Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Earlier, we began to talk about the public sphere. We ended on the pessimistic note, that this was becoming contaminated or colonised by outside forces. Foremost amongst these are the forces of marketing. In response to the public sphere, Leon Mayhew describes the emergence of a new public dominated by advertising, market research, and public relations. All of these are honourable activities, but the goal is to reconstitute interested members of the public as potential customers to be surveyed and the desires catered for them manipulated. To use the words of Justin Lewis, we move from citizens to consumers. So what we are left with is a new form of political audience, an audience subject to testing and manipulation.
Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds An area associated with marketing that I want to focus on is political celebrity. There’s an increasing sophistication in the marketing of the image of public figures such as politicians. And journalists have a role in this. While this personalisation of politicians may have intensified, it’s not altogether new. Calling upon examples such as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Leo Braudy shows us how politicians have developed public profiles since as far back as the 19th century, and probably beyond.
Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds Recently though, we can see the politicians are more inclined to behave like celebrities, both in foregrounding their own image making, but also in associating with other members of the glitterati, of the famous, perhaps in the hope that some of that glitter or stardom may rub off. And as John Street points out, in the context in which policy differences between politicians maybe becoming more slight, or the differences between political parties may be narrowing, personal likeability and trustworthiness may be the only criteria left available to us in order to differentiate between politicians. But as John Corner points out, the transformation of politicians into celebrity type figures is also able to diminish the quality and the seriousness of political life.
Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds The personalisation of politics is often criticised for detracting attention from the questions of principle and policy, and from the real complexities of political events. The rise of celebrity in politics should be seen alongside the rise of celebrity culture more generally. And all of this brings an appetite for scandal. In his history of the subject, Roger Wilkes discusses the journalistic pursuit of scandal as a new wave of journalism from the 1960s as part of a greater emphasis on popular entertainment. Added to this, we can include what is commonly seen as a decline in deference towards the establishment and the great authority figures of the past, such as politicians. When he looks to political scandal, John B.
Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds Thompson cautions that any increase in scandal isn’t a result of an increased moral dereliction on the part of politicians. But not actually is it an increased sensitivity on our part for the moral universe, the ethical standards that politicians are expected to abide by. Rather, the reasons for political scandal can be found in the developing environment within which both journalists and politicians operate. What factors should we think about? Firstly, there’s an increase in the relative visibility of political leaders. A more intensive relationship with media means that political leaders have greater visibility now than in the past. Not only are their faces and personalities well-known, but also their personal failings as well as their political mistakes become more newsworthy.
Skip to 4 minutes and 12 seconds There is also the developing technologies of surveillance. Over the course of the 20th century, media technologies have become more sophisticated and more prevalent, recording and storing more of what politicians say and do, increasing the reserve of material from which and for which they may be held accountable. Added to this, of course, we now have social media such as Twitter where discussions around and featuring politicians can become sources of journalistic copy. How often do we hear or read about gaffes by politicians on social media? There is also changing journalistic culture. Journalism is now more attuned to misconduct.
Skip to 4 minutes and 55 seconds And thanks to the rise of investigative journalism, which we’ll be looking more closely next week, journalists are often now better versed in the skills and procedures needed to uncover misconduct. There is also a changing political culture. Has ideology been abandoned in politics? If so, has politics itself become more bureaucratic and less about the great clashes of ideas. So the appetite for individual failings becomes all the more intense. If journalism is at its best when it’s about people, it should perhaps be no surprise that political journalism is often at its most powerful when it’s blaming people and blaming powerful individuals. Political journalism assists in keeping us informed about what options are available to us as citizens.
Skip to 5 minutes and 46 seconds But it also has a history of holding the powerful to account on our behalf. That often manifests in the personalisation of political stories. However, the task of the journalist is to see that their light shines beyond the powerful individual and into the workings of the system within which they operate. We remain optimistic about journalism’s role in the public sphere. We’ll be looking next week at investigative journalism, with no shortage of examples to lift your spirits. But there are interests outside journalism that for good or ill benefit from manipulating the public sphere to their own ends.
Journalism and popular culture
Watch this short video where Dr Higgins expands on issues such as the popularisation of politics.
To what extent do you agree that journalism has a role in making politics more beholden to personalities? Post your thoughts in the comments area.
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