Communication is a pervasive feature of society and of human existence. However, our interest is not with the broad one-on-one, personal types of communication. Instead, we are concerned only with mass media and the modes of communication, and only as they exist within the political realm.
Political information is of central importance in a democracy where the public is expected to be sufficiently informed in order to facilitate their participation in the political process, and to be able to hold public officials accountable in their decision-making. In this context, the nature and content of political communication and the modes of communication need to be taken into account.
Perhaps one of the more fascinating insights into Canadian politics is to be gleaned by tracing the evolution of mass media and politics. Partisan newspapers—also known as the party press—were common at the time of Confederation in 1867 and during the following years. Their publishers depended financially on government printing contracts, and thus usually had close connections with either the Conservative or Liberal party at that time. The penny press emerged in the early years of the twentieth century, which depended on subscriptions and business advertising. By the 1920s, radio had appeared on the scene, including the formation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation as a Crown corporation in 1932. This body was replaced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1936 as a more fully independent Crown corporation. The CBC expanded to include television in the early 1950s. As a Crown corporation, the CBC is funded heavily by the federal government but is independent of the government in terms of its operations and programming decisions. In addition to the presence of the CBC, both radio and television consist of numerous privately-owned outlets, and the print media have remained in private hands.
The traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) still occupy a major position in disseminating political information in Canada. Within this context, by his observation that “the medium is the message,” Marshal McLuhan observed how the technology of each mode of communication (print, radio, and television at his time in the 1960s) favoured the dissemination of different kinds of information. The logic of this position could easily be extended to include digital media at this point in time.
As has already been intimated, when it comes to the modes of mass media, it is not just a medium’s technology that is of importance. In addition, there is the issue of ownership, control, and direction. This includes the emergence of conglomerates, especially those that include a mixture of technological modes. Mainstream media is getting a technological lift from other forms of digital communication such as social media, to increase public participation in politics. This form of e-democracy not only provides a better connection between the public and candidates or politicians, but it also allows members from different communities to connect with each other and change the structure of journalism.
The importance of ownership and control is apparent in what political information a communicator disseminates, and how. For example, it has now become standard practice for the public service to make government services digitally available online and to inform the public through government websites. The news media are frequently accused of horse-race coverage of party politics, especially during election campaigns. Political parties often produce negative advertisements about their opponents; and they also engage in political marketing and branding to project their hoped-for image to targeted segments of the public. Then there are the closely related ideas of political spin, infotainment, pseudo-events (such as photo-ops), and permanent campaigning that imply some degree of manipulation of political information.
These attributes suggest that political information, as it is dispersed into the public space, is often adversarial and/or critical in content, leaving a negative impression or tone. This raises the normative issue as to whether this negativity is healthy for democracy in Canada.
This chapter fittingly profiles Professor Tamara Small, one of the leading experts in digital politics and political communication. Professor Small is an associate professor at the University of Guelph, and has published extensively on digital politics, specifically during election campaigns. Applicably, this chapter’s debate is on the democratic relevance of social media.
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:
- identify the role and characteristics of political media in Canada;
- discuss the advent of digital media, e-government, and e-democracy; and
- grasp the content of political communication, and the different strategies and tactics that are used.