Politics and Mass Media in Britain

Ralph Negrine

The value of "political communication" in the dictionary of useful, catch-all phrases to describe the relationship between mass media and politics comes at a price in precision. Unhappily, ever since Gabriel A. Almond & James S. Coleman (in The Politics of the Developing Areas, 1960) articulated the political function of the same name, the meaning of political communication has led a fuzzy existence as various as it has been convenient.

While this is not to say Negrine's central concern of examining the political role of the mass media in contemporary Britain is vague, it is a way of asking whether what he considers as political communication, indeed, is not yet another instance of variety and convenience. Is political communication simply a matter of communication that is political (and not only restricted to the mass media), or is it any matter of political importance that happens to get communicated?

Perhaps a commonsensical approach to the dilemma is the best we can hope for, and Negrine's chief elaboration of the term--specifying the relationship between mass media and general elections--may be seen as one empirical instance of the political communication universe. He seems satisfied with characterizing it as process, relationship and structure.

There is little to criticize in a major way in this readable, perhaps conventional, book, other than what Negrine chooses not to include. In its modest, self-delimiting way, the reader is given a selective glimpse of the landscape described in the title. While it may be introductory, the glimpse hardly amounts to a primer on the British media of mass communication that one might reasonably expect, given Negrine's claim that the intended audience is the general reader.

Negrine's decision to exclude magazine, film, radio, and the weekly press leaves only daily newspapers and television as topics. As central as these two are, they do not constitute the whole of mass media, and one is left to wonder why the author did not simply specify press and television in the title to describe more faithfully the book's focus. By choice, too, Negrine elects to exclude certain issues, such as a discussion of laws that restrict media, raising doubts about whether the general reader in mind in actuality was someone with a background in media studies.

As for the politics portion of the title, aside from the queries about political communication already noted, Negrine provides both governmental and non-governmental contexts. He devotes chapters to the media and pressure groups and the aforementioned media and general elections, and peppers these and others with governmental concerns, policies (re: BBC, for instance), and practices. His preference for a broad definition of politics as virtually coterminous with society itself appears to, but does not, give the dailies and television an unimpeded playing field, especially since he further sees that the highly secretive structure of government provides the "everyday context of the mass media in Britain."

This last point, alone, would seem to be compelling and different enough from Canadian and American practices to include the excluded discussion on media restrictions. While admittedly not a comparative study, Negrine's investigation carries interest on this side of the Atlantic because of media similarities. There is much in the book that Canadians and Americans will find familiar in Negrine's description of British press and television, theories underlying them, the meaning of news and news production supporting them, and questions of ownership, control, and advertising attending them. A brief historical account of the BBC makes that venerable institution accessible, especially to Americans who may not be as widely aware of government-authorized broadcasting as Canadians whose Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is not dissimilar from the British counterpart.

A final chapter on "new media"--cable television and satellite broadcasting--has as much to do with the politics of mass media as it does with politics and mass media, especially as the investments and potential returns are sizeable. Written even as discussions about the future of these developments were being weighed by Parliament, the chapter is dated only to the extent that Negrine obviously could not foretell the outcome. As it stands, it remains a helpful background guide to "new media" terrain. Curiously, however, there is not even passing reference to the implications for British broadcasting in the post-1992 integrated Europe in which Britain will be an important player.

These points made, it should be reiterated that on balance the book does a competent job of what it sets out to cover. It should whet the appetite to get the reader started on a further political study of the British mass media.



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