New Media and Politics


Edited by: Barrie Axford & Richard Huggins

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    This book takes as its central theme the putative transformation of some of the cardinal features of political modernity under the impact of new media and in the context of what some commentators choose to call media cultures. These features include received models of liberal democracy and of the public sphere, definitions of political space and identities and the nature of citizenship. The book also addresses the extent of change in the conduct of political leadership, in the routines of governance and in the functioning of political parties. It also takes up the vexed question of the role of the political audience in politics that are, as Manuel Castells says, increasingly ‘framed by and in the idiom of electronically based media’ (1996: 74).

    A politics framed by media would have profound consequences for the characteristics, organization and goals of political processes, actors and institutions. However, none of the contributions to this book assume a neat and accomplished transformation of modern politics, even where they note significant changes wrought by innovations in media technologies and formats. Rather, there is a properly questioning stance on the idea of transformation and on the role of ‘new’ media in effecting change. In part this is due to the problems involved in pinning down the concept of ‘new’ media. As a rule of thumb, all forms of computer-mediated communications are included, but these technologies are often grafted on to older media formats (talk-shows, phone-ins) to produce hybrid forms. In addition, it is difficult, but also misguided, to assess the impact of new, or any media, in isolation from other variables. We may all live in thoroughly mediatized cultures, and this influences cultural production and identity formation. At the same time, it is impossible to understand the dynamic of media cultures without reference to consumerism and the now global culture of neo-liberalism. In turn, the creation of a truly global cultural economy is increasingly reliant upon the ubiquity of information and communications technologies.

    Because of these complexities, there is a lot to be said for staying close to the manifold changes in political communications that have taken place in recent decades and which have, at the very least, contributed to a professionalization of political marketing, and transformed the conduct of leadership. Some chapters in this book adopt such an approach, while others are rather more exercised by the characteristics of mediatized cultures, where that refers to major shifts in cultural production, consumption and exchange. Mediatized cultures are characterized by promotional discourses, the aestheticization of social and political life and by the dominance of image. Engaging with such notions edges debate towards the idea of postmodern discourses and postmodern politics and some contributors do entertain this kind of shift.

    But even if the thesis of transformation – postmodern or not – is accepted, interpretations of the process and of the outcomes often spring from strong and opposing normative positions. Such positions can be presented in simple, though compelling, pictures of a world on the brink of ruin, where politics is reduced to a media-brokered spectacle, or else conveniently summarized in compelling, but probably misleading, notions about the ‘packaging’ or ‘Americanization’ of politics and political discourses. On the other hand, the vision of cyberenthusiasts may be equally blinkered, or as naive, replacing obsessive hand-wringing with reflex hand-clapping.

    Although none of the contributions to this book fall into either of these categories, they show a properly critical and, where appropriate, a committed engagement with the issues. Detailed empirical observation is offered, along with critical judgements about the quality of the politics under construction. When we first conceived the idea for the book, we were anxious to extend the discussion beyond the usual critique of electoral communications and campaign politics that have both informed, but limited, the study of political communication over the years. In addition we looked to canvass informed and critical research and opinion across the discipline of political science and communications research. In both these aims we have been successful and the resulting contributions offer a wide-ranging, lively and diverse set of observations on the important and complex issues under discussion. As befits a theme of this sort, there is a good deal of productive synergy between chapters, since it is neither possible nor helpful to try to seal off areas of debate into discrete chapters. Themes like democracy, publicness and citizenship run through many of the chapters, even where the evidence used and the perspectives employed are different.

    We have been fortunate enough to traffic some of the ideas in this book at various seminars and conferences in Europe and North America, as well as in the UK. Among these we should mention the IAMCR conference on ‘Media and Politics’ in Brussels in 1997, organized by Jan Servaes, the ‘Images of Politics’ conference in Amsterdam, in 1998 and the ‘Regulating the Internet’ conference in Seattle, April 2000, organized by the University of Washington. In particular, we would like to express our thanks to Giorgio Sola and Agostino Massa at the University of Genoa for providing a congenial venue for various papers and for their wonderful hospitality.




    Barrie Axford is Professor of Politics at Oxford Brookes University.

    Stephen Coleman is Research Director of the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government.

    Peter Dahlgren is Professor of Communications at the University of Lund.

    Ivan Horrocks is a Lecturer in the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order, University of Leicester.

    Richard Huggins is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Oxford Brookes University.

    Kathleen Hall Jamieson is Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

    Sandra Moog is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Ken Newton is Professor of comparative politics at the University of Southampton and Executive Director of the European Consortium for Political Research.

    Sinikka Sassi is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Helsinki.

    Jeff Sluyter-Beltrao is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

    John Street is Reader in the Department of Politics at the University of East Anglia.

    Jennifer Stromer-Galley is Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication.

    Dominic Wring is Lecturer in Communications at Loughborough University.

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