Communication in modern democracies can be broadly divided into two main notions (Dahlgren, 1995):
I will focus here on the first notion.
Habermas develops the normative notion of the public sphere as a part of social life where citizens can exchange views on matters of importance to the common good, so that public opinion can be formed. This public sphere comes into being when people gather to discuss issues of political concern.
Habermas' work relies on a description of a historical moment during the 17th and 18th centuries when coffee houses, societies and salons became the centre of debate, and extends this to an ideal of participation in the public sphere for today.
The importance of this lies in the process of discussion, which must take the form of rational-critical debate. This debate has a set of rules which include avoiding use of emotion or emotive language, and focus on the rationality of the content alone. Participants should have a common interest in truth, which meant that they bracketed status differentials (so that participants speak as if they were equals).
Criticism is vital to this process, so that the proposals being put forward can be tested, but also so that participants can discover a meaning together as a result of the process itself (Calhoun, 1993: 13).
Formation of political will
The online magazine Bad Subjects demonstrates an instance of reasoned consensus formation (and it is just one example among many others). The magazine's "manifesto" puts the case for the formation of political will through its online membership (Bad Subjects Production Team, (1995)):
"The project of Bad Subjects has always been to provide a forum for the discussion of leftist politics and, out of that, to build a political community and promote social change. ...The on-line mailing list is a space where people can discuss, more informally, political education for everyday life.
…it allows for the free exchange of ideas and positions.
...Even when people do not agree with each other, one result is the on-going production of a 'badsubjectian' position on whatever happens to be the topic at hand. The mailing list, therefore, collectively articulates a position (albeit sometimes a provisional one) on a topic.
By participating, list members are acting in ways that suggest the kind of political community the Bad Subjects collective has always tried to work towards.
The magazine is still publishing in 2002, and it’s interesting to compare the above with its current manifesto:
"Bad Subjects is a collective that publishes a magazine…and provides access to both via a public-access website. …Bad Subjects seeks to revitalize progressive politics in retreat. We think too many people on the left have taken their convictions for granted.
So we challenge progressive dogma by encouraging readers to think about the political dimension to all aspects of everyday life. We also seek to broaden the audience for leftist and progressive writing, through a commitment to accessibility and contemporary relevance."
Media and democracy
Habermas emphasises the critical role of the media in the public sphere, distinguishing between the early press who highlighted political controversy and the more recent development of media that commodify the news.
He outlines the development of newspapers in the early 17th century, commenting that the press "was for the first time established as a genuinely critical organ of a public engaged in critical political debate: as the fourth estate" (Habermas, 1989: 60).
While this may have been the case in England, there seems to have been little controversy in some newspapers. In America before the revolution, for example, publishers were not inclined to take sides with loyalists or patriots. News attempted to avoid controversy, and the more distant the news the more this was true. It was rare that editors created a sphere for political debate (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:154).
Media role problematic
The role of traditional media (television, magazines and newspapers) in modern democracy is increasingly problematic, and serious questions have arisen about its capacity as a site for political criticism or rational debate.
Democracy has become the dominant ideology of modern political life. Yet the gaps between ideology and practice are now so glaring that serious observers feel increasingly bound to ask "Are we able to believe even in the possibility of a role for mass communication in the furtherance of democratic ideals?" (Blumler and Gurevitch).
Many of the old centres of the public sphere still exist, but are no longer places for political criticism or rational debate. Many theorists have commented that television and other electronic communications isolate people from one another and "substitute themselves for older spaces of politics" (Poster, (1)).
Media active participants
Instead of reporting on politics, the media are active participants in the political process through their role in publicity. Increasingly, the media has become central to political life. Politicians who do not constantly stay abreast of the media's requirements and actively plan their publicity tend to fall quickly out of favour. Those who are not good 'media performers' suffer the same fate.
Public debate on television and in newspapers bears little resemblance to the rational-critical debate idealised by Habermas.
Participation without change
Events are manipulated to provide the maximum televisual impact. Debates are structured so that extreme points of view can clash to maximum effect, increasing ratings but doing little to contribute to the formation of discursive public will or opinion. Topic selection reflects the pressures of commercial and proprietal interests.
Audience participation programs on television provide a forum for groups which would otherwise be excluded from public view. But this access does not necessarily mean that power structures in society undergo any significant changes.
Revitalising the public sphere
Curran outlines ways in which traditional media could contribute to democratic functions, by acting as an agency of representation. He suggests that it should be organised to allow diverse social groups to express their views.
The media should help organisations to attract support (for example, by publicising details of forthcoming protests and causes); help them to operate as representative vehicles of the views of their supporters; help them to protest effectively; and outline various alternative arguments and actions (Curran, 1991: 103).
Curran also calls for the media to:
Traditional media resources
The Internet currently presents the opportunity to do many of these things; however, the opportunities are not identical with the wishlist Curran describes. The traditional mass media have:
Online media resources
Few purely online sites, on the other hand, have established few of these in any significant way, other than in online versions of traditional media outlets.
If an organisation were to attempt Curran's suggestions on the Internet, it would meet with a much reduced effect.
Unless the organisation were similarly endowed with resources etc, it would find it more difficult to present a well researched, well written, attractively presented case that would find a ready made audience and distribution channel.
Communication's role in democracy
Habermas emphasises that a person's individual opinion, when solicited (as in a public opinion poll for example) does not constitute the public sphere, because it does not enclose a process of opinion formation.
Habermas has recently argued against "Athens-envy". He maintains that if democracy is to be implemented in today's large, complex societies, the ideal of a physical collective of mutually consenting members must be overcome.
Instead, he proposes that citizens who are not necessarily physically co-present can develop subjectless forms of communication (Habermas, 1990: 43 in Peters, 1993:564).
Habermas notes a deterioration in this public, and lays the blame primarily at the feet of publicists. An important factor in this is that public opinion can only be formed if a public that engages in rational discussion exists:
"Publicity was, according to its very idea, a principle of democracy not because anyone could in principle announce, with equal opportunity, his personal inclinations, wishes and convictions - opinions; it could only be realised in the measure that these personal opinions could evolve through the rational-critical debate of a public into public opinion." (Habermas, 1989: 219).
Politics and opinion management
By the beginning of the 19th century, the public's opinion (formed by rational-critical debate, at least in theory) became an "officially designated discussion partner" of parliament.
Speeches were made in parliament, as they are today, with the public in mind, and gradually their role in political life became more and more influential (Habermas, 1989:66).
"Opinion management with its 'promotion' and 'exploitation' goes beyond advertising; it invades the process of 'public opinion' by systematically creating news events or exploiting events that attract attention" (Habermas, 1989:193).
Lack of will formation
Plebiscites, opinion management and public opinion research do not offer potential for democracy, because they do not provide the opportunity for discursive will formation.
Communication means not just finding out what individuals have previously decided or learned; it's a process in which opinion is created by the process of debate itself.
Manin summarises this idea in the following way:
"A legitimate decision does not represent the will of all, but is one that results from the deliberation of all. It is the process by which everyone's will is formed that confers it legitimacy on the outcome, rather than the sum of already formed wills" (Habermas, 1989: 446).
Calhoun comments that public opinion research is more like group psychology than a practice of democracy. He sees it as an adjunct to public administration rather than as true public discourse.
For Habermas, the struggle to reclaim the public sphere centres on an attempt to make publicity a source of reasoned consensus formation instead of a site for manipulating popular opinion.
He makes an important distinction between public opinion as a critical authority balancing political and social power, and public opinion as something than publicity can manipulate to support people, institutions, products or programs (Habermas, 1989:236).