This article is part of a Javnost – The Public special issue on Media Freedom and Stricture that I co-edited with Annette Hill.
Following previous work in applying the capabilities approach to the study of media, communications and culture, this article will consider the merits of applying a capabilities-supplemented account of cultural citizenship for evaluating the legitimacy and efficacy of the public sphere. Drawing on the work of Nancy Fraser on the public sphere and Nick Couldry on voice, the article will focus on the extent to which “voice” can be understood as a “fundamental capability.” For Couldry, “voice” can also be articulated as a “connecting term” alongside other normative frameworks, such as citizenship or the public sphere. Such a supplementary approach is necessary to avoid the universalism and paternalism to which normative and prescriptive accounts of citizenship and the public sphere are prone, as well as the absolutist libertarianism of free speech fetishists that often serves the benefit of those with rather than without voice. It also serves the function of grounding such abstract concepts in more concrete and measurable practices and social processes, while politicising the depoliticised accounts of rights and freedoms the capabilities approach tends to produce. Ultimately, it also enables a recasting of media freedom in terms of a focus on the public rather than the media.