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Between media and politics: can government press officers hold the line in the age of ‘political spin’? The case of the UK after 1997

Garland, Ruth (2016) Between media and politics: can government press officers hold the line in the age of ‘political spin’? The case of the UK after 1997. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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The aim of this study is to use the concept of ‘mediatization’ to inform a critical, grounded and fine-grained empirical analysis of the institutional dynamics that operate at the interface between government and the media in a liberal democracy. This thesis applies a novel theoretical and empirical approach to the familiar narrative of ‘political spin’, challenging the common assumption that government communications is either a neutral professional function, or an inherently unethical form of distorted communication. In May 1997, Labour came into power on a landslide, bringing into government its 24/7 strategic communications operation, determined to neutralise what it saw as the default right-wing bias of the national media. In the process, the rules of engagement between government and the media were transformed, undermining the resilience of government communications and unleashing a wave of resistance and response. Much academic attention to date has focused on party political news management, while the larger but less visible civil service media operation remains relatively un-examined and undertheorised, although some northern European scholars are exploring mediatization from within public bureaucracies. This study takes a qualitative approach to analyzing change between 1997 and 2014, through 16 in-depth interviews with former, largely middle-ranking, departmental government communicators, most of whom had performed media relations roles. This was a group of civil servants that had spent their working lives in close proximity to ministers during a time of rapidly increasing media scrutiny. These witness accounts were augmented by interviews with six journalists and three politically-appointed special advisers, together with a systematic analysis of key contemporary and archival documents. The aim was to provide insights into change over time within a shared policy and representational space that is theorised here as the ‘cross-field’, where media act as a catalyst for the concentration of political power. What can and does government communication in its current form contribute to the democratic ideal of the informed citizen?

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 Ruth Garland
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JN Political institutions (Europe) > JN101 Great Britain
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Anstead, Nick

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