‘Liberal’ reform and normativity in media analysis

Media reform in the neoliberal context may involve a fundamental re-evaluation and re-imagining of many of the ‘sacred’ normative foundations upon which free media and democratically functioning journalism are based. 

John Steel
18 August 2014

The relationship between liberal democracy and media freedom is of course fundamental to the democratic wellbeing of societies. To state anything other is to court controversy and possible ridicule, and to tilt towards the anti-democratic. Yet amongst the sections of the left and those who might be termed social liberals or progressives, the entanglement of socially progressive liberal ideals and aspirations with economic liberalism and its material consequences has hitherto been fraught with challenges. As Julian Petley, John Keane and many others have observed, economic ‘freedom’ is generally applied to conceptions of media freedom to the detriment of democratic culture. Those defending economic liberalism argue that in order to have a truly ‘free press’ societies must have an unconstrained economic media environment. These tensions between social liberals and economic liberals are longstanding and show little sign of being resolved in these neoliberal times.

 My main argument is oriented towards two particular interrelated areas of debate within media and, more specifically, journalism studies that I think are pertinent to questions of the relationship between liberalism and the media. The first relates to media structures and particularly the debate about media reform. The second concerns the growth of work on role perceptions amongst journalists and media workers.

 The first part of my argument addresses what I will call ‘structural normativity’ in media analysis. What I’m interested in here are the often implicit normative claims that are made in areas of media scholarship which relate to so-called ‘media systems’, media structures and the political economy of the media. In sum my argument is that the basis of the normative claims which are rooted in liberalism, claims that are generally made about the role and functions of journalism in contemporary society, are lacking in critical vigour as they are too firmly embedded in outmoded conceptions of democracy and democratic theory. Such analyses, I suggest, are dependent upon a decrepit conception of political culture and liberal democratic participation which sees media and journalism as facilitators of democratic politics and plurality, yet one which can’t deliver on this promise because it is stifled by the priorities of profit. Generally, debates about the need for greater media plurality, accountability and representation are articulated in order to challenge, or at least highlight, the commercial imperatives of large media corporations and stress the ‘democratic deficit’ that contemporary business models of journalism promote. If we look to how this work filters through into the realm of journalism and media policy, we see it most starkly in the UK in the work of campaign groups like the Media Reform Coalition, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and Hacked Off. These groups provide important critical spaces and pressure points that highlight where the commercial imperatives of media organisations, which stifle democratic deliberation and representation, are confronted. Such groups of course gain intellectual substance from a long tradition of critical scholarship into media systems, structures and processes. However, I suggest that the central problem of such groups, and of some of the intellectual currents that they draw from, lies in their aspirations to ‘reform’ media policy in ways which aspire to the cultivation of a more accountable, representative and diverse media environment. Yet within the confines of neoliberalism, such calls for reform seem harder to attain then ever. What do these terms actually mean within this neoliberal era, given the prevailing liberal orthodoxy? I contend that such claims, though laudable, are often made without sufficient critical engagement with normative foundations; or without providing a sufficiently clear notion of how reform might stimulate/cultivate enhanced political participation and political culture; or, more importantly, without considering what such a reinvigorated political culture might look like given the context of neoliberalism.

 This brings me to the second part of my argument. The work on role perceptions within journalism studies is something that has seen significant development in recent years. This research builds on the work of Wolfgang Donsbach (1983; 2010) and examines the lived experiences, perceptions and motivations of those working within the journalism and media industries. Again, such lived experiences are often articulated or framed in relation to a set of general normative claims concerning democracy and the deliberative power of journalism and media systems. In this work we see a tendency to offer normative (idealised) notions of journalism and its democratic functioning, within a reflective framework which highlights the contradictions and tendencies within the production of news and amongst news-workers themselves.  In contrast to the aforementioned structural analyses, this work draws on lived experiences and insights in order to explore issues of democratic accountability and representation from the perspective of journalists themselves.

 Though offering a valuable insight into the workings and changing dynamics of journalism in different contexts, this work suffers in much the same way as the above in that it has the tendency to claim implicitly or at least draw attention to the idea that democratic culture is something that requires rehabilitation and that the media, and journalism practice in particular, are important sites for such rehabilitation. Yet again this journalistic praxis is gauged in relation to what I would argue are a degraded set of ideals and aspirations; degraded in the sense that the grip of neoliberalism which, despite its crises, shows no signs of being challenged by new ideas and new ways of imagining democratic society. Such work is redolent of a form of identity politics in which the social construction of journalism or the journalist is seen as the central site of conflict and contestation, and thereby as the solution to the problems of journalism. Such work, however, tends to be divorced from a rigorous engagement with important concepts and debates such as, for example, the nature and character of political deliberation, the substance of political culture, or indeed the nature of contemporary democracy itself.

 In sum, my argument is that we need first to reconceptualise journalism’s functions and take a closer look at some of the normative claims and aspirations that many strands of journalism and media studies research engages with, and to ask the question: are the normative claims upon which our analyses of media are made in need of serious theoretical reconsideration? I would answer this question in the affirmative.

  Where might we begin such a theoretical reconsideration? How might we move the discussion forward? One way to start might be by broadening our analysis, and it could be that we can then start to move towards the development of ideas towards which journalism praxis might more optimistically be oriented. Ultimately it may be that we need to start to think beyond the ideas of Madison, Mill and Dewey and to re-imagine conceptions of deliberation and political participation which might underscore new normative foundations. Here I’m mindful of the work of Jodi Dean who in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (2009) and Blog Theory (2010) analyses how critical responses might emerge from within neoliberal societies yet still be critical of and possibly transcend such a context. Dean’s work attempts to rehabilitate a Marxian analysis which grapples with the complexities of contemporary capitalism in ways which offer new opportunities for understanding the very basis of democratic culture and critical politics. More specifically Dean’s analysis of ‘communicative capitalism’ orientates us towards thinking about how neoliberalism has co-opted much of the moral capital from the reformist Left and incorporated it into its own manifestations of power and authority. She suggests in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies that under communicative capitalism ‘Right and Left share the same rhetoric of democracy, a rhetoric merging ethics and economics, discussion and competition so that each is a version of each other’. Drawing on Zizek, she demonstrates that the communicative and deliberative opportunities provided by our new communication environment are ultimately subsumed into the politics and culture of liberal individualism, and therefore limit any genuine opportunities to move outside or beyond our current predicaments. She goes on to suggest that ‘the problem isn’t democratisation. It’s the Left’s failure to think beyond democracy and defend a vision of equality and solidarity, its unwillingness to reinvent its modes of dreaming’. While it remains important to counter neoliberal culture and politics and to contest neoliberalism’s incursions into everyday life, we should also think hard about Dean’s challenge to imagine new visions of politics which do not cling to decrepit notions of liberal political idealism. 



Donsbach, Wolfgang (1983), ‘Journalists’ conception of their roles: Comparative indicators for the way British and German journalists define their relations to the public’, Gazette, 32, 19-36.

 Donsbach, Wolfgang (2010), ‘Journalists and their professional identities, in Stuart Allen (ed.), in The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 38-59.


This article is part of the Liberalism and the Media strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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