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About this book

This major international text introduces the key themes, issues and theoretical approaches in the field. A central concern is to put the politics back into the study of communication by posing key critical questions about power and ideology: what is being communicated, by whom, how, in whose interests, and with what effects and implications?

Table of Contents


Green Day’s ‘Holiday’ and Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’; the Tunisian Revolution and subsequent uprisings across North Africa; the sexualization and objectification of women in popular media content; the relative lack of public discussion about the role of the arms industry in our news media. These are all forms of political communication: the communication of differing types of politics. Yet this might not be what immediately springs to mind when we think about ‘political communication’. The basic premise of this book is that there are myriad ways to communicate politically. When elites from the worlds of showbiz, formal politics or business communicate with us, directly through news programmes or through the press, through TV quizzes or reality programming, this is political communication. When elites communicate indirectly to us, inculcating values, moral codes and social norms, this is political communication. When the public protest and tell their governments they disagree with those in power, through violent or non-violent protest, this is also political communication. When ordinary people engage in collective action such as the global Occupy movement or when people sit down in protest - as they did in the United Kingdom at Philip Green tax avoidance in Topshop - or boycott products and companies for their use of sweat shops and child labour, these are also types of political communication. Clearly, then, we could assume that every time we act politically, we are communicating.
Heather Savigny

Chapter 1. What is Political about Political Communication?

In 2011, an image of a female protestor being beaten by military police in Egypt went viral and sent shockwaves around the world. In 2014, climate change protest marches took place in over 100 cities around the world. In June of the same year, French President François Hollande made the headlines over his extra-marital affair. These are all forms of communication about politics, and as I began to discuss in the previous chapter, there is also a political component in their communication. On one level, we could argue that to engage in protest is a form of politics and so in that context we might consider that protestors are managing to communicate dissatisfaction to elites. However, media are not passive in this process and they frame what we see in particular ways, which serve to reinforce particular world views and narratives. Media can add emphasis to a debate or issue; they an ignore it, so that it does not get discussed; or they can frame it as news worthy but insignificant. The way that media frame what we know about the world out there is densely political. It is political in the sense that it shapes what is and isnt possible for us to think about, to know, and so it ultimately frames and contextualizes for us how power is distributed in society.
Heather Savigny

Chapter 2. Why does Political Communication Matter?

According to liberal theory, an informed citizenry is necessary for the healthy functioning of a democracy, so we need to be able to read the media and the politics which are being communicated in order to take part in democracy, to know what our rights are, and to be able to hold to account those who rule in society. To be able to do this, we need to be politically and media literate. Literacy is therefore central in making sense of why political communication matters. If politics is communicated to us each time we engage in media, we make choices about the degrees of engagement or passivity we display towards those mediated messages; while the extent to which we engage (or not) may be on the surface an autonomous choice, the aim of this chapter is to situate the choices that we as individuals make in a wider social and political context. Our knowledge of the world is predicated in the language that we use, and so the way language structures our experience is discussed, and then through reflection on ideology we can start to unpack how dominant views of the world are communicated to us. In becoming literate, we need to also think about the codes and messages that are communicated to us, and the chapter follows this discussion with a series of political questions that encourage us to think about how we read political messages; this also involves a reflection on the language that we use. The discussion thus moves to the wider ideological and discursive context in which much of Western political communication is situated: namely a neoliberal, capitalist and patriarchal context. Finally, the chapter argues that when we analyse political communication we also need to be sure we are as aware of what is not being communicated as what is being communicated.
Heather Savigny

Chapter 3. Who are the Audience(s)?

If there was no audience to read, listen, watch and consume media, then media would struggle to function or, indeed, to exist. This claim makes audiences central to the process of political communication. Not only in the communication of formal politics, the actions of political elites (as discussed in Chapter 4), but also in the sense that the existence of an audience and its relations to media implies a negotiated political relationship. Communication relies on a receiver; and so media rely on audiences. In order to make sense of the way power may be distributed and operates we need, therefore, to also understand what is meant by the term ‘audience’. Indeed, this is an ontological question as we need to begin by asking, is there such a thing as ‘the’ audience? To suggest there is a singular audience assumes that there is an homogenous group that exists ‘out there’. We might, therefore, think that there are multiple audiences with differing interpretations of the same content. Moreover, these multiple audiences may use different media platforms and bring different beliefs and behaviours to the media content that they consume. This matters because if media rely on audiences, then surely media will need to respond to audience demand. It is often assumed that audiences comprise the masses (again implying a homogeneity) but if media audiences are elites, what does this mean for the masses?
Heather Savigny

Chapter 4. How do Governments and Politicians Communicate?

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary politician giving the same kind of response to a TV interviewer as Prime Minister Clement Attlee did, just after the start of the UK general election campaign in 1951. Today’s politicians have a whole host of speechwriters, consultants and advisers, who would provide an ‘instant’ reply, which would spell out a commitment to fairness, demonstrating economic competence, while at the same time pointing out than the other party, or candidate, was simply not up to the job. Much has changed… Prime Minister Clement Attlee did, just after the start of the UK general election campaign in 1951. Today politicians have a whole host of speech writers, consultants and advisers, who would provide an instant reply, which would spell out a commitment to fairness, demonstrating economic competence, while at the same time pointing out than the other party, or candidate, was simply not up to the job. Much has changed The prominence and importance attached to election campaigns are not only UK phenomena. This chapter begins with an historical overview of attempts of governments and rulers to manipulate masses in order to achieve their aims (e.g. from Machiavelli). It traces techniques of propaganda and looks at how governments have engaged in forms of manipulation of audiences and citizens; and attempts by elites to manipulate media. It charts the rise of PR and advertising in the formal arena of politics: as an idea and as a set of techniques and media responses to it in election campaigning and beyond. But in asking political questions
Heather Savigny

Chapter 5. How is News Communicated Politically?

News, like media, is ubiquitous, and can be accessed through a variety of differing channels from apps on our phones to TV channels, to local and national newspapers. We have myriad means to find out what our political (and other) elites are doing on our behalf in public life. News also defines for us what is taking place in society around us. News is a (although as this book seeks to make clear, not the only) crucial way in which we find out about politics: both in the formal sense of the behaviour of elite political actors and the institutions of the state and culturally through the dissemination and circulation of norms and values. News implies, however, a formality: an accurate, objective record of events, that are deemed important. To ask political questions about news is to ask how it comes into existence: from the billions of events and occurrences that happen each day, why do we know about some and not others? Why does some news make the agenda and other events not be considered newsworthy? Who decides what counts as news? In asking these questions we are also reminded that news is communicated to us, via a plethora of media platforms, and constructs for us a version of reality, rather than being the measurement and objective presentation of one ‘reality’ out there. This chapter focuses particularly on the way news constructs for us a sense of the ‘public’ – not as an audience, but as a space, a site where social and political relations are constructed, negotiated and contested. So when we start to ask political questions about the nature of news, and what is being politically communicated, we need to ask a series of prior questions.
Heather Savigny

Chapter 6. How is Politics Communicated beyond the News?

There is often a tendency to assume that politics is what happens on the news. But as Street (1997) argues, politics is also about what happens in media beyond the news. This chapter invites us to think about how politics may be manifest in media content that we might not immediately think of as ‘political’; the communication of societal norms and values, the very meaning of politics, can take place beyond the formal institutions of the state. The recognition of the significance of popular (and more recently, celebrity) culture to the ‘political’ is evidenced perhaps when we see politicians behaving as celebrities, seeking some ‘sparkle’ as they fraternize with rock stars. At the same time, we also see TV, music and film stars seek to raise awareness around political issues and influence policy. Angelina Jolie is UN ambassador for refugee issues; Joanna Lumley raised the profile of the Gurkha Justice Campaign group; and Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and others have used their status to challenge how contemporary journalism has been operating, heading up the UK ‘Hacked Off’ campaign group (making representation about how mobile phones had been hacked by journalists).
Heather Savigny

Chapter 7. How is Politics Communicated beyond the Nation State?

Perhaps the ultimate form of political communication by nation states as political actors is that of the declaration of war, which is a definitive act of ‘persuasion’ and communication: using hostile means to achieve political goals. Governments use a variety of techniques to communicate political messages to opponents, to citizens and to military audiences. Media play a crucial role in how war is framed to citizens at home; once war was declared on Iraq, for example, UK national newspapers played a generally supportive role calling on public support for ‘our boys’, personalizing the war agenda onto the soldiers who were fighting, drawing attention away from government policy. Media framing, sympathetic to the actions of the government of the day, is crucial in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’. One of the most poignant moments towards the end of the Vietnam War was Nick Ut’s communication of the atrocities being suffered by civilians in his photograph of a small girl fleeing a napalm attack in her village. This picture was widely credited with swaying public opinion against the war; military and political strategists learned the lessons of the need to ensure public support for later acts of warfare and crucially the need to get supportive media framing.
Heather Savigny

Chapter 8. How do Citizens Communicate Politically?

Much of this book has been concerned with how media and politics communicate with each other and to audiences and citizens. News media, for example, are seen to provide a voice for the people (according to liberal theory). In newspapers and other media, citizens speak (cf. Lewis et al., 2005) and articulate political viewpoints. As has been discussed throughout, however, this voice is mediated, and so often when we see citizens communicating with elites, this tends to be on terms already defined by elites (such as in the framing of what ‘counts’ as news, and the decisions about who gets to speak). Much of the literature within political communication assumes that the communication process is ‘top down’ – from elites to masses. In this sense we might think that citizens have very little autonomy; it is not of their choosing how they get to communicate their political views, experiences and ideas. The aim of this chapter is to unpack how citizens are given, or may claim, a political voice, and how they choose to use it or not. In looking at how citizens can communicate through the actions that are deemed ‘legitimate’ in democratic theory, we begin by touching on issues of representation and participation. These forms of political communication often tend to deny the role of media in the process, so we then turn to look at new media technologies as a site where citizens have been more active than democratic theory may have provided for. Underlying this is a discussion about the loss of connection with political elites around identity; political identity construction and its communication used to be the preserve of partisan loyalties, communicated to elites in the form of votes. As partisan loyalties and links have declined, the chapter explores how citizens express their identities and how these are communicated to those with power. Finally we turn to think about resistance as a form of political communication.
Heather Savigny
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