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Richard Barbrook
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Infotainment
part 14

Back in the nineteenth century, politicians tried to win the support of voters by holding public meetings, canvassing individual households, recruiting party members and sponsoring newspapers. However, from the early-1920s onwards, political conflicts have been increasingly fought out in the electronic media. For the first time, every citizen not only could receive large amounts of political information, but also were able to hear or see their elected representatives. Once they mastered the techniques of broadcasting, some politicians skillfully used the electronic media to establish an almost intimate relationship with their supporters. Like a trusted friend, these leaders explained the government's polices to the voters in the privacy of their own homes. Because all citizens now had access to the opinions of their representatives, a few politicians even claimed that their appearances over the airwaves had created the electronic agora.

Despite these aspirations, radio and television broadcasting have been Fordist media for the last seventy years. Because they were organised as a one-way flow of communications, the electronic media excluded the majority of the population from any direct participation in their output. As the prime example of the 'society of the spectacle', radio and television broadcasting reinforced the separation of the state from civil society. During the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left, futurologists and neo-liberals believed that the introduction of the new information technologies would overcome this passivity in both media and politics. But, by the early-1990s, these utopian dreams had failed in practice. Above all else, the implementation of the policies of the neo-liberals had exacerbated the distance between the politicians and their electorates. Just as globalisation of production prevented national governments from controlling their own economic destiny, so the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media had removed the indirect influence exercised by voters in the public service model. Although they had been promised active participation, most people were actually restricted to being couch potatoes zapping between channels.

Under the neo-liberal model of media freedom, the majority of the population were only offered a choice between almost identical one-way flows of communications. Contrary to the predictions of the neo-liberals, this homogeneity in content had been created by the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media. With a fierce competition for ever higher ratings, news programmes on commercial radio and television stations copied each others' successful features to prevent viewers from switching to rival channels. Above all else, the rival news bulletins adapted techniques pioneered by the entertainment programmes which filled the rest of the schedules. For example, the lengthy explanations of political situations used by the news programmes of the public services channels were rapidly abandoned., Instead, in imitation of magazine programmes, a quick and sensational coverage of current events was adopted. Copying the talkshows, news programmes started including more gossip about celebrities, sensational court cases and human interest stories alongside their political reports. As competition intensified, television stations increasingly relied on compelling visual images to illustrate their news bulletins. In the ratings war, exclusive pictures of wars, famines, terrorism and natural disasters were proven methods of attracting more viewers. Using live broadcasts, news programmes could even provide the emotional thrill of watching history as it was being made, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the bombing of Baghdad. Imitating the rhythm of sports reports, exciting live coverage of major political crises and foreign wars was now available for viewers in the safety of their own homes.

By the late-1980s, this combination of information and entertainment in news programmes was known as infotainment. Because it resulted from competition between television stations, this style of news coverage was defended by neo-liberals as an expression of the direct wishes of viewers. Yet, at the same time, the dominance of infotainment within the electronic media exacerbated the crisis of representation within the leading industrialised countries. Unlike its public service predecessor, the neo-liberal model of media freedom no longer guaranteed access to the airwaves for the elected representatives of the voters. Instead politicians could only express their opinions in the form of infotainment which had to attract high ratings among the viewers. In the USA and Britain, Reagan and Thatcher adopted the latest marketing techniques to create publicity stunts and soundbites for the evening television news bulletins. Following their example, both right-wing and left-wing parties across the world soon learnt to sell their political manifestos like consumer commodities. While the public service model was supposed to allow reasoned debate between politicians over the merits of their rival policies, the neo-liberal model turned voters into consumers of the advertising messages produced by the competing political parties. Crucially the use of advertising techniques often allowed the parties of both Left and Right to hide the real consequences of their proposed policies from the voters. Because they were made as infotainment, political advertising campaigns could rely on style rather than on content. But, when the promises of the advertising campaigns couldn't be fulfilled, the voters became increasingly cynical about their political representatives. Far from ending the alienation of the state from civil society, the neo-liberal model had widened the gap between the professional politicians and their electorates.

 
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