Reflections on the relationship between Political Science and Political Communication in the UK Academy

Nearly one hundred years ago, Walter Lippmann observed that ‘political science was taught in our colleges as if newspapers did not exist. … In that science a study of the press and the sources of popular information found no place.’ (1997:202-203) Since then, much has been done to rectify this situation but these efforts – as I shall argue – have been less encouraging than one might have anticipated. Even fifty years ago, in the 1960s and during a period of university expansion, the subject of communication (or political communication) was still seen as not quite belonging to the study of the political. Writing in 1994, Colin Seymour-Ure, one of the earliest researchers on the subject of politics and media in Britain, observed that although it had grown into, more or less, ‘an established field within political science’, it remained, ‘now as before, … a peripheral field. It has grown with the discipline as a whole, yet in essence, if not in its details and emphases, its relation to the parent discipline has not changed.’ (1994:59)

Whatever growth and development there was in the field – then as now – took place in the field of sociology and elsewhere. While there are exceptions, it remains the case that researchers who explore the overlap between media and politics tend, on the whole, to occupy a space outside of political studies, at least as defined within British institutions of learning.

One way to illustrate this is by looking at the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a costly and disruptive exercise in which all institutions of higher education have to submit to every six or so years. It is an attempt to assess (and judge) the quality of research being undertaken by all academics in the UK and each active researcher has to submit up to four published pieces for assessment by a panel of experts. The Politics and International Relations Unit of Assessment1 (REF Unit 21) had submissions from 56 units of assessment, i.e. most research intensive universities in the UK, and it lists published pieces from a total of about 1300 staff carrying out research in politics and international relations who, between them, submitted nearly 4400 pieces of research (mostly books and articles) for assessment.

Even without a full and detailed analysis of all these outputs one can become aware of broad patterns and these are quite instructive. Submissions to journals – and these account for about two thirds of all publications submitted – are very rarely to those journals most commonly associated with the subject of politics and communication. The International Journal of Press/Politics features only once, Political Communication three times, the European Journal of Communication once. In submissions from the top five ranked universities in this unit – University of Essex, London School of Economic (LSE), Sheffield, Oxford and University College London (UCL) – we find only about a dozen or so journal articles out of a total of over nearly 750 that could be said to relate in some way to the study of politics and communication. None of these were published in the three journals listed above.

By contrast, in Unit of Assessment 36 (REF Unit 36), which includes departments of communications, media and journalism2 one can find many more outputs – both books and journal articles – that one could, broadly speaking, think of as covering the field of political communication. To extend the above comparison: the International Journal of Press/ Politics featured five times, the European Journal of Communication ten times, Political Communication twice. More significantly, the field of journalism – which includes analyses of news, politics and the news-making process – is very well served in this Unit’s submissions (with 80 submissions) but not at all in the Politics and International Relations one.

Several observations need to be made regarding this data, aside from the fairly crude nature of the analysis. First, although many reasons determine journal selection, it is clear that in thinking about where to place articles, researchers have chosen journals that most closely match their research interests and the audiences they wish to address. Second, the data also reflects the fact that few of the 1300 or so academics in Politics and International Relations have developed to a sufficient depth the teaching area of political communication or of politics and communication that would then give them the foundations to carry out research and to publish in the field: two of the top three universities – Essex and Sheffield – do not run modules in politics and media within their departments of government and/ or politics. As with the LSE, work in this field is carried out in cognate departments – Communication and Media at the LSE, Journalism Studies at Sheffield. In point of fact, the study of political communication has also struggled to establish itself as a distinct area of study at degree level. While there are many degrees in communications, media and journalism, there is only one (at the University of Swansea) in political communication at undergraduate level. At postgraduate level, degrees in political communication are easily outnumbered by degrees in communications and media (and political studies).

This should not be taken to mean that academics in political studies departments do not teach or research in the field of media and politics, only that it does not appear to be a significant part of their research profile. This is possibly compounded by the tricky problem of how best to explore communication/communication practices within the world of politics. If the focus is on communication practices and on these as being very central to the conduct and practice of politics, almost everything else moves out of focus. Conversely, if the focus is on, say, policy and institutions, it is then communication practices that move out of focus. The same would be true of the study of prime ministerial power, elections, news production, elite relations and public opinion. How to think about ‘the relation of communication to politics’ (Seymour-Ure, 1994:59) continues to challenge many in the field and the absence of coherent unifying accounts is apparent.

A fragmented field

The low profile – its ‘peripheral’ state – within political studies has not stemmed the flow of research and publications in political communication although that work, it would be fair to say, has developed as a patchwork of cognate interests. Studies of political communication at elections times often dominate but there is also a significant body of work on the relationship between political actors and media, alongside studies of news production, media systems, democratization, popular culture, policy and history. It is an extensive list but it is also a list that reflects growth of interest around specific moments, issues and public figures. In this sense, research and publications are often responses to events: the era of New Labour (roughly 1990s to 2008) generated a considerable amount of work on spin, news manipulation, professionalism and political marketing, as researchers became fascinated with the machinations of PM Tony Blair and his Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell.

Whilst some of these practices predated the New Labour era – Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham was himself a shrewd media operator (Harris, 1990) – New Labour’s professionalism and control of media established, once and for all, the importance of such activities, particularly if the media were against you. As Labour’s new and current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has discovered, being a decent chap is not enough to ward off media attacks and many have advised him of the need for professional help. Tom Clark, writing in the Guardian, observed that ‘a shrewd comms professional could have charted a way through each of (these ongoing) rows …, and also avoided lesser mistakes…’ (2015) and one was duly appointed. In times of (political) trouble – which in British politics tends to mean any time when you are not a Conservative party politician with a large number of sympathetic newspapers behind you! – a spin doctor is essential.

Interest in political communication during election contests has also often been boosted by those extra ingredients of magic that make one election different from the previous one. Sometimes this ingredient has been personality led – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Nigel Farage – but more intriguing have been the tactics employed to win. Blair’s fascination with American campaigning spawned many studies and interest in professionalization, media and campaigning (the ‘war room’) and this has ebbed and flowed over the last three elections. The Conservative party victory in the 2015 will, no doubt, generate voluminous research into, on the one hand, how their election ‘guru’ the Australian Lynton Crosby used the media and polling to turn round the party’s fortunes and, on the other, how the polls got it so wrong. Unlike the US, though, Britain has yet to experience the full force of ‘computational politics’ (Tufecki, 2014) in electoral practices and it remains to be seen how long it is before these latest uses of social media and algorithms fully infect its politics.

The above examples confirm the reactive nature of much work in this area. So it is not surprising then that interest has now, in part, shifted towards the Internet/social media and their impact on politics and political communication. Or, perhaps more accurately, how the study of political communication has been transformed as a consequence of the internet.

Whether it is a study of how Tweeting politicians or the use of Twitter during the general election, the interest is, in a sense, the same: new technologies and their incorporation into existing forms and patterns of communications are giving rise to something else.

Although what that is remains unclear making sense of the new and different is proving a challenge: Do older models still have some purchase on contemporary life? Was the age of ‘mass media’ a fleeting moment and is it now no longer representative of current forms of production and consumption? How do we re-focus older concerns onto newer ones or do we have to abandon the old and start anew? Is this the fourth Age of communication, perhaps?3 or more accurately the emergence of the ‘hybrid media system’ and its focus on ‘the interrelationships between older and newer media logics’? (Chadwick, 2013:5)

Less prominent but no less significant is work on the audience/ the public. Much research has been elite focused and much less attention has been public/ audience focused. Consequently, we know less about how content is consumed and acted upon than we ought to. How does the contemporary public connect with the (old) world of politics and media? Is that connection significantly different from the one established three or four decades ago? What does this mean for the study of media and politics?

When the internet becomes normalized

In a recent paper on ‘the internet and politics’, Henry Farrell argued that ‘as the Internet becomes politically normalized, it will be ever less appropriate to study it in isolation but ever more important to think clearly, and carefully, about its relationship to politics.’ (2012:47) This is reminiscent of Seymour-Ure’s comments about the media and politics (quoted above) and it is to be hoped that, this time round, the study of politics will be better able to rise to the challenge than it was when the ‘older’ media were normalized. It is perhaps time that the relationship of political communication to its ‘parent discipline’ was thoroughly reviewed and that it ‘peripheral’ status was upgraded.

Notes

1 A Unit of Assessment can be a department or a selection of staff within a department.

2 A strict comparison with UoA 21 is not possible as UoA 36 was a joint panel that also included Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. A total of about 1200 staff were entered and some 3500 outputs assessed.

3 Jay Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh (1999) had written variously on the three ages of political communication. When the first version of the paper was published in 1999, the internet was young. It represented the Third Age. Are we beyond that now?

References

  • Blumler, J.G. and Kavanagh, D. (1999) “The Third Age of Political Communication: Influences and Features”. Political Communication. 16(3), 209-230.
  • Chadwick, A. (2013) The Hybrid Media System, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • Clark, T (2015) Four reasons Jeremy Corbyn needs a spin doctor, available online.
  • Farrell, H., (2012) The Consequences of the Internet for Politics, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 15: 35-52.
  • Harris, R. (1990) Good and Faithful Servant: The Unauthorized Biography of Bernard Ingham, Faber & Faber: London.
  • Lippmann, W. (1997) Public Opinion, Free Press: New York.
  • REF UoA 21, available online.
  • REF UoA 36, available online.
  • REF, homepage.
  • Seymour-Ure, C. (1994) Mass Communications and Political Science, in Hamelink, C. and Linne, O. Mass Communication Research. On Problems and Policies. The Art of Asking the Right Questions. Ablex: New Jersey, pp. 59-71.
  • Tufecki, Z. (2014) Engineering the Public: Big Data, Surveillance and Computational Politics, First Monday, 19(7).

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