ABSTRACT

The ideal of the well-informed citizen served by a watchdog media that holds governments to account, and a government that places accurate information in the public domain, is seen as a pre-requisite for representative democracy. In recent decades, however, this has been considered to be in trouble. Many accounts of central governing bureaucracies in Western liberal democracies claim that the balance of power has tilted in favour of politicians and away from the administrative arm of government (Eichbaum and Shaw 2010; Hustedt and Salomonsen 2014). This process is referred to as a form of ‘top-down politicization’ in which political parties become the ‘principal agents’ (Peters and Pierre 2004a:287). Within Westminster systems such as the UK’s, which are characterised by an extreme form of executive dominance, the risk of ‘party capture’ of publicly sensitive functions such as government communication has traditionally been mitigated by a strict, albeit self-regulated, culture of impartiality (Lijphart 1999; Aucoin 2012). In the UK government press officers are bound by their propriety codes to provide information that is ‘objective and explanatory’ rather than ‘party political’ (GCS 2015:10). Yet from the late 1990s, a series of major controversies, such as the discredited dossier leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, and, more recently, the 2016 EU referendum campaign (Chilcot 2016; Halligan 2016; Herring and Robinson 2014) raised concerns that government communication activities were becoming increasingly partisan and untrustworthy, leaving the public under-served and disillusioned (Blumler and Coleman 2015; Foster 2005; Yeung 2006). As the Trump experiment indicates, public distrust in media and governing elites is widespread, and one response has been the rise of populism and more personalised forms of direct political communication through social media.