Media, communication, and democracy: Global and national environments – an introduction

Vaclav Štetka and Henrik Örnebring, University of Oxford

Ever since the birth of modern democracies, free speech and an independent press have been regarded as crucial and indispensable conditions for the functioning of a democratic political system. The demise of authoritarian regimes and spreading of democracy in other parts of the world in the late 20th century—which Samuel Huntington (1991) called ‘the third wave of global democratisation’—has even further increased researchers’ interest in the role of media in facilitating democratic transition and enabling subsequent democratic consolidation (particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America). Based on recent developments in the Arab world, which have seen several Middle Eastern countries toppling their authoritarian leaders in events reportedly sparked by and organised through new communication technologies and social networks (Lim 2012, Youmans & York 2012), one can argue that studying the links between media, democracy and democratization processes is as topical as it can possibly be.

The topicality of the issue is also underlined by the current transformation of communication environments, bringing new challenges for journalism and its democratic roles. The process of digitalization and rise of online communication platforms have shaken and considerably altered the way media content is produced, re-produced and consumed, with significant impact on news-making practices, business models, the world views of journalists, and on the nature and style of political communication (e.g. Deuze 2007, Fenton 2009, Levy & Nielsen 2010). At the same time, many old issues and tendencies affecting the position and role of news media in post-transition societies are still present: political and economic pressures on journalistic freedom and autonomy, reportedly on the rise in light of the current period of economic instability and recurring waves of recession; concentration and conglomeration of media industries, posing a threat to market pluralism and diversity in the public sphere; commercialisation and tabloidisation, often swapping critical and socially responsible journalism for infotainment and manufacture of scandals; and the status and independence of public service broadcasting, far from secured and fully safeguarded in the many countries where it has been introduced. And although new network-based communication media undoubtedly carry a potential to bypass traditional gatekeepers and to create a more open, egalitarian and pluralistic public sphere, there are also countless examples of them being used as instruments of manipulation, propaganda, hate speech and other forms of communication which arguably harm, rather than enrich, a democratic society. Yet just like its ‘offline’ predecessors, it is not the medium itself which contains some pre-determined qualities; what essentially matters in terms of impact on politics and democracy is rather the way in which technology is used—as well as the broader social and cultural context of its usage.

For these and other reasons, the relationship between democracy and mediated communication remains complex and internally diverse, and escapes any analysis using one singular equation fitting all particular settings and circumstances. The diverse nature of this relationship becomes especially clear when applying a global perspective, exposing not only divergences in media systems but also in types of democracies. Rather than applying a single research perspective, it is vital to look at the present manifestations of this relationship from multiple viewpoints and through a variety of case studies which are set within different socio-political frameworks, and which deal with different types of media and communication platforms.

This was the aim of Media, Communication and Democracy: Global and National Environments—a conference jointly organised by the School of Media and Communication (RMIT University) and the Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe Project (University of Oxford)—held in September 2011, in Melbourne. The conference brought together academics and media practitioners from new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, the Asia Pacific region, Latin America or Africa, as well as the established areas of Europe and Australia. Adopting a range of different methodological approaches, five of the conference papers are featured here.

Taken together, the five articles in this issue serve to illustrate the on-going mediatisation of politics (e.g. Carag, Brodmerkel & Knagg; Deželan & Maksuti), and also the continued relevance of politics in a mediatised world (e.g. Samarzdija & Robertson). The articles present a global selection of cases covering Australia, Asia, the Pacific, and Eastern Europe. One deals with local and regional variations within a nation (Rao), yet another examines the image of a transnational policy actor (the EU) in a different part of the world (the Pacific, in Chaban, Kelly & Bain). We believe these five articles truly represent the ‘global and national environments’ of the conference title: from established democracies to consolidated and transitional ones, these articles address a wide range of aspects of political communication, including satire, local and regional news, online party communication, election posters and newspaper representations. Yet all are grounded in the basic insight that media not only reflect or represent politics; they also create and construct the political domain.

A key element of the mediatisation of modern democratic politics is the way media position themselves as key agents of democracy. The media construct a centre of society and at the same time place themselves as privileged providers of access to that centre, a phenomenon Nick Couldry refers to as ‘the myth of the mediated centre’ (Couldry, 2003, p. 41). That this is a global phenomenon is clearly demonstrated in the two opening articles in this issue, covering Australia and India respectively. Both articles point to the ways in which media actively contribute to creating their own social role as privileged interpreters of democratic politics. Together, they highlight this important theme in the study of the mediatisation of politics.

First, Nicholas Carah, Sven Brodmerkel and Angie Knagg examine the television show Gruen Nation, which gained high popularity for its critical and satirical meta-coverage of the 2010 Australian federal election campaign. Analysing the programme’s key feature—a panel of invited political commentators and advertising experts exposing and ‘decoding’ campaign materials and political communication for the general public—the authors argue that the show performs a double-edged role. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity for the public to learn about the constructed nature of professionalised campaigns and to get more engaged, while on the other hand it affirms the central position of political advertising in the election process, as well as the status and symbolic power of professional communicators.

This is followed by Ursula Rao’s anthropological study of how the changing Indian media landscape (characterized by simultaneous processes of commercialisation and localisation) also changes the relationship between journalism and politics. The focus here is on the ambiguous role of news media in general, and local/regional papers in vernacular languages in particular. On the one hand, the successful commercialisation of local newspapers give them more power to act independently and criticise political leaders and political networks, but on the other hand, as Rao shows, the critical coverage is highly selective as it ignores and even hides the multitude of ways in which the newspapers themselves function as political actors—ways that may well undermine the positive aspects of network-based politics.

These papers are both studies of more established democracies, Australia and India. The next two deal with nations whose recent democratic histories stretch back just some twenty-odd years (Slovenia and Serbia, respectively), and both papers also in different ways focus on the issues associated with the change from an authoritarian, ideologically relatively homogenous (or ‘monist’, in the words of one of the authors) political system to a pluralist, competitive democracy. In particular, the two studies are about how political parties adapt (or ‘professionalise’) their political communication to cope with the demands of a new party system.

Employing classical content analysis as their primary research technique, Tomaž Deželan and Alem Maksuti analyse and compare Slovenian election posters from both the communist and democratic period. In a global context of networked media, poster campaigning may be perceived as ‘old-fashioned’, but—as these authors point out—in Slovenia parties spend on average over a quarter of their campaign budgets on poster campaigning. Their findings suggest a clear tendency towards more personalised and professionalised styles of campaigning over time, the latter of these characteristics being exemplified by an increasing hiring of experts and importing of campaign know-how from abroad.

In the following article, Anita Samardzija and Shanthi Robertson examine a different type of political communication, one which utilises the Internet as a medium for dissemination of radical political ideology and populist rhetoric. Their case study presents a qualitative analysis of the content of websites established and maintained by the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), one of the main political forces in Serbia in late 2000s. Exposing the discursive strategies the party uses to condemn Western-style globalisation and promote Serbian nationalism on the one side, while attempting to invoke alternative globalist visions on the other side, the article also illustrates the growing importance of Internet media as an uncensored platform for spreading far right political propaganda. Furthermore, the article also points to the ‘globalisation’ of far-right parties, where a key element of professionalisation is formal and informal linkages to far-right parties elsewhere.

The geopolitical context of both these articles is the expansion of the European Union: Slovenia is a member since 2004 and Serbia—despite negotiation setbacks caused by continued ethnic tensions (see for example Schimmelfennig 2008)—remains hopeful that it will eventually join. In the context of democracy and democratisation, the impact of EU conditionality on current and prospective member states has been intensively studied. However, far less attention has been paid to how the EU acts, and is perceived to act, as an agent of development and democratisation in the rest of the world. There are some recent studies in this vein (see for example the selection in Youngs [2010]) and the final article in this issue is very much part of this recent (re-)examination of the role of the EU as a global promoter of development and democracy.

The final article thus takes the issue of the mediatisation of politics from a national to a supranational level. Combining quantitative content analysis with a more qualitative approach, Natalia Chaban, Serena Kelly and Jessica Bain explore representations of the European Union in English-language newspapers from selected countries of the Pacific region. Focusing primarily on how the news featuring the EU are localised and domesticated in the Pacific press, the study finds that the EU is featured most prominently as a local developmental actor, and associated with the image of global ‘good guy’, albeit where development is framed and interpreted more often in economic terms rather than in terms of the promotion of democracy.

From these articles we can learn something that may be a truism but nevertheless bears repeating: while media landscapes are indeed changing, and while political landscapes transform along with them, still many variables remain constant, for good or ill. Ethnic tensions are ever-salient influences on political communication in many national contexts. Electoral competition between more or less consolidated political parties is still the main framework in which much political communication takes place. News is framed in order to tell stories that are attractive and make sense to audiences, rather than in order to provide the best and most comprehensive information possible. In this sense, not only is the study of media and democracy ever topical, but the core issues for research—power and inequality, political competition and quality of information—remain the same.


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Copyright © 2012 (Vaclav Štetka & Henrik Örnebring). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY_ND) License. For information on use, visit Cite as V. Štetka & H. Örnebring. (2012), ‘Media, communication, and democracy: Global and national environments—an introduction’, Communication, Politics & Culture, Vol. 45, pp. 55-59.