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Every day we access news media to see, hear and read about the latest political events and the opinions of public figures. For the majority of us, exposure to the news media is a routine activity – a backdrop to our everyday lives, and yet it is a vital means by which we stay connected to public life. The term ‘mass media’ embraces books, pamphlets and film but it is usually understood to refer to newspapers, radio and television. It could be argued that the UK probably has the strongest cross-section of national newspapers in the world, read by millions on a daily basis. Adding to this, is the hugely popular national broadcaster “The BBC”, which is one of the most prolific news gathering operations across the globe, employing more than one thousand journalists. The benefits of this strong national coverage presented to us by the BBC and the newspapers means that when they report political events and interview politicians, literally millions of electors get to read up on or hear about what’s going on in the corridors of power.
The word ‘Media’ is the plural form of ‘medium’. Broadly understood, a medium can be described as ‘an intermediate agency that enables communication to take place’ (O’Sullivan et al. 1994, p. 176). Since the 1950’s, television has eclipsed newspapers and radios as the main medium within our current world. Recent studies indicate that roughly three-quarters of people consider television as the most important single source of information about politics. Adding to this, on average British people now watch over twenty hours of television per week, and given that 20 per cent of television output covers news and current affairs, a fair political content is being imbibed. Moreover, the audience for the evening news bulletins regularly exceeds a 20 million view mark, and surveys also regularly indicate that over 70 per cent of onlookers trust television news as fair and accurate, while only one-third have trust in newspapers. Broadcasting via television has had a hugely transforming impact on political processes throughout our British System. For example, two minutes of exposure on peak-time television enables politicians to reach far higher numbers of onlookers than they could meet in a lifetime of canvasing, handshaking and calling meetings.
With the rise in popularity of people within the UK preferring televised media as their main source of political information, we can only ask the question ‘well, why do people trust television broadcasting over newspapers?’ One of the main dominating factors relating to why many people have grew to become more fond of television news coverage over newspapers is due to the biased publishing which goes on within certain newspaper write-ups. Biased publishing or the twisting and twerking of stories or gossip can have a seriously negative impact not only on an onlookers own interpretation of his or her personal opinions but it can also be seen as also affecting and negatively influencing policy making within the British System. Another way in which the media can have an influence on policy making within the British system is through journalists always being on the lookout for differences of opinion between politicians from the same political party, and exposing the failings of individual politicians and their policies. For example, any slip ups from politicians in interviews or speeches are broadcast over the airwaves within a matter of minutes and journalists love to talk up the idea of politics and politicians being in crisis as they know it attracts a lot of attention from the public and could even alter the outcome of a policy being made. Pressure groups also dedicate the majority of their time into seeking to influence government policy. Pressure group campaigners such as Peter Tatchell of Outrage and Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth are expert in knowing about and massaging the form in which the press and television like to receive stories. Because it has been so successful, much pressure group activity now revolves around using the media.
Furthermore, sometimes a certain subject or story can receive too much media attention due to a lack of important news available at that given time. This therefore results in the misleading of citizens making them overemphasise a less important story or piece of political information. Moreover, often the manipulation of news can occur with the aim to gain political benefit. Again, likewise this misleads the audience resulting in deception or lack of authenticity. The media can also have a huge influence on policy making with its news around the clock. For example, over the last few decades or so, broadcast and online media sources have exploded, whereas back in the 1980’s and 1970’s UK had only a handful of TV stations. Usually, you would have to wait till the next morning’s newspaper or radio station before you could read or hear the latest political information. However nowadays two 24-hour news stations exist; Sky News and BBC News 24. Add to that the proliferation of political websites, blogs and other modern media, and you have access to news and politics limited only by the speed and availability of your Internet connection. In addition to this, political parties are now using their mobile phones and internet technology to get their message across. For example, back in the 2001 UK general election, the Labour Party sent text messages to individual voters’ mobile phones trying to get them to support them at the polls. This approach has expanded, with parties regularly emailing potential voters with newsletters from their leaders or criticism of their opponents’ plans.
In the year 1989 when Sky launched its first 24 hour national news channel, it was unclear just how big of an impact it would have on reporting political information worldwide. At the time, 24-hour TV news was seen as a bit of a novelty, with many critics asking how the time would be filled. By the time the BBC launched its rival channel, News 24, almost 10 years later, it was clear that the cut and thrust of party political debate would fill a lot of the time on 24-hour news. It proved to be a wide success, with politicians forever making appearances on talking about policy, the latest political scandal or simply blasting their rivals. Often, debates in parliament are shown live on 24-hour news. The idea is to keep the public informed as to what their legislators are doing, and it is working. The advent of 24-hour news channels has helped increase public awareness of politics and politicians hugely. Viewing figures for 24-hour news stations are often small; however, they shoot up when big political stories break or crises occur.
Another way in which policy making can be influenced is through social media networking sites. The two main social networking tools for passing political information currently are Facebook and Twitter. With the rise in social media networking websites, this has benefitted in allowing more people to become politically engaged and also gives the opportunity to interact with political parties or communicate directly with individual politicians. In being able to communicate directly with individual politicians, issues of concern can be aired much faster and if the issue or subject aired attracts enough attention in a policy sense through media and news coverage, then maybe politicians will then look at getting that issue on the policy agenda. At the end of the day we live in a democracy and with the use of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, it gives the people a voice and a platform to have their say and express their opinions so that ideas get around.
To conclude, the media plays a huge role in delivering and presenting to us all our political information on a daily basis whether it through television, radio stations or newspapers. It can be said that without these three means of communication, the present political system could not work. From examining the way the media works on a daily basis, we can argue that it is a powerful tool within our political system and can have a great influence on policy making throughout the UK and indeed also have big impact on the way we view and interpret things within our political system.
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