Political Communication: comparing media across national boundaries

In order to analyse the extent to which political communications differ across various national contexts, we must first define ‘political communications’. According to Norris, “Political communication(s) is a subfield of communication and political science that is concerned with how information spreads and influences politics and policy makers, the news media and citizens” (Norris, 2004). Across national contexts, political communications can shape the political system and subsequent society towards various new norms (I.e. liberalism, authoritarianism, etc.). In this essay, we will be comparing the extent which political communications differ across Germany, Brazil and North Korea. In comparing these nations, one will be able to analyse the relations between political actors and the media in relation to power yielded as well as the impact this has on the wider society. As well as this, it will become evident that whilst political communications within these national contexts can differ substantially, a persistent and ever developing trend of Americanisation and commercialisation are consistently present.

The regulation and financing of the press

One area in which political communications can differ substantially across various national contexts is the way in which media outlets are regulated and more importantly financed. In Germany, the general consensus is in favour of “retaining [a] core public service media provision” which remains steadfast as a “politically independent institution” (McNair 2017, p.53) in the form of the ARD. This collection of independent broadcasters demonstrates the level of professionalisation amongst German media, crucially in the public domain. The subsequent impact on German society is a positive one, with more non-politicised news available to the public thus allowing for more informed debate. Despite being a partisan political system, perhaps more subject to division and misinformation, Recherche argued that the very fact that Germany was a “paradise for press freedom” (Schnedler and Bartsch 2017, p.8) allowed the nation to encompass and develop a plethora of viewpoints outside of the established norm. This in combination with a growing non-profit journalist sector, “characterised by innovation and creativity” (Schuster, Marcus/Schnedler, Thomas, 2015), has emancipated political communication in Germany and opened up the industry to fair, unbiased news for the German public.

Germany serves as a prime example of political communication being used in the public interest, demonstrating the height of professionalised media. However, states like Brazil have had a different experience with political communication, developing more authoritarian roots to support a continued culture of intimidation amongst independent media. Hallin notes that although “political censorship almost ended” (Hallin and Mancini 2014, p.86) the culture that permitted this authoritarian position in regards to censorship remained, particularly in small towns. Subsequently, this has had a negative impact on contemporary political communications in Brazil as “an independent regulatory agency was never established” unlike in Germany and so the reigns to hold back sensationalist media pieces is non-existent (Hallin and Mancini 2014, p.86). In regards to funding, “state subsidies have played a very important role” (Hallin and Mancini 2014, p.86) in media circles and have thus shifted the beneficiaries of political communications from the press core to the political establishment. The culture of cross-ownership amongst business elites has also solidified an elitist attitude amongst Brazilian press pools which, according to Rebouças and Dias “aggravates even more the lack of competition and pluralism” (Rebouças and Dias, 2016) in Brazil. Overall, this demonstrates the possibility for Brazil to develop independent press regulators to enhance political communications and in time shift their culture of elitism in favour of the national public good.

Perhaps the greatest departure from the traditional Western view of political communications can be found within the techniques and procedures adopted by the North Korean state. Unlike both Germany and Brazil, North Korean press outlets all derive news from the ‘Korean Central News Agency’, designed to propagate the view “in which they unfailingly hold the President in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader” (Lister, 2000). This places a monolithic amount of responsibility and, more importantly, power in the hands of government controlled agencies who are then able to control the flow of information, directly controlling state-wide political communication. Tonally speaking, this hegemonic influence over the financing and regulation of North Korean press allows the state to control “politics and policy makers, the news media and citizens” (Norris 2004) therefore satisfying Norris’ definition of political communication to the fullest extent.

Political culture and desires of the establishment

Germany possesses one of the strongest political cultures in the Western world, promoting liberal democracy above all else and using political communication to further integrate its values into society. Perhaps the strongest of these values is that of ‘freedom of speech’, an all-encompassing ideal that is held in high regard amongst Germans. Donsback and Patterson argued that since the inception of the German press, there has always been “a strong belief in the superiority of opinion over news” (Donsbach and Patterson 2004, p.261). Subsequently, this demonstrates a tendency towards the spreading of ideas throughout society even in cases whereby this is the minority view. Unlike Brazil and North Korea, both pursuing a policy of maintaining pro-government political communication, German political culture states that “championing values and ideas” is vital to the work of journalists in what is known as advocacy-orientated journalism (Musiałowska 2008, p.92). Furthermore, the desires of the German establishment have also very much been shaped by the political culture they find themselves in and in turn shift German political communication towards a ‘consensus culture’. Since the formation of West Germany, there has been a trend towards gradual moderation of not only political parties but subsequent political opinion in Germany (Baker, Dalton, Hildebrandt 1981, p.8). Dalton argues that this agenda setting by the establishment towards greater moderation was driven “now, more than ever, [by the] people” (Dalton, 2013). This shows a remarkable shift, in the span of a century, from establishment interests being trickled down to the general public to decision-making and eventual political communication deriving from the individual and media entities unlike Brazil and North Korea which remain dominated by the state/executive powers.

In Brazil, political communications are centred around establishing a strong Presidentitalist and majoritarian political culture. In terms of upholding Presidentialist values, Holtz-Bach and Kaid argue that “historically, the power to allot radio and television licenses has been monopolised by the executive branch” (Holtz-Bacha and Kaid 2006, p.130). Despite not actively encouraging political communication in favour of the government through lucrative subsidies, the Brazilian executive has been able to continue “distributing licences to sympathisers and excluding political opponents” (Holtz-Bacha and Kaid 2006, p.130) to uphold the appearance of a truly free press. This only strengthens the use of political communication in Brazil as the public takes on information in the assumption that it is largely free from government interference whilst the reality is quite difference. In terms of upholding majoritarian tendencies, in the interests of larger Brazilian political parties, political communication has been largely “addressed to a small urban elite” (Albuquerque, On Models and Margins, 2012). This has allowed the political elite within Brazil to remain in power as a symbiotic relationship has gradually developed between government and the 4th estate. Assuming the established operators in government retain endorsements from key media outlets in Brazil, it is likely these same outlets will remain free from strong media regulations, allowing them to continue their operations in the way they seem fit. This displays strong ties between media and government interests that are extensive when compared to Germany.

North Korean political communication is heavily centred around a prosperous domestic image whilst maintaining a harsh approach in terms of foreign perception. Domestically speaking, North Korean political communications is very much reminiscent of the culture it resides in; totalitarian. Hassig went as far as to argue that often news released to the international scene was withheld domestically and that which was shared domestically limited to international audiences (Hassig, 2004). In some cases, this trend is not entirely evident, instead merging the international to suit the North Korean domestic agenda. For instance, in just 6 months, the South Korean President was criticised by North Korean media 1,700 times (Kim, 2009). This is a prime example of aggressively using political communication to undermine other sovereign states, unlike Germany and Brazil who operate on a much more subversive basis. It is by undermining other world leaders that North Korea hopes to bolster their domestic image as a military power to be reckoned with not only in Asia but globally. This notion carries on further when examining North Korea’s use of political communications when referring to themselves as the ‘underdog’ of international affairs. The supposed “imminent attack” (Pinkston, 2003) angle also employed by North Korea is a prime example of subversive political communication, designed to maintain the current militarism present in North Korean culture and to the support the ruling interest’s desire for power.

International aspects of political communication (i.e. shared traits)

One key aspect of political communication that applies irrespective of international borders is that of commercialisation. Whilst it can be argued that the commercialisation of media will provide more press freedom and less association with political entities (Wu, 2000), Hadland and Zhang proposed the “paradox of commercialisation” (Hadland and Zhang 2012, p.316). This paradox examines both Western and non-western states, similar to this essay’s analysis of Germany and Brazil, and notes that a “strikingly similar pattern of heightened state intervention” (Hadland and Zhang 2012, p.316) existed within both states. This in turn has led to the ever-increasing interconnectedness between the political elite and media outlets. Davis argued that this new culture, permitting a more professionalised core of political communicators with ever more tactics and tools to promote sensationalist media, has allowed “political and economic forms of power in society” to remain stagnant (Davis, 2003). Subsequently, it can be said that amongst Germany and Brazil this trend towards neo-liberal marketisation of media has allowed for greater use of subversive tactics on the part of governments (e.g. priority of news to pro-government papers) which have only continued to cement the existing power structure, demonstrating a heightened use of political communications.

Finally, another key aspect of political communication that remains despite international borders is that of Americanisation of media. Coined in 1907, the term ‘Americanisation’ refers to the gradual incorporation of aspects synonymous with American culture into other cultures. This has become known as the exertion of soft power influence globally and has affected, if not been incorporated, by every nation on earth in some way. For Germany and Brazil, the trend towards Americanisation has been similar. For instance, both nations have seen the importation of American media (e.g. TV shows) as well as a trend towards privatisation of media (Crane, 2014). Subsequently, political communication has shifted towards a western focus, dominated by American culture and perhaps, in the long-term, American interests to maintain the current liberal world order. This in turn has arguably had an impact on the quality of debate present within these countries. For example, Swanson and Mancini argued that electoral campaigns had become heavily Americanised, thus having a negative impact on citizen trust and involvement in the political process (Swanson and Mancini, 1996). Negrine echoes this sentiment, stating that American political campaigning tactics are “useful, effective, and an additional tool in their election box of tricks” (Negrine, 2008, p.153). This diminishes the role of the individual as well as the wider society in participating and developing political communication to maximise its potential state-wide. Furthermore, McQuail argued that the gradual Americanisation of media globally not only homogenised media in America’s interests but was also creating the “dumbing down” (McQuail 2008, p.4) of political debate, thus further undermining the value of political communication globally.

Conclusion

To reiterate, this essay has explored the extent to which political communications within these national contexts can differ substantially. However, we have also examined the fact that a persistent and ever developing trend of Americanisation and commercialisation have remained consistently present. In terms of financing and regulation, all three states differ substantially, ranging from public funding in the national interest as is in Germany to all-out Orwellian propaganda as is the theme in North Korea. Furthermore, the political culture and desires of the established order within these host nations demonstrates a clear correlation to the way in which political communications occur. Germany for instance prides itself on the promotion of minority ideas, spurred on by its encouragement of liberal democracy and proportional voting. Brazil on the other hand has strong elitist historiography, promoting elitist media outlets over more mainstream media. However, that is not to say that consistent trends are non-existent. Americanisation of mass media and commercialisation following western neo-liberalisation have been persistent themes within both Brazil and Germany. Despite this, North Korea remains steadfast in their authoritarian approach to political communications. With strong historical ties to other authoritarian regimes (e.g. the USSR) as well as an isolationist policy in regards to media, North Korea has separated itself from these homogenising influences. Despite this, overall one can argue that whilst national contexts do have a remarkable influence in state policy and media attitudes towards political communication, various influences have managed to surpass state borders and become widespread on a global scale.

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