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Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles

Editor: Bart Cammaerts, Nico Carpentier
Publisher: Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2007
Review Published: November 2008

 REVIEW 1: Arthur L. Morin

This edited volume comes from the work of three panels of the Communication and Democracy Section of the European Communication Research and Education Association, which convened at a November 2005 conference in Amsterdam. The book is divided into four sections -- citizenship and the public sphere, participation, journalism, and activism -- and includes a Foreword, an Introduction, and Notes on the Contributors. As does its predecessors (Servaes 2003; Servaes and Carpentier 2006), the book's contributors come from a range of countries including Austria, Belgium, England, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway. Happily, those who have access to the Internet can read the online version of the book here.

In chapter one ("Making a difference to media pluralism: A critique of the pluralistic consensus in European media policy"), Kari Karppinen presents three models: the free marketplace approach to diversity and plurality; the public service approach; and pluralism and diversity as contestation. Karpinnen critiques the first two models but does not provide the same kind of critical analysis of the third model. Karppinen's implicit criticism of the first two models is that they leave out too many voices and that therefore we need to shift to a model that lets in more voices. Since structures and processes are still needed and lines still need to be drawn, it would have been helpful to receive more commentary on the "how to" side of the third model.

Claudia Padovani, Arjuna Tuzzi, and Giorgia Nesti articulate the characteristics of a strong democracy in chapter two ("Communication and (e)democracy: Assessing European e-democracy discourses"). The authors analyze four documents to see if there is any consensus regarding the question: What are "some 'core concepts' that could be considered as conceptual references of a shared vision of e-democracy" (38)? The authors' analysis leads to the conclusion that government institutions have not really moved down the road of e-democracy. The academic and practitioner documents suggest that these actors are further down the road.

Margit Böck is the author of chapter three ("Reducing communicative inequalities: Towards a pedagogy for inclusion"). One conclusion to draw from her chapter is that those who are fully integrated into the knowledge society have different life-worlds than those who are not. Böck champions a "pedagogy for inclusion," which treats have-nots as authentic individuals who are accomplished and experts in their own life-worlds.

Chapter four ("Citizen participation and local public spheres: An agency and identity focused approach to the Tampere postal services conflict"), by Auli Harju, leads to the insight that in contemporary Western society, the traditional mainstream media-institution-reader context "reads in" particular roles for the actors. Harju describes and critiques the media-institution-reader context by way of a case study of the decision to relocate mailboxes in a Finnish community. The decision was met with opposition, but the opposition resulted in little variation from the initial decision.

Egil G. Skogseth ("Towards fair participation: Recruitment strategies in Demostation") is also concerned about participation. Skogseth looked at five broadcasted radio programs which "addressed national political issues before, during, and after the parliamentary elections in Norway in September 2005" (111). Very little time was spent trying to recruit participants, methods used to recruit participants were limited. Those who did participate could not be said to be representative of the nation in any way. Very few participated in the five programs that were streamed over the web; each participant had very little time. Very few listened to the programs. The participants played no role in determining the topics of the five programs. It is therefore not surprising that Skogseth would state: "If Demostation's long-term participatory objectives should be upheld in talk radio, the selected area needs to be smaller than the Norwegian nation-state" (122).

Chapter six ("Representation and inclusion in the online debate: The issue of honor killings," by Tamara Witschge), tries to answer fundamentally the same question as in chapter five, but with a twist: can the combination of newspapers and virtual sites in the Netherlands create a Habermasean public sphere for the issue of honor killings? [1]. The answer: not very well. The study looked at seven newspapers, six of which were national, and three online forums. Interest in the topic was short-lived, and few people participated. Online sources provided more information than the newspapers about the topic and online discussions were wider-ranging. Inclusiveness was stymied. The perspective of the political elite dominated the newspapers, while it appears that just the opposite was true of the online forums. Very little of the immigrant point of view seems to have been articulated. The chapter offers this sobering note: "Perhaps we need to seek instances of dialogue on forums on a smaller scale" (149, endnote 16).

Advocates of democracy will find a useful typology in chapter seven (Nico Carpentier, "Coping with the agoraphobic media professional: A typology of journalistic practices reinforcing democracy and participation"). The typology consists of four clusters, each of which has two or more dichotomous dimensions (for a total of twelve dimensions). The "typology has the ambition to offer a variety of possibilities, like a menu from which to choose la carte but with good taste, depending on the (national) contexts but also on the ambition of those involved" (168).

Hannu Nieminen (chapter eight, "Disobedient media -- unruly citizens: Governmental communication in crisis") claims that political elites in Finland wanted communication researchers to serve in a public relations role or as consultants to government. Nieminen is conflicted by this for three reasons. First, serving in a public relations role "is not really the critical researchers' core business" (186). Second, researchers may be placed "in the position of legitimizing pseudo-participation" (186). Third, getting in the game may nevertheless afford researchers an opportunity to "have a real and lasting impact to governmental practices" (187).

Chapter nine (Anu Kantola, "On the dark side of democracy: The global imaginary of financial journalism") is also concerned with the role of the media. Kantola analyzed reports published in the Financial Times. These news stories dealt with parliamentary elections in 26 nations (194). Kantola argues that the Financial Times champions neo-liberal economic reform, favors that reform over democracy when the two collide, hopes for strong leadership to push through economic reform, and wishes the world to be more amenable to global investors.

Just how the status quo can and should be changed is a crucial issue for those who seek for greater democratization. Natalie Fenton (chapter ten, "Contesting global capital, new media, solidarity, and the role of a social imaginary") takes on several key questions but provides no definitive answers to any of them. Can the technologies created by the hegemonic social system be used to resist or defeat that system? Will such efforts end up as safety valves for discontent that does not result in any material change in that system? Can the fragmented, decentralized, grassroots reaction to the hegemonic social system avoid centralization yet find enough in common that some solidarity resulting in significant change is a possibility? The best that Felton can come up with is that the multiplicity of approaches need to find some common ground. Nevertheless, the chapter is useful precisely because of the issues the author raises.

Chapter eleven (Arne Hinz, "Civil Society Media at the WSIS: A new actor in global communication governance?") is also relevant to the issue of how to change the status quo. Hinz focuses on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). I will mention three conclusions that can be explicated from his chapter. First, that while WSIS did provide some "space" for non-governmental actors to be involved, the civil society media tended to be marginalized. Second, some civil society media worked both within the structure and process provided by WSIS and "outside" of them -- while some radical groups thought participation in WSIS reaffirmed the system to which they objected. Third, even if some groups reject the legitimacy of events such as WSIS, they are nevertheless attracted to them. "Being there" allows for contacts and interactions between groups and individuals that might not otherwise occur. Of course such opportunities may result in even more entrenched opposition and unwillingness to cooperate.

In the final chapter of the book (chapter twelve, "Media and communication strategies of glocalized activists: Beyond media-centric thinking"), Bart Cammaerts uses a case study to "analyze a particular form of localized transnational activism and their communication practices to foster their political aims" (266). This case study underscores five points. First, techniques, activities, and methods applied at the international level can be adopted at the local level -- hence the term "glocalization." Second, the importance of the Internet can be overestimated. Third, while the importance of face-to-face interaction and on-site presence should not be underestimated, direct action needs to incorporate several venues. Fourth, widening awareness of and building support for a local issue still requires mainstream media. And fifth, it is possible for disparate groups in a hyper-fragmented system to agree to work together on a particular matter.

Four lessons can be drawn from this book. First, this book and its predecessors (Servaes 2003; Servaes and Carpentier 2006) lend themselves to the conclusion that we cannot expect civil society organizations (CSOs) and democratization movements to have a significant impact in the near term on broad-gauge issues at the national and international levels. More optimistically, the second conclusion is these national and international efforts can inform local efforts (and vice versa) -- and it may be at the local level or with regard to fairly narrowly defined interests where CSOs and democratization advocates can have the greatest near-term impact [2]. Third, the roles of media are not mutually reinforcing: informing, educating, critiquing, and influencing do not always align with each other. What the media should do and how the media should do it will remain contested issues. Fourth, pro-democracy activists should use multiple means in order to achieve the greatest impact, including the Internet, self-published material, participation in "legitimate" events, use of mainstream media, and tactics that combine resistance or protest and cooperation. Digital technology has great potential, but the real hope is in the people who use it.

  1. An honor killing occurs when a female is killed because she is thought to have brought dishonor to her family (Amnesty International, 1999).

  2. See also chapters seven and ten in van de Donk et al 2004; and Rogers 2003.

Amnesty International, "Pakistan honor killings of girls and women, September 1, 1999.

Jayne Rogers. 2003. Spatializing International Politics: Analysing Activism on the Internet. London and New York: Routledge.

Jan Servaes, ed. 2003. The European Information Society: A Reality Check 2003. UK: Intellect Books.

Jan Servaes and Nico Carpentier, eds. 2006. Towards a Sustainable Information Society: Decontstructing WSIS. Bristol, UK and Portland, OR: Intellect Books.

Wim van de Donk, Brian D. Loader, Paul G. Nixon, Dieter Rucht, eds. 2004. Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements. London and New York: Routledge.

Arthur L. Morin:
Art Morin is the Director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at Fort Hays State University, where he is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science. Several of his book reviews have been published by RCCS.  <amorin@fhsu.edu>

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