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Chapter 17: Liberal Reform and Normativity in Media Analysis

Published onSep 11, 2019
Chapter 17: Liberal Reform and Normativity in Media Analysis

The relationship between liberal democracy and media freedom is of course fundamental to the democratic well-being of societies. To state the contrary is to court controversy and possible ridicule. Yet amongst the sections of the Left and those who might be termed social liberals or progressives, the entanglement of socially progressive liberal ideals and aspirations with economic liberalism and its material consequences has hitherto been fraught with challenges. As Julian Petley,1 John Keane,2 and many others have observed, economic freedom is generally applied to conceptions of media freedom to the detriment of democratic culture. Those defending economic liberalism argue that in order to have a truly free press, societies must have an unconstrained economic media environment. These tensions between social liberals and economic liberals are longstanding and show little sign of being resolved in these neoliberal times.

My main argument, developed more fully elsewhere,3 is oriented towards two particular interrelated areas of debate within media and, more specifically, journalism studies that I think are pertinent to questions of the relationship between liberalism and the media. The first relates to media structures and particularly to the debate about media reform. The second concerns the growth of work on role perceptions of journalists and media workers.

The first part of my argument addresses what I will call structural normativity in media analysis. What I’m interested in here are the often implicit normative claims that are made in areas of media scholarship that relate to so-called ‘media systems’, media structures, and the political economy of the media. In sum my argument is that the basis of the normative claims that are ostensibly rooted in liberal political theory—claims that are generally made about the role and functions of journalism in contemporary society—are lacking in critical rigour as they are too firmly embedded in outmoded conceptions of democracy and democratic theory. Such analyses, I suggest, are dependent upon a decrepit conception of political culture and liberal democratic participation that sees media and journalism as facilitators of democratic politics and plurality, yet which are unable to deliver on the promise of democratic freedom because journalism and the media more broadly are stifled by the priority of profit. Generally, debates about the need for greater media plurality, accountability, and representation are articulated in order to challenge, or at least highlight, the commercial imperatives of large media corporations and stress the democratic deficit that contemporary business models of journalism promote. If we look to how this work filters through into the realm of journalism and media policy, we see it most starkly in the United Kingdom in the work of campaign groups like the Media Reform Coalition, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and Hacked Off. These groups provide important critical spaces and pressure points that highlight where the commercial imperatives of media organisations, which stifle democratic deliberation and representation, are confronted. Such groups of course gain intellectual substance from a long tradition of critical scholarship into media systems, structures, and processes. However, I suggest that the central problem of such groups, and of some of the intellectual currents that they draw from, lies in their aspirations to reform media policy in ways that aspire to the cultivation of a more accountable, representative, and diverse media environment. Yet within the confines of neoliberalism, such calls for reform seem harder to attain then ever. What do these terms actually mean within this neoliberal era, given the prevailing liberal orthodoxy? I contend that such claims, though laudable, are often made without sufficient critical engagement with normative foundations; or without providing a sufficiently clear notion of how reform might stimulate/cultivate enhanced political participation and political culture; or, more importantly, without considering what such a reinvigorated political culture might look like given the current context of neoliberalism.

This brings me to the second part of my argument. The work on role perceptions within journalism studies is something that has seen significant development in recent years. This research builds on the work of Wolfgang Donsbach4 and examines the lived experiences, perceptions, and motivations of those working within the journalism and media industries. It is orientated towards understanding how media workers and journalists see their roles. Again, such lived experiences are often articulated or framed in relation to a set of general normative claims concerning democracy and the deliberative power of journalism and media systems. In this work we see a tendency to offer idealised notions of journalism and its democratic functioning, within a reflective framework that highlights the contradictions and tendencies within the production of news and amongst news workers themselves. In contrast to the aforementioned structural analyses, this work draws on lived experiences and insights in order to explore issues of democratic accountability and representation from the perspective of journalists themselves.

Though offering a valuable insight into the workings and changing dynamics of journalism in different contexts, this work suffers in much the same way as the reform orientated narratives in that it has the tendency to claim implicitly or at least draw attention to the idea that democratic culture is something that requires rehabilitation and that the media, and journalism practice in particular, are important sites for such rehabilitation. Yet again this journalistic praxis is gauged in relation to what I would argue are a degraded set of ideals and aspirations; degraded in the sense that the grip of neoliberalism that, despite its crises, shows no signs of being challenged by new ideas and new ways of imagining democratic society. Such work is redolent of a form of identity politics in which the social construction of journalism or the journalist is seen as the central site of conflict and contestation, and thereby as the solution to the problems of journalism and its democratic deficit. Such work, however, tends to be divorced from a rigorous engagement with important concepts and debates such as, for example, the nature and character of political deliberation, the substance of political culture, or indeed the nature of contemporary democracy itself.

In sum, my argument is that we need first to reconceptualise journalism’s functions and take a closer look at some of the normative claims and aspirations with which many strands of journalism and media studies research engage, and to ask the question: are the normative claims upon which such analyses of media are made in need of serious theoretical reconsideration? I would answer this question in the affirmative.

Where might we begin such a theoretical reconsideration? How might we move the discussion forward? One way to start might be by broadening our analysis, and it could be that we can then start to move towards the development of ideas towards which journalism praxis might more optimistically be oriented. Ultimately it may be that we need to start to think beyond the ideas of James Madison, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey—all key contributors to the liberal democratic idea of press freedom—and to re-imagine conceptions of deliberation and political participation in ways that might underscore new normative foundations. Here I am mindful of the work of Jodi Dean,5 who analyses how critical responses might emerge from within neoliberal societies yet still be critical of and possibly transcend such a context. Dean’s work attempts to rehabilitate a Marxian analysis, which grapples with the complexities of contemporary capitalism in ways that offer new opportunities for understanding the very basis of democratic culture and critical politics. More specifically Dean’s analysis of ‘communicative capitalism’ orientates us towards thinking about how neoliberalism has co-opted much of the moral capital from the reformist Left and incorporated it into its own manifestations of power and authority. She suggests that under communicative capitalism ‘Right and Left share the same rhetoric of democracy, a rhetoric merging ethics and economics, discussion and competition so that each is a version of each other.’6 Drawing on Slavoj Zizek, she demonstrates that the communicative and deliberative opportunities provided by our new communication environment are ultimately subsumed into the politics and culture of liberal individualism, and therefore limit any genuine opportunities to move outside or beyond our current predicaments. She goes on to suggest that ‘the problem isn’t democratisation. It is the Left’s failure to think beyond democracy and defend a vision of equality and solidarity, its unwillingness to reinvent its modes of dreaming.’7 While it remains important to counter neoliberal culture and politics and to contest neoliberalism’s incursions into everyday life, we should also think hard about Dean’s challenge in order to imagine new visions of politics that do not cling to decrepit notions of liberal political idealism.


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