2. Habermas (2004) claimed ‘the critical state of a democracy can be measured by taking the pulse of the life of its political public sphere’. He also claimed ‘the public sphere serves those who have gained prominence as a stage for self-presentation’. How does the public’s right to participate in political life measure up against the journalist’s responsibility to serve the democratic process when considering sensitive stories?Most of the material I have covered on the module to date has been informed by the core concern of democratic action within public life as informed by the media. Obviously, the work of Habermas on the 'public sphere' is important to this essay in that it serves as the theoretical basis for starting the investigation. Those students on MAC373 attempting this question will need to engage with Habermas' ideas in some form in order to complete the assignment.
A good answer is likely to consider the role and responsibilities of journalists in informing the democratic process. It may be advantageous to consider these issues against the backdrop of examples whereby the media appear complicit in preventing the public from accessing accurate information in a timely manner, for instance the news that Prince Harry was serving in Helmand, Afghanistan
I've posted copies of the slides used in the session on war reporting as a way of showing one way into the assignment:
You can find all of my presentations in the relevant folders in the MAC373 module space on WebCT Vista/Sunspace. I thought it might be useful for some of you to recap the ideas raised on MAC201 last year so I've included those slides here too:
Tackling the essay
Some of the things that you are going to need to do in order to answer this question:
- Explain what is meant by 'democracy'
- Define the 'public sphere'
- Relate the 'public sphere' to the press/broadcasting (the role of 'public opinion'?)
- Consider some of the failings of the public sphere (is the press free from commercial concerns? do the public interact freely with news? do some voices/perspectives dominate the news agenda?)
- By this point in the essay, it should be possible to make some over-arching claims about the role the press plays in lubricating the cogs of democratic action
- The next stage of the essay should revolve around an example of your choosing - the only caveat is that the story or case study should be 'sensitive' in some way (ie politically or militarily dangerous, perhaps even concerned with privacy issues)
- You will need to engage with whether or not the public has a right to know or if the journalist/publisher/broadcaster has a right to withhold the information
- Is press freedom sacrosant?
The story was thought to be subject to a DA-Notice in the British context as the mission was militarily sensitive, until the US-based Drudge Report picked up on an earlier Australian story and broke the news. At this point the British media opened up - there are lots of interesting newspaper accounts of whether the public had the right to know the whereabouts of the Prince, or whether or not it was prudent to not reveal his location for fear that it may endanger his fellow troops (see the links in the first slideshow above)
Was the Prince a likely target for the Taliban? Or was the stunt a PR exercise in order to raise troop morale? Did the media blackout even matter given the reports that the Taliban already knew Harry was there? Who really benefitted from the blackout? Prof. Roy Greenslade makes a few interesting observations in his Guardian blog piece here that you might want to check out.
You could also approach the question from a historical perspective. A famous example of when the British media dealt with a controversial story which might have been militarily sensitive can be seen in the This Week documentary entitled Death on the Rock. In 1988 the programme investigated an incident in which 3 members of the IRA were shot in Gibraltar by British special forces. Conflictual evidence led to public uncertainty about the legitimacy of the shootings. Did the public have the right to know?
You can watch the broadcast below:
Another famous example of a gag-order being served came in the Spycatcher case, when a former MI5 published sensitive information. The Times was carrying a story recently about a forthcoming book entitled Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the D-Notice History by Rear-Admiral Nicholas John Wilkinson which was itself subject to D-Notice wranglings, and has been subsequently delayed by the publishers (Routledge). A couple of weeks back The Independent carried a story about palns to extend the powers of the DA Notice system, referring to a specific example
If you want to talk specifics then leave a comment or send me a plan or outline via email.