Review of Kuhn and Kleis Nielsen’s Political Journalism in Transition

Political Journalism in Transition My review of Kuhn and Kleis Nielsen’s Political Journalism in Transition has just been published in Media, Culture & Society (37.2).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read the version published in Media, Culture & Society, go here: http://mcs.sagepub.com/

To find out more about the book, go here: http://www.ibtauris.com/

Below is a longer version of my review, available open access on this website.

 

Raymond Kuhn and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (eds), Political Journalism in Transition: Western Europe in a Comparative Perspective. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

 

This edited collection offers a comparative analysis of the contemporary state of political journalism in Western Europe. Its particular focus is on the extent to which political journalism is currently successful at negotiating the tension between, on the one hand, its claim to safeguard public liberty and hold authority to account, and, on the other, its undeniable dependence upon, and necessarily close proximity to, the very people and institutions it is supposed to be holding to account (p. 17). For despite being a formally independent institution, it is nevertheless part and parcel of representative politics (p. 2), an activity that is practised at the intersection of media, politics and the public (p. 12), and arguably, as is so often rhetorically claimed, a ‘fourth estate of parliament’ or ‘branch of government’ in its own right.

The book is split into two parts, dealing first with country-specific chapters dedicated to each of the five different Western European countries selected (France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and the UK), before moving onto thematic issues and historical studies that deal with such countries comparatively. It limits its scope to an understanding of ‘political journalism’ in terms of the product – delivered to the public in the form of conventional news coverage – of interactions between professional journalists and political actors (p. 4) in ‘constant and close contact’ with one another (p. 3), distinct from the broader concept of ‘political communication’, which the editors see as also including public relations and the mediation of politics through entertainment shows. ‘Western Europe’, understood as the relatively similar family (p. 5) of ‘high-income, mixed-economy democracies that remained free of authoritarian influence throughout the postwar period and aligned themselves with the so-called ‘Western world’ during the Cold War’ (p.12), is analysed for the oddity it is rather than for any universal pretensions, particularly because of its ‘unusual 20th Century commitment’ to public service broadcasting (p. 12).   The combination of change and continuity across the region is approached in terms of Hallin and Mancini’s typology of media systems, and their ideal types of liberal, democratic corporatist and polarised pluralist models (including their acknowledgment of the difficulty of categorising either the UK or France in such terms). Each of the country-specific chapters frame their analyses in terms of the main trends that all are experiencing: notably, the technological transition from analogue to digital and online media; the expansion of news content available because of liberalisation and technological transformation; an accelerated cycle of 24/7 news; the rise of personalisation, popularisation and an obsession with ‘politics’ over policy; the crisis of the business model for paid newspapers; and the shift in the balance of power between resource-pressed journalists and increasingly professionalised political sources (pp. 13; 17; 19). While the editors’ introduction covers the external factors that have shaped these recent trends, the bulk of the book deals more with those factors internal to the profession itself; principally the inherently problematic proximity of political journalists to the politicians they are expected (and claim) to hold to account (p. 15), which has been a source of ‘constant and necessary’ tension, rather than a contradiction as such (p. 17), for over 150 years. The editors emphasise the need to pay close attention to the ‘routine interactions’ between journalists and politicians, the ‘informal and formal ties’ that bind them together in alternately ‘adversarial’ and ‘symbiotic’ relationships, as well as the paths by which individuals move from one career to the other, and the higher-level contacts between elite politicians and media owners and executives (p. 16); a need highlighted by the recent News of the World phone-hacking scandal in the UK.

In the most pessimistic chapter of the book, Aeron Davis focuses on the negative impact of the internet and the economic crisis on political journalism in the UK. He reminds us that the ‘questionable daily practices’ at the News of the World can best be understood by analysing them in the context of a broken business model, a high level of ownership concentration and over-close relations between journalists and their sources (p. 127). More generally, he argues that overworked and under-resourced journalists – working in public service as much as commercial media – are becoming increasingly dependent on press releases and strategic leaks that they have little time to critically scrutinise, and diagnoses a contemporary political journalism that is ‘more superficial and sensationalist, less informed and less investigative, more desk-bound, more cannibalistic, and generally more prone to taking newsgathering shortcuts’ than it used to be (pp. 21; 112).   Nevertheless, the democratic contribution of public service media is stressed in Stephen Cushion’s chapter, in which he demonstrates, drawing on his earlier comparative research into empirical studies of national cases, not only that they are dramatically more successful than commercial media at keeping the public evenly informed, but that commercial media are themselves more successful when competing against a strong public service presence, even in countries such as France and Italy where they are less generously funded and less independent (p.22). Indeed, although the partial ban on advertising on PSB channels in France and Spain, and the move to fund PSB through government-set taxes instead, may grant them more secure funding in the short-term context of a current economic crisis and a recent drop in advertising payments, as well as protect them from the influence of advertisers and market censorship, it also leaves them potentially more vulnerable to government influence and defenceless against future funding cuts based on the ideological persuasion of the government of the day (p.169).

While public service television in France struggles to be autonomous because of its historical legacy of governmental control and the continuing intervention in terms of appointments, as well as funding and remit, even privately-owned and advertising-funded media – newspapers as well as television and radio – aren’t clearly autonomous because of ‘close structural and personal linkages’ between state and commercial media (pp. 32-33), while the concomitant business interests of the conglomerates that own French media suggest that a mutual exchange relationship is not entirely unimaginable (p.33). While commentary and opinion have traditionally been more highly valued than accuracy or objectivity as norms and values of French journalism, investigative and watchdog journalism have not been particularly strong features, with the dominant media content to follow rather than lead agenda construction, and journalists tending, particularly in television interviews, to be uncritical and deferential towards politicians. Whether this is because of fear of repercussions, respect for republican values and the position of the President as head of state (or ‘republican monarch’), or because of the proximity of journalists to politicians (pp. 36-40), it makes for a very different form of journalism to the Anglo-American model.   As Raymond Kuhn’s own chapter emphasises, there is a historically close relationship between the state and the media in France, demonstrated also by the particularly intimate relationships between elite politicians and political journalists, the norms and values prevalent in French journalistic culture, the lack of a tabloid press and the particularity of various legal provisions (p. 20), such as the protection of privacy over the freedom of the press. However, his claim that ‘no major daily newspaper…is either owned by or has close organisational links with a party’ (p. 32) curiously ignores the links between the owners of Le Figaro and the centre-right party of which they are members, and the criticisms, even from its own journalists, of the paper’s lack of editorial independence from the party.

Other chapters illustrate further differences between countries. In Germany, for example, where public service media and strong regulation of both public and commercial media have guaranteed a minimum of diversity and balance, 24-hour news channels struggle to survive, while online-only journalism plays a strikingly marginal role as a source of political information (p. 90). At the same time, in Italy, where the polarisation of political culture and the close relationship between media and politics have been enduring features of political journalism, especially in the contemporary contraposition of ‘berlusconist’ and ‘anti-berlusconist’ journalisms, the emergence of online platforms has provided new opportunities for political engagement and contributed to a ‘radicalisation of media partisanship’ (p. 47) that remains nevertheless marginal in terms of audience impact.

For all the differences between national variants, however, the contrast between the reporting of national politics and that of European politics is shared across each of the countries considered. Olivier Baisnée’s chapter on coverage of the EU emphasises the gulf between EU journalism and conventional political journalism, which is increasingly oriented towards personalities, partisan conflict and fast-moving events that are not often associated with EU bureaucracy, consequently challenging the boundaries of the concept and practice of political journalism itself (pp. 22; 145). The intense media interest in the EU in the context of the ongoing Eurozone crisis, he argues, is more a confirmation of the rule than an exception to it, as the face-to-face meetings and fast decision-making that have characterised it during this period are truly exceptional, and features that are usually absent from otherwise ‘un-newsworthy’ EU politics (147).

Overall, the book suggests a conceptual gulf between, on the one hand, the kind of political journalism that is considered to be of interest to the public (and which hard-pressed journalists can realistically be expected to provide) and, on the other hand, that which is in the public interest (and which is likely to be increasingly marginalised). By focusing on a particularly problematic aspect of the relation between media and politics, the authors get to the heart of contemporary debates about the future of media regulation and the extent of state intervention, the role of the market, and the importance of autonomy and independence. It also provides a revealing snapshot of the contemporary landscape, and, in illustrating the contextual differences between media systems and journalistic practices in the ‘west’, contributes to a more informed critique of the realities of political information, engagement and accountability, as well as a richer understanding of the causes and background of recent scandals, involving either media figures, political actors, or both.

Simon Dawes

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