representative democracy, there is also a place for a reverse connection here, one between public preferences and government policies (D). Indeed, Hobolt and Klemmemsen’s (2005) rather mono-dimensional
quantitative model of British and Danish politics suggests that changes in issue salience for the public (particularly on unemployment and the economy) pre-date policy changes, and they conclude that these governments are, in fact, responsive to their citizens. But, their study completely fails to engage in any way with a range of other important factors. For instance, the mass media’s influence on the salience of particular issues (McCombs 2005) is completely unexplored (A), as is the impact on media content of governments and of other significant political interests (F1 and F2). Their model scarcely touches on the government’s direct responses to media coverage, a theme of many of the other contributions to this volume (E). Nor does it seem to acknowledge the response of legislators to the media’s perceived influence – the notion of a ‘third person effect’ (Herbst 2002; Perloff 1993; Kepplinger 2007). However, this general weakness is not entirely unknown in this research domain (Burstein 2003). The analysis which follows seeks to address some of these gaps, and it focuses on Britain and on the economy, particularly the issue of unemployment
– perennial preoccupations of governments and citizens alike. But rather than looking at the policy process in this domain and the media’s direct role in policy development, attention is focused on news coverage of the issues, and at its subsequent impact on the public (A). This exploration should also help illuminate the connection – if there is one – between the activities of government or of organised interests and the mass media, at the level of content (F1 and F2). It should also help us appreciate the prominence of citizens within reports (B). Finally, it is hoped that an understanding of the influence of coverage on citizen’s attitudes will place the relationship between government and public (D) in a much clearer perspective. The underlying assumption in what follows is that governments and many organised interests actively and continually seek to influence the policy debate and the policy agenda, although as we will see, they are not always successful. We can explore and hypothesise a causal connection between media activity and political or policy developments (Walgrave and van Aelst 2006; and in this volume, Walgrave and Lefevere, as well as Howarth, and Strünck). The following analysis will contend that we need a much more prominent place for the notion that this connection can, potentially, run in both directions, with politicians and other organised interests seeking to influence media coverage. In a sense we have to theorise a circuit or cycle of influence. But we need to conceptualise integrated, dynamic and reciprocal relationships, and this holds true for the connection between activities of governments or other organised interests and the coverage they get. Importantly, this conceptualisation, as we will demonstrate, should emphasise conditionality. In other words, it should acknowledge the contingencies of image management, the vagaries of media receptivity to government or other elite voices, and the uneven impact on the public of any subsequent coverage.