Government, the State, and Media

Erik Neveu. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.

How can states influence media and news? For half a century, most textbooks have answered this question using the famous “four theories” developed by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1956).

Two of these theories mirrored ideal types inherited from the 18th century. In the “authoritarian” theory, the one and only role of the press is to be the loudspeaker of the rulers. Censorship and a harsh system of penalties organize this subordination. Swift had no choice but to use the ruse of fiction in Gulliver’s Travels to criticize the corruption of the English monarchy. Conversely, symbolized by the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, the “libertarian” pattern protects the freedom of the press and critical speech, as well as of newsgathering and its circulation. The 20th century would give birth to two other theories. In the “Soviet” model, the punishment of dissenting voices is no longer sufficient. All media belong to the state; all information and programming must serve the values and goals of a party-state and its totalitarian ideology. Lastly, the “social responsibility” pattern mirrors the contradictory demands of press freedom debated in 1947 by the Hutchins Commission in the United States. As pure market logic guarantees neither the quality of information and its access to all citizens nor the triumph of prosocial values and highbrow culture, state policies should combine incentives for both social responsibility and the preservation of freedom.

Naively normative and U.S. centered, this cold war typology—conveniently obliterating McCarthyism—transforms the United States into the only Holy Land of press freedom. It misunderstands the contradictory trends of European public service, both authoritarian and social responsibility influenced. The four theories neglect the important distinction theorized by Lijphart (1984) between majoritarian and consociational regimes. In the latter, the political management of media is based on a proportional system of influence and party control of media (German Proporz, Italian lottizzazione) that safeguard a minimal pluralism. The complete control of media by government thus concerns only majoritarian (France) or nondemocratic systems (Franco’s Spain).

McQuail (1983) has pleaded for a richer typology. The debate that developed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1985) about the new world information and communication order made visible the rise in the Third World of a “development media theory.” Media are considered here as the relays of strategies of development and cultural or linguistic autonomy. Journalists and media can then be enlisted to support these policies, with foreign influence limited. McQuail lastly suggests the appearance of a “democratic-participant” theory of media, pleading for the central influence of audiences and users over those of journalists or shareholders. Valuing active audiences and media as a forum, this pattern is illustrated by the U.S. civic journalism movement or Canadian community radio stations.

These theories appear today as outdated (Merrill & Nerone, 2002). Except for North Korea or Cuba, the “Soviet” model is now more a historical reference than an empirical case. A whole set of changes since the 1980s—privatizations, shrinking of the public sector, and development of huge media conglomerates—has emptied any meaning from the oppositions between “libertarian,” “social responsibility,” and even “authoritarian” theories. Long quoted as having “authoritarian” media systems, France and Italy have now a media market dominated by private channels. The strange situation in 2002 of Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and media mogul, appointing some of his supporters to head the public broadcast network RAI questions the usefulness of the duo libertarian/authoritarian. Technological changes have disrupted state-media relationships. National borders have no sense for satellite TV or the Internet. International institutions (European Union [EU], World Trade Organization [WTO]) have gained enormous importance in managing communication networks or in regulating the circulation of cultural goods. The pertinence of the nation-state as the analytical unit of economic and legal media regulation appears more and more doubtful.

Relinquishing the illusion of a simple and clear classification of media systems into a few categories, we offer the following threefold exploration of contemporary relations between states, governments, and media.

The first part offers an inventory of the tools available to a state wishing to develop direct or indirect influence over media. Using this inventory, the second part questions some contemporary uses of this state repertoire of influence on media. What meaning can we assign to the spuriously clear distinction between state and civil society? Is it possible to speak—and, if yes, then how and to what extent—of a softening of state control over media? Does the market guarantee more freedom to media? Should one forget the old notion of “social responsibility”?

A third and final part deals more directly with the role of media and political communication in the functioning of modern democracies. It invites us to remain critical of the current offensive against “critical orthodoxy,” led by the heralds of a naive celebration of the modern public sphere. Lastly, it poses other issues: Have media become cogs of a public representation service? How can the public sphere protect its dynamism?

The Repertoire of State Influence

The ways and means of state influence on media are extremely complex. We could try to encapsulate them through the musical metaphor of the “repertoire” (Tilly, 1976). States can mobilize six repertoires of action on media, with each of them able to call upon a full family of instruments of action. The choice made by the state among repertoires and instruments might bring the press and media to offer the equivalent of military marches or the “Slaves’ Song” in Verdi’s Nabucco, or it could produce the freer tunes of “We Shall Overcome” or “I’m Free.”

State Ownership and Direct Control Repertoire

State ownership or direct control is the most visible tool or influence on media. This repertoire gathers extremely different levels of influence.

Orwell’s novel 1984 with its Ministry of Truth offers the strongest picture of the process of production of a state-truth (pravda in Russian), the twin goal of the state’s totalitarian control over media, and the enslavement of thinking through these media (Orwell, 1987). Such systems are today residual. This dark fantasy of a perfect policing of minds—paradoxically shared by the leaders of “socialist” countries and Western Kremlinologists—in fact never reached its goals, facing the denial of stubborn facts and the counterinformation of Western radio stations and underground samizdat media.

Public monopoly or a majoritarian influence over public media remained, until the 1980s, common in numerous European countries (Scandinavia, Italy, France). Blumler (1992) has highlighted the peculiarities of these European public services: universal service, quality programming for all audiences, noncommercialism, and political independence. On this last point, the range of situations covered by the repertoire of public service is very varied. But for the coverage of some controversial issues, such as Northern Ireland, the British political system has guaranteed a true autonomy to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The Netherlands invented as long ago as the 1920s a sophisticated system of Verzuiling (pillarization), parcelling out radio and TV channels among the major political forces (Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, Social Democrats, and Liberals). The French case mirrors conversely a situation of extreme media control by the ruling party. Alain Peyrefitte (1976), De Gaulle’s “minister of information,” recalled his appointment in 1962:

Christian de la Malène, whose position I inherit, shows me on the minister’s desk a whole range of push-buttons. “This one is to call the usher, and those ones the director of television, the head of the news service, the director of TV programming, the director of radio programming…. Each day at five o’clock you will call them to decide on the headlines of the evening news bulletins on TV and radio. At any time you also can give them instructions by the internal phone network. Never leave your office before 1.30 and 8.30 PM! After the TV news, your ministerial colleagues will call you to object to anything of which they disapprove. (pp. 150-151)

State, Media, and National Sovereignty

The state ownership and direct control repertoire can be difficult to distinguish from that pertaining to national sovereignty. As Silvio Waisbord shows in Chapter 18 (this volume), no state can ignore the importance of media for sovereignty or international influence. Three kinds of policies, used even by the most vocal champions of market forces, are to be found in this repertoire.

Even without public ownership, states play a central role in the funding, construction, and development of communication networks (telegraph, telephone, information highways) needed for the functioning and distribution of media. The communication needs of the army and colonial empires have given a decisive impulse to the extension of international telegraphic and radio systems (Mattelart, 1992). The takeoff of a popular press in the United Kingdom or in France is directly linked to the extension of a dense network of railway lines, in turn funded directly or indirectly by public money.

In the hidden or direct support that they provide to media, which are able to strengthen their international influence, the intervention of states is also visible. The genesis of German, British, and French press agencies during the 19th century is inseparable from the colonial and international strategies of their states. During the cold war, the United States (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe), United Kingdom (BBC), and France (Radio France International [RFI]) invested substantial amounts of money to broadcast news towards Soviet bloc countries (Mattelart, 1995; Semelin, 2000), which also developed their own broadcast propaganda to Third World nations. State support for national media and cultural industries has also been visible in international policies. On May 28, 1946, the Blum-Byrnes agreements were signed in Washington, D.C. Postwar financial aid from the United States for the reconstruction of France was made conditional upon a quota system offering 36 weeks a year of programming for foreign (de facto U.S.) movies in any French movie theater (Blum, 2001).

The sovereignty repertoire includes, finally, more reactive policies. Some limit the access of foreign participation and companies to national media. The trauma of Nazi occupation and “collaboration” gave birth to French laws that, in 1944, prohibited any foreign participation in French daily press. And if the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch chose in 1983 to become an American citizen, it was also to conform to the laws prohibiting the control of a U.S. TV network by foreigners (Tunstall & Palmer, 1991).

The State and Government as Information Sources

Public authorities do not only influence news distribution. The modern state is the prime producer of data and information. Those in power dedicate more and more time to managing their relationships with media. Consultants and spin doctors help them to rationalize this activity, borrowing from the contributions of marketing and communication science. Symbolic gestures transform policies into images. One would see a French minister, in charge of humanitarian policies, unloading on his shoulders the heavy rice bags for the hungry Somali in Mogadishu’s harbor. A British minister of agriculture would ask his own daughter to eat a huge British beef burger before the cameras—a mission that she would unfortunately relinquish, conspicuously nauseated after a few mouthfuls. Beyond the heights of the power elite, it is the whole system of state administrations and agencies that, since the 1930s, has organized a dense network of public relations officers and communication specialists in charge of promoting the image and policy of their institutions (Davis, 2002). This energetic supply activity is visible in the multiple press releases, journals, newsletters, and Web sites through which public authorities offer information that always includes the aim of justifying their actions.

Last but not least, the history of state construction is also the history of the construction of a huge machinery of production, centralization, and treatment of data (Neveu, 1994). From the census to the instant production of data on business and trade, via the growing number of statistical indicators of various kinds, the state is at the core of what French statistician Alain Desrosières (1993) termed “the politics of large numbers.” When they comment on the unemployment figures, the budget deficit, or drug use, journalists work from state-produced news and data.

Crude lies are rare because they are risky. A French government office in charge of nuclear safety information claimed that the 1986 Chernobyl westbound nuclear cloud had sharply turned south over Switzerland and Italy, not daring to cross the French border. The credibility of its information collapsed to almost zero as a result. But the very conditions of production of official data and the variables used can hide, overstate, or understate certain kinds of facts (e.g., the underenumeration of female unemployment in the United Kingdom). Public authorities are also in good position to act as “primary definers.” Hall, Clarke, Critcher, Jefferson, and Roberts (1978) use this notion to describe a power to define and frame events and issues. Through combining the authority of officialdom, a monopoly on certain kinds of information (for the police, crime statistics), and good public relations services, many administrations and ministries can operate as primary definers.

One might finally add that the budgets—often substantial—that public authorities can mobilize to promote and advertise their policies (struggle against AIDS, road safety) allow them to have their messages relayed by media but also to put gentle pressure on the press and the media by selecting those titles and channels to benefit from public service announcement budgets.

Press Laws and Regulations

The core of the legal regulations concerning the influence of state on media is usually codified in specific press laws.

A first situation can be quickly mentioned if one does not forget that it still describes accurately the situation in numerous countries in Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia. In these authoritarian systems, media law can be put in a nutshell: Only the media that please the authorities are allowed to print and broadcast news pleasant for the authorities. A 1998 report from the watchdog organization Reporters Sans Frontières concerning Mauritania offers an illuminating case study. An “edict law” from July 25, 1991, creates de jure a system of preliminary declaration for creating a newspaper. This “declaration” works de facto as an arbitrary permit system. The home office can, without any need to explain why, censor or prohibit any media that “undermine the principles of Islam or State credibility, damage the general interest or disrupt public law and order.” Such repressive regulations are strengthened by a direct political control of public media and numerous illegalities, such as the expulsion of journalists working for opposition media from government press conferences.

By contrast, and protected as early as 1766 in the Swedish constitution, freedom of the press is one of the bases of democratic systems. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” True freedom of the press can be guaranteed by case law, as by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts; by a “major” law, as in France (Derieux, 2000); or by a combination of the two, as in the United Kingdom. However, it always presupposes at least four kinds of regulation, which inevitably open up other opportunities for state influence.

• The first one concerns the definition of press offenses. Although their definition and regulation can change from one country to another, libel exists in most legal systems (Barendt, Lustgarden, Norrie, & Stephenson, 1997). Basically, libel occurs when a false and defamatory statement about an identifiable person is published to a third party, damaging the subject’s reputation. Invasion of privacy is another major case of press offense. Other offenses can be linked to practices betraying the principles of fair newsgathering: surreptitious recordings and use of hidden cameras. In continental Europe, some states punish the publication of racist statements and speeches, the justification of (war) crimes, and even (in France) any “revisionist” statement denying the reality of the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis.

• Press regulation also concerns the definition and the limits of the secrets that the authorities can set against journalists’ investigations. Habermas (1989) has highlighted how the construction of the rule of law was also a process of extension of a “principle of publicity” by which the rulers must make their decisions with the fullest possible transparency, under the control of public opinion. One of the most basic dimensions of this publicity had been the right conquered by the press to cover, print, and comment on parliamentary debates. Freedom-of-information laws have enlarged the opportunities of access to government documents. In the United States, the “sunshine laws” allow free access for citizens and journalists to many meetings of public agencies. In France, a public agency ( helps citizens confronted with the state’s or any public institution’s refusal to divulge public documents concerning their situation. The legitimacy conquered by the principle of publicity cannot, however, hide the importance of still other laws and regulations protecting various types of public secrets. From the most justified to the most outrageous, they claim to protect national security, the secrecy of court proceedings or criminal investigations, and business imperatives. They can work during crisis as so many “darkness laws,” as connective tissue between repression, intimidation, and illegalities.

• The rights of journalists are another basis of press freedom. These rights include freedom of access to and disclosure of public information, rights of access, and inquiry into public buildings and agencies. They require the protection and confidentiality of journalists’ sources. But states’ contribution to the rights of journalists includes their protection from their own employers from threats emanating from private institutions. The “conscience clause” allows French journalists to resign without financial penalty if they disagree with a change in the editorial line of their media. The U.S. anti-SLAPP statutes protect journalists from abusive lawsuits mounted for the simple purpose of threatening media to step back from launching public debate on topics considered embarrassing by powerful private interests.

• A last key element of media laws and regulations concerns the powers given (or not) to independent regulation authorities (the U.S. Federal Communication Commission,; the Australian Broadcasting Authority,; the French Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, Their roles can vary from allocating broadcast licenses, establishing the legal obligations of networks and the press, or functioning as watchdogs of journalistic ethics.

The Special Dispensations System

Press laws have always had their hidden partner. In most states, the specific laws on press and media are completed by a mosaic of texts whose principle is to free the press from the ordinary rules of law. Each of these dispensations can have liberating or, if there is a threat to remove them, chilling effects on the profits and/or critical freedom of media.

These special dispensations have at least five aspects. Some are linked to tax regulations. The early 19th-century British system of “taxes on knowledge” was notorious. Its goal was, by high prices, to prevent the popular classes from reading the press, suspected of subversive influence. Conversely, today, most states grant the media sector preferential taxation rates. Until 2000, the income tax system exempted French journalists from any tax on 30% of their wages, a system often providing the equivalent of 1 or 2 bonus months’ wages, funded by the state. Special dispensations are also visible in preferential postal rates for print media. They concern corporate merger law as well. Many countries have voted in special rules to limit or prevent media monopolies or cross-ownership between media and press (Humphreys, 1996, pp. 97, 222). These dispensatory laws target advertising law, too. French law prohibits any advertising for alcohol, books, and supermarket chains on TV, so that these advertising revenues can be channeled to the press, considered as vital for its financial health. The bracketing of normal laws is visible again in many European countries in the public funding of the press, sometimes specifically organized to support a party and “opinion” press as agents of political pluralism (Finland, France, Sweden).


Aside from the fanciful dreams of naive lawyers, the state and political authorities rarely refrain from taking actions forbidden to them by laws and constitutions. Because of the power—both real and imaginary—usually attributed to them, media are one of the first targets in the use of illegalities. This notion, developed by Michel Foucault (1975), refers to organized strategies to infringe on the law, including what he terms the technique of “sanctioned illegalities,” whose basic mechanism is to insert into laws and regulations the means to suspend their implementation by invoking crisis, threats, or secrets to safeguard. The repertoire of illegalities is difficult to describe, as it is precisely based on the fact that the authorities act against the law. It can, however, be summed up in two processes.

The first one is the misuse of laws—specifically, the use of legal regulations as alibis for prohibited actions. During the Algerian independence war, the French government “hijacked” many decrees concerning policing and public security to justify seizures in Algeria of issues of Le Monde, which criticized French colonialist policy. In 2002, the Turkish government used the broadcasting of Kurdish songs as a proof of a “separatist” plot to withdraw the licence of the network “Gun-TV” for 1 year. In all these cases, the courts would finally condemn the state—but months after the successful seizure of several of its issues for Le Monde or by permitting the chilling effect of military pressure on Turkish media. This family of illegalities is also visible when the political power uses a dominant or monopolistic public banking system to stifle the finances of a medium or when it makes an arbitrary use of tax controls or systematically sues a journalist or a magazine to silence it.

A second family of illegalities uses threats, surveillance, violence, or even murder, outside any legal framework. In 1973, the French counterespionage agency wiretapped the offices of the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. French President Mitterrand organized in complete contempt of law a sophisticated system of phone tapping targeting the journalists that he disliked. The watchdog organization Reporters Sans Frontières (2002) has reported that since the beginning of the second Intifada, more than 60 journalists have been wounded by bullets in occupied territories, mostly by the Israeli army. The report suggests that the ordinary risk of war coverage cannot explain such figures. The same organization highlights in each of its annual reports the situation of journalists arrested or tortured for their newspapers (Uzbekistan, Syria) or the suspicious role played by army and police units in the murders or “disappearances” of journalists (Algeria, Haiti).

These hard and brutal illegalities can be combined with soft ones that are allowed by the use of public sources to spread wrong information or hide facts unpleasant for authorities. One would thus agree with Keane (1991) to highlight that, over and above the traditional and crude style of repression by authoritarian states, great attention must be paid to the soft repertoire of the “democratic Leviathan.” It mobilizes the smile of public relations officers and the art of constructing media events. It does not fear to turn to illegalities each time that the authorities judge a situation critical or threatening for their power.

Debating the Contemporary Uses of the Repertoire

Reflection on the uses of the state’s influence through repertoires too often gives one the feeling of being framed by a new pattern of Whig history. Progress lies in having irresistible emancipation from civil society, conquering freedom of speech against the oppressive state, and using media and the press as checks and balances and a weapon of expression. The contemporary neoliberal mood suggests that the only regulations worth being produced by the state are those that “forbid it to forbid.” Following a rhetoric studied by Hirschman (1991), the best of public interventions could only give birth to “perversity, futility, and jeopardy.” Revisiting the history and contemporary uses of the repertoire in democracies, we would like to challenge these myths dressed up as science. It is not true that freedom of press had only been built against the state. The loosening of the state’s direct control over media can sometimes hide other processes of influence. The reign of a “civil society” limited to mammoth companies and organized interests creates new threats for freedom of speech.

Media Freedom and State Building

The excessively fashionable thought kit based on the state versus civil society duo always begins as the narrative of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was the state, almighty and oppressive.” The casting of characters is clear: Kings and bureaucrats are seldom supporters of free speech and media. The story can mobilize a Foucauldian scenario celebrating micro-powers and resistances, a Tocquevillean one emphasizing the role of the press among checks and balances, or a liberal one paying more attention to the strategic function of civil rights and of the rule of law. Basically, the plot remains the same: Free media and freedom of speech were born from the heroic struggles of “civil society” versus the statist Moloch.

This binary opposition takes for granted the existence of two clearly structured entities struggling one against another, but the real societal process is a cross-institutional-ization. Two dimensions of this process deserve to be briefly highlighted here. One should first focus on the need to conceptualize together two contradictory dimensions of state history (Neveu, 1994). The state is both a machinery of control and repression and the instituting agent of “civil society.” The monopolization of legitimate violence by the state is an absolute prerequisite for the central role conquered by speech and argumentation—and thus by media—to manage social conflicts as substitutes to force and violence. Nothing other than direct or indirect state action created the basis of the networks of physical communication (roads, railways) and news transmission needed by the press and public sphere. Only the generalization of literacy, most of the time boosted by public policies, creates the readership needed by the press. It is thus only in an imaginary history that one can depict a “civil society”—made of self-organized communities, companies, associations, or social movements—that militates for freedom of speech against the state, forgetting that such a civil society and its access to speech are simultaneously possible thanks to the process of state construction.

A second theme of reflection will come from a return on the repertoire of the state as a “source.” The whole history of the state since the 16th century has been the construction-process of an institution centralizing and processing information. The soldier is certainly the first symbol of the state. But to recruit soldiers and equip them, one needs an informational machinery. Its first cogs were censuses, registry offices, knowledge of the wealth and trade able to produce taxes, the production by civil or military authorities of reports on the spirit of the people, and the behavior of hostile powers. The state produces information, puts it in motion (roads, networks), and creates institutions to store and treat it (archives, libraries, research centers). By the sedimentation of statistics, court decisions, and administrators’ reports, as well as through the typification of categories of citizens, the state produces information and knowledge that, in turn, institutionalize it as it simultaneously oversees, disciplines, and institutes a civil society.

Historian and French Prime Minister Guizot is one of the first liberal thinkers who, in the 1820s, theorized the role of the press in the cross-institutionalization and communication processes between state and society. For him, the freedom of press was a functional prerequisite of democracy. The press was much more than a check and balance: It was a tool of interpenetration between state and society, carrying towards the rulers the opinions and claims of the people. As it makes them visible to the whole society, so it catalyzes public opinion. The press is also the tool that, giving echo to parliamentary debates and governmental speeches, allows the rulers to explain their choices to the demos. Combining its own news production process and the freedom of press, “power becomes thus an information regulator; it is the pump which stimulates the circulation of social power, the purifying lung of opinions” (Rosanvallon, 1985, p. 71). Timothy Cook (1998) offers one of the most stimulating case studies illustrating the blind spots of a Manichean history of media, reduced to a struggle between civil society and the state. His approach to the history of the U.S. press highlights how its development was indebted to state grants, to policies based on dispensatory rules concerning business and industrial relation laws, and to the benevolence of legislators toward press and media companies. The press is a fourth estate. This is certainly one of its potentials. But is it as an external and adversarial balance to the three other powers? Or is it much more by being integrated within the network of constitutional powers, which in turn adapt to its imperatives, offering it a flood of news, anticipating its formats and schedules?

The Hard and the Soft

The French poet Bernard Noel invented a distinction between censure (censorship) as the prohibition of speech and the term sensure (sense hollowing) he coined, signifying a freedom of speech emptied of any critical strength by the dulled consensus and asepsis of the speech produced. Such a notion can help one to understand the contemporary forms of state actions vis-à-vis media. It can make sense of the old Tocquevillean prophesy:

The Sovereign … does not tyrannize. It bothers, it compresses, it enervates, it beguiles, it dazes, it condemns finally each nation to be nothing else than a flock of shy animals. This kind of organised, sweet and peaceful serfdom … may combine much better that one imagines with some of the external shapes of freedom. (de Tocqueville, 1981, p. 386)

The first tool of those soft weapons of influence on the press is to gain the status of primary definer. When the British Home Office wants to launch a policy of prison building (Schlesinger & Tumber, 1994), it multiplies the opportunities to visit jails—and firstly the most ramshackle ones—provided to journalists. Using the same techniques of agenda framing, the Bush administration has enrolled the press to build a moral panic on the impact of crack cocaine—with 1,500 articles on the topic in the Washington Post between October 1998 and 1999 (Reinarman & Levine, 1995)—even though no statistical data on the victims of the epidemic were initially available. The 1990–1991 Gulf War offered another illustration of the smiling but efficient techniques of taming the press corps. The military provided media images in which war was nothing more than a real-life video game but where the thousands of corpses of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were invisible.

Symbolic action by the public authorities also consists of policing perceptions and analytical frameworks. State institutions and intellectuals can produce classificatory schemes that work as invisible spectacles or magnifying glasses. In 2000, the civil servants of the French ministry of finances went on strike against a reform of their administration. The press service of the ministry sent to all media a thick file justifying this reform with numerous arguments and explanations. A famous columnist from a left-oriented weekly soon wrote an article very critical of the strikers, an article that tasted like a cut-and-paste job that transformed the finance minister’s speech into “journalism.” Immediately, the central administration of the ministry had this article photocopied and faxed to all the locations still on strike, where it was distributed by the hierarchy as a handout.

The soft control of media is, lastly, composed by the production of media events. It may be the organization of press visits or travels, which has a secret goal of allowing the journalists to see, freely, what the authorities wish them to see. This event work is also based on the organization of rituals or events with high symbolic intensity. Prepared by an advertising executive, the 1989 parade commemorating the bicentenary of the French Revolution was completely structured by an interpretative frame à la Furet, the prominent historian, of that revolution as a universal symbol of the conquest of freedom, obviating any reference to the long dominant perception of 1789 as a social and egalitarian insurrection. To use Bourdieu’s adjective, these weapons of influence are based on an epistemocratic power (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1998). The stake is to impose schemes of perception of facts that, once transformed into something taken for granted, bring the media freely to limit themselves to a range of interpretations located in a space of consensus.

One must add that these soft strategies have flaws and can be superseded. Their success is never automatic. The criticism of the notion of “primary definer,” developed by Schlesinger and Tumber (1994), is illuminating. It invites us to think relationally about the power of official sources. Despite their strong resources, they are also competing with other institutions, including other public bureaucracies. They are never fully shielded from the weakening of their messages by leaks, off-the-record statements, and blunders coming from their own members. An unpredictable event can sink the best media event to the bottom of the media agenda.

A supersession of these modern soft strategies is visible when, in situations of major crisis or war, they are often replaced by or mixed in with the old and harsh techniques of state lies and “propaganda.” To justify the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European governments amazingly exaggerated the crimes of the Serbian troops. With the zealous and uncritical reiteration on the part of most of the press and media, the massacres perpetrated by Yugoslav troops were multiplied through an imaginary body count, soon allowing a “genocide” to be announced (Halimi & Vidal, 2000). In his ethnography of the war correspondents in San Salvador, Pedelty (1995) shows how the American Embassy was both able to feed the journalists with daily press conferences and ready to contact the hierarchies of U.S. dailies to require the firing of stringers whose articles were considered “un-American.”

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, offered another illustration of the supercession of soft influence on media when certain journalists were denounced as unpatriotic, Web sites were closed, and repressive laws were voted in against the news media.6

The Hollowing Out of the State’s Influence: The Promise of Freedom?

The shift of the state’s repertoire toward a symbolic management of media cannot thus be confused with a renunciation of attempting to influence them. The 1980s and 1990s saw substantial changes in media economics. Public service broadcasting was curtailed and privatized in many countries. Mergers gave birth to huge multimedia and “global” communication companies. In many cases, the real power of regulating the media system belongs to the headquarters of conglomerates or to independent authorities, escaping from governmental influence. As Janet Wasko reminds us in Chapter 15 (this volume), one must conceptualize these earthquakes in the media business according to the logic of a political economy. Changing media landscapes and policies are integrated into political narratives and strategies. Freed from the most visible forms of state control, brought back to the “state of nature” that the market is supposed to be, the media system seems to reach the harbor of a Fukuyamesque “end of history.” Market and civil society—and no longer the state—rule media and communication.

Five arguments at least invite us to question this mythology. The first was suggested in the previous paragraph. The shift of the repertoire of state influence towards what can be labeled as “symbolic action” or strategic communication management cannot be confused with the state’s withdrawal or powerlessness. The image and sound of an unreflexive patriotic choir presented by the U.S. press and media for a number of weeks after the Twin Towers slaughter is a strong illustration.

One should notice secondly that the very process of “rolling the state back” to put the media under the rule of the market has required and requires an enormous and hectic state interventionism. Scores of laws, rules, and court decisions—such as the end of the public network RAI monopoly, decided by the Italian Supreme Court in 1978—were needed to erase and destroy regulations that had been developed sometimes for more than a century. The results of these policies are rich in paradoxes. On one hand, U.S. court decisions have blurred the distinction between the rights of press and corporations to invoke the First Amendment (Allen, 2001). This change shakes the scaffolding on which were based the specific rights of press and media. On the other hand, struggles among mammoth media corporations reveal that the result of the natural functioning of the market threatens to be the birth of private monopolies, requiring more state intervention by antitrust laws and agencies. The theme of cross-institutionalization is illustrated here again: Even the most market-driven system of media needs permanent state action and regulation to exist and survive.

Thirdly, private media ownership has never been a perfect shield against state and government influence. The lasting connection between Murdoch’s U.K. tabloids and the Thatcher government is a prime example. During the French presidential campaign of 1995, the most committed network was the private channel TF1, giving overfriendly coverage to the prime ministerial candidate Balladur. Were the executives of the channel conservatives? They were not socialists. And TF1 belonged to the Bouygues group, the leading French and world company for public works. Needing the public contracts, TF1 lost a reasonable bet whilst supporting a prime minister whom all opinion polls then anointed as the next president.

Fourthly, the result of less state intervention is not always automatically more freedom. French publishers have been complaining of a process of privatizing censorship. Flaubert and Baudelaire had to face legal actions requested by the empress and the minister of justice against their “immoral” novels. Freed from public censorship, writers and journalists face now costly and repeated suits triggered by extremist religious groups, powerful companies, and industrialists with their armies of attorneys.

Lastly, a market-driven press and media system creates no incentives to strengthen and reward the values and behaviors of citizenship. Most media and magazines target audiences as consumers interested in information concerning the stock exchange, soccer, fashion, and travel. The world of market-driven journalism (McManus, 1994) is populated by customers, not by citizens. It is dedicated to the satisfaction of human beings considered as market slots, not as responsible members from a polity. In the supply of cable television, the number of channels dedicated to information or documentaries, able to make sense of the social world, remains limited. Such media can offer pleasant entertainment and help people to identify useful goods and services. They also boost a very specific kind of freedom. The French liberal philosopher Benjamin Constant analyzed this “freedom of the modern” and its risks as early as 1819. Liberalism in its radical version opens the freedom to behave as though we were not living in society, as if the highest human goal were a selfish pursuit of happiness. But is it so reasonable to get “freed” from politics? To replace it by what, and whom, in the decision process?

Conclusions: Reinventing “Social Responsibility”

It would seem strange to evoke with nostalgia the old classification of Siebert et al. (1956) after criticizing it. But at least the “social responsibility” pattern helped to highlight the strains between market logics and social needs (culture, information). A reasoned plea for an active public regulation of media threatens today to sound both outdated and more a matter of political commitment than being based on scientific grounds.

Such would be, however, our conclusion. It comes from the facts that suggest that market self-regulation creates new threats to media autonomy and quality. It also results from a syllogism. A polity is made up of citizens, not consumers. Citizens are requested to take part in debates and choices on the common good. To do so, they need information that is rich, pluralist, and clear. They need a press that acts as a mirror of all social worlds, not as the loudspeaker of institutions. If one agrees with this analytical frame, it is clear that the media cannot be reduced to a market or audiences reduced to consumers.

Rolling back the market and bringing back the state is a partial but compulsory answer (Cook, 1998; Neveu, 2001). Let us recall here that the first level of state intervention to guarantee an open and critical functioning of citizenship and the public sphere—and not only in the “underdeveloped” world—is to provide the population with the prerequisites of citizenship: providing a good and cheap education system, giving real access to jobs and social advancement, having an open and democratic political system that strengthens a feeling of civic self-esteem among citizens, and believing that citizens’ opinions matter and influence policies and politics. State intervention should also directly target media. Broadcasting rights and licenses, as well as access to public funding and subsidies, should all be conditional upon genuine respect for legal requirements. Such requirements might be a minimum percentage of current affairs and debate programs, along with airtime and coverage given to voices from below. The challenge is to reinvent new regulations and new public funding systems able to prevent reducing audiences to a mere collection of consumers, as well as to channel the creativity of media professionals toward making programs that are both attractive and trigger reflexivity, breaking the “dumbing-down spiral.”

The risks of such policies are twofold. They may open new opportunities for party or governmental influence on media. They may be confused with the impossible return to life of the old Reithian pattern of public service, both paternalistic and rejected in a highly competitive mediascape. No one, neither the sociologist nor the political actor, is able today to draw up a perfect reform blueprint to address the threats we have identified. Facing these threats and challenges appears, however, as much more urgent and exciting than watching power-lessly the impact of market-driven media. And no doubt, there is much to be learned from the experience and actions of watchdog organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Reporters Sans Frontières. Undoubtedly, practical experiences and theoretical reflections suggest lines of action. In line with Sinclair’s analyses (see Chapter 3, this volume), a new framework would need the interrelated action of supranational institutions and supranational regulations. Internationalization also means comparing and borrowing laws, institutions, and successful experiences of public sphere engineering from foreign countries while simultaneously taming state intervention and market logic: The challenge is exciting for academics, media professionals, and citizens.

Media, Government, and the Political Process

The analysis of media developed in the previous sections focused on their relation to the state and their roles in the polity. It combined longue durée time frames and an institutional approach (Cook, 1998). Considered in shorter time frames, in an interpretative framework based on politics (parties, elections) and not only on the organization of the polity and its media policies, media must also be considered as central actors in political competitions. The research questions thus become the following: What is the impact of media on candidates, parties, and voters? How has broadcasting changed politics? What are the structures of interdependence between political journalists, spin doctors, politicians, and lobbyists? What is the impact of the media coverage of politics on public opinion and voting behavior?

Political Communication

These questions are usually labeled in academia as political communication, a subspeciality of political science. This research field immediately suggests three challenges. The first comes from the flow, even the flood, of its productions. The amount of published material is enormous enough to justify its specific journals and handbooks (Nimmo, 1981) and is impossible to sum up in a few paragraphs. Another challenge comes from the almost obsessional focus of political communication studies on elections and campaigning. Of course, elections are the core of political struggle. Their results offer “actual-size” data to evaluate the impact of communication. The price of this overanalysis of campaign communication is that we know probably more about the possible electoral impact of the gimmicks or adulterous affairs of a candidate than about the daily coverage of politics and policies by the press and media. Last but not least, one may question the very notion of “political communication.” It may invite us to think of communication as an autonomous process or to overrate the importance of communicative skills, whereas the forms and impacts of “communication” must also be considered as the results of a complex causal system, including the sociology of journalistic work, changes in the recruitment of politicians, and party functioning and funding. And this list should of course include evolutions in social morphology, collective identities, and beliefs in the power of politics to change the world.

Taking the risk of oversimplifying, it is possible to suggest four major changes identified by political communication studies. The first is the redefinition of the notion of public opinion. Formerly linked to the interpretations of vox populi expressed by intellectuals or elite journalists and politicians, since the 1960s, this notion has been identified with opinion polls, which have gained a central importance in politics (Champagne, 1990). A second change comes from the inflationary process of the professionalization of political communication by politicians and their spin doctors (Blumler & Kavanagh, 1999). This process triggers a third change that could be described as a symbolic arms race. Fearing to be put under control by politicians, journalists have become more adversarial. One of their skills becomes the decipherment, for their audience, of the media tricks and gimmicks of politicians, who in turn look for more sophisticated strategies to thwart the journalists’ castrating know-how (Kuhn & Neveu, 2002). Fourthly, even if consensus weakens here, researchers quite widely agree on the growing role taken in campaigning by personalities, emotions, and pseudo-events to the detriment of programs and in-depth issue coverage. More than just detail these conclusions, the next paragraphs will try to highlight issues. How can we prevent political communication research from a bad remake of the old debate Umberto Eco (1965) once framed as between the “apocalyptic” jeremiahs declaiming against mass culture and its “integrated” celebrants? How do we make sense of the paradox of private media integrated within a “public representation service”? How can media support a renewal of the public sphere?

Critical Orthodoxy versus Democratic Neo-Orthodoxy: The Wrong Debate

Since the 1960s, most academics—and many journalists—have invited us to question the impact of media, especially TV, on the quality of democratic debate. Reports and comments have accused media of giving an excessive importance to polls, horse race politics, and power struggles to the detriment of in-depth coverage of politicians’ programs and policies. The reduction of political speech into sound bites is claimed to weaken the quality of debate. During the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, the average length of candidate sound bites during news bulletins was 40 seconds. The figure had collapsed to 7 in 1996. The criticisms have also targeted the growing importance given to artificial media events and the emphasis on the private, sometimes scandalous, dimensions of politicians’ behaviors—such as the novel Primary Colors (Anonymous, 1996) that depicts, with realism, the story of a candidate specializing in bed hopping and saxophone playing.

In the United Kingdom, the target of criticism has firstly been the gutter press. But the use on both sides of the Atlantic of expressions such as “dumbing down,” “tabloidization,” “trivialization,” and “New-zak” (Franklin, 1997) expresses clearly a shared “media malaise.” The rising practice of inviting politicians on talk shows has triggered new debates. Could not the questions asked by hosts, lacking in serious knowledge of political issues, shield candidates from unpleasant discussions? Don’t such interactions overemphasize the personal lives of interviewees and also reward the best actors, not leaders able to offer clear choices? The role given to boisterous audiences asking frivolous questions (about Clinton’s underwear on MTV) has prompted fears of a TV “populism” (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1995; “La politique saisie par le divertissement,” 2003). Especially in the United States, journalists have been targets of criticism. They have been accused of giving more time to adversarial comments than to politicians’ speeches. Fallows (1996) even suggested that the upper crust of media pundits had become a privileged caste, no longer able to relay the worries and questions of laypeople. The final result of these processes would be a mistrust of politicians among citizens and civic apathy (Eliasoph, 1998).

This dominant analytical framework has recently been challenged. One of the first shots was fired by Kees Brants (1999), who asked, “Who’s afraid of infotainment?” Mobilizing extensive data, especially from the Netherlands, Brants argued that infotainment, accounting for 22% of program content, has not yet become the main way that TV frames politics but also questioned whether its format might not spur the interest of those citizens least interested in political issues. But the books of McNair (2000) and Norris (2000) symbolize the declaration of war on “critical orthodoxy.” Developing an in-depth case study of political news coverage in 1996, McNair argues that the public sphere works in a much more satisfactory manner than academia’s laments suggest. Never has the supply of political information been so generous. And this information remains centered on issues and policies. McNair also argues that the interpretive turn in political journalism signifies a need for in-depth explanations, not a disease, and that beyond infotainment, talk shows offer ordinary citizens true opportunities for expression. In a very ambitious comparative study based on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Eurobarometers data, Norris developed a similar analysis. If media can produce negative perceptions of some institutions (i.e., the EU Commission), such cases do not allow hasty generalizations. Conversely, Norris claimed that her data show that media do not primarily produce negative perception of politics. They do bring to citizens useful knowledge to make sense of the political stakes. The relationship between news consumption and political attitudes even inspires in Norris the image of a “virtuous circle” of better knowledge and greater attention to politics among major news consumers.

This discussion highlights important questions. Did the research on the political impact of media overrate their effects on the devaluation of politics? How, then, ought we to empirically evaluate their impact? But three reasons at least suggest questioning the new heralds of a “healthy public sphere.”

The first one comes from the unfortunate oversimplification symbolized by the very notion of critical orthodoxy, which may suggest a shared and fierce radicalism among authors whose methods and conclusions differ and are usually based on serious empirical work. Another doubt comes from the fact that the new discourse on the democratic virtues of contemporary media seems no less simplistic than the outdated criticisms from the Frankfurt tradition. How can we avoid the task of developing an in-depth sociological analysis of the enormous differences in audiences’ uses, interpretations, and receptions of information and news? Can one seriously argue from Eurobarometers that the fact that EU citizens know “their” 12-star flag is proof of the pedagogic virtues of media—without also commenting on the figure that reveals that less than 25% among them understood the countdown to the introduction of the Euro that would be in their wallets 1 year later?

A serious debate on the political role of media requires three levels of analysis:

  1. A sociology of news production, combining the study of sources, journalistic work, and the impact of business imperatives;
  2. A qualitative and quantitative data analysis of contents and formats, framings, and agendas;
  3. A sociology of reception, including ethnographic case studies, such as those developed to analyze the soap opera Dallas.

One may agree that too much research has fallen into the shortcut trap of concluding, from the existence of framing or bias in content, the proof of its impact on audiences. Is this a good enough reason to remove the dusty functionalism of “uses and gratifications” from its mothballs? To forget its blindness to the production process of media messages, its reference to “uses” and “gratifications,” whose social genesis remains a mystery? Such a method has, today as yesterday, the charm of simple and comforting answers, the alibi of a flood of data whose production process and actual meanings remain unchallenged.

Media as a Cog in the Public Representation Service?

With the concept of “party cartel,” Richard Katz and Peter Mair (1994) renewed the analysis of parties, suggesting a slow drift in the relation between parties and civil society. As often suggested by their very names (Greenbacks, Labour), parties had long defined themselves as expressing social groups inside political institutions. Katz and Mair suggest three dimensions of the weakening of such links. The exclusive relationship between parties and classes has loosened. The catchall party is no longer defined by a classe gardée, a particular social class constituency. Secondly, state intervention has become central in party functioning, straitjacketed by laws and statutes, funded by public money more than by activists. Finally, a kind of cartel solidarity has developed between established parties to keep control of the electoral market and prevent the arrival of newcomers. We can speak with Offerlé (1994) of parties as cogs in a public representation service organized by the state for voters more than as the expression of spontaneous citizens’ voices challenging the state.

Can we compare the evolution of media to that of parties? Significant differences do exist. They come from the unprecedented weight of huge communication companies and market logic and sometimes from the state’s withdrawal of financial support to the media. But if one considers the limited but strategic sector of the general information press and media, Katz and Mair’s (1994) analytical framework still makes sense. Just as between voters and parties, the bottom-up linkage between the information press and its readership has loosened. Even in many countries where it was once powerful (France, Italy), the partisan party press now occupies a very limited space, like media linked to trade unions or social movements. Audiences and readerships have become markets to conquer more than a “base” with whom to reflect and to whom to give voice.

The information media have also become a full-fledged political institution. Cook (1998, pt. III) has clearly shown how the other constitutional institutions have adapted themselves to the imperatives of media, developing press services, rituals, and timetables to answer to the imperatives of newsworthiness, using the media for their own purposes. A newsroom is structured in an isomorphic relationship to public institutions. The political desk of a French newspaper has its specialists on the presidency, the parliament, and the prime minister. The structure and hierarchy of ministries are approximately mirrored by the hierarchy of the journalists who cover them. Because they are plugged into institutional sources, whose specializations and often ways of thinking and questioning they reproduce, journalists are trapped in mimetic “indexation” logics (Bennett, 1996). Their interpretative categories mirror those of the mighty. The simple question of what is political news is illuminating. This news section covers the cogs of representative democracy: institutions, parties, elections, and parliamentary debates. It pays conversely much less attention to realities whose political impact is nonetheless strong for ordinary citizens: lobbying, policy processes, social movements.

Let us finally note how the integration of news production and frames into the magnetic field of officialdom is also visible in the weak power of media to define an autonomous agenda. Following the agendas of the three main candidates and deriving their reporting priorities from them, journalists hammered the theme of law and order during the French presidential campaign of 2002—before expressing amazement when such framing and priming processes allowed the extreme-right politician Le Pen to get to the second round (Amalou, 2002). Because it restores the autonomy of the press, investigative journalism à la Watergate balances such trends. But it is strong in only a few countries. It can hardly develop without the partnership of actors or institutions having strategic interest in leaks. It also has to face the reaction of the powers that be to its challenges (Schudson, 1995, chap. 7).

Even if it does not suppress the existence of a space for debate, the location of news media in the shadow and interdependence network of public institutions and social power tends to make them share a common episteme. It threatens to transform them into loudspeakers of the official ways of framing news and events, rather than having them relay citizens’ emotions, reactions, and ways of thinking.

Revitalizing the Public Sphere

The historical analysis of the role of media in the public sphere looks often like a kind of horror story for intellectuals. Media are accused of transforming public debate into endlessly degenerating triviality. If they do mobilize factual data, their diagnoses often threaten to overinterpret them. The search for ratings pushes them to value the spectacular, the entertaining, and the emotive more than to enlighten debate or analysis of the issues. Epistemic closeness between questioners and questioned produces connivance. As “politics” appears ratings unfriendly, the media debates able to gather a significant audience have shifted toward talk show programs. And discussion focuses thus more on private matters (sex, family life, health), framed as manageable by individual therapy, rather than on social problems and people’s stakes in the policies that address them (François & Neveu, 1999).

Despite these trends that threaten the very notion of public debate, we should conclude by considering new uses of media to revitalize political debate. The question of political debate in contemporary media need not be condemned to be framed in the nostalgia of an imaginary golden age.

Without developing a naive or populist celebration, one should first notice that many broadcast talk shows with active audiences contribute to modifying the agenda and style of debates. A clear example was offered by the public service French TV during the 1995 presidential campaign. Questions expressed from the studio by representatives of “civil society” or from cafés by “ordinary Frenchmen” were mainly about unemployment, the welfare state, AIDS, and political morality, whereas those from political journalists remained centered on the horse race and party bargaining (Neveu, 1999). The U.S. experiments in “civic journalism” can suggest similar comments. When they work to help local communities to identify their own agendas, define solutions, and organize debates, journalists give an opportunity to reconstruct local spaces for political discussion. One can question this approach. Is there a risk of seeing journalists replacing politicians? Does the quest of community consensus threaten minorities? Civic journalism, however, has often given a new energy to local politics.

One would finally note how the aim to regain young, female, popular readers has boosted new styles of reporting in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France. Often written by women, these articles may use biographical material to make sense of issues, describe the practical impact of policies on laypeople, and give expression to their feelings and hopes. Such analyses can be expressed in portraits, in an “intimate reporting” (Harrington, 1997), or in reports linked to hard news and issues. They bring back into media and public debate a potential bottom-up approach to policies and their impact, as well as a sensitivity to collective stakes that may prevent stereotypical speech and revalidate social dialogue.