Too much of a good thing: the ‘problem’ of political communications in a mass media democracy

Gaber, Ivor. 2007. Too much of a good thing: the ‘problem’ of political communications in a mass media democracy. Journal of Public Affairs, 7(3), pp. 219-234. ISSN 1472-3891 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

•Francis Fukuyama asks: ‘… is liberal democracy prey to serious internal contradictions, contradictions so serious that they will eventually undermine it as a political system?’ This paper argues that one of these ‘internal contradictions’ is the political communications process and it can be sufficiently serious to undermine the democratic system—but such an undermining is not inevitable. The problem can be described as follows: Democratic systems require that citizens are kept fully informed by governments (and others) in the interests of transparency and ultimately accountability. Hence, all political communications have, as their final objective, the accountability of politicians at the ballot box. Thus all political communications have what can be described as ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line content. The above-the-line is the actual content of the message, the below-the-line is the implicit one of ‘think better of me and my colleagues think worse of my opponents’. Consequently, no matter how personally honest and open an individual politician might be, the democratic system requires her or him to be always thinking about securing a successful result at the ballot box. Thus we have the ‘political communications paradox’. Voters want politicians to be honest and accountable but this very demand means that politicians, implicitly, always have to have another agenda in operation when they are communicating with the public, i.e. securing their approval and then their support. As a result the trust which is a fundamental to the workings of a democratic system is constantly being undermined. This has two effects. First, that governments are obliged to make communications, rather than delivery, their real priority and second trust, not just in politicians but in the political system as a whole, tends to wane over time, which in turn endangers the very system it was designed to underpin. But this decline is not inevitable because the system has some in-built self-correcting mechanisms These include: the rise of new parties and/or leaders who portray themselves as ‘new’ and ‘untainted’—New Labour, New Conservatives, etc., an almost regular ‘re-balancing’ of the power relationship that exists between politicians and the civil service, particularly in the communications field, the rise of new forms of communication that seek to by-pass the institutional roadblocks that are perceived as being the cause of the problems and finally increased attention by journalists and academics to the process of political communications makes it more difficult for politicians to continue with ‘business as usual’ as far as their communication activities are concerned.

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies



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Date Deposited:

22 Oct 2015 14:03

Last Modified:

22 Oct 2015 14:03

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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