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date: 21 September 2017

Media and Democracy from a European Perspective

Summary and Keywords

There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy. Similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system, and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system. However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well.

The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From a wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies.

In addition, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. One of the key arguments of these movements has centered on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect for privacy and personal integrity.

Keywords: media pluralism, media policy, media regulation, public service media, media, democracy, press subsidies, copyright, media ownership


There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy; similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system (see Freedom House, 2015), and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system (Field, 2014; McChesney, 2013). However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well.

This article begins with a short contextualisation of various concepts related to the relationship between the media and democracy. This is followed by a brief historical account of the developing relations between the media and democracy in Europe. The role of the media according to different theories of democracy is then examined, followed by a discussion of the various ways in which the media conceives its role in liberal democracies. Then, critical concepts related to the relationship between media and democracy will be discussed, including the public sphere, pluralism, and public service media. In conclusion, a brief summary of the discussion is offered.

Conceptual Clarification

In everyday talks, the media and democracy are often linked together without much to question their relationship. In the Western way of thinking about (liberal) democracies, the media is usually seen as an organic institutional element of the political system, even to the degree that its social role and function often goes without serious investigation. This seems evident also in the scholarly sphere, as the media has received little attention in the recent literature on democratic theory (see Cunningham, 2002; Dahl, 2000; Estlund, 2002; Held, 2006; Tilly, 2007; for an exception, see Keane, 1991, 2009). However, when the subject is in fact discussed, it is often focused rather narrowly on the news journalism dimension of the media. Only very recently have the challenges brought by the “new media” to democratic theory (the Internet and various media practices facilitated by it, especially the different forms of social media) been discussed more widely among theorists of democracy (see Blumler & Coleman, 2009; Dahlberg & Siapera, 2007; Hindman, 2008; Norris, 2003).

If there is a lack of critical, theoretically based research on the role and function of the media today in the sphere of political theory, a number of media and communications scholars have in fact addressed these questions. The majority of these contributions are by nature self-consciously normative, adopting a normative-ideal standpoint of analysis, and more often than not, the point of criticism is based on the ideal of informed and active citizenship: that is, that the media is obliged to provide citizens with information and communications required for democratic participation and action (Curran, 2002, 2011; Dahlgren, 2009; Dutton, 2009; Freedman, 2012; McChesney, 2013, 2015).

Over the course of modern history, the means of understanding both the media and democracy have changed in major ways. With these changes, generic references to the field transformed as well. What was known as mass communication in the 1960s and 1970s was relabeled the mass media in the 1980s, and from roughly the late 1990s onward, the generic understanding of the media included not only the traditional mass media but an entire system of print, electronic, recorded, and telecommunication media. Such changes of terminology and understanding reflect not only the massive advances in communications technologies (from print-only to digital means of communication) over time but also major changes in the social and cultural functions of the media. (For a critique of technological determinism, see Curran, Fenton, & Freedman, 2012; for a critique of commercialization of the media and the “dumbing down” effect, see Barnett, 2009; McChesney, 2004.) For individual users, different types of media have traditionally offered not only information (as in journalism), but also entertainment and social connections. With the coming of new technologies, especially the Internet and the different forms of social media, these more cultural and social functions have gained prominence. Such issues as self-expression, co-creation, and sharing have not traditionally been at the core of discussions on the democratic functions of the media. From the viewpoint of democratic citizenship, all of these functions have gained increasing importance in the digital environment (see Akrivopoulou & Garipidis, 2013; Dahlgren, 2009; van Dijk & Hacker, 2000).

Traditional explanations of the function of the media in democracies have understood the media’s role as supporting the basic legitimacy of a democratic system. Ideally, in liberal democracies, the government depends on the trust of the people, and the media’s role is to perform as mediators between different interests and opinions. Decision-makers (e.g., elected politicians) are accountable to citizens, who deploy their democratic control not only via regular elections but also through continuous critical public debate. Accountability is based, in principle, on the assumption that decision-making and policy implementation are open and transparent. It is the task of the media to promote this openness and transparency, both to keep citizens informed about the performance of the government and to inform decision-makers of public opinion (see Keane, 2009; McQuail, 2000; Williams & Delli Carpini, 2010).

The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies.

Historical Outline

A historical review of the relationship between democracy and the media can begin at the early 17th century, when ascending middle classes began in many central and northern European countries to challenge the rule of the old powers, represented by the Church and the aristocracy. In order to have their claims heard, the middle classes demanded freedom of speech and expression, which had traditionally been suppressed by government censorship practices (Eisenstein, 1980; Habermas, 1989; Keane, 1991). The growing influence of the middle classes led eventually to the first legal act in Europe to abolish censorship (the Lapse of the Licensing Act, in Britain) in 1695. While this marked the end of an official state of censorship in Britain, it nonetheless allowed many other means of restricting freedom of speech and expression (e.g., through taxes and concessions) (Briggs & Burke, 2010; Curran & Seaton, 2009; Thompson, 2013). Other milestones in the slow progress of media democratization include the world’s first Freedom of Information Act in Sweden in 1766, and soon following this, the U.S. Constitution of 1791 and its first amendment. In Sweden, however, this period of freedom lasted only six years before being overturned and censorship reinstated (Mustonen, 2006).

The Media in Nation Building

After the French Revolution of 1789–1799, such processes toward greater freedom and democracy were met with a backlash. The major powers of Europe restored conservative order to the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815. This restoration included the continuation of official censorship, the implementation of which was, however, becoming increasingly difficult due to the achievements of new printing technologies and the increasing rate of literacy. Additionally, the ascending industrial order created new social and cultural platforms, including workplaces, coffee and teahouses, pubs, and common rooms, which were ever-more difficult to control efficiently in terms of libellous prints and speeches. Together with other economic and cultural transformations, all of this meant that, under the European conservative restoration, the twin processes of democratization and the consolidation of nation states worked simultaneously and interdependently (Fukuyama, 2014; Keane, 2009).

In the development of modern states, the role of the media (first newspapers, followed by the addition of the radio and television) has been fundamental to the organization of national interests, such as cultural and social integration. The media has been pivotal in the social and cultural construction of modern nation states and, given this, can be compared to other major nation-building institutions, such as the education system, churches, national armies, and civil service institutions. These institutions can be characterized as epistemic institutions—the concepts “epistemic institutions” and “epistemic order” owe to Foucault’s concept of episteme (see Foucault, 2001)—which create and reproduce a form of knowledge that is centrally constructed around national concepts and symbols. Over time, different forms of media have served this process in various ways. Early mass newspapers were established, from one perspective, to organize competing interests between different classes and other social organizations. The proliferation of political newspapers, the standard-setting tracts of modern political parties, took place from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Political and ideological struggles took place within a common national framework, requiring the recognition of differing interests, yet sharing a common national and cultural background, resulting in something referred to as an “imagined community” (Anderson, 2006). Because of such pluralism, something akin to a class-based understanding of citizenship emerged, which included a shared conception of citizenship by the main societal groups.

European radio broadcasting and later television media represented a different form of organizational interest. Instead of particular interests, as presented by newspapers and their external pluralism, radio broadcasting epitomised generalized public (national) interests in the sense that particular interests became negotiated and organized within a single medium. Opposed to the idea of class-based citizenship, this form of media and its internal pluralism promoted the idea of universalist citizenship. Yet another means of organizing national interests was offered by the commercialisation of newspapers that followed Europe’s party press between the 1930s and 1970s, which represented a different form of universalized internal pluralism: a market-based organization of interests (based on consumer identity) whereby the market functioned as an impartial arbiter of private and particular interests. (On different concepts of pluralism, see Karppinen, 2013; McQuail, 2000; Napoli, 2001).

The Media Against Democracy

A major deviation from the historical relationship between media and national democracy is represented by the media systems of Soviet Union (1917–1991) and National Socialist Germany (1933–1945). Soviet Union inherited from the autocratic tsarist Russia harsh censorship practices, used in order to control all public life in support of the ruling elite and to prohibit all anti-governmental public expressions. Following this tradition of maintaining political order, now in the name of revolutionary proletarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union did not allow any independent media, either print or electronic. Together with all public life, the media were under the control of the Communist Party, holding the monopoly of power. The task of the media was to promote the ideological goals of the Party and to serve as its instruments in Marxist-Leninist agitation and propaganda. In practical terms, this meant that all alternative and critical voices were forbidden from public life. In lack of independent media, there was no pluralism, no freedom of speech and expression, and no democratic public sphere. After the Second World War, the media systems in central and eastern Europe’s so-called Peoples Democracies, under the Soviet political and military domination until the year 1991, were restructured following the Soviet model.

In National Socialist Germany, the media system deployed similar methods, although toward different ideological aims. The difference from the Soviet model was that, especially in the beginning, the dominant party, the National Socialist Party (“Nazis”), did not have the monopoly of power, but by using the weakness of Germany’s parliamentary system and by deploying brute civil violence against its potential and imagined political opponents, the Party monopolized political and military power. This meant that the further the 1930s advanced, the fewer grew the oppositional voices, the harsher became the censorship, and the cruder was the persecution of minorities. The role of the media was reduced to serve and justify the ideological and political aims of the Nazis. Similar developments took place in many European countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal), although mostly with less extreme means. Even if National Socialist Germany and its media system were defeated in 1945, a similar model functioned in Portugal under the right-wing dictatorship until the democratic “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 and in Spain under General Franco’s autocracy until that country’s democratization in 1978.

The examples of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were influential when European countries reconstructed their media systems after the Second World War. The main conclusion was that European democracy must rest on independent and pluralist media, protected from direct political and commercial interference. To this purpose, a special emphasis was assigned to the institutionalization of public service broadcasting in Europe.

The Media and European Reconstruction

A particularly significant time for national epistemic institutions, the media among them, was the intensive period of European reconstruction after World War II, which took place in most European countries from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Fast economic recovery required the integration of all social groups in the rebuilding process. This period included the deployment of an extensive mode of social production in contrast to the intensive mode that would be adopted in the forthcoming decades. The central strategy was large-scale industrial production: factories were still predominant cradles of production, and Taylorism was the dominant method for improving efficiency.

For the effective organization of industrial production, a policy of social and political pacification was adopted, first in many central and northern European countries, which aimed at softening class differences. By the early to mid-1970s, major social reforms were carried out in most European countries. Leftist parties, previously excluded from political life, were now invited into national negotiations and consensus-building efforts, and new forms of worker participation were experimented with in industrial relations (Crouch, 2004, 2013; Streeck, 2014; Touraine, 2014).

The main epistemic institutions of this period served to enhance the values and ethos of national reconstruction. This involved, in equal measure, the media, universities and scientific organizations, as well as the church, education, and cultural institutions, among others (art institutions, museums, and libraries). Significant increases of public funding were given to each of these institutions at the time. In the case of the media, this included, among other things, the expansion of public service broadcasting, the establishment of state aid policies for newspapers, and the extension of the public library system. In each country the situation was different, with the relationships between different institutions reflecting national peculiarities. Thus, for example, in Nordic countries, a social-democratic neo-corporatist arrangement of social relations was more extensive than in central and southern Europe. This was also reflected in the status and position of the media: public service broadcasting was supported by all main interest groups, with state aid policies most extensive in Nordic countries (Syvertsen, Enli, Mjos, & Moe, 2014).

In subsequent decades, the role of the media, together with other epistemic institutions, began to change profoundly. The basic mode of social production changed from an extensive to an intensive mode that no longer required the same integrative social and cultural policies as in the previous period. In an early step toward the increasing financialization of economies (that is, the disengagement of financial economies from real economies) instead of policies that aimed to equalize societal differences, policies leading to social segregation and disintegration were adopted. This course of action promised better economic benefits—at least in the short term—and gathered strength with neoliberal notions that were progressively gaining footholds, first in the United States and the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, and later in the majority of European countries (Crouch, 2013; Streeck, 2014; Touraine, 2014).

The notion following World War II of a global order based on an assumed balance between the world’s sovereign nation states (of which the United Nations is still an emblematic example) appeared to have run its course by the early 1990s. The political and economic sovereignty of nation-states was creating obstacles to global capital accumulation and continuing economic growth. In order to be able to compete better with the United States and Japan in the global market, European countries increased their efforts to establish a single European market that would be supported and enhanced by the respective reforms of various social and political structures. Such a market was confirmed in 2000 when European Union (EU) leaders declared the aim of the EU “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” (European Council, 2000). This goal was further confirmed in the new constitutional treaty of the EU, the Treaty of Lisbon, established in 2007 (Lisbon Treaty, 2015).

When assessing the general historical conditions for the emergence of new media in the early 21st century compared to the late 20th century, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • - Reflecting the decreased importance of the media in the project of national integration from the 1960s to the 1990s and 2000s, state aid in all its forms for the media has been declining in most European countries. This has also been the official policy of the EU, the goal being to bring the media under the same market-based economic regulation as other products and services (see, e.g., Europe Commission, 2009b).

  • - As a result of economic and political globalization and regionalization, the distance between the media’s servicing national public debate and the real processes of political and financial decision-making, concentrated in the EU and global capitals, has been growing. This has led to two parallel developments: on the one hand, the media has become more independent from domestic politics, which can enhance its critical watchdog function, but on the other, national critical debates have become more distanced from core will-formation and decision-making processes.

  • - As the political role of the media has suffered a decline, its commercial function has respectively escalated. In the late 19th century, successful media houses witnessed 30% gains in annual profits, which made them attractive investment objects. As the rate of profits dipped after the financial crisis of 2008, the main strategy of the major media corporations was to rid themselves of nonprofitable production, which more often than not has meant sacrificing news journalism.

  • - The main factor, together with the overall tendency of economic globalization, that has shaped the media over the past decade has been digitalization and the proliferation of the internet. The main effect of the Internet on the traditional print and electronic media has two sides. First, the free online delivery of journalistic content has all but ruined the traditional media business model of receiving income via both subscription and advertising. Free online delivery has driven both traditional newspapers and free commercial television channels, both dependent on national audiences, into a deep crisis. Second, the Internet has created new markets that are both transnational and global, benefiting from both subscripted content (e.g., HBO, Netflix) and advertising income (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Google).

What do all these changes mean for media users from the viewpoint of democratic citizenry? In this regard, there are slightly different emphases among media researchers.

  • - Some researchers have stressed the increased potential that the digital media offers for personal self-expression and creativity; they see the Internet offering new modalities for democratic communication and critical public sphere(s) (Jenkins, 2008; Kumar & Svensson, 2015).

  • - Other researchers are more concerned about the decreasing amount and quality of original journalism in the mainstream media as a result of commercial pressures and the increasing rise of the media’s commercial engagement (Barnett, 2009; Curran, 2010; McChesney, 2004, 2013).

  • - Another critical strand of researchers stresses the basic difference between the traditional media, with its capability of directly addressing broad publics (from the local to global levels), and the Internet and its social media platforms, which speak to smaller, self-selected groups of people (Livingstone, 2010; Sunstein, 2001). From this viewpoint, the loss of uniformly connected spheres is seen as a loss of democracy as well.

  • - Still another critical issue is the problem of digital divide, which refers to the different economic, cultural, and social obstacles that prevent significant groups of people from using digital media in equal numbers and ways. As more and more societal functions have become dependent on the Internet, digital divides create obstacles for large numbers of citizens to participate in democratic actions (van Dijck, 2013; van Dijk, 2005).

Five Models of the Relationship Between Media and Democracy

Although it may seem impossible today to conceive of democracy without at least some form of media connection, there are actually many different ways of doing so (see Cunningham, 2002; Estlund, 2002; Habermas, 1994; Held, 2006; Keane, 2009; Tilly, 2007). In turn, there are also several ways of viewing the relationship between the media and democracy (see Curran, 2010; Feree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002; Habermas, 2006; Stromback, 2008). Despite their differences of approach, most theories of democracy can be fitted roughly into five main categories: elite democracy, pluralist democracy, participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, and radical democracy.

Elite Democracy

Elite democracy, or the rule by experts and political leaders, is based on the assumption that the complexity of modern society renders it nearly impossible for members of the public, or ordinary citizens, to follow all fields of activity, and even less to form an informed opinion for the basis of political choice. (The American writer and scholar Walter Lippman [1889–1974] is often presented as one of the main proponents of elite democracy theory; see Lippman, 1997.) This is why decisions on common issues concerning the entirety of society (and, even broader, increasingly also global society) require expert knowledge that only properly educated or otherwise qualified decision-makers possess to make informed decisions on behalf of the rest of society. Due to this, too much democracy (meaning decision-making based on majority votes) may be unsafe for society; this must be avoided by applying mechanisms and procedures that minimize the dangers of majoritarianism.

An elite democracy offers the media the role of information disseminator in society. As decision-making is based on elite consensus, the media is tasked to report the results of elite deliberation and to inform the public of the elite’s decisions. For democratic legitimacy of the political system, the elites need, however, popular consent, which is normally measured through regular elections. While all main political parties are part of the elite system, demographics of voters are used as a measure of their legitimacy: the lower the number, the more reason for concern about democracy. This is why the media is assigned another mission: to activate voters in order to increase political stability. From a critical viewpoint, it can be said that in an elite democracy, the media is instrumentalized to service systemic legitimacy.

Pluralist Democracy

The basic understanding of a pluralist democracy is that, due to the increasing complexity of society, the only way to govern society is to have all interests represented in decision-making processes. To balance these interests, they should be represented in relation to the amount of their supporters (or constituencies). In a pluralist democracy, the representation of interests takes place in the form of, among others, political parties, trade unions, and other kinds of civic associations. Decision-making takes place between elected representatives, who are the accountable to their constituencies/voters. Decisions are usually negotiated compromises based on majority rules (with more or less strict safeguards in place so as to not violate the rights of minorities). (A classic representative of pluralist democracy is the American political theorist Robert A. Dahl [1915–2014]; see Dahl, 1991.)

The role of the media is to organize public debate to the degree that citizens (members of interest groups) are able to instruct their representatives concerning matters to be decided. The media is thus tasked to both inform citizens about matters of their interest, to organize the public will-formation among citizens, and to offer representatives a platform to interpret the common will into political claims for parliamentary negotiation.

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers affiliated with certain political parties and interest-based movements predominantly served to perform the above-mentioned tasks. Since then, political parties and interest groups have grown increasingly dependent on the nonpolitical or independent commercial media, which dominate the national public sphere and define daily agendas. It is obvious that, as there are fewer media channels for minority interests, the biggest and most influential interest groups, be it political parties or civil society associations, such as trade unions or employers’ unions, have their voices heard much more easily than those with less political capital. Political quota systems have also at times been implemented in television and radio, favoring the main parliamentary parties (Katsirea, 2008, pp. 157–158). These have also served to marginalize alternative voices, as well as emphasize already existing structures of political power. From a critical viewpoint, it can be stated that, in a pluralist democracy, which prefers to weigh the importance of voices according to parliamentary representation, the media tends to prioritize existing power relations and marginalize alternative voices.

Participatory Democracy

The basic understanding of participatory democracy is that our modern society has grown too complex for only elites or elected representatives to steer and govern it, and therefore, democracy would work better if citizens could participate themselves more directly in decision-making and governing processes. (British political scientist Carole Pateman (b. 1940) has been a seminal contributor to the debate on participatory democracy; see Pateman, 1970.) The aim of participatory democracy is to increase the active participation of ordinary citizens and reduce the power of experts and professional politicians. Participation in this sense can take different forms. One form is similar to direct democracy, including the transference of decision-making closer toward a grassroots level (e.g., on matters concerning local communities). Another form is to find new forms of cooperation between public authorities and civic associations so as to give civil society organizations more autonomy in deciding matters of interest.

The role of the media in a participatory democracy is seen as assisting citizens with civic activities. The media should aim at empowering citizens to help them organize and act for themselves. This means that the media should be there not only to disseminate relevant information, but also to actively instruct audiences and give voice to different experiences, especially to those commonly left out of the mainstream media. From a critical viewpoint, the role of the media and journalists in a participatory democracy revolves around advocacy: the media is expected to act in a way that educates citizens and empowers them to act on their own behalf.

Deliberative Democracy

In its different forms, the notion of deliberative democracy appears to have gained a leading position among the different branches of democratic theory in recent decades (see e.g., Elster, 1998; Gutmann & Thompson, 2004; Bohman & Rehg, 1997; Koh & Slye, 1999; Fishkin & Laslett, 2003).

The notion is based on the assumption that the increasingly complex processes of democratic societies (i.e., collective decision-making concerning common matters) could be greatly improved if will-formation and decision-making were founded on public deliberation instead of the opinions of the elite and elected representatives. Rather, these deliberative processes should be arranged in a manner so that they are as open as possible to all.

From this perspective, however, not all decisions should be matters of public deliberation. Matters concerning merely the implementation of the chosen policies or of a pragmatic nature should be left to elected representatives and public authorities. All issues of strategic importance (that is, concerning large numbers of citizens and/or the future of various aspects of society at large) should be thoroughly debated among all those affected, with the end result of such public deliberation respected by decision-makers. Issues that might require public deliberation may be local planning, matters of environmental and energy policy, and the direction of welfare policy, among others.

The role of the media in a deliberative democracy is to provide platforms for deliberation and, as much as possible, to facilitate the deliberative process. The role of the media is essential to framing social issues and presenting alternative arguments for debate. Additionally, the media should challenge the decision-makers to respond to the results and conclusions of deliberation. From a critical viewpoint, in a deliberative democracy, the media is assigned the role of both facilitator/advocate and judge.

Radical Democracy

The notion of radical democracy is the latest theoretical challenger to democratic theory. This concept derives much of its thrust from a critique of the basic assumptions of deliberative democracy. The specific object of criticism is the consensualism of deliberative democracy, including the assumption that, as a result of rational deliberation, something akin to consensus in the form of common understanding can arise. From the viewpoint of radical democracy, this reduces the real societal differences into mere problems of communication. Therefore, according to the supporters of deliberative democracy, it is believed that by improving conditions toward unhindered communication and leaving participants’ particular interests aside, a common “truth,” voluntarily subscribed to by all, would be exposed. (One of the main proponents of radical democracy, and undoubtedly the most well known, is Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe [b. 1943]; see Mouffe, 1992.)

The basic claim of radical democracy is that there are significant differences in society whose roots lie in the unequal distribution of resources and discrepancies of power relations, the latter being a consequence of the former. From this, it follows that politics is about dealing with genuine conflicts of interest, conflicts that cannot be solved via the current means of rational deliberation. The differences between conflicting parties are not understood from this perspective as completely incompatible in nature in the sense that they serve to “freeze” society into antagonistic blocks; rather, they are characterized as agonistic, which includes a positive condition of conflict. Agonisms, or agonistic situations, open up possibilities for social learning processes that force us to look for positive solutions.

As emphasized above, central to radical democracy is the recognition of difference—referring here to the notion of difference as a constituting principle of society, fundamental for radical democracy (see Benhabib, 1996)—and understanding of society as constitutionally plural. Concerning the media, external pluralism is much favored over internal pluralism from this perspective. The latter, with its universalizing tendency (as represented by, for example, daily metropolitan newspapers and public service broadcasters), presents a consensual view of social reality. Against this, the media should work to construct a radically pluralist public life across a number of different media sources. From this viewpoint, the media should be seen as an influential organizer of an agonistic body politic.


There are many different ways to understand the relationship between the media and democracy. The above-mentioned notions are normative ideals, with neither the media nor the institutions of democracy prescribing to any of them in reality. However, it can easily be seen that the political situation in reality often reflects certain or even all of these different models, however inconsistently and inadequately. The following table summarizes the relationships between the main democratic theories and the media:

Main actor(s)

The role of citizens

The mode of politics

The role of the media

Elite democracy

Members of social elite groups (political, economic, cultural)


Nonactive voters

Compromises among elites

Passive conduit of information

Pluralist democracy

Elected representatives

Informed citizens making informed choices


Informative and interpretative (objectivity) “Watchdog” role Accountability

Participatory democracy

Organized citizens (interest-based organization)

Active participants in civic organizations


Advocacy Organizer of critical debate on social issues

Deliberative democracy

Informed and active citizens

Participants in public deliberation

Procedural (consensual)

Facilitator Creating spaces for public deliberation on common issues

Radical democracy

Organized citizens (rights-based organization)

Making interest/rights-based claims to power holders


Organizer Offers a platform for public contestation between conflictual social forces

Contested Concepts

Due to differences of understanding in terms of what democracy means, there are in turn different ways of understanding certain key concepts related to the role of the media in a democracy. Such contested concepts include, among others, the principle of freedom of speech, media pluralism and diversity, public service broadcasting/media, the regulation of the media, and copyright.

Freedom of Speech/Freedom of the Press

The difference between freedom of speech and freedom of the press is not always recognized, even though there is an obvious tension between the two. At least two sources of tension can be distinguished:

  • - The media’s freedom of the press (FoP) can, when applied in practice, come into conflict with freedom of speech (FoS), as the former can be used to restrict voices within the public. FoP includes not only freedom from political or economic dependence, but also the freedom to select specific issues and voices for publicity. This gives the media a freedom to exclude all issues and voices that its owners or editors assess as irrelevant or not in the interest of the public. From the viewpoint of citizens’ FoS, the problem, however, is that without a public platform, free speech cannot have addressees and/or a broad audience.

  • - It can also be said that the media has more freedom than ordinary citizens do, as the media has access to information that is not available to the public at large. Such information concerns, for example, sensitive issues of national (or international) security, potential threats to public order, or the private matters of major power holders, among others. This places a special responsibility on the media, both ethically and legally, not to do anything to harm state security, public order, and personal privacy.

The advent of the Internet has brought new dimensions to the tension between FoP and FoS. It is often rightly emphasized that, in terms of FoS, the Internet has led to a qualitatively new situation, as any restrictions of voice due to platform or channel-based scarcity and editorial selection have been made redundant. The Internet allows all issues and voices to be transmitted without precensorship. From this viewpoint, the Internet serves to enhance cultural equality and democracy. However, there are again two different criticisms of this optimism. First, according to results of much research, it is still the legacy media (i.e., typically newspapers and television) that define topics of public discussion and create frames for further debate on different Internet-based platforms. Second, while the Internet offers all individuals a platform to express their own voices, it does not guarantee that anyone will listen or respond to these voices, let alone take them seriously. It would appear obvious that, in the virtual public sphere of the Internet, the same dynamics of power apply as in the world of the legacy media: not every individual’s voice is equal.

Pluralism and Diversity

Media pluralism is an ever-present topic of European media policy discussions. As a concept, it has been interpreted by many groups with diverging interests on the role of the media in a liberal democracy (see Karppinen, 2013). Although all parties involved in the media (owners, politicians, regulators, producers, editors, and journalists) are joined in supporting and defending media pluralism (each on their own terms), there is neither a common definition as to pluralism among them nor an agreed upon understanding of how to promote and defend it.

Although pluralism is widely accepted as one of the basic values of a democratic society, there are many different ways of understanding this concept in the realm of the media and media policy. One confusing conceptual issue concerns the relationship between pluralism and diversity, which often appear together as if meaning the same thing. By pluralism, we here refer to the recognition of diverse value-based approaches, the equal public presentation of which are important for the effective functioning of democracy. The term diversity is here understood in a general sense as referring to a great number of different qualities with no value judgments placed on them. With regard to the media, diversity can be understood as, for example, the existence of different program formats and genres in television.

In media research, the concept of pluralism is typically divided into external and internal pluralism. In the case of the media, by external pluralism is meant contexts wherein there are a number of different sources (e.g., newspaper titles, magazines, television channels) that represent different ideological and cultural standpoints. Such a context used to be the situation during the period immediately following World War II, when political presses proliferated throughout all European countries. In cases of external pluralism, the choice and value judgement of media sources is left to the reader (or listener or television viewer).

Internal pluralism also refers to contexts wherein different sources of media attempt to accommodate a specific form of media. An example of this is are the public service broadcasters that, in most European countries, used to be in a monopolistic situation before the advent of the commercial television sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The drift toward internal pluralism also existed for European newspaper presses after the decline of political newspapers. As a result of processes of media consolidation, the market became dominated by a few universal newspapers that aimed to appeal to their respective audiences by providing content appealing to different tastes, interests, and needs. All of this, however, existed under these newspapers’ editorial policies, which meant that, due to the abundance of voices desiring to be heard, issues of exclusion and inclusion would become an inherent problem.

As media pluralism and diversity are accepted as major democratic values, the protection and promotion of pluralism is often taken as a fundamental goal of media policy. From the viewpoint of desiring a vibrant democracy, in many European countries, especially in central and northern Europe, it is thought important to safeguard media pluralism by means of public policy and regulation if necessary. Adopted regulatory instruments for this purpose, seen across all European countries, include measures such as licenses and concessions, ownership restrictions, and state aid to the media.

Licenses and Concessions

In many European countries, radio and television companies have had to apply for a license (or a concession) from the national regulator or government before beginning operations. The rationale for this has been twofold: first, as radio frequencies were deemed scarce natural resource during the analog period of technology, public authorities wished to choose the most suitable frequencies for the national-cultural mission of public broadcasting. Second, via licensing, public authorities could control the financial and technical competencies of operators. Following the digitization of (most) European television by 2015, the technological grounds for licensing have changed from the use of radio frequencies for radio and television to their allocation to mobile communication, increasingly used for audiovisual services. The commercialization of frequencies has led general policy to drop all content conditions for television operators.

Ownership Restrictions

In fear of media ownership concentration and its effects on plurality, media ownership has been restricted by legislation in many European countries in order to prevent a monopolistic or oligopolistic situation in which one or few owners control all or the majority of a media (Doyle, 2002; Noam, 2009). For example, in Britain, according to the present legislation “(n)o one can own more than 20% of a Channel 3 licence and national newspapers with more than 20% market share. The same restriction applies to anyone who is more than 20% owned by someone who has more than 20% of the national newspaper market” (Leveson Inquiry, 2012, p. 1). An oft-stated problem is that, despite the legal rules, restrictions can be easily circumvented by simply rearranged ownership structures. Furthermore, new information and communications technologies with satellite transmissions and online media services have rendered restrictions based on national legislation irrelevant. Cases which speak to these issues (and which existed prior to digitization and the advent of the Internet) include the News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the Mediaset Company of Silvio Berlusconi (Ginsborg, 2005; Watson & Hickman, 2012).

Public Subsidies

If ownership restrictions are forms of negative regulation to protect pluralism, state aid and other forms of public subsidies represent positive regulatory means of achieving the same end. Although, generally speaking, the aim of public funding for the media has been intended to safeguard pluralism and diversity, this aim has varied along with different media platforms and technologies. In the case of broadcasting, the argument was originally that, on the grounds of spectrum scarcity, broadcasting must be both financed and operated by the state. Later, with technological advancement and the advent of commercial broadcasters, the argument changed from one of spectrum scarcity to one related to democracy. In this view, audiences’ needs and expectations for information and culture were not being properly served by the commercial media due to their being undesired by commercial broadcasting. The necessity to include the voices of such audiences for the sake of democracy justifies the continuing existence of and public funding for public service broadcasting.

In the case of state aid given to newspapers, state aid policies were adopted in most countries throughout the 1960s and 1970s when small newspapers, often linked to political parties, began to collapse, which led to the existence of only a few major newspapers at both the national and regional levels. This was considered a danger for political and social pluralism, and thus different schemes of state aid were adopted (Picard, 2014). Yet another argument for public subsidisation was put forth in the field of audiovisual production, such as films and television production. Audiovisual production is expensive and often, especially in small European countries, not commercially sustainable. Due to this, most European national markets are dominated by imported films and television programmes, mainly from the United States. In order to support national culture and promote European productions, the film and television industries enjoy public subsidy schemes from both national and (to a smaller degree) European sources (Ward, 2008).

By public subsidies is usually meant a set of regulations that includes both direct and indirect offerings of aid the media. Although the EU State Aid Directive forbids in principle all forms of subsidies to industries as interfering with market mechanisms, the EU member states continue by different degrees to implement different forms of direct and indirect state aid policies for the media. Direct state aid refers to, for example, state aid given to newspapers and is employed in most European countries. In certain cases, direct aid has created a substantial source of income without which media companies would be forced to close down (Murschetz, 2014a). Another form of direct aid is the funding of public service broadcasting from taxes, which was adopted (although in slightly different forms) in both Finland and Germany (see Murschetz, 2014; Syvertsen et al., 2014). In principle, this method of aid is aimed at giving the broadcaster more financial independence and stability compared to more traditional funding by license fees and, in many countries, advertisements. In practice, in the worst case, tax-based funding can lead a broadcaster into dependency on the government, which, together with the parliamentary majority, can control the allocation of tax money (as has been the case in some of the new EU countries in central and eastern Europe) (Dobek-Ostrowska, 2012). Lastly, another form of public aid to the media has comes in the form of government grants to the audiovisual industry, such as film companies and television production houses. In many European countries, this is crucial for the development of an indigenous audiovisual culture (Ward, 2008).

In contrast to these direct subsidy schemes, indirect public subsidies are also channeled to the media industry via different means. A major form of indirect state aid is the exemption newspapers from value-added taxes (VATs) (or reduced rates of VATs) with regard to income from advertisements, single-copy sales, and subscriptions. Another form of indirect subsidy is the policy to support newspapers through public advertisements and paid announcements or information subsidies, as is the policy in Austria (Murschetz & Trappel, 2014, p. 386).

Media and Communication Regulation

Over the last few decades, a profound change has taken place in European media regulation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, different forms of media were regulated by different rules. Save for criminal activities ruled in criminal law (concerning, e.g., child pornography, incitement to criminal action, treason), print media (newspapers and magazines) were self-regulated, with any kind of governmental intrusion in editorial processes deemed improper and potential censorship. Broadcasting, on the other hand, was more tightly regulated. The tasks of the public service broadcasters, who existed in a monopoly situation within most European countries, were stipulated either by specific laws or in legally binding contracts on public service between states and broadcasters. Telecommunications existed, both in the United States and in Europe, under the legal stipulations of the “universal service obligation,” according to which operators were obliged to offer telephony connections to all potential customers independently of their location with full services and equal terms. Audiovisual media (films and videos) were subjected to preclassification on the grounds of protecting minors, as well as given binding age-based restrictions for public distribution. As for regulatory control, the media was under the sovereignty of national governments and their legislation.

Following the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, this landscape changed profoundly. The first major difference was the opening up of old public monopolies to commercial competition. Across Europe, both public service broadcasters and national telecommunications operators lost their privileged positions in a very short period of time and had to adapt to a new regulatory regime. At the same time, regulators found themselves facing the challenge of how to balance two basic operational ideologies: the previously held ideology of the public interest and good, which had long guided the regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications, and a new commercial and profit-seeking ideology characteristic of the new market-based landscape. Although the opening up of broadcasting and telecommunications services to market competition was officially labeled deregulation, the result was in practice a reregulation. The creation of functioning and fair media and communications markets required the invention of a new regulatory framework capable of dealing with multiple industry-related bottlenecks and potential monopolistic hazards (see Feintuck & Varney, 2006; Prosser, 2010).

Another dimension of regulatory challenge was brought by digitization and the rapid advancement of the Internet as a universal means of media distribution, which has had two major consequences: on one hand, digitization transgressed the old sector-based regulatory solutions for print, electronic media, and telecommunications, while on the other, because the Internet is a global network, the traditional nation-state–centered regulatory regime has lost much of its usefulness. There is yet to exist anything like a European, let alone global, regulatory framework for the media. The EU’s regulatory competency is very narrow and restricted, and on the global scale, only copyright issues are currently being regulated to some degree.

Due to the lack of an effective international regulatory framework, the global media is mainly governed today by industry self-regulation. A few U.S.-based major players, such as Microsoft, Google, Netflix, and Amazon, increasingly dominate the global media market. Due to the self-regulation of the industry, national and regional authorities often must deal with conflicts, such as issues related to Facebook’s privacy policy or Microsoft’s dominant market position in Europe, which are protected by the jurisdictions of their home countries (European Commission, 2009a; Europe versus Facebook, 2015). That is, national and regional legislation has only a limited ability to govern the activities of companies.

Public Service Broadcasting/Media

By its European definition, public service broadcasting (psb), or as it has been relabeled in recent years due to digitization and the coming of the Internet, public service media (psm), is aimed at providing national audience programming that is independent from political, economic, or other kinds of external interests. In the still resonant words of the first director-general of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), John Reith, the purpose of public service broadcasting is to inform, educate, and entertain its audiences, which indicates the wide spectrum of different content types and varieties of audiences such broadcasters are intended to serve (Hendy, 2013; Newby, 1997; Scannell & David, 1991). As national institutions, public service broadcasters aim to produce content based on widely accepted values that appeal to different audience groups, which is why public service broadcasting is seen as supporting cultural democracy (see Hendy, 2013; Lowe & Martin, 2014; Scannell, 1996).

Today, although public service broadcasters operate in all European countries, the situation in many is in contradiction with Reithian ideals. That is, not all psb operators are public companies in the sense that they are nonmarket, nonprofit entities, as public service concessions in certain countries are also granted to commercial broadcasters. Many of the national psb companies that are publicly funded are not in practice independent either politically or financially. In several European countries, psb companies are controlled either directly or indirectly by the government, making these companies dependent on the interests of the dominant political coalition. In other countries, companies are dependent on advertising revenue, which can also have a major influence on their programming.

In countries where public service broadcasters have been able to secure their independence, including mostly central and northern European countries (see, e.g., Hallin & Mancini, 2004; Trappel, Nieminen, & Nord, 2011), the tension between the psb companies and the commercial media has been steadily increasing, especially after the advent of the internet, from the 1990s onwards (see, e.g., Le Jeune, 2009; Ward, 2008). Some of the main arguments of this public debate are as follows:

  1. 1. The claim that psb companies are distorting media markets. There are two main arguments behind this complaint. The first claims that psb companies are offering the wrong kinds of entertainment. According to this claim, psb companies are showing programs, especially entertainment, better suited to commercial channels and their business models. Because psb companies are funded by public money, their finances are secured, whereas those of the commercial media are not. Thus, the claim is that psb companies serve to distort the market. The second claim is that, when psb companies offer news and other content in the online environment for free, this impedes the commercial media from developing its own online business models for the same types of content. This is claimed to have a particular effect on the local and regional news media. (For a thoughtful counterargument, see Berg, Lowe, & Brink, 2014.)

  2. 2. Related to the first of these claims, it is demanded that the remit of psb companies should be restricted in two ways. First, psb companies should concentrate only on content that does not compete with commercial channels and is not commercially viable. In effect, this would mean that psb companies should concentrate only on news and other factual programs, as well as content that speaks to minority issues too marginal to make a commercially viable product. Second, the presence of the psb companies in the online environment should be limited only to content that is directly linked to the broadcasting content of their main channels; there should be no “online-only” content provision, and news services should be limited. In sum, psb companies should limit their activities technologically to the traditional use of airwaves and cable, and their programming should concentrate on news and minority issues.

Aside from criticism in this regard from commercial companies, media activist groups represent another critical voice. Although much less influential than the voices of the industry, these activists offer an alternative perspective to the democratic role and function of public service broadcasting. Their primary criticism addresses the bending of psb companies to commercial pressures and adopting a commercial logic in their operating strategies. This has led to their programming too closely reflecting that of the main commercial channels, as well as giving up on traditional psb values of cultural democracy and quality contents (Freedman, 2012; McChesney, 2015). Another point of criticism concerns the lack of public support to different forms of community media, such as radio, television, and Internet-based communication, which serve an important public service function (Rennie, 2006).


Copyright is a media-related issue that has been significantly affected by digitization and the advent of the Internet. Copyrights were originally conceived of in the name of public interest to create a balance between the private interests of intellectual property creators (e.g., a book, academic research) and the collective interests of society. The assumption was that products of intellectual work benefit the whole of society, and for this reason, they should be made publicly available while recognizing the economic and moral rights of the creator. A creator’s economic interests entitled his or her right to decide when and under which terms his or her work could be made public. For this, a creator is entitled to financial compensation, which consists of two elements: rewards for work time and material costs, and the incentive to continue making creative work. On the other hand, it is in the public interest that the general public has access to all that can be created, as it is assumed that all creative work (both in the arts and the sciences) will always derive from what has come before it and been made public prior. This is a principle of cultural and scholarly democracy. For this reason, there are certain public interest–based restrictions to a creator’s privilege, the most important of which is the limited duration of a creator’s privilege (usually 70 years after his or her death), after which a work is made freely available and exploitable (Hesmondhalgh, 2012; Lessig, 2003, 2008).

The problem is that the relationship between creator and public interest requires a third party, an intermediary (publisher, producer, editor, or distributor), who controls the relationship between a creator and the public. As a result of digitization and growing Internet-based publishing, the control of such intermediaries over the existing channels of publication has increased, which has meant that the original relationship between creator and general public has been replaced by one between global media corporations and their customers, or private citizens. Examples of this uneven relationship include cases of when a major global music publisher sues individual members of the public for illegally downloading and distributing the music of one of its artists (e.g., see Karjalainen, 2012). Another example concerns academic publishing, which has to a growing degree become subject to charges. That is, it has become increasingly common that, in order to publish research, a researcher must pay a publisher. Then, when the research is finally published (usually after a long delay), the publications said research appears in are so highly priced that libraries, which are currently suffering diminishing budgets, have significant difficulty purchasing them (Thompson, 2005).

As a remedy to digital copyright issues, different open-access publishing solutions have been developed and applied among scholarly communities. However, this leaves two major problems: on the one hand, open-access publications serve, at least for the time being, a rather limited readership, and if the aim of them is to make all new knowledge publicly available, further development is required; on the other hand, the academic reward system—e.g., in the form of the public funding of universities—is in many European countries increasingly based on counting the publications of an academic staff and citations of these publications, yet this is only if these are published in academic journals by internationally established publishers (Bergstrom, 2007; McGrail, Rickard, & Jones, 2006).

Conclusion: Democratization of the Media?

Although the media is foundational in any democratic system, it is useful to keep in mind that, as a system, the media is not the only social and cultural institution responsible for providing us with essential information and competencies necessary for active citizenship. Perhaps even more crucial to our cognitive and emotional connection to the world are the educational, religious, cultural, and public institutions that together form our epistemic order and help us to better understand the world and our roles in it. The role of the media is merely to update us on and tune us cognitively and emotionally into various aspects of the world.

Throughout history, the media has been criticized as being used for other aims than serving the public interest. On the one hand, it has been accused of possessing too close of relations with political power, including the government and the political elite; on the other hand, it has also been criticized as having become too commercialized and bending the truth in the favor of business owners. (For a powerful recent analysis, see Freedman, 2012) Quite often, both of these claims have been proven accurate, as in the cases of Silvio Berlusconi, who served simultaneously as the prime minister and main owner of the media in Italy, and Rupert Murdoch, who utilized his dominate position in the U.K. media to influence the country’s political trajectories (see Davies, 2014; Folkenflik, 2013; Ginsborg, 2005; Young, 2011).

However, as discussed earlier in this article, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. (On the U.S. media reform movement, see McChesney, 2008, 2014. On the U.K. media reform movement, see Hind 2012.) One of the key arguments of these movements has centred on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries (confirmed in a number of international agreements, which grant basic information and communication rights to all citizens) and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect of privacy and personal integrity (see Padovani & Calabrese, 2014; van Dijk, 2005).


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