Political communication and democracy
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Political communication and democracy
Political Communication in Postmodern Democracy
Also by Kees Brants
THE MEDIA IN QUESTION: Popular Cultures and Public Interests (co-edited with
Joke Hermes & Liesbet van Zoonen)
Also by Katrin Voltmer
PUBLIC POLICY AND THE MASS MEDIA: The Interplay of Mass Communication
and Political Decision Making (co-edited with Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten)
THE MASS MEDIA AND POLITICAL COMMUNICATION IN NEW
in Postmodern Democracy
Challenging the Primacy of Politics
Introduction, selection and editorial matter © Kees Brants and Katrin
Foreword © Jay G. Blumler 2011
Afterword © John Corner 2011
Individual chapters © Contributors 2011
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work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published 2011 by
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Political Communication in Postmodern Democracy : Challenging the
Primacy of Politics / Edited By Kees Brants, Katrin Voltmer.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978–0–230–24335–4 (hardback)
1. Journalism—Political aspects. 2. Mass media—Political
aspects. 3. Communication in politics. 4. Democracy. I. Brants,
Kees, 1946–, editor of compilation. II. Voltmer, Katrin, 1953–, editor of
compilation. III. Beus, J. W. de (Jos W. de). Audience democracy. IV. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne
List of Figures, Tables and Appendix vii
Foreword: In Praise of Holistic Empiricism ix
Jay G. Blumler
Notes on Contributors xiii
1 Introduction: Mediatization and De-centralization of
Political Communication 1
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer
Part I New Approaches to Political Communication
2 Audience Democracy: An Emerging Pattern in Postmodern
Political Communication 19
Jos de Beus
3 Representation and Mediated Politics: Representing
Representation in an Age of Irony 39
Part II Mediatization: The Changing Power Game between
Politics and the Media
4 Mediatization and News Management in Comparative
Institutional Perspective 59
5 Spin and Political Publicity: Effects on News Coverage
and Public Opinion 75
Claes H. de Vreese and Matthijs Elenbaas
6 Changes in Political News Coverage: Personalization,
Conflict and Negativity in British and Dutch Newspapers 92
Rens Vliegenthart, Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Jelle W. Boumans
7 A Changing Culture of Political Television Journalism 111
Judith Stamper and Kees Brants
8 A Question of Control: Journalists and Politicians in
Political Broadcast Interviews 126
Katrin Voltmer and Kees Brants
9 The Elephant Trap: Politicians Performing in Television
Liesbet van Zoonen, Stephen Coleman and Anke Kuik
Part III De-Centralization: New Forms of Citizenship
and Political Communication
10 Political Consumerism as Political Participation? 167
11 The New Frontiers of Journalism: Citizen Participation in
the United Kingdom and the Netherlands 183
Tom Bakker and Chris Paterson
12 The New Cultural Cleavage: Immigration and the Challenge
to Dutch Politics and Media 200
Philip van Praag and Maud Adriaansen
13 The Mediation of Political Disconnection 215
Stephen Coleman, David E. Morrison and Simeon Yates
14 ‘Voting is easy, just press the red button’: Communicating
Politics in the Age of Big Brother 231
15 What’s Reality Television Got to Do with it? Talking Politics
in the Net-Based Public Sphere 248
List of Figures, Tables and
1.1 Changes in political communication 4
5.1 Media mentions of ‘spin doctors’ in the
United Kingdom and the Netherlands, in
absolute counts per year 80
6.1 Trends in personalization in Dutch and British
newspapers between 1990 and 2007 102
6.2 Trends in presidentialization in Dutch and British
newspapers between 1990 and 2007 103
6.3 Trends in conflict and cooperation news in Dutch and
British newspapers between 1990 and 2007 104
6.4 Trends in negativity in Dutch and British newspapers
between 1990 and 2007 105
9.1 Number of politicians who appeared in Have I Got News
for You (black bars) and Dit was het Nieuws (grey bars) 148
11.1 Typology of citizen participation in the news 188
12.1 Newspaper coverage about ethnic minorities from 1991
to 2005 206
5.1 Political public relations cynicism by experimental
condition, health care experiment 83
5.2 Political public relations cynicism by experimental
condition, air security experiment 83
5.3 Effects on political public relations cynicism by
experimental condition: regression model examining
political PR cynicism as the criterion variable 85
6.1 Comparison of coverage in the years 2006 and 2007
in British and Dutch newspapers 101
6.2 Comparison of coverage during election periods and at
routine times in British and Dutch newspapers between
1990 and 2007 106
8.1 Frequency and determinants of interruptions of politicians
by journalists (% of turn-taking resulting from interruption) 138
8.2 Types of question asked by journalists and subsequent
response from politicians (%) 139
8.3 Reaction to questions and answers (%) 140
8.4 Determinants for controlling the interview (means) 141
9.1 Themes and repertoires of politicians talking about Have
I Got News for You and Dit was het Nieuws 159
10.1 Socially conscious consumption in the United Kingdom
and the Netherlands: Mean scores of responses on a five-
point scale from never (1) to very often (5) 174
10.2 Examining the relationship between socially conscious
consumption and political participation in the
United Kingdom 176
10.3 Examining the relationship between socially conscious
consumption and political participation in the
12.1 Educational levels, political interest and political cynicism
of the three groups (%) 208
12.2 Daily media use of the three groups (%) 209
15.1 The normative analysis 258
15.2 The use of expressives in relation to political talk 261
9.1 Politicians who have appeared on Have I Got News for You
and Dit was het Nieuws 161
viii List of Figures, Tables and Appendix
Foreword: In Praise of Holistic
Jay G. Blumler
Political communication is an exceptionally rich, complex, fluid and
important sub-field among those that populate the overall field of
communications studies. Scholarship has not always done suitable
justice to those characteristics – either focusing discretely on isolated
particulars or striving to comprehend it all in one grand-theoretical go.
Take how it has changed over time. Since the end of World War II, the
prime medium of political communication has been first the press, next
network television, next multi-channel television and soon, perhaps, an
Internet–television hybrid. Other major changes – for communicators,
media content, audience/citizens and for political institutions themselves –
have followed in train. We need frameworks that can capture such devel-
opments, identifying and pursuing the research questions they highlight.
Take complexity. As Jack McLeod and his colleagues (McLeod,
Kosicki & McLeod, 2010) have often stressed, political communication
is eminently a multi-level field. At its simplest, it links political culture,
political actors, media organizations, including the roles played by
political journalists within them, and bodies of increasingly heteroge-
neous and varyingly involved citizens. We need frameworks that can
help us to understand how these relationships work, how they evolve,
how they feed on each other and in what ways they matter. For matter
they do, since political communication is inescapably a normative
domain, intimately involved in the realization (or failure to realize) of
collectively self-determining processes of citizenship and democracy.
Of course people’s political and communication values will differ, and
nobody of empirical evidence can definitively determine which among
them are superior. Nevertheless we do need frameworks and research that
can shed light on the ideas and information that are made available to
citizens by existing and prospective communication arrangements and
on the models of democracy that they do or do not make possible.
Readers interested in grasping political communication in all the
above respects will get a great deal out of this book. It conceptualizes
the role of political communication in what the editors call a ‘post-
modern democracy’, shaped by formative, ongoing, incomplete and
tension-ridden processes along two over-arching dimensions.
Along a horizontal dimension, political institutions and media
institutions – politicians and journalists – face each other and interact,
collaborate and struggle, read each other and adapt – in what is ulti-
mately a joint production of political messages. Following Mazzoleni
and Schulz (1999), the authors identify the process of ‘mediatization’
as central here, whereby political actors increasingly adapt to media
demands, media logics and media perspectives on politics itself. As the
authors interpret it, however, this is a variable and uneven process
(it may be more advanced and take different forms in different polities),
and attempts to reverse the tide cannot be ruled out, whether by
news management or ‘disintermediation’ (circumventing mainstream
news media via channels of more direct access to voters, such as the
Along a vertical dimension – that which links political and media
elites with audience members and citizens – a lot, confusingly, seems
to be going on: new relationships, new roles, new voices, as well as
new challenges, problems and frustrations. The authors sum this up in
terms of a process of ‘decentralization’. Previously positioned chiefly
as communication receivers, more audience members are now or may
become more active communicators themselves. There are now plenty
of citizen journalists, bloggers, tweeters and e-mailers. Consequently some
politicians and journalists have felt compelled to insert themselves into
this mêlée. As the authors interpret it, however, this is an incomplete
process with diverse facets, eddies and possible ramifications (includ-
ing the polarization of political stances and a strengthening of populist
movements). Of course, much of this is itself horizontally directed.
How far it has, or will have – and in what ways – a vertical momentum,
reaching elites from the bottom up, as it were, remains to be seen.
The book stems from a fruitful mode of collaboration, being the
joint product of leading political communication scholars based in
Leeds in the United Kingdom and in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
This adds value to their work and illustrates three advantages of cross-
national research. One is the pooling and adjustment of ideas from
different but compatible academic settings. Another is the possibility of
establishing that a phenomenon found in one national system is also
manifest in another – thereby taking a step toward broader generalization.
But yet another is the possibility of identifying how cross-nationally
different macro-level characteristics of political communication systems
(as a case in point, comparing Holland’s traditionally consensual political
culture with Britain’s more adversarial one) may impinge on the organi-
zation, conduct or content of political communication at other levels.
The authors have adopted all three approaches with profit, although
I happen to consider that the third represents comparative political
communication analysis at its most revealing best.
Finally, what might this tell us about norms of citizenship and
democracy? Different readers will no doubt interpret the book’s findings
in diverse ways. From my own point of view, two concerns emerge. One
is reflected in the book’s sub-title. The Primacy of Politics is certainly
being challenged by developments on both dimensions of political
communication – by mediatization horizontally and audience turbulence
vertically. But is all that entirely healthy? When leaders have continually
to look ahead to news media predilections while looking over their
shoulders at disagreements, complaints and disaffection on the ground,
how much space is left for them to tackle the issues of the day on their
own complex terms? My other concern is about the kind of democracy
that we may be inhabiting. The emerging political communication system
that Brants, Voltmer and their colleagues portray seems more frag-
mented than in the past, more centrifugal than centripetal, shot through
with multiple communication outlets, multiple voices and multiple issue
agendas, all cycled (thanks especially to the ever-changing role of news
values) and scene-shifted swiftly from one short time period to the next.
For me, this conjures up an image more of a ‘hit-and-run’ democracy
than, say, a deliberative one.
The excellence of this book reminds me, nostalgically, of how 33 years
ago the late Michael Gurevitch (my dear long-standing collaborator and
friend) and I argued that ‘the study of political communication could be
enriched by adoption of a systems outlook’. We itemized its advantages
First, it links diverse bodies of evidence in broader analytical per-
spectives. Second, there would be antidotes against the tendency to
under- or over-emphasize any single element of the political commu-
nication system. Third, by drawing attention to system factors which
might have macro-level consequences that could be measured and
compared, cross-national investigations would be facilitated.
(Gurevitch & Blumler, 1977, p. 271)
These benefits are amply demonstrated in this book, and so, in the
words of the rousing spiritual, I urge other scholars to:
Get on board, li’ll chillun!
Get on board, li’ll chillun!
Get on board li’ll chillun!
There’s room for many a more!
Gurevitch, M. & Blumler, J.G. (1977) ‘Linkages between the mass media and
politics: A model for the analysis of political communication systems’. In:
Curran, J., Gurevitch, M. & Wollacott, J. (eds) Mass Communication and Society
(London: Arnold), 270–90.
Mazzoleni, G. & Schulz, W. (1999) ‘“Mediatization” of politics: A challenge for
democracy?’ Political Communication 16(3), 247–62.
McLeod, J.M., Kosicki, G.M. & McLeod, D.M. (2010) ‘Levels of analysis and
communication science’. In: Berger, C., Roloff, M. & Roskos-Ewoldsen, D. (eds)
The Handbook of Communication Science (Thousand Oaks: Sage), 183–200.
Notes on Contributors
Maud Adriaansen studied economics at the Free University and political
science at the University of Amsterdam. While working as a market
researcher, she is also finalising her PhD on media use, political cyni-
cism and voting behaviour at the Amsterdam School of Communication
Research (ASCoR). Her research interests include young people’s atti-
tudes and behaviour, political communication and political marketing.
Tom Bakker is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School of Commu-
nication Research (ASCoR). He works on the project Citizen Journalism,
Media and Politics. Among other things, his research focuses on
the content of political blogs and the consumption of various new
media, like social networks, Twitter and weblogs. Before coming to the
University of Amsterdam, Tom worked for various news media. He holds
a Master’s in Communication Science and in Journalism and Media,
both from the University of Amsterdam.
Jay Blumler is Emeritus Professor in Public Communication at the
University of Leeds and Emeritus Professor of Journalism at the University
of Maryland. He has published numerous books, including The Crisis
of Public Communication (1995, with Michael Gurevitch). He is a fellow
and former president of the International Communication Association.
In 2006 he was given a lifetime achievement award by the American
Political Science Association.
Hajo Boomgaarden is Assistant Professor for Political Communication
at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, Department
of Communication at the University of Amsterdam. His research
interests concern media portrayals of politics and election campaigns
and media effects on political attitudes and behaviour. European Union
politics and immigration are main points of interest. His work has
been published in European Journal of Political Research, Communication
Research, International Journal of Public Opinion Research and European
Jelle Boumans is a graduate of the research master programme in com-
munication science at the University of Amsterdam. He has specialised
in the field of political communication and graduated with a thesis on
personalization in the news in a longitudinal perspective.
Kees Brants is Senior Research Fellow at the Amsterdam School of
Communication Research and holds the chair of political communi-
cation at Leiden University. His research and publications focus on
political communication, journalism studies and media policy. Before
studying political science and mass communication at the University
of Amsterdam, he studied journalism in Utrecht and worked for several
years as a reporter for local and national newspapers in The Netherlands.
He has written more than ten books (with one exception – The Media
in Question, edited with Joke Hermes and Liesbet van Zoonen – all in
Dutch) and published extensively in journals and edited books.
Robin Brown is a Senior Lecturer in International Communications at
the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. He has
been a Shapiro Fellow at the School of Media and Public Affairs, George
Washington University, Washington, DC. His research focuses on elite
aspects of political communications including news management and
the role of the media in the policy process. He is currently writing a
book on networks and public diplomacy.
Valentina Cardo is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Political,
Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her
research focuses broadly on the relationship between politics and
popular culture. She is currently working on a new project, which inves-
tigates the representation of women politicians in UK and US television
Stephen Coleman is Professor of Political Communication at the
Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. His two most
recently published books are: (with Jay G. Blumler) The Internet and
Democratic Citizenship: Theory; Practice; Policy (Cambridge University
Press, 2009), which won the American Political Science Association
award for best book on politics and information technology, and (with
Karen Ross) The Media and the Public: ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ in Media Discourse
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is currently writing a book about the affec-
tive and aesthetic dimensions of voting, which is to be published by
Cambridge University Press.
John Corner is currently Visiting Professor at the Institute for Com-
munication Studies, University of Leeds and an Emeritus Professor of the
University of Liverpool. He has published widely in books and journals
and his major works include Television Form and Public Address (Arnold,
xiv Notes on Contributors
1995), The Art of Record (Manchester University Press, 1996) and Critical
Ideas in Television Studies (Oxford, 1999). Recent publications include
the edited collection Media and the Restyling of Politics (with Dick Pels,
Sage, 2003) and the authored volume Public Issue Television (with Peter
Goddard and Kay Richardson, Manchester University Press, 2007). His
current research includes inquiry into documentary form and the rela-
tionship between media and political culture.
Jos de Beus was lecturer in welfare economics at the University of
Amsterdam (1977–1994), Humanistic Alliance professor of political
philosophy at the University of Twente (1991–1994) and full professor
of social philosophy and ethics at the University of Groningen
(1995–1998). Since 1999 he has been full professor of political theory,
political culture and their history at the Department of Political Science
of the University of Amsterdam. His current research interests are the
public sphere, political representation and their transformation in an
age of globalization, Europeanization and mediatization. De Beus is
Chair of the Dutch Association of Political Science.
Claes de Vreese is Professor of Political Communication and Scientific
Director of The Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR).
He has published more than 60 articles on various topics relating to
political journalism, news, public opinion, campaigns and electoral
behaviour. For more information: www.claesdevreese.com.
Matthijs Elenbaas is a PhD Candidate at the Amsterdam School of
Communication Research (ASCoR). His current research focuses on
the relationship between political awareness and attitudes towards
European integration. He has published in international peer-reviewed
journals, including Journal of Communication and the International
Journal of Press/Politics. Matthijs holds a Master’s in Communication
Science from the University of Amsterdam.
Todd Graham is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department
of Journalism Studies and Media, University of Groningen, The
Netherlands. He received his PhD from the Amsterdam School of
Communication Research, University of Amsterdam in October 2009.
His dissertation ‘What’s Wife Swap Got to Do with It? Talking politics
in the Net-Based Public Sphere’ focuses on online deliberation and
the public sphere. His main research interests are (new) media and
democracy, popular culture and democracy, participatory journalism,
and public sphere theory.
Notes on Contributors xv
Anke Kuik recently completed her Master’s in communication sci-
ence at the University of Amsterdam. She is now an independent
David Morrison is currently Professor of Communications Research at
the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. He has
published widely on the history of communications research and the
institutionalisation of knowledge, moral protest movements, audiences
response to social issues and methodological developments. His most
recent book is Media and Values: Intimate Transgressions in a Changing Moral
Landscape (Intellect 2007), which examines the moral incoherence of
the contemporary world and the way that this shows up in empirical
research in terms of individual attitudes, opinions, tastes and judgement.
Chris Paterson teaches at the Institute of Communications Studies
of the University of Leeds. His research concerns the production of
international news, news agencies, and media in sub-Saharan Africa.
His book on television news agencies is due to be published in 2010.
His career has been divided between the UK and the US (where he has
also worked in television production and journalism). He has written
many book chapters and journal articles, and co-edited the anthologies
International News in the Twenty-First Century (2004) and Making Online
News: The Ethnography of New Media Production (2008, with a new edition
due in 2011).
Judith Stamper is Principal Teaching Fellow in Broadcast Journalism
at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds and
a lecturer specialising in the broadcasting institutions, television news
journalism and the reporting of politics. She was a BBC journalist for
twenty years before taking up her academic post.
Philip van Praag is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director
of the bachelor programme Political Science at the University of
Amsterdam. He is affiliated as a senior research fellow at the Amsterdam
School of Communication Research. His research focuses on political
parties, election campaigns, political marketing, referendums and the
political role of the media. He published many articles about election
campaigns and referendums in The Netherlands and has co-authored
with Kees Brants several books about recent Dutch election campaigns.
Liesbet van Zoonen holds the Chair in Media and Communication at
Loughborough University, and is Professor of Popular Culture at Erasmus
University Rotterdam. Until 2009 she was Professor of Media Studies at
xvi Notes on Contributors
the Amsterdam School of Communication Research. She is the author
of Entertaining the Citizen (Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), and numerous
other works about politics, popular culture and gender.
Rens Vliegenthart is Assistant Professor in Political Communication at the
Department of Communication Science and at the Amsterdam School
of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. He is
a board member of the Center of Politics and Communication (CPC).
His research interests include politics-media interactions, election cam-
paigns and social movements. Recent articles have appeared in Party
Politics, International Sociology, and European Journal of Political Research.
Recently he received a grant from the Dutch Science Foundation for a
large comparative research project on the impact of media coverage on
Katrin Voltmer is Senior Lecturer of Political Communication at the
University of Leeds. Her research interests include media influences
on public opinion and the policy process, the relationship between
journalists and their news sources, and the role of the media in demo-
cratic transitions. Recent publications include Mass Media and Political
Communication in New Democracies (Routledge, 2006) and Public Policy
and Mass Media: The Interplay of Mass Communication and Political Decision
Making (with Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten, Routledge, 2010). She is currently
finishing a book on ‘The media in transitional democracies’ for Polity.
Janelle Ward is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and
Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests
include new media and political communication, particularly how
information and communication technologies can be used to stimulate
political engagement and participation. She completed her PhD research
at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) in 2008.
She maintains a blog at http://janelleward.wordpress.com/.
Simeon Yates is Professor at Sheffield Hallam University and Director
of the Cultural, Communication and Computing Research Institute
(C3RI). This role includes oversight of the Art and Design, and the
Communication and Computing Research Centres. Professor Yates
has a background in the social and natural sciences. He has previously
worked at the Open University and at the University of Leeds. He has
been researching the social and cultural impacts of the internet and
digital media since 1990. His current research interests include new
media, language, and interpersonal interaction; new media and culture;
scientific and technical communication; and discourse analysis.
Notes on Contributors xvii
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Over the past couple of decades, political communication has undergone
dramatic changes, which are believed to have far-reaching consequences
for the way in which democratic politics works. Never before have
politicians put as much effort, resources and sophistication into com-
municating with citizens as today. But this seems to only further fuel
public mistrust in the authority and honesty of political leaders. The
traditional mass media – broadcasting and the printed press – are
equally confronted with a shrinking and increasingly fragmented
audience, whose volatile tastes and interests make it ever more difficult
for the media to secure their survival. The young, in particular, no
longer regard the information provided by professional journalism as
relevant to their own lives and have instead turned to the wide and
diffuse spaces of the Internet to satisfy their needs for entertainment
and information. So, is political communication turning into a Babel
in which new communication technologies, which exceed everything
mankind has previously known, or even dreamed of, produce nothing
more but grey noise of meaningless and disjointed messages nobody is
listening to? What does it mean for modern democracy when those in
power lose their ability to communicate with those they are supposed to
represent? And what does it mean for journalism when the recognized
language of professional news reporting is undermined by a growing
chorus – some would call it cacophony – of divergent and alternative
voices that have rarely been heard before in public? And, finally, where
is the space for citizenship when there is no longer a central space, or
modern ‘agora’, within which views and opinions can be expressed and
challenged, and perhaps consensus achieved?
Introduction: Mediatization and
De-centralization of Political
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer
This book sets out to address these questions. It aims to advance our
understanding of the multiple and rapidly changing faces of political
communication in contemporary democracy, a democracy both suffering
from and challenged by the uncertainty of post-modernity: uncertainty
about the content, process and location of politics; about the reliability
and claims of truth and trust by both politicians and journalists; about
the enduring value and role of grand narratives and ideologies; about
the uneasy challenges coming from the implosion of the boundaries
between high and popular culture; from the innovative and empow-
ering possibilities of new technologies and from a public that can
be optimistically demanding as well as negatively cynical. Some
authors in this book may be more at ease with these characteristics
of post-modernity and are inspired by its challenges; others feel more
uncomfortable and either try to come to terms with what they find
or point out the adverse effects.
The essays that are collected in this volume provide fresh insights,
combined with new empirical evidence, into the dynamics of the
public representation of politics that is now more media-centred and
more demand-driven than ever before. The central hypothesis, which is
addressed by all contributors to this volume from different angles and
perspectives, assumes that political actors, such as governments, political
parties and other elites of established political institutions, are losing
control over the way in which politics is communicated and interpreted
in the public sphere. Together the findings suggest a complex, often
contradicting, dynamic process of centrifugal forces that pull political
communication towards ‘media logic’, popular culture and consumerism.
At the same time, political communication elites have been quick to
develop new strategies of communication in the hope of maintaining,
or regaining, their defining primacy and dominance in the public arena.
Central to these processes of adaptation and innovation is an awareness
of, and coming to terms with, an ever-shifting and ambiguous public
that can be distrustful as well as involved, turning its back on media
frenzy and spin while celebrating popular culture and embracing the
opportunities that new communication technologies offer to them to
express themselves and participate in public life.
Political communication scholars have tried to come to terms with these
changes, and a large body of literature has been accumulated that is both
rich and limited in scope: rich because of the broad range of concepts and
empirical evidence it offers; limited because the majority of this research
is confined to elections and the American context (see Bennett & Entman,
2001; Kaid, 2004). In this book we build on this work, but aim to expand
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 3
the perspective by discussing the changes in political communication
from a comparative point of view with a focus on the United Kingdom
and the Netherlands – although references to more global trends in
political communication will be made throughout to keep in mind the
wider context in which these two cases are embedded. Furthermore, we
suggest an analytical framework that will enable us to understand the
interconnectedness of different developments that are presently occurring
simultaneously. In the following section we elaborate on how this model
can be utilized to understand the fundamental changes that are taking
place in contemporary political communication. This will be comple-
mented by a discussion of the rationale for the two-country comparison
of this book, followed by a brief overview of individual contributions.
Towards an analytical framework
The changes in contemporary political communication can be under-
stood as taking place in two distinct, albeit closely interrelated dimensions.
The horizontal dimension describes the relationship between politicians
and the media – that is, the political communication elites who together,
but also in competition with each other, are creating and disseminat-
ing political messages for mass consumption. The vertical dimension
denotes the interaction between the two sets of political communication
elites on the one hand, and the citizens as the ultimate addressee of these
messages on the other. Together these two dimensions of change encom-
pass the triangular relationship between political actors, the media and
the audience that has previously been described within the social and
institutional space of political communication (Blumler & Gurevitch,
1995). Figure 1.1 presents this argument graphically.
It has to be noted that the arrows in the model refer to assumed develop-
ments rather than directions of influence, as is usually expressed by arrows.
We conceptualize the main development on the horizontal dimension as
‘mediatization’, and that on the vertical as ‘de-centralization’. These bold
arrows represent the central hypothesis of this book, stipulating a loss of
control of politicians and political institutions over the public debate. The
arrows in reverse direction denote counter-strategies and contradicting
developments that strengthen the central role of the political vis-à-vis the
growing dominance of ‘media logic’ and new forms of citizenship.
Mediatization: The horizontal dimension
The relationship between politicians and journalists has always been
characterized by a high degree of ambivalence that shifts between
complicity and open power struggle. As Blumler and Gurevitch (1995)
have pointed out, these two sets of actors are constantly involved in
negotiations over the political agenda that is publicly communicated,
the frames in which contested issues and political realities are defined,
and the visibility and image of its players. Since both actors depend on
each other’s resources to achieve their own goals – politicians need the
media for publicity, journalists need politicians as authoritative sources
of information – the authors assume an overall balanced power relation-
ship between these actors.
Recent literature has challenged this view, arguing that the power
balance is increasingly shifting towards a situation where the media
have the ultimate control over the public agenda (Blumler & Kavanagh,
1999; Strömbäck, 2008; see also Stamper & Brants and Voltmer &
Brants, in this volume). The notion of subsequent ‘ages’ of political
communication put forward by some of these authors implies a more
or less linear development from the media being subordinate to political
actors who are able to instrumentalize them for their own purposes,
through a balanced relationship as described in Blumler and Gurevitch’s
approach, to a media-centred political process that is dominated by the
media’s logic of presenting political matters. In contrast, Bennett (1990)
comes to very different conclusions when analysing the influences that
shape the public agenda. According to his theory of ‘indexing’, rather
than challenging the dominant elite discourse, the media mainly follow
the way in which the government defines the salience and framing of
Figure 1.1 Changes in political communication
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 5
These contradictory views indicate that changes in the relationship
between political actors and the media are unlikely to follow a uni-
directional pattern, and that the degree of control each side is able
to exert varies according to various factors, such as the issue at hand,
events that might favour or damage the authority and credibility of one
of the actors involved, shifts in public opinion, institutional changes,
the introduction of new communication technologies and – last but not
least – the particular cultural and political context in which political
communication takes place.
A key concept for describing the coming of the ‘third age’ of political
communication is the notion of mediatization. Mazzoleni and Schulz
(1999) distinguish between ‘mediation’ and ‘mediatization’ to identify
this change. While the former refers to a simple transmission of messages
through media technologies or media organizations, the latter goes
much further, describing a situation ‘where political institutions [are]
increasingly … dependent and shaped by mass media’ (p. 247). Meyer’s
(2002) notion of ‘mediacracy’, where the political process is ‘colonized’
by the imperatives of the media game, points in a similar direction.
However, both Mazzoleni and Schulz, and Meyer emphasize that media-
tization does not mean that politics is taken over by the media, since
political institutions retain their ability to function according to their
own rules and objectives. Nevertheless, it remains an open question as
to what extent dependence on the media and adaptation to their logic
of operation does indeed gradually affect the process and institutional
structure of politics, and even the policy outcomes of political decision
making (Koch-Baumgarten & Voltmer, 2010).
News management and political marketing can be seen as an attempt
by political actors to regain the upper hand in the communication
process. This is particularly evident during election campaigns. Political
parties around the world have made great efforts to professionalize their
campaign strategies in order to win an increasingly volatile elector-
ate (Lees-Marshment 2004; Negrine, Mancini & Holtz-Bacha, 2007;
Swanson & Mancini, 1996; see also Brown in this volume). A key
element of the professionalization of campaign communication is its
adaptation to the media’s values and operational logic of presenting
political matters. As a consequence, election campaigns – and political
communications in general – have become more candidate-centred,
image-driven, polarized and spectacular, and less organized around
issues and ideologies (Patterson, 1993).
However, mediatization comes at a price, because the struggle for
control forces political actors to accept the terms and conditions of
‘media logic’. Even if one does not agree with Meyer’s (2002) claim
of a ‘colonization’ of politics by the media, the rise of strategic news
management has far-reaching effects. First, mediatization has changed
the way in which political parties organize and select their top personnel.
Party leaders are more likely to be chosen because of their ability to
deal with the media rather than their skills of building alliances across
social groups and factions. The shift towards media campaigns has also
led to a centralization of party hierarchies and the growing influence of
‘spin doctors’ on the decision-making process while local activists and
grass-root canvassing have become marginalized (Bennett & Manheim,
2001; Wring, 2005).
Second, professional news management has eventually undermined
the foundations of cooperation between journalists and politicians.
As political actors become more sophisticated at playing the media
game journalists feel increasingly instrumentalized and threatened in
their independence. This has resulted in a ‘spiral of mistrust’ between
these two groups, characterized by an evolving culture of disrespect
and mutual contempt (Brants et al., 2010). For example, in Britain the
rising power of ‘spin doctors’ turned the initial ‘honeymoon’ between
journalists and the Labour party’s charismatic leader Tony Blair into
an atmosphere of growing hostility and suspicion. In the 2001 general
election the media made ‘spin’ a dominant issue by disdaining whatever
message the Labour Party brought to the public agenda. Eventually,
after a series of dramatic confrontations, especially with the BBC, the
government came to appreciate the adverse effects of excessive control
(Jones, 1999; McNair, 2004).
Third, rather than winning the hearts and minds of citizens, strategic
communication is believed to have contributed further to undermining
public trust not only in politicians, but – more worryingly – in demo-
cratic institutions. As readers, listeners and viewers learn to recognize
the manufactured nature of news, cynicism and disillusionment with
politics grows and with it a dramatic erosion of trust and political
engagement (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; see also De Vreese & Elenbaas
in this volume).
So far, our discussion of mediatization has focused on political actors
and their strategies to control the public representation of politics.
Turning to the media, journalism has undergone equally fundamental
changes. Following extensive commercialization and the subsequent
segmentation of audiences, journalists have taken on more varied roles.
First, the increasing competition in the media landscape has forced
journalists to respond to the logic of the market and to take the needs
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 7
and interests of their audiences more seriously into account when
covering political issues. While the disappearance of journalistic pater-
nalism should be welcomed, the consequence of market-driven journalism
is frequently translated into the widely observed de-politicization of
political coverage, with hard news becoming marginalized to give way
to a style of political reporting that is guided by political personae and
celebrity culture (see, for conflicting data, Vliegenthart, Boomgaarden &
Boumans in this volume). New hybrid formats have emerged that mix
political information and entertainment, such as infotainment, politain-
ment, political talk shows and reality television. Meanwhile, political
reporting is increasingly characterized by tabloidization. No longer are
human interest stories, sensationalism and colloquial language confined to
the tabloid press. The quality press and public service news programmes
are employing similar formats to attract new audiences, or at least to
prevent a further erosion of circulation rates (Brants, 1998; Franklin, 1997;
Sparks & Tulloch, 2000). While many observers have expressed concerns
about these trends as a ‘dumbing down’ of news quality, others have
found that the new formats of presenting politics have the potential to
attract the interest of audiences that would otherwise stay away from
political information (Baum, 2002; see also Van Zoonen, Coleman &
Kuik in this volume).
Second, journalists have largely abandoned their traditional mix of
sacerdotal, subservient yet at the same time investigative orientation
towards political authorities and institutions to take on a more pro-active
and adversarial role in the political communication process. Political
coverage has adopted more interpretative framing, focusing on the
strategy behind political decisions and the ulterior motives of politicians,
on conflicts between parties and politicians and on where politics has
failed, while what has been achieved seems to have less of a news value.
In some instances media have even launched campaigns for particular
issues (for example, the ‘naming and shaming’ of paedophiles in the UK
and miscarriages of justice in the Netherlands). This development seems
to indicate, in some instances, a more populist, anti-establishment and
moral crusader style of empathic journalism; in others, a politicization
of journalism, which, however, is driven by commercial interests and
sensationalism rather than the watchdog ethos or conventional partisan-
ship that have traditionally inspired critical reporting (Allan, 1999;
To sum up, while the relationship between political actors and the
media is a highly ambiguous one and involves contradictory develop-
ments that have taken place simultaneously, mediatization has made
‘media logic’ an integral part of day-to-day politics. Furthermore, new
journalistic roles and the new trend of adversarial and interpretative
journalism are posing a fundamental threat to politicians’ traditional
role as shapers of political news and leaders of public opinion. Even
so, the assumption of a uni-linear trend towards ever more mediatiza-
tion, which seems to underlie the notion of successive ‘ages’ of political
communication, appears questionable, as politicians begin to recognize
the limitations and trade-offs of strategic communication. It also seems
to ignore the existence of an active public and the potential of the
Internet to counter the assumed linearity, which will be discussed in
the next section.
De-centralization: The vertical dimension
The vertical dimension of our model refers to the relationship between
political communication elites – media and political officials – on the
one hand, and ordinary people in their role as citizens, voters or audi-
ences, on the other. Changes in this dimension can be described as
de-centralization. As citizens increasingly challenge the legitimacy and
credibility of institutionalized politics as well as traditional media insti-
tutions, they are turning away from ‘high politics’ towards alternative
or simply non-political spheres of communication.
One important driving force that challenges the primacy of politics
in the vertical dimension is the partial disappearance of the citizen,
at least as we know him or her from textbooks of liberal democracy.
Participation in elections has declined dramatically, as has membership
of and engagement in traditional political organizations, such as politi-
cal parties and trade unions. Meanwhile, large parts of the citizenry
have opted out from following political information as conveyed by
news and current affairs programmes. It is particularly the younger
generation of citizens who show such alarming signs of disengagement
from mainstream political communication.
However, this does not necessarily mean that people have withdrawn
from politics altogether. Instead, new forums of public debate have
been created at the fringes of the governmental political process that
attract specific segments of the population. By employing new styles
of communication and focusing on a different range of issues, these
alternative public spheres provide information that people experi-
ence as more relevant to their daily lives than mainstream news. While
political parties are losing their followers and failing to recruit new
ones, large numbers of citizens, especially of the younger generation,
engage in issue-specific political action, ranging from local concerns to
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 9
anti-globalization movements (Norris, 2002). Another emerging form
of political engagement is political consumerism. It describes a shift
in citizens’ orientations away from established ideologies that present
values and policies as coherent packages and towards single issues and
pragmatic solutions. In this view, political parties are seen as service
providers who offer health care, education, public transport and so on,
but no longer attract long-lasting loyalties or passions. Instead, daily
activities like buying certain products and rejecting others, patterns of
consumption and lifestyle choices are used as manifestations of politi-
cal preferences that cut across the established lines of partisan politics
(Bennett, 2003; Lewis, Inthorn & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2005; see also Ward
in this volume).
The Internet has emerged as the major communication space where
these developments are taking place. It provides a forum where people
can express and share their views within virtual communities that
crystallize around a broad range of people, topics, tastes and concerns.
The Internet has also become a powerful tool of mobilization, through
which political action – from electronic sit-ins, to spontaneous mobs
to highly organized international demonstrations – may be initiated
within a very short period of time and across national boundaries.
With its openness, interactive structure and flexibility, the Internet has
fundamentally changed the position of the public from simply being at
the consuming end of political communication to active, creative and
vocal citizenship. With regard to the shifts in power indicated by the
vertical dimension, it can be hypothesized that online communication
may further exacerbate the marginalization of institutionalized politics.
By allowing for many-to-many exchange of ideas, the Internet has created
opportunities for bottom-up communication, for the expression of the
public’s worries and desires, for participation in interactive policy
making, and for the citizen consumer to politicize consumption and
press for companies’ corporate social responsibility (Scammell, 2000;
see also Graham and, for a less optimistic view, Coleman, Morrison &
Yates in this volume).
The Internet has also created opportunities for countering the tradi-
tional top-down communication of existing mass media, through the
activist online journalism of alternative watchdog sites like Indymedia,
DotJournalism (UK) and Extra! (Netherlands), and through the citizen
journalists who use weblogs, digital cameras and mobile phones to
communicate news and opinions and often distance themselves from
the values of their professional counterparts. These developments have
the potential to pose a serious threat to professional journalism and
might ultimately change the nature of political news (for a critical
discussion of this see Bakker & Paterson in this volume).
Even though forms of de-centred politics provide new opportunities
for political debate and participation, it remains an open question as
to whether they have actually engaged otherwise detached and passive
citizens. It might well be that they have simply provided already politi-
cally active members of the public with additional options to comple-
ment their already effective repertoire of participation, thereby further
widening the gap between those who have a say and those who remain
in oblivion. Another concern about de-centred politics is the potential
of a multiplicity of public spheres to increase fragmentation and even
‘balkanization’ (Sunstein, 2001), in which separate communicative
communities breed their own narrow world views, if not prejudices,
without taking into account the views of other people, or indeed society
as a whole.
Another consequence of the de-centralization of politics is that it
introduces what has traditionally been regarded the non-political sphere
into the political realm. The commercialization of the media has made
popular culture a multi-billion dollar industry and a dominant part
of everyday life that shapes the lifestyle and identity of citizens, and
in turn what they expect from politics and politicians. As Corner and
Pels (2003, p. 2) argue, by trying to adopt features of a culture industry,
politics is ‘blurring the boundaries and levelling the hierarchy between
“high” political representation and “low” popular entertainment’ (but
see, for a more open position on this issue, Van Zoonen, Coleman &
Kuik in this volume). Party conventions have been turned into showbiz
events, and political conflicts into serialized soap operas. For example,
in Britain the relationship between ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his
successor Gordon Brown has been portrayed as a drama of friendship,
rivalry, betrayal, victories and defeats. Conversely, when immersing
themselves into the world of entertainment and fantasy people do not
enter a ‘politics-free zone’. As Street (2001, p. 60–79) argues, entertain-
ment – films, comedy, soap operas, popular music, and so on – commu-
nicates a view of politics through the stories it tells, the personalities of
its heroes and villains and the values it promotes, even though politics
is not explicitly mentioned (see also Cardo in this volume).
Both journalists and politicians have responded to the shift of power
away from the centres of institutionalized politics in various ways, rang-
ing between desperation and genuine attempts to reinvigorate public
debate and bring citizens back in. Realising that an elite-driven, top-
down style of communication is one of the major impediments for a
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 11
viable relationship with their constituencies, politicians have embarked
on strategies to meet people where they are. Populism is probably the
most significant development that has successfully merged media logic
with anti-elitist politics (Mazzoleni, Stewart & Horsfield, 2003). So far,
populist politics has mainly been employed by outsider candidates
whose radical rhetoric, emotional appeals and charismatic personalities
have secured them extensive media coverage, as their style conven-
iently fits the requirements of a more market-driven and empathic
journalism. The rise (and death) of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands
provides an example of the symbiotic relationship between populist
leaders and the media. The considerable popularity and electoral success
of populist leaders has forced established parties to adopt both stylistic
and content-related elements of their populist rivals.
Like the ongoing changes on the horizontal dimension of political
communication the dynamics in the relationship between political
communication elites and citizens is ambiguous and complex. Both
hypotheses – mediatization and de-centralization – imply a process
whereby established political communication elites are losing their
ability to control the public debate and the way in which political issues
are framed. However, politicization of the periphery and de-politicization
of the common ground of day-to-day politics are occurring simultane-
ously, leading to entirely new patterns of political communication.
Meanwhile, political actors and the media alike are learning to adapt to
the challenges – and unprecedented opportunities – of a demand-driven
communication environment that opens up new avenues of direct com-
munication with consumers and voters. A striking example of this process
of adopting new formats of communication for traditional politics is
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, in which his effective use
of new communication technologies ignited an enthusiasm for ‘old’
politics that many observers believed had been lost forever.
Mediatization and de-centralization in comparative
The discussion in the previous section has been conducted at a rather
abstract and generalized level. However, the degree and forms of
changes in political communication are to a large extent determined
by the cultural and political context in which they take place and thus
cannot be assumed to be universal. This book therefore takes a com-
parative perspective by including analyses of political communication
in two countries whose political institutions and media systems differ
in significant ways: the Netherlands and the UK. According to Hallin
and Mancini’s (2004) conceptual framework of comparative political
communication research, the two countries fall into different ideal–typical
models, with the Netherlands categorized as ‘democratic corporatist’
and the UK falling into the north-Atlantic ‘liberal’ model.
While both countries are parliamentary systems, the British parliament
is elected through a majoritarian, first-past-the-post system, resulting
in the dominance of two main political parties that have alternated in
forming the government. (However, the 2010 election seems to have
upset this regularity, with a third party, the Liberal Democrats, challenging
both the hegemony of the established two-party system and the electoral
system that so much favours it.) In contrast, the Dutch political system
uses proportional voting that always leads to multi-party government
coalitions. It can be assumed that these institutional differences are
reflected in a particular political communication culture (Pfetsch,
2004), with a more confrontational relationship between politicians
and the media in the UK and a more consensus-orientated communica-
tion culture in the Netherlands. Previous research has also shown that
strategic news management is less advanced in more consensus-oriented
countries like the Netherlands, while the fight for the median voter in a
two-party system encourages professional news management and spin
(Brants & Van Praag, 2006; see also Brown in this volume).
The two countries also differ with regard to their respective media
systems. For example, in the Netherlands tabloid newspapers have been
largely unknown, whereas public service broadcasting was for a long
time highly politicized along the established ‘pillars’ of political cleavages,
although the significance of this is now fading, and the interactions
between media organizations and political parties are changing. On
the other hand, the British press has been, and still is, characterized by
sharp ideological divisions and a strong and highly competitive tabloid
market, while a strong public service broadcasting sector, led by the BBC,
provides a national forum of balanced reporting. The segmentation of
the British media into high- and low-quality and opposing partisanship
alongside a strong marketization is assumed to result in a stronger pull
towards ‘media logic’ that does not stop at the gates of public service
Finally, both societies have seen large numbers of immigrants over
the past decades and have subscribed to the ideals of a multi-cultural
society. While people have historically shown a great deal of tolerance
(or quiet indifference) towards the diversity of cultures and lifestyles,
this has recently come under threat on both sides of the Channel.
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 13
However, it is only in the Netherlands that populist leaders with a
strong anti-immigration agenda have gained wide-spread popular
support (see Van Praag & Adriaansen in this volume). This is not to say
that the British press, in particular its tabloid papers, have not adopted
populist rhetoric: on the contrary. But it seems that so far the political
elites in Britain have largely resisted the populist temptation, and that
the majoritarian voting system has proven an effective bulwark against
the rise of populist parties.
Most of chapters in this book present a direct comparison between
the two countries (Bakker & Paterson; Brown; de Vreese & Elenbaas;
Stamper & Brants; Van Zoonen, Coleman & Kuik; Voltmer & Brants;
Vliegenthart, Boomgaarden & Boumans; Ward). Where, due to the lack
of available data, this did not prove feasible, topics were ideally covered
by complementary chapters that explore the issue from the perspec-
tive of each of the countries. Comparing a broad range of develop-
ments and aspects of political communication in such diverse political
cultures as the UK and the Netherlands within a coherent theoretical
framework as outlined in this introductory chapter provides a unique
opportunity to challenge established assumptions and to expand our
understanding of continuity and change in political communication.
The comparative perspective can lead to surprising discoveries as to
where differences and similarities lie, and force us to posit explanations
as to the underlying forces that bring about these patterns. Thus,
comparative research reduces the trap of national idiosyncrasies,
whereby a single case can reflect an unexpected and unknown excep-
tion instead of presuming that it applies everywhere. It reduces the US
(and sometimes UK) focus that dominates most political communica-
tion research, where it has sometimes led to biased, even mistaken
assumptions about the nature of the relationship between politics and
the media. And, finally, although in this case only two countries are
covered, comparison invites a reflection on the possibility of broader
The overall structure of this book follows the theoretical framework
that aims to unpack the divergent and interrelated developments of
mediatization and de-centralization and the counter-movements this
Part I brings together two theoretical essays that present innovative
conceptual approaches to the understanding of political communica-
tion in contemporary democracy. De Beus, focusing on the horizontal
dimension, draws on, and further elaborates, the notion of audience
democracy, whereas Coleman, looking more at the vertical dimension,
reflects on the changing nature of representation as a performative and
Part II is devoted to the horizontal relationship between political
actors and the media and the struggles and strategies this involves. Two
chapters in this section (Brown; De Vreese & Elenbaas) zoom in on the
politics of spin, with the former providing an institutional explanation
for different levels of the professional use of spin in different national
contexts, and the latter investigating the effects of ‘metacoverage’ of
spin doctors on public perceptions. In their chapter, Vliegenthart, Boom-
gaarden and Boumans trace the changing patterns of political coverage
over time, and challenge the assumptions of a general trend towards
personalization, conflict and negativity. Stamper and Brants then
explore the changes in political journalism through the eyes of those
involved – journalists and politicians – and how these actors explain
and evaluate such trends. The study by Voltmer and Brants uses political
broadcast interviews to analyse how politicians and journalists negotiate
control over the political agenda of the day in front of an ‘overhear-
ing audience’. Finally, Van Zoonen, Coleman and Kuik look into the
experiences of politicians who have chosen to leave the ‘safe’ and
established realms of political news programmes and appear on comedy
shows, which may provide them with opportunities to show their
authenticity, humour and ‘normality’. Together the chapters of this
part demonstrate (and sometimes challenge) the assumed mediatiza-
tion of politics, the increasing tensions between political and media
actors, their mutual perceptions and the strategies they employ as ways
to maintain their autonomy and to emphasize their professionalism.
Part III turns to the vertical dimension of political communication
by linking the changing relationship between politicians and journal-
ists with the tendency towards de-centralization, which is presumed
to strengthen the position of the general public in the face of the
political and media elites. The first two chapters of this part investigate
the growing distance between citizens and their elected representatives.
Coleman, Morrison and Yates use focus group discussions to explore
the reasons why people in the UK feel increasingly disconnected
from political life and party politics. Van Praag and Adriaansen dis-
cuss the erosion of traditional party alliances and the emergence of
populist politics in the Netherlands. Ward’s study looks at the scope
and forms of political consumerism and questions its effectiveness as
political participation. Bakker and Paterson take a similarly sceptical
view when analysing the impact of citizen journalism on established pro-
fessional journalism. The two final chapters then explore the political
Kees Brants and Katrin Voltmer 15
in the world of entertainment and popular culture: Graham discovers
lively political discussions on the Internet discussion forums linked
to the reality television shows Big Brother and Wife Swap, while Cardo
analyses how the format of Big Brother imitates political forms of
A summary discussion of the findings of the book and a broader
outlook on their implication is finally provided by Corner’s Afterword,
which identifies overarching themes and issues, and points at new lines
of enquiry for future research.
This book is the product of a collaborative project between the
Department of Communication Science, University of Amsterdam
(Netherlands) and the Institute of Communications Studies, Leeds (UK).
The Editors wish to thank both departments for their continued and
generous support, which made it possible to run a workshop and a
two-day conference at which the theoretical framework of this volume
and individual chapters could be discussed in depth.
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Strömbäck, J. (2008) ‘Four Phases of Mediatization: An Analysis of the
Mediatization of Politics’. International Journal of Press/Politics 13(3), 228–46.
Sunstein, C. (2001) republic.com (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Wring, D. (2005) The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party (Basingstoke:
New Approaches to Political
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Audience Democracy: An Emerging
Pattern in Postmodern Political
Jos de Beus
Mediacracy, government by spectacle, plebiscitary democracy, spectator
democracy, telecracy, informational politics, public relations democracy,
mobocracy, drama democracy, fan democracy, blockbuster democracy,
media democracy, monitory democracy: the lack of a fixed technical
term for political communication in postmodern Western societies is
revealing. Accounts splinter off in all directions and are often moraliz-
ing and adversarial.1 What they generally share is a concern over what
was once apparently a symbiotic relationship, a reasonable and com-
fortable living-apart-together. The relationship between politicians and
journalists, between party and press, was considered a marriage de raison
in which one more or less depended on the other: journalists needed
politicians for news about government and for information about what
took place in the policy process; politicians needed journalists for news
about society and for media exposure – to be seen to be acting respon-
sibly and in the public’s interest. It is as if the partners have since filed
for a divorce and the marital quarrels are fought out openly.
Not to add to the confusion, but on the basis of its theoretical
relevance and heuristic value in understanding the political behaviour
of journalists and media, I want to focus on yet another concept, the
model of démocratie du public or audience democracy, developed by the
French-American political theorist Bernard Manin (1997). It starts with
the liberal principles of democracy, namely: free elections, indepen-
dence for elected politicians, freedom of expression for voters and free
debate about public decisions. It explores the transformation of such
principles in a historical sequence: the turn from parliamentarianism
after the bourgeois revolutions in the United States, the Netherlands
20 Audience Democracy
and France to audience democracy in the West since the end of the
Cold War and the ‘third wave’ of democratization, via a long interlude
of ‘parties’ democracy’. Furthermore, the model of audience democracy
focuses on the public sphere and the laborious transition from politics
with a core of party conferences, characterized by social cleavages,
inclusive (and overlapping) membership and deferential news media, to
a politics with a core of television programmes, characterized by public
troubles, campaign parties and assertive news media.
In this chapter, I will briefly outline the main features of audience
democracy, with Manin’s view given first. Then, on the basis of a
number of propositions, I will elaborate the interplay between public
politicians and political journalists. Next, I will examine the role of
campaign parties in conflict resolution and leadership – and the way
in which they adapt the obsolete mass-membership party to the new
world of multimedia networks without neglecting the need for public
policy innovation and restoration of ties between the citizen and the
state. I will conclude with a discussion of the resilience of the freedom
of professional politicians and journalists.
A theory in four features
While not doing full justice to Manin’s theory of audience democracy one
could summarize it as conceptualizing the development, in the 20 years
since 1990, from traditional parties’ democracy – where the political
party was the dominant actor in the field of politics, the party pro-
gramme the leading principle and competence the virtue for which
politicians strived and with which they legitimized their politics – to
audience democracy – in which personalities are favoured over the party,
performance over the programme and authenticity over competence.
Audience democracy resonates with Edelman’s (1967) notion of symbolic
politics. He claimed, 30 years before Manin, that the instrumental
dimension of politics was gradually being replaced by a dramaturgical
one and by spectacle, while political actors employed symbols and rituals
for public consumption via the media.
In terms of real world trends or testable hypotheses, Manin’s audi-
ence democracy boils down to liberal politics meeting the world of
communication (Manin, 1997, p. 235). The first two features of his
theory reflect the decline of cleavage and ideology in nation states (see
Gallagher, Laver & Mair, 2005). The latter two reflect the beginning of
strategies of going public by both outsiders/losers and insiders/winners
on competing media markets (see Kernell, 1986).2
Jos de Beus 21
First, the election of those who govern becomes an interplay between
trustful voters who pay attention to the personal qualities of candidates,
and the candidates who frame their trustworthy qualities in the public
sphere with the help of media experts. This can be labelled the person-
alization of support of politics (particularly parties).
Second, the relative independence of politicians from the desires of
the electorate is constituted by an increasing degree of political vague-
ness in image-based campaign commitments. Policy statements, personal
promises and think-tank concepts — under the guise of formal deals
with the people — crowd-out party principles, party manifestos and
subcultures of the rank and file. This feature is the loosening of party
mandate and, possibly, of political consent and the social contract.
Third, freedom to have opinions published is increasingly realised by
media owners, professional journalists and Internet reporters who are
assertive, competitive and independent of the party political system.
The frequency of opinion polls illustrates this. Media-based accounts
of the impact of public policy on people’s lives and preferences provide
special restrictions and incentives for politicians in rewarding the public
through policy benefits and controlling the public’s reception of policy
proposals. This is the feature of growth and differentiation of publicity,
media criticism, and constant surveillance of party government by social
forces in the public sphere.
Finally, it is increasingly common for politicians to meet assertive
journalists, experts, ordinary citizens, leaders of interest groups and
the like. The audience that is watching, listening, reading and talking
includes a growing segment of heterogeneous and floating voters who
are ‘well-informed, interested in politics, and fairly educated’ (Manin,
1997, p. 232). This is the feature of perpetual and horizontal campaigning
by authorities themselves and by those who oppose authorities (in which
both sides are often party-based). It is perpetual because political parties
continue their (costly) pursuit of popular support after elections. It is
horizontal because no single authority can maintain a privileged position
in media discourse.
In an audience democracy citizens reason retrospectively (what did
politicians do for us since the last election; did they keep their promise?),
while leaders reason prospectively (how will voters assess our record
in the next election; will they reward our effort?) – see Fiorina (1981).
The preferences of citizens and their aggregate demand for public goods
are not fixed. They are the strategic outcomes of enterprising politi-
cians who set the terms of public choice by means of persuasion and
discussion. Citizens seem less sovereign as voters than as consumers.
22 Audience Democracy
Since the analogy between political competition and market competition
breaks down here, Manin proposes to replace Schumpeter’s market
metaphor of democratic elitism (Schumpeter, 1942) with the meta-
phor of the theatre. Representatives are performers making and selling
policies and policy proposals, constituencies are spectators, while
journalists are reviewers (Manin, 1997, p. 226).3
Manin’s theory of the
public politician is, however, as elitist as Schumpeter’s in its empirical
assumptions about the decline of powerful cadre members, the erosion
of partisan loyalties in the electorate and the surge of non-institutionalized
Reformulating Manin: The interplay between public
Realising its shortcomings, I will reformulate audience theory in terms
of the following propositions, testable assumptions about the ways and
means politicians employ to control, improve and (re)direct their position
of power and their visible performance in the political process. I have
numbered the propositions that relate to politicians P1–P7.
Empirical proof for this theory of the behaviour of politicians and
parties will not be presented. The claims made, however, seem sufficiently
strong and stable, and other chapters in this book will provide the neces-
sary ‘pudding’, if not necessarily for all propositions or all of the proof.
Proposition P1. Political leaders, that is, party leaders, parliamentary
leaders and leaders of government, tend to see and present themselves
as autonomous and central, rather than as subordinate to other powerful
and authoritative leaders in democratic society (such as corporate
managers and shareholders, the higher clergy, policy experts, famous
public intellectuals) who determine access to parliament and govern-
ment. The constraints and incentives of audience democracy make it
impossible for politicians to become credible leaders if they give the
impression to their public that they are reading from a fixed script written
by someone else, or improvising according to the assumed taste of the
audience. In brief: politicians here and now reject some higher power
beyond politics as well as a secondary place within politics.5
Proposition P2. Citizens who have rhetorical competence and radiate
power on screen – those who possess aura or ‘spray-on charisma’ – will
gain access to a predominantly national network of representation (Rieff,
2007, pp. 3–13). They will become winners and leaders after entry, and
will survive contests with other strong politicians. If, at some point,
they lose dramatically and are expelled, they may return to the party
Jos de Beus 23
system by creating and using a voice in the media system (publishing
books or writing columns, appearing on popular talk shows, elaborating
contacts with high-ranking journalists). Citizens without such media
qualities will not achieve these political goods, unless they run special
campaigns that stress the advantages of a lack of acting and aura, as, for
example, an indication of self-sacrificing and quiet problem-solving.
Nevertheless, performance in the public sphere – particularly that of
the television screen – has become so important that politicians without
such skills are likely to lose in the short run and become extinct in the
Proposition P3. New generations of politicians will no longer be
selected from old professions like the military, the civil service, judiciary,
economics or newspaper journalism. They will be selected from new
professions in the service economy, such as marketing, acting, popular
TV-journalism, mass media ownership, popular arts (such as pop music)
and popular sports, or from among the ‘stars’ of old professions (celebrity
lawyers, scholars, entrepreneurs). Thus, younger politicians will be less
rooted in a tradition of stratification (establishment, high culture, peck-
ing order) than older ones.
Proposition P4. Politicians consider their front-stage appearance ‘in
the full light of television cameras’ to be crucial for constructing and
reaching target publics, without necessarily engaging face-to-face with
them. They improve their appearance continuously by means of special
knowledge and skills that they achieve through media training, media
monitoring, the use of focus groups and other electoral research. They
try to shape their own public relations in order to create and maintain
power and authority, and perform in ways leaders are supposed to, such
as defining a situation, embodying unity and changing arguably obso-
lete laws. They surround themselves with teams of media experts who
are able to spin the news, their desired image and that of their rivals.
In brief: television matters to the success of politicians and their party
factions, ministries and constituencies.
Proposition P5. Political leaders are becoming stage directors, engaged
in the making of credible representations of personalities, issues,
divisions in society and politics, and in presenting the way out of the
quagmire. They command a small army of loyal and experienced elec-
toral experts, media experts and public policy experts, and experts in
recruitment, finance, external relations and in canvassing volunteers.
They mould their parties, parliamentary groups, government coalitions
and ministries (in the case of incumbent leaders) into smooth parts of
a permanent campaigning machine. Both the assignment of personnel
24 Audience Democracy
(elected politicians as members of the party team, civil servants as
political assistants, appointed managers in the public sector as friends of
the leader) and the selection of issues (manifestos, strategies, policies) are
biased from the point of view of popular public representation: does
the right party message reach the right public (Blumenthal, 1982)?6
In short, and like a characteristic soundbite: the campaign ain’t over as
long as the show goes on.
Proposition P6. Political parties will try to influence and control
journalism by what is termed news management or, more pejoratively,
‘news manipulation’. The media may be managed through direct contacts
with owners, editors and reporters, off-the-record briefings and embed-
ding of journalists. Information may be managed through controlled
assignment or leaking of items and messages to privileged journalists,
and the framing of issues, bypassing established media and dreaded
interviewers, and twisting and spinning the news. Image may be managed
through advertisements, appearances on popular TV shows that may be
a-political or even anti-political and the provision of human-interest
stories to highlight the friendly face of parties and their candidates. Finally,
the internal relations of the party may be managed to show unity, enthu-
siasm and decisiveness, and to keep political opponents and independent
or hostile journalists from exploiting division and pessimism within the
party. In brief: politicians have defensive and offensive goods to invest
in the management of political news.
Proposition P7. Politicians who control or make public policy are
increasingly dependent on the news cycle and the information revealed
by investigative journalism, rather than on party sources (members,
local branches, interest groups with party ties), state sources (civil
service) and scientific sources (free). The media have become the most
important source of information about the everyday lives and common
views of ordinary citizens, voters and clients of public policy. The most
difficult case of this, from the point of view of self-interested politicians,
involves news hypes and political scandals, in which party political
news management becomes suspect. In brief: politicians have to come
to terms with informational dependency and a tension between such
dependency and a quasi-narcissistic self-image of political leaders.
… and political journalists
Manin’s formulation of the model of audience democracy does not
contain a block of coherent and testable propositions about the
political behaviour of journalists and media on a par with such blocks
Jos de Beus 25
on politicians and parties. I will try to build that block by bringing in
the literature on media logic.
This literature reflects particularly upon the contemporary transfor-
mation of media technology, inter-media competition, professional
journalism, popular culture, news and infotainment. It claims that
democratic societies have moved from a party or partisan logic of
communication – in which politicians were the dominant actors and
journalists mere lap dogs – to a media logic, in which the media system
dominates the party system. Through mediatization politicians have
to buy into and live up to the ‘laws’ of media selection and production
in order to get journalistic attention and exposure. Between those two
logics – via a brief parenthesis in ‘the long 1960s’, when the media
performed more in the public interest than what the public or the party
was interested in – political communication was characterized by a
public logic during which journalists performed as watchdogs, a role-
perception that is still strong within their professional culture. I will
formulate my understanding of media logic as a set of propositions
in Manin’s conceptual framework (see Altheide & Snow; Brants &
van Praag, 2006), which I have numbered J1 (Journalists 1) to J7.
Proposition J1. Journalists and other agents in the media system
(owners, managers, editors) tend to see and present themselves as
autonomous and central, rather than as subordinate to politicians and
other holders of power in democratic societies. There is nothing new
here, but there is a shift of priorities. The constraints and incentives
of audience democracy, combined with a competitive media market,
make it unattractive if not impossible for journalists to reach publics as
consumers by acting as an additional instrument of the state (lapdog).
In brief: journalism is emancipated, accepted and entrenched in the
mainstream culture of society and politics.7
Proposition J2. Journalists and other agents in the media system tend
to see and present themselves as a distinct power versus the branches
of government and other powers that be (bureaucracy, big business).
In that perception they watch over such political powers on behalf
of sovereign citizens and as such constitute a countervailing power
against state tyranny as well as a stabilizing force in the public interest.
Journalists hold the belief that, without media criticism, democracy
becomes dysfunctional and drives towards basic illegitimacy. They also
believe that material freedom of press, broadcasting and the Internet is
part and parcel of the ideology or conventional wisdom of democratic
society. In brief: both commercial and non-profit journalism concern-
ing public affairs have a political dimension.
26 Audience Democracy
Proposition J3. Commercially successful and explicitly politically involved
journalists and other agents in the media system tend to see and
present themselves as spokespersons of the people. They believe that
they (i) compete with members of parliament and government as well as
non-elected members of civil associations that claim popular representa-
tion, attention and confidence of the public, (ii) complement traditional
representatives or replace them and (iii) are in some cases superior in the
art of representing the latent demands and opinions of ordinary people,
particularly those who are worst off. In brief: journalism is an integral
part of a general shift of the politics of representation and participation
from the state sphere to the public sphere of civil society.
Proposition J4. Journalists and other agents in the media system are
increasingly engaged in a mix of interpreting (sense-making), inves-
tigating (fact-finding) and entertaining (fun-making). With regard to
the first function, this goes much further than the classical paternalist
editorial. Journalists apply general frames (mental maps and accounts)
more or less deliberately and strategically, in order to make sense of
politics and clarify it for an audience of watchers, readers or listeners. With
regard to investigation and entertainment, the system provides a more
market-driven interpretation of what the public wants and thus what
sells. In brief: without an interpretative/infotainment mix, journalism
and media cannot survive competition, while politics tends to become
complex and obscure, and citizens tend to become overloaded, ignorant
and (not) amused.
Proposition J5. Journalists and other agents in the media system (try
to) influence (weak J5) or determine (strong J5) the selection of politicians.
The (televised) publicity platform has become a new arena for struggle
and survival among politicians with a large impact on the old arenas
(sessions of parliament, party conferences). In the hierarchy of decision-
making regarding who will be interviewed and who will not, who will
sit at the table of the popular talk show and who will not, and who will
have to share the table with a soap celebrity and who will not, TV-
programme makers, interviewers and talk show hosts come first in the
negotiations, with ministers and party leaders good seconds. Second-
order politicians lose out, even to second-order journalists. In particular,
successful and committed journalism – see J3 – tries to make and break
the pattern of losers and winners in democratic politics. In short: in the
negotiations for a place on the (televised) publicity platform, journalists
hold the winning hand.
Proposition J6. Journalists and other agents in the media system (try
to) influence (weak J6) or determine (strong J6) the selection of issues.
Jos de Beus 27
They decide what topics are being discussed and what issues do not
enter the sphere of publicized opinion. In so setting the media agenda,
they influence the public’s agenda of urgency – the issues that the
public deems important and in need of a solution – and possibly the
political agenda of non-decision-making or the issues that policymakers
might prefer not to be discussed. Successful and involved journalism
tries to penetrate the political process of agenda setting and debate,
and to control its outcome. In short: in the negotiations on what will
be discussed on the (televised) publicity platform, journalists hold the
Proposition J7. Dominant frames of politics are strongly biased towards
negativism. They stress struggle rather than compromise, division rather
than unity, individuals and motives rather than issues and causes, power
rather than ideals, politics rather than policy, meta-politics (matters
of partisan strategy and tactics) rather than core politics (substantive
public decisions), moral points of view rather than constitutional
points of view, sentiment rather than argument, the entertaining
rather than the serious or difficult, soft news rather than hard news,
simplicity rather than complexity, the short-term rather than the long
run, drama rather than routine, popular perspectives rather than elitist
perspectives, and, last but not least, in performance, the negatives (costs,
defeats, failures, dangers, crises) rather than the positives (benefits,
triumphs, success stories, opportunities, solutions). In brief: dominant
media frames are negative and conducive to the disintegration of
democratic politics, other things being equal.
J7 is a statement of a specific theory – that of ‘media malaise’ – while
Manin’s framework is general. The theory claims a causal connection
between the negative portrayal of politics and politicians and negative
political campaigning on the one hand, and the political cynicism of
the public on the other. It does not tell us, however, why, as consumers
of news, voters appreciate negativism and why competing politicians
choose negativism as a dominant strategy. Nor does it explain why
this journalism and its dominant frames must be conducive to populist
politicians and the vox populi. The media malaise approach also neglects
phenomena that reduce negativism, namely, informational dependency
of journalists on powerful politicians and regular career moves of indi-
vidual journalists from media to politics (on the payrolls of parties and
Manin rightly suggests the perspective of open interplay
between politicians and journalists in front of an educated audience.
Such interplay may very well have neutral outcomes in an ongoing race
between negativist and positivist voices, or even favourable outcomes
28 Audience Democracy
that enrich government and citizenship. So J7 should be restated as
Proposition J7*: The market shares of media and the frames of journalists
are highly contested, while negativism has become a selling option.
Again, I do not examine the available evidence for this theory of
the behaviour of media and journalists in audience democracy. My
impression – and several of the following chapters may prove me right
or wrong – is that the theory of political journalism, particularly the
argument about its political power, is only ambivalently substantiated.
As such it is more controversial than the theory of public party politics,
even among practitioners themselves.
One cheer for audience democracy
In order to assess audience democracy as a mature and durable system
of politics and political communication, we need, of course, an additional
set of propositions about voters and media consumers as spectators.
However, this chapter focuses on the horizontal dimension and the
structural changes and tensions between politics and media. For that
reason, I would like to turn to Montesquieu and Tocqueville, two of the
early theorists on the role of public spheres (political associations, news
media and public opinion leaders) in civil and democratic societies.9
Montesquieu’s hope and Tocqueville’s sorrow in this respect concerned
the mediocrity of democratic competition in comparison with the
excellence of aristocratic competition.
In the present case, the claim of mediocrity holds that, as a replace-
ment for parties’ democracy, audience democracy creates a system for
the new century wherein the mass of middle-class voters is represented
by moderate politicians and journalists whose rivalry promotes a standard
of public policy that is satisfactory yet neither excellent nor miserable.
(Higher-class voters were better off under nineteenth-century parliamen-
tarianism; lower-class voters were better of under twentieth-century
parties’ democracy.) Such a claim is quite radical in the ongoing academic
debate concerning the quality of postmodern political communication,
where there is an abundance of strong statements about the general
gains and losses of a transition from parties’ democracy to audience
democracy: a minority of optimists foresees progress in the intelligence
of the public and the sensitivity of the government to the well-informed
preferences of the public; a majority of pessimists foresees a backlash
into ignorance of the many and insensitive government.10
The context of this claim of mediocrity is also interesting. Its first
element is the current crisis of globalization in the West, on a par with