In the world of 24 hour news and media, political advertising and communication are now almost as important as a strong set of policy ideas. Alastair Hill reviews Brian McNair’s Fifth Edition of An Introduction to Political Communication, which analyses the techniques used in political campaigning and public relations through the use of high profile case studies, including the elections of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
An Introduction to Political Communication. Fifth Edition. Brian McNair. Routledge. March 2011.
Brian McNair’s Introduction to Political Communication begins with an epigraph from Walter Lippmann’s seminal study, Public Opinion. Writing just after the close of the First World War, Lippmann suggested that modern democracy had recently “turned a corner”, and that the combination of suffrage and the emergence of mass forms of communication was fundamentally changing politics. Originally penned in 1922, Lippmann’s analysis remains relevant today; as the 24 hour mass media environment becomes ever more powerful in the 21st century, the changes it has brought about to the political process continue to become increasingly complex.
While titled An Introduction, the book covers its content in significant detail. Split in to two parts, the first half of the book deals more notionally with the role of the media in liberal democracies and the much changed media environment in which political actors operate in, while the latter half of the book deals with the myriad of approaches to political communications such actors employ in the modern era.
McNair covers everything from recent developments in new online social media platforms and the role of bloggers in the Iranian pro-reform movement, to the re-election of New Labour in 2005, the re-election George W. Bush in 2004, and the Gilligan affair. His analysis of techniques such as political advertising, political campaigning, and public relations through the use of such case studies serves well to illuminate just how fundamental the changes to the political process in recent years have been as a result of the expansion of mass communication.
The example of New Labour exemplifies that effective political advertising is now almost as important as a strong set of policy ideas. Intellectually New Labour set out to “steal the Tory’s clothes” in 1997 by positioning itself as the “radical centre in British politics”. In communicative terms this strategy was played out through adverts such as those depicting the British bulldog (a traditionally Tory symbol), remade as a symbol of Labour’s ease with patriotism. Through such clever advertising Labour developed a ‘brand’ to communicate to the ‘soft’ middle-class Tory voters, as well as their traditional supporters.
While primarily a textbook aimed at undergraduate students, McNair’s book does pursue a particularly pertinent central question throughout its analysis, namely the fundamental question of whether or not the democratic process is enriched or hindered in the age of mass communication.
As the analysis highlights, alongside a diversification of media streams has also come a radical diversification of actors involved within the political process. In the modern era it is not just those in control of affairs who are able to utilise the power of the media; instead the policy making process is now more open than ever to citizens and other non-state actors such as unions, charities, private businesses, pressure groups, religious bodies, and in an increasingly globalised world, states and even insurgent groups. Many of these groups are often “resource poor” and unable to compete with more established political institutions, and yet the rise of the media has offered them an avenue to compete for space in the modern policy debate. McNair cites pressure groups such as the CND, and more recently Greenpeace, who have used the new avenues of political communication available to them so effectively that a single issue – and in both cases an issue largely abrasive to conventional wisdom – was raised dramatically on Government agendas across the globe. On such evidence, the bringing more bodies and individuals into the forum on public political discussion the era of mass communication has served to greatly enrich public debate, and has arguably led to a more informed and vibrant democracy.
I say arguably because this view clearly comes with qualification. As the Leveson inquiry enters its ninth week in the UK, the role of the media and its effect on the health of the political process remains under considerable scrutiny. Moreover, the ongoing controversy about how the political lobbying industry in the UK should be properly regulated raise questions of the contribution of enhanced political communication to democracy.
While McNair’s fifth edition is unfortunately not up to date enough to include any direct analysis of the ongoing Leveson inquiry and more recent debates around lobbying, I would argue that his conclusion nonetheless remains particularly apt: “The contribution of our media to our political life will, of course, continued to be determined by the legal, economic and social contexts in which they are allowed to function. Vigilance will be required if those contexts are to be shaped by the views and votes of the citizens as a whole, and not the particular interests of the wealthy and powerful”.
Alastair Hill completed an MSc in political theory at the LSE in 2010, having graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in history and politics in 2009. He now works as a political consultant for MHP Communications. Alastair tweets as @alastair_hill. Read more reviews by Alastair.