A deep impact of media upon society is hard to be overestimated. Its original form of manifesting being written press, the initial core function of media was cultural propagandizing within the masses, which generally originated under the influence of the Age of Enlightenment. Another core function gradually undertaken by the media was that of publicizing information of public interest, which is commonly defined as “the news”.
With the advent of radio and TV, media deliberately acquired a function of public entertainment, which has been subjected to numerous debates due to its dubious effects. Having initiated a constant struggle for ratings and auditory attention, the entertainment factor eventually became prevalent in the media. Thus, many scholars arguably claim that contemporary mass-media has largely derailed from its original ideals and, instead of elevating the audience, reveals a strong tendency to adopt itself according to the audience.
Examining Major Trends in the Functioning of British Press
Conforming to the high standards proclaimed by Lord Bingham and Winston Churchill, an efficacious and properly functioning modern press must be active, professional and inquiring and is supposed to function as ‘vigilant guardians of the rights of the ordinary citizen’ (The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson 2012, p.56). The importance of the freedom of press has been largely emphasized and struggled for throughout the history of British media. The intrinsic importance of the freedom of expression lies in the fact that it is instrumentally significant and serves a number of broad objectives. The press promotes individual self-fulfillment within the society and the freedom of speech is commonly interpreted as the essence of democracy. The free flow of ideas and information perform the function of informing political debate and presuppose the fact that people are more ready to accept decisions that go against them if they can in principle seek to influence them (The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson 2012, p.57). All this vividly illustrates the significance of the role played by media in communication, expression and interpretation of comment and information on political, social and cultural matters. The press enables public to make informed choices as well as it allows institutions and authorities to make informed decisions. Forming the core of a democratic society, free and informed political debates encourage consequent elevation of a sense of public service and public responsibility amongst all involved in the profession of journalism. A properly functioning press ought to secure the free expression of opinion and accurate presentation of news.
Another benefit provided by the media should be that of pluralism of thoughts and ideas, which presents another intrinsic feature of democracy. The press ought to serve as the community’s witness to the processes of justice, political, economic, social and cultural spheres of life reporting rival arguments over certain issues and guiding the public through the process of evaluation the accuracy of the information.
Although the press is largely supposed to serve a significant democratic value utilized through the public benefits associated with the free flow of information and debate, lately many concerns have been voiced regarding this crucial function of media in the UK. Taking into consideration the immense responsibilities incumbent on the press, British scholars, researchers and acknowledged specialists in the field of journalism are increasingly concerned about the reverse potential revealed by the contemporary media. Thus, while defending the freedom of expression and advocating the free press, Professor James Curran greatly emphasized the nature of press power and the potential it has to impact the society. He accentuates the general prevalence of entertaining function in contemporary mass media accompanied with the easy arousal of sensationalism utilized as more saleable commodities than traditional accurate factual news (Curran 2002).
In his Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction, McNair describes ongoing changes in the country’s political culture. Commenting on the situation with contemporary press, he suggests a particular example of the adverse public reaction to the issues of objectivity, honesty and fairness of British journalists, which resulted from specific incidents of 2007 and produced a direct and significant impact on the subsequent development of British media. The scandals were provoked by numerous instances of artifice in the media evoking public debates about the ethics and authenticity of broadcast journalism (McNair 2001, p.83). McNair defines this period as a crisis of the viewer trust in the authenticity of TV news and goes on to discuss the process of tabloidization, which is a result of expanding market pressures among which is amplified competition. These market pressures dictate that content, tone and layout of a newspaper must appeal to the widest market possible in order to retain and gain readers and advertisers.
The concept of tabloidization has been heavily debated and dissected by contemporary researchers such as Sparks and Tulloch. They argue that tabloidization trends have resulted in the replacement of a serious and objective journalism with a cultural form which largely focuses on entertaining and thereby appeals to a mass market (Sparks & Tulloch 2000). Respectively, a generation of journalists now exists who believe that racism, voyeurism, sexism, the ridiculing of people and fabrications are what the public want. McNair (2001) argues that such tendencies damage the public sphere and cause general apathy to important social and political issues.
Examining the changing relationship between British press, audiences and the public sphere, it is important to understand how dubious and controversial the contemporary state of media is. According to the opinion supported by a significant number of respectable researchers, among which are Sparks, Curran and McNair, the ‘public enlightenment’ function of the press does not work well in the UK. The press took the stance of a neutral observer and thus generally fails to provide quality news service for UK citizens.