Ludger helms media and politics


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Ludger helms media and politics

  1. 1. Ludger Helms Governing in the Media Age: The Impact of the Mass Media on Executive Leadership in Contemporary Democracies1 ALTHOUGH POLITICAL RESEARCH ON MEDIA ISSUES REMAINS RATHER patchy compared with the volume of research on other intermediary institutions, such as parties or interest groups, it is now widely acknowledged that realistic perspectives on the political process in the contemporary advanced democracies cannot ignore the mass media. Scholars following political developments in different estab- lished democracies agree that politics has become ‘mediated’,2 and that the news media have acquired the status of genuinely political actors or institutions.3 That said, advances in researching the media, and their roles in politics, have been rather uneven. Given the notable general interest in the ‘medialization’ of political leaders and leadership in contemporary democracies, it marks a curiosity that mass media effects on executive leadership have largely failed to attract a reasonable amount of scholarly attention, as is being under- 1 A previous draft of this paper was written while the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, Japan, early in 2006. The unique hospitality of the Institute and the generous financial support of the German Research Council that made this visit possible are gratefully acknowledged. Thanks are also due to the anonymous referees of this journal. All remaining errors are the sole responsi- bility of the author. 2 W. Lance Bennett and Robert M. Entman (eds), Mediated Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001. 3 Paolo Mancini and David L. Swanson, ‘Politics, Media, and Modern Democracy: Introduction’, in David L. Swanson and Paolo Mancini (eds), Politics, Media, and Modern Democracy, New York, Praeger, 1996, p. 11; Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News. The News Media as a Political Institution, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1998; Michael Schudson, ‘The News Media as Political Institutions’, Annual Review of Political Science, 5 (2002), pp. 249–69. Government and Opposition, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 26–54, 2008 doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2007.00242.x © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
  2. 2. scored by the conspicuous absence of this issue in recent surveys of political research on politics and the mass media.4 This is not to say that issues concerning the possible effects of the mass media on governance and leadership in the advanced democ- racies have completely stayed off the research agenda of comparative government and politics. It is in fact even possible to identify some kind of a dominant paradigm of understanding the role of the mass media in relation to governments and within the leadership process. While the mass media have been occasionally described as potential veto players that can effectively constrain the leverage of govern- ments,5 the mainstream perception of government–mass media rela- tions in the West European parliamentary democracies has been one that considers the media as powerful catalysts of a gradual con- centration of political power in the hands of governments and chief executives more particularly. The remarkably popular ‘presidential- ization’ thesis in comparative executive research marks only the most recent interpretation of the current state of governance and leader- ship in the contemporary parliamentary democracies that builds strongly on the changing role and the increased impact of the media within the democratic process.6 It has been accompanied by ‘grand narratives’ in recent media history, which consider the historical evolution of the relationship between governments and the mass 4 See John Street, ‘Politics Lost, Politics Transformed, Politics Colonised? Theories of the Impact of Mass Media’, Political Studies Review, 3 (2005), pp. 17–33; and John Corner and Piers Robinson, ‘Politics and Mass Media: A Response to John Street’, Political Studies Review, 4 (2006), pp. 48–54. Also, in an extensive review of the more recent literature on media effects written by a team of American scholars, ‘effects on politicians and policy makers’ are tackled on less than a full page; see Douglas M. McLeod, Gerald M. Kosicki and Jack M. McLeod, ‘Resurveying the Boundaries of Political Communication Effects’, in Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann (eds), Media Effects. Advances in Theory and Research, 2nd edn, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002, p. 267. 5 In countries as different as Japan and Germany, the mass media have been identified as veritable functional equivalents of a powerful opposition party. See Ellis S. Krauss, ‘The Mass Media and Japanese Politics: Effects and Consequences’, in Susan J. Pharr and Ellis S. Krauss (eds), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1996, p. 360; Ralf Dahrendorf, ‘Regierungen ohne Opposition’, Süd- deutsche Zeitung, 14 November 2002, p. 2. 6 Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (eds), The Presidentialization of Politics: A Com- parative Study of Modern Democracies, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2005. 27GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  3. 3. media in liberal democracies to have been marked by a gradually increasing ability of governments to manage the media, transforming the latter into ‘fundamental tools of liberal democratic governance’.7 This article seeks to reconsider the issue of mass media effects on governments, leaders and the leadership process from an interna- tionally comparative perspective. Cross-national comparative inquiry in media research tends to be viewed with notable suspicion. Indeed, comparativists studying the political roles of the media have been faced with stricter methodological, theoretical and empirical stan- dards, and reservations, than scholars in many other fields of comparative politics. There is widespread scepticism among media scholars even against studies focusing on a single country. Its propo- nents have argued that only case studies on individual decisions, rather than countries, are useful in determining whether, how and to what extent the media matter in terms of politics and policy.8 This is no doubt a valid point. That said, it is obvious that case studies that are both extremely detailed and correspondingly limited in focus are needed most when it comes to refining our knowledge of the role of the mass media in political decision-making, and their effect on executive leadership more particularly. As things stand, though, we have only just begun to identify some of the most fundamental ele- ments of the government–mass media relationship. Thus it would appear to be more appropriate and rewarding to adopt a broader perspective on an issue whose centrality for a deeper understanding of the current state of governance and leadership in the established democracies cannot seriously be denied. Though this piece’s primary aim is not to make a theoretical contribution, some brief remarks on its theoretical basis would not seem to go amiss. In liberal democracies, both governments and the mass media are actors that can act freely, but they do so within the existing institutional parameters that create specific opportunities 7 P. Eric Louw, The Media and Political Process, London, Sage, 2005, ch. 3, p. 54. 8 Sonia Livingstone, ‘On the Challenges of Cross-National Comparative Media Research’, European Journal of Communication, 18 (2003), pp. 477–500; see also Michael Gurevitch and Jay Blumler, ‘The State of the Art of Comparative Political Communi- cation Research’, in Frank Esser and Barbara Pfetsch (eds), Comparing Political Com- munication. Theories, Cases, and Challenges, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 325–43. 28 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  4. 4. and constraints and shape actors’ preferences and strategic choices.9 While institutions provide stability, they are not static. Generally, the potential for actor-driven institutional change will be greatest in the immediate institutional environment of an actor. Often, however, the forces driving institutional change within a given sector are located outside that sector. In the established democracies, most manifestations of formal institutional (and in particular constitu- tional) change across the political system originate from legislative reforms to be initiated and enacted by elected governments. Courts are another powerful initiator of formal institutional change in different sectors of politics and society. However, cross-sectoral in- stitutional change is an exceptionally complex process, and the insti- tutions of government can, if often less directly, effectively be altered by actors from outside the group of constitutionally acknowledged actors. More specifically, there is ample evidence that the media have had a rather powerful effect on the organizational evolution of execu- tive branches.10 Many of the most important aspects of mass media effects on political leadership in the established democracies relate to the world of informal institutions, though. Informal institutions comprise a host of different phenomena, such as values, behavioural rules and patterns of interaction. Unlike their formal counterparts, informal institutions can be neither enforced nor abolished by law. However, this makes them not necessarily less important or less powerful. Informal institutions (re)define and specify functional roles of actors and relationships between actors within and across different sectors of the political system.11 One final aspect to be highlighted in this 9 This is the essence of actor-centred institutionalism as suggested by Fritz W. Scharpf, Games Real Actors Play: Actor-Centered Institutionalism in Policy Research, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1997. 10 Indeed, many changes in executive organization came about in response to changing external pressures, including in particular those produced by the media. For the USA, see Stephen Hess with James P. Pfiffner, Organizing the Presidency, 3rd edn, Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press, 2002; for Britain, Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, The Powers Behind the Prime Minister, London, HarperCollins, 2000; for a comparative perspective, B. Guy Peters, R. A. W. Rhodes and Vincent Wright (eds), Administering the Summit: Administration of the Core Executive in Developed Countries, London, Macmillan, 2000. 11 Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky, ‘Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda’, Perspectives on Politics, 2 (2004), pp. 725–39. 29GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  5. 5. context is the triangular nature of political communication. Whereas accounts of government–mass media relations, or the impact of the media on governments and governmental leaders, may focus on one or both of these two actors for analytical reasons, there is always a third actor involved – the public, without which the very concept of political communication in representative democracies is inconceiv- able. Indeed, in democratic regimes the bulk of actions of, and interactions between, governments and the mass media are ulti- mately driven by considerations relating to the public. While both governments and the media have a natural interest in reaching the public and influence the public agenda, they consider and address the public from different angles, as voters or customers. But citizens are bound to combine these roles and may not always be able, or even willing, to distinguish strictly between the different worlds they are living in. This creates a huge challenge for all actors involved in political communication, yet the implications are particularly serious for governments seeking to strike a balance between democratic responsiveness and leadership. The following sections proceed to explore the impact of the mass media on executive leadership in the contemporary established democracies of North America and Western Europe. The general hypothesis advanced in this article is a straightforward one: while skilful political leaders and their supporters may at times be able to use the media as a means for their political ends,12 there is more evidence from a comparative inquiry that the media add to the manifold constraints on executives and executive leadership in the contemporary Western democracies, making leadership (even) more difficult than in the past. THE BASIC INSTITUTIONAL PARAMETERS Any serious inquiry into media effects on executive leadership has to start with a brief consideration of the key institutional parameters at 12 Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand are among those who have been widely considered to represent prime examples of leaders with an exceptional ability ‘to exploit the new dynamics of media-driven politics’; Gillian Peele, ‘Leadership and Politics: A Case for a Closer Relationship?’, Leadership, 1 (2005), p. 191. 30 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  6. 6. the level of political and media systems. At the political systems level, the single most important institutional divide remains that between parliamentary and presidential systems.13 Although this distinction refers essentially to the relationship between the executive and the legislature (‘fusion of powers’ vs. ‘separation of powers’), there is ample evidence suggesting that parliamentary and presidential systems do by no means differ only with regard to the basic param- eters and manifestations of executive–legislative relations. They also create specific incentives and constraints within the wider political process that tend to have a strong bearing on the overall logic and structure of policy-making under parliamentary and presidential gov- ernment.14 This would appear to remain a valid contention, though recent works, especially by authors drawing on the veto player theorem, suggest that the parliamentary/presidential divide may have somewhat less determining power than previously believed.15 There have been other attempts designed to cope with the enor- mous institutional variety of liberal democracies. Among the more relevant ones worth noting in our context are works seeking to classify different systems according to the strength of the chief execu- tive within the executive branch. In a major study by Thomas Baylis, 13 See Arend Lijphart, Parliamentary versus Presidential Government, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992. Within the family of established liberal democracies, the United States has remained the only uncontested case of presidential government, whereas all West European countries (except Switzerland) belong to the rather heterogeneous group of parliamentary systems of government. There has been growing consensus in the more recent literature that the coexistence of a directly elected president with a parliamentary responsible prime minister (which marks several of the West European democracies) should be considered an institutional variation within the group of parliamentary regimes, rather than an independent ‘semi-presidential’ type of repre- sentative government. See Alan Siaroff, ‘Comparative Presidencies: The Inadequacy of the Presidential, Semi-Presidential and Parliamentary Distinction’, European Journal of Political Research, 42 (2003), pp. 287–312. 14 See Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach, ‘Constitutional Frameworks and Demo- cratic Consolidation: Parliamentarism versus Presidentialism’, World Politics, 46 (1993), pp. 1–22; Juan Linz and Arturo Valenzuela (eds), The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Vol. 1: Comparative Perspectives, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; Fred W. Riggs, ‘Presidentialism versus Parliamentarism: Implications for Representativeness and Legitimacy’, International Political Science Review, 18 (1997), pp. 253–78. 15 George Tsebelis, Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002. 31GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  7. 7. executives were ranked according to the degree of collegiality gov- erning intra-executive relationships between different members of the political executive.16 Not surprisingly, this list was headed by the US president, who enjoys an amount of control within the executive branch that is unmatched even by the powerful prime ministers of Westminster-type parliamentary democracies. Other works focused more specifically on the classification of West European prime min- isters. In an important paper published in the mid-1990s, Anthony King distinguished between prime ministers holding a weak, a medium-strong or a strong position within the executive branch of their respective country.17 According to King’s classifications, the group of countries with a powerful chief executive includes, among others, Britain, Germany and Spain. That with medium-strong prime ministers comprises many of the smaller countries, such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, whereas the third category of coun- tries accommodating comparatively weak prime ministers is consid- ered to include Italy, Norway and the Netherlands.18 France – in many ways Western Europe’s most fascinating major democracy – has been excluded from King’s assessment (and from other comparative inquiries such as that conducted by O’Malley) for the obvious prob- lems caused by the ‘semi-presidential’ feature of the Fifth French Republic’s constitutional structure. The resources available to the French president and prime minister depend very much on which party or coalition holds the majority in the French National Assem- bly. Whereas during times of ‘unified government’, French presi- dents enjoy a tremendous amount of power, ‘cohabitation presidents’ 16 Thomas C. Baylis, Governing by Committee: Collegial Leadership in Advanced Societies, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1989, p. 147. 17 Anthony King, ‘“Chief Executives” in Western Europe’, in Ian Budge and David McKay (eds), Developing Democracy. Comparative Research in Honour of J.F.P. Blondel, London, Sage, 1994, p. 153. It should be noted that the focus of this evaluation is on systemic properties (including the constitutional powers of office and the basic political variables) rather than on the much more volatile power basis of individual office holders. 18 There have been more recent attempts to evaluate the power of prime ministers, including an expert survey focusing on the power of prime ministers within the policy-making process. See Eoin O’Malley, ‘The Power of Prime Ministers: Results of an Expert Survey’, International Political Science Review, 28 (2007), pp. 1–27. The rela- tionship between King’s assessments and those produced by O’Malley’s country experts has been notably strong, with significantly differing assessments being con- fined to a small number of cases, such as Ireland and the Netherlands in particular. 32 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  8. 8. are relatively weak political players, losing much of their power to the prime minister (who otherwise is often little more than the presi- dent’s ‘chief enforcer’).19 To the extent that executive leadership is understood to be about both giving direction to the executive and providing leadership in the wider political process, assessments of the institutional para- meters of leadership may not meaningfully be confined to the execu- tive territory. Systems differ from one another with regard to the overall number and strength of counter-majoritarian institutions (such as powerful second chambers, constitutional courts or inde- pendent central banks) designed to constrain the power of the execu- tive within the political process.20 More recent works have drawn attention to the fact that there is no natural correlation between power-concentrating executive structures and the scope of the chief executive in the wider political process.21 There are, in particular, countries in which a largely monocratic executive structure coexists with a set of exceptionally powerful institutional constraints on the 19 David S. Bell, Presidential Power in Fifth Republic France, Oxford, Berg, 2000; Robert Elgie, ‘“Cohabitation”: Divided Government French-Style’, in Robert Elgie (ed.), Divided Government in Comparative Perspective, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 106–26; Jack Hayward and Vincent Wright, Governing from the Centre: Core Executive Coordination in France, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003. 20 For an empirical overview of the different patterns of constitutional veto players to be found in the established democracies see Manfred G. Schmidt, ‘The Impact of Political Parties, Constitutional Structures and Veto Players on Public Policy’, in Hans Keman (ed.), Comparative Democratic Politics, London, Sage, 2002, p. 178, table 8.2. On this basis, Schmidt distinguishes between ‘sovereign democracies’ and ‘semi-sovereign democracies’, which differ from one another in terms of constitutional and other institutional constraints on democratic majorities and democratically elected govern- ments. Note that this differentiation is not a neat equivalent of the more influential distinction between majoritarian and consensus democracies suggested by Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1999, that has been readily adopted by scholars studying the institutional determinants of actors’ political communication strategies in different national contexts; see Hanspeter Kriesi, ‘Strategic Political Communication. Mobilizing Public Opinion in “Audience Democ- racies”’, in Esser and Pfetsch, Comparing Political Communication, pp. 201–2. The differ- ent character of the two indices becomes manifest in particular in the competing classifications of the United States which may be considered either a classic example of majoritarian democracy or a power-sharing polity. 21 See Ludger Helms, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors: Executive Leadership in Western Democracies, London and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 11–15, table 1.2. 33GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  9. 9. executive at the wider political system’s level. The prototype of this specific combination is obviously the United States – leading one scholar to characterize the American president as ‘a semi-sovereign prince’.22 In this regard, Germany clearly is the United States’ nearest equivalent among the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe.23 The media systems of the established democracies are no less diverse than their respective constitutional orders, even though this has attracted very little scholarly attention until recently. Somewhat ironically, the notable hesitation of mainstream media scholarship in acknowledging important cross-national differences has to some extent been approved by the historical dynamics of international media development. There has, in fact, been a more recent trend towards convergence that moved many West European systems closer to the American model24 – whose key components include a clearly dominant position of a commercial press over other forms of press organization, the largely unchallenged prevalence of commercial broadcasting, a high level of professionalization of journalism and a strong tradition of ‘fact-centred’ reporting, a limited amount of state intervention in the media sector as well as a structural position of the 22 Sergio Fabbrini, ‘The Semi-Sovereign American Prince: The Dilemma of an Independent President in a Presidential Government’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, pp. 313–35. 23 Ludger Helms, ‘The Changing Chancellorship: Resources and Constraints Revisited’, German Politics, 10 (2001), pp. 155–68; for a comparative perspective, see also Ludger Helms, Executive Leadership and the Role of ‘Veto Players’ in the United States and Germany, Working Paper No. 03.02, Program for the Study of Germany and Europe, Center for European Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2003. 24 This marks one among several important theses developed and substantiated by Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini in their path-breaking comparative study on the historical evolution and change of Western media systems. See Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini, Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004. It should be noted, however, that the authors do not identify a purely unidirectional process of convergence. Whereas the more dominant move has been towards ‘Americanization’, there have been several traces of ‘Europe- anization’ in the United States, including, for example, the belated emergence of nationwide American newspapers. For a more detailed reconsideration of the ‘Ameri- canization’ thesis from a British perspective see also Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch, ‘“Americanization” Reconsidered: U.K.–U.S. Campaign Communication Comparisons Across Time’, in Lance Bennett and Entman, Mediated Politics, pp. 380– 403. 34 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  10. 10. media that tends to be institutionally separate from political parties and other organized political groups. Manifestations of limited convergence notwithstanding, crucial differences persist not only between the media systems of the United States and the countries of Western Europe, but also between West European democracies. They relate to the quantitative level of press circulation, the structure of the ‘press landscape’, the role and power of commercial broadcasting in relation to public broadcasting, the extent of government control of the media, the degree of journalistic professionalism, and the amount of media autonomy from political parties and other public and private actors. The specific combination of these (and several other) indicators in the Western democracies led Hallin and Mancini to distinguish between three models of media and politics: a ‘Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model’ (associ- ated with the comparatively young West European democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece, but also including Italy and, though with certain qualifications, France), a ‘North/Central European or Demo- cratic Corporatist Model’ (considered to include Scandinavia and the three mainly German-speaking countries of continental Europe, as well as the Low Countries) and a ‘North Atlantic or Liberal Model’ (including the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland).25 It would appear useful to complement the picture drawn by Hallin and Mancini by also taking into account the regional proliferation of the internet in different countries. Much has been written about the so-called ‘digital divide’, i.e. the starkly differing proportions of citi- zens enjoying access to the internet in developed and developing countries.26 The magnitude of the global North–South divide should, however, not blind us to the significant differences that exist with regard to the distribution of the internet amongst different economi- cally advanced and politically consolidated liberal democracies. According to recent surveys,27 the average proportion of internet 25 Hallin and Mancini, Comparing Media Systems. 26 See, for example, Pippa Norris, Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001. For a critique of the ‘digital divide’ paradigm, which has been considered to be misleadingly static, see Richard Rose, ‘A Global Diffusion Model of e-Governance’, Journal of Public Policy, 25 (2005), pp. 5–27. 27 The figures presented here are drawn from stats2.htm#north and, accessed on 19 August 2007. 35GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  11. 11. users, as of June 2007, was exceptionally high throughout most of Scandinavia (especially in Iceland, 86.3 per cent, and Sweden, 75.6 per cent) and, perhaps surprisingly, in Portugal (73.8 per cent). Figures for the United States and Canada hover in the high 60s (69.7 and 67.8 per cent respectively). Further down the ladder are coun- tries such as the UK (62.3 per cent) and Germany (61.1 per cent). Overall, the figures largely frustrate ambitions to identify coherent regional clusters. For example, while the average score for the Benelux countries is 63.5 per cent, a difference of almost 25 percent- age points separates Belgium and the Netherlands from each other. Even shared borders combined with obvious parallels in recent democratization history and roughly similar levels of economic per- formance apparently do not lead to similar internet infrastructures. Whereas Portugal had a score of almost 75 per cent in mid-2007, the figure for neighbouring Spain was less than 44 per cent. Arguably, the most striking feature is, however, to be seen in the marked divide that separates the majority of North European countries from most Romanian countries. Whereas the average score of the five Scandi- navian states was well above 70 per cent, internet users in countries such as France, Italy and Spain accounted for just above 50 per cent of the population in 2007. The regional patterns of internet distribution described appar- ently do not fit exactly into the three categories of countries con- strued by Hallin and Mancini. While one might expect to find the greatest proportion of internet users within the countries represent- ing the ‘North Atlantic or Liberal Model’, the average score for the Anglo-Saxon democracies is actually slightly lower than that for the ‘North/Central European or Democratic Corporatist’ countries. Also, with the notable exception of Portugal, the traditionally low level of newspaper circulation and readership within the countries representing the ‘Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model’ is by no means compensated for by a particularly high degree of ‘internet density’. By contrast, there is a rather strong correlation between high newspaper sales and a large share of internet users across coun- tries, with the Scandinavian countries heading both ranking tables. More importantly, what this stocktaking exercise also reveals is that the classifications of individual countries suggested by comparative media systems research and comparative executive research share little common ground. There is, in particular, a notable amount of incongruence with regard to the key features of countries’ executive 36 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  12. 12. structures and institutional properties, and the defining characteris- tics of their media systems. For example, the group of countries with powerful prime ministers (Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain and Greece) includes cases from all three of Hallin’s and Mancini’s cat- egories, though it may be noted that all countries representing the ‘North Atlantic or Liberal Model’ (the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland) accommodate rather powerful chief executives. There is also no clear-cut correlation between the type of media system and the number and strength of constitutional veto players to be found within a country. ‘Semi-sovereign democracies’28 (systems with par- ticularly powerful institutional checks against majority rule, such as the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Italy) can be found in each of the three categories distinguished by Hallin and Mancini. Needless to say, such mapping of some of the basic institutional features of different democratic regimes constitutes only the first step towards a comparative assessment of the altering conditions of executive leadership in the contemporary established democracies. The challenge is about grasping the complex interdependencies that mark government–mass media relations in different settings. Building on the previous observations, the next sections revisit the prevailing assessments of mass media effects in light of the im- portant cross-national differences between contemporary Western democracies. MASS MEDIA EFFECTS ON EXECUTIVE LEADERS AND LEADERSHIP IN CONTEMPORARY DEMOCRACIES REVISITED In the more recent debate on the changing nature of democratic governance and leadership, the modern mass media, and television in particular, have been identified as the key protagonists behind the widely attested tendency towards growing personalization in politics. Narrow notions of personalization relate to the changing structure of electoral campaigns and the electoral process. The impact of indi- vidual leaders’ personality on voting behaviour is considered to have increased significantly, which is attributed chiefly, though not exclu- sively, to the strongly personality-centred approach of contemporary 28 Schmidt, ‘The Impact of Political Parties’, p. 178. 37GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  13. 13. media reporting on politics and electoral campaigns.29 Those advo- cating wider conceptions of personalization have contended that the possible effects of ‘electoral personalization’ – such as the accumula- tion of personality-related political legitimacy in the hands of the successful top candidate in particular – are not necessarily confined to the electoral process, but may be carried over from the electoral to the decision-making arena. Power-boosting effects of media-induced personalization are assumed to exist both at the level of core executive decision-making and in the wider political process. Electorally successful leaders are expected to enjoy a particularly large amount of loyalty, and to foster compliance, among their senior fellows within the executive branch, if only because the chief executive’s political success and sustained popularity with the electorate is deemed vital to the party’s continu- ous hold on power.30 In parts of the literature, personalization has been considered more specifically to form a key component of ‘presi- dentialization’31 – a concept that is obviously based on the assump- tion that a high degree of personality centredness is part and parcel of the electoral and decision-making processes in the United States. Overall, empirical evidence supporting these hypotheses has remained rather thin on the ground.32 In what continues to be the most rigorous study on the subject to date, authors found precious little evidence to support notions of ‘electoral presidentialization’ in 29 For a concise overview of different approaches see Anthony King, ‘Do Leaders’ Personalities Really Matter?’, in Anthony King (ed.), Leaders’ Personalities and the Out- comes of Democratic Elections, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 1–44. 30 Michael Foley, The Rise of the British Presidency, Manchester, Manchester Univer- sity Press, 1993, p. 278. 31 See on this the groundbreaking study by Anthony Mughan, Media and the Presi- dentialization of Parliamentary Elections, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. ‘Electoral presidentialization’, as described by Mughan, reappears in the work of Poguntke and Webb as ‘the electoral face of presidentialization’; see Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb, ‘The Presidentialization of Politics in Democratic Societies: A Framework for Analysis’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, pp. 10–11. 32 Even Poguntke and Webb in their conclusion readily acknowledge that the assumption of strong direct electoral effects of individual leaders ‘is probably the least convincing aspect of the presidentialization thesis’. Paul Webb and Thomas Poguntke, ‘The Presidentialization of Contemporary Democratic Politics: Evidence, Causes, and Consequences’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, p. 345. 38 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  14. 14. any of the countries covered.33 Perhaps most importantly, the findings suggest that even US presidential elections are only rarely decided by the performance and electoral appeal of individual candidates.34 Insights from empirical research have been complemented by more recent developments in the electoral arenas of several West European parliamentary democracies. In Britain, Labour won a third term in 2005 largely despite, rather than because of, the ‘Blair effect’.35 The parliamentary elections in Germany, Italy and Austria, held between September 2005 and October 2006 respectively, were won by parties led by top candidates (Angela Merkel, Romano Prodi and Alfred Gusenbauer) who were judged by many as being strikingly uncharis- matic. Even though all three countries witnessed the introduction of American-style live televised showdowns between the incumbent head of government and his direct challenger for office more recently, there has remained scarce, if any, hard evidence for a decisive impact by the top candidates on the electoral result. In Germany, opinion poll data gathered during the run-up to the 2005 Bundestag election revealed that only 19 per cent of the electorate considered the chan- cellor question to be more important than the party composition of the government, whereas 72 per cent found the party composition of the government more important than the chancellor candidate. Moreover, a majority of those following the television duel of 2 September 2005 agreed that the incumbent chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, had won the direct confrontation – which did not save him and his government from electoral defeat later the same month.36 Given the notably scarce evidence of a direct and decisive effect of individual leaders in the electoral process, it comes as no surprise that there have been few, if any, compelling examples of chief executives being able to enhance significantly their decision-making power within the executive territory on the basis of a powerful personal mandate. In neither of the two countries covered in the volume 33 See King, Leaders’ Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections. 34 Larry M. Bartels, ‘The Impact of Candidate Traits in American Presidential Elections’, in King, Leaders’ Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections, pp. 44–69. 35 Peter Kellner, ‘Clearing the Fog: What Really Happened in the 2005 Election Campaign’, Political Quarterly, 75 (2005), pp. 327–9. 36 Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V., Bundestagswahl. Eine Analyse der Wahl vom 18. September 2005, Berichte der Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V., 122, Mannheim, 2005, pp. 25–8, 45. 39GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  15. 15. by Poguntke and Webb that stand out as representing the highest degree of presidentialization within the executive branch in terms of power-concentration (Canada) or having experienced the strongest trend towards presidentialization (Finland) respectively, does ‘elec- toral presidentialization’ appear to have been the major driving force.37 Even the case of Italy, widely accepted to mark the ultimate example of a dramatic increase of chief executive power essentially caused by a media-driven personalization of the electoral and wider political process, can hardly be accepted at face value. To be sure, the spectacular political career of Silvio Berlusconi, who managed to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister after 1945 through his five-year hold on the premiership between 2001 and 2006, cannot be imagined without the prominent role of powerful sections of the Italian mass media supporting his cause. However, the conditions allowing the unlikely emergence of prime ministerial gov- ernment in Italy have been much more complex. The developments that can be observed since the mid-1990s would certainly not have been possible without the previous breakdown of the old system of ‘partitocrazia’, which left a political vacuum to be filled by a figure like Berlusconi and his entourage.38 As Mauro Calise has rightly empha- sized in his succinct account of the dynamics driving the gradual transformation of Italian core executive governance, though, the key factors at work also included a series of important organizational reforms at the heart of the Italian executive. The newly created general secretariat of the president of the council of ministers (as the Italian Constitution refers to the prime minister) marks only the most visible product of this multifaceted reform process, designed to 37 As Bakvis and Wolinetz maintain, ‘the basis for labelling the Canadian system as presidentialized . . . can be found . . . in the political rather than the electoral face of the phenomenon.’ Herman Bakvis and Steven B. Wolinetz, ‘Canada: Executive Domi- nance and Presidentialization’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, p. 217. In Finland, the major constitutional reform of the late 1990s clearly stands out as the key factor responsible for the rise of prime ministerial government. See Heikki Paloheimo, ‘Finland: Let the Force Be with the Leader – But Who is the Leader?’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, pp. 246–68; see also Jaakko Nousiainen, ‘From Semi-presidentialism to Parliamentary Government: Political and Constitutional Developments in Finland’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 24 (2001), pp. 95–109. 38 Guiseppe Gangemi and Gianni Riccamboni (eds), Le elezione delle transizione. Il sistema politico italiano alle prova del voto 1994–1996, Turin, UTET, 1997; Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony, London and New York, Verso, 2004. 40 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  16. 16. increase the leverage of the inhabitant of Palazzo Chigi.39 Moreover, the prime minister and the executive as a whole benefited signifi- cantly from other institutional reforms and ensuing changes, such as the introduction of a (limited) majoritarian electoral system and the emergence of a more-or-less bipolar party system in particular.40 Both were widely supported but hardly caused by the media. Additional counter-evidence comes, again, from Germany. During the extended reign of Helmut Kohl in the German chancellery two developments – rather unlikely to join together from the perspective of the presidentialization thesis – reached a height. The first was Kohl’s exceptionally tight grip on his Christian Democratic Party and the government, which prompted some observers to apply the ‘presiden- tialization’ label to Germany.41 The second development, however, was hardly the emergence of a particularly strong personal mandate of the chancellor; rather, Kohl’s popularity with the voters remained strikingly moderate for the better part of his tenure. Indeed, in historical perspective Kohl stands out as the only German chancellor on record who conspicuously failed to secure a reasonable ‘chan- cellor bonus’, leaving him considerably less popular than his party, in two out of five Bundestag elections held between 1983 and 1998.42 39 See Mauro Calise, ‘Presidentialization, Italian Style’, in Poguntke and Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics, pp. 91–6. For a more detailed study on this subject see Cristina Barbieri and Luca Verzichelli, Il governo e i suoi apparati: l’evoluzione del caso italiano in prospettiva comparata, Genoa, Name, 2003. Other assessments by Calise have been somewhat less compelling. In particular, the increased powers of the executive as a whole vis-à-vis parliament do not mark a systemic feature that may be meaningfully judged as a move towards presidentialization, or certainly not as a feature that would move the new Italian model closer to the structures and logics marking presidential government in the USA. 40 See on this Stefano Bartolini, Alessandro Chiaramonte and Roberto D’Alimonte, ‘The Italian Party System between Parties and Coalitions’, West European Politics, 27 (2004), pp. 1–19. 41 Clay Clemens, ‘Party Management as a Leadership Resource: Kohl and the CDU/CSU’, in Clay Clemens and William E. Paterson (eds), The Kohl Chancellorship, London, Frank Cass, 1998, p. 108. 42 See Helms, Executive Leadership in Western Democracies, p. 215. The Kohl experience has prompted some innovative theoretical reflections on the possibility of maintaining a high degree of control in the absence of a strong personal mandate and public charisma. One of the most inspiring contributions of this kind is Christopher K. Ansell and Steven M. Fish, ‘The Art of Being Indispensible: Noncharismatic Personalism in Contemporary Political Parties’, Comparative Political Studies, 32 (1999), pp. 282–312. 41GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  17. 17. Whereas the existence of media-induced leader effects on voting behaviour and their claimed ramifications on the leader’s position within the executive have remained contested, it cannot be denied that the visibility of chief executives in the public political process has indeed increased significantly over the past decades. However, enhanced visibility of the chief executive can hardly be explained in terms of media effects alone. With the rise of ‘summitry’ in the international arena, there has been at least one major factor beyond the media that has – not only in terms of visibility, but also in terms of substance – effectively enhanced the status of senior members of the political executive in public policy-making.43 The media’s role in increasing the visibility of chief executives within the public political arena would thus appear to be better described as that of effective amplifiers rather than that of genuine creators of change. There are other aspects worth considering. Somewhat ironically, as much as the media develop the status of independent ‘personal- izers’ – by creating the impression that chief executives are at the centre of decision-making not only when acting internationally, but also in the domestic arena – they can in fact add to the long-term 43 While the position of the head of government as a country’s ‘chief executive’ in the international arena has long become a familiar feature, the establishment of such de facto prerogative powers of the chief executive in international relations actually marks a comparatively recent historical occurrence. This holds true not only for some of the smaller West European countries with their notably collegial executive struc- tures, but even for world powers such as the United States or Britain. As Richard Rose, The Postmodern President, 2nd edn, Chatham, NJ, Chatham House, 1991, p. 21, has pointed out, until the early twentieth century not a single American president had ever travelled abroad while in office, and it was even argued that presidents lacked the legal authority to do so. In Britain, too, foreign policy was very much perceived to be a task solely of the foreign secretary before the Second World War. Churchill’s lengthy and unsuccessful battle with his cabinet for permission to go to Russia to ease East–West tensions suggests that, even in the first decades after 1945, the personal involvement of the prime minister in foreign affairs was still far from being generally accepted. See Graham P. Thomas, Prime Minister and Cabinet Today, Manchester, Manchester Univer- sity Press, 1997, pp. 103–4. In many West European countries, the growing importance of ‘summit politics’, and the accumulation of power in the hands of the executive, was to some considerable degree a direct result of European integration. One of the first to elaborate on this has been Andrew Moravcsik, Why the European Community Strength- ens the State: Domestic Politics and International Cooperation, Working Paper 52, Center for European Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1994. 42 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  18. 18. strains on governments and governmental leaders. This is because notions of centrality and pre-eminence of the chief executive in public policy-making inevitably breed expectations that may prove extremely difficult to meet. To some extent, this would appear to apply to any democratic regime that allows citizens to hold govern- ments accountable on the basis of their judgements of government efficiency and policy delivery. Needless to say, the danger of public disappointment with the performance of governments and govern- mental leaders increases with the boldness of promises made and expectations raised by administrations and their leaders, which explains why there are major differences not only between countries but also between different administrations and leaders within coun- tries. Nevertheless, whenever it comes to explaining the emergence of what Raichur and Waterman have labelled an ‘expectations gap’,44 i.e. a structural mismatch between expectations and performance that threatens to undermine public trust and support in governments and governmental leaders, institutional differences between coun- tries are to be considered. Other things being equal, the negative effects of public perceptions of a seemingly ubiquitous and omnipo- tent chief executive are likely to be most severe in countries that specifically invite such notions by establishing a strongly leader- centred executive branch, which is, however, tightly constrained by powerful institutional checks and balances. The United States and Germany, but also France during periods of ‘cohabitation’, would seem to offer themselves as the most obvious cases in point. The strong international trend towards commercialization of the broadcasting media, which was driven by a host of different factors,45 44 Arvind Raichur and Richard W. Waterman, ‘The Presidency, the Public, and the Expectations Gap’, in Richard W. Waterman (ed.), The Presidency Reconsidered, Itasca, IL, F. E. Peacock, 1993, pp. 1–21. 45 One of them was the growth of strong lobbies pressing for change in media policy, in particular the advertising lobby, which pushed hard in many countries for access to the electronic media. From a different corner of the political spectrum, various social movements also pushed towards private broadcasting, often finding their first new platform in pirate radio stations. In addition, public demands for a greater number and diversity of television programmes also played a role. From the early 1980s, the introduction of private broadcasting appeared as the only way to expand television beyond the limited number of channels that could be funded by licence fee revenues from public broadcasting. Finally, the emergence of transnational private 43GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  19. 19. marks another aspect of our subject to be accounted for. There is a broad scholarly consensus about the manifestations and effects of commercialization within the media sector. Major and minor differ- ences between countries apart, commercialization has been basically marked by two features. The more obvious one is a significant increase in the number of channels and programmes (though, need- less to say, the number of available channels and programmes does not always correspond neatly with the overall level of media pluralism in terms of content diversity46 ). Secondly, commercialization has led to appreciable changes in the structure of broadcasting programmes. Politics, even in its softer formats, is increasingly being sidelined by different forms of entertainment. This development can to a large extent be seen as a direct effect of the increasing market share of the private media, though there have been signs that the public media have, if often grudgingly, partially adapted their programme agendas to meet the challenge posed by their private counterparts.47 Unlike its structural manifestations within the media sector, the effects of commercialization on political leadership have remained very much open to debate. Some leading experts have speculated about the positive effects that the structural changes accompanying commercialization may have on the room for manoeuvre of govern- ments and governmental leaders. As Raymond Kuhn has argued in a recent article on political communication in France, a high level of fragmentation and diversity of television may provide governments with welcome opportunities to pursue a ‘pick and mix’ approach designed to reach different target groups through different chan- nels.48 On a more general level Gianpietro Mazzoleni has argued that broadcasting in particular was facilitated by processes of economic globalization, including the project of European integration. See Hallin and Mancini, Comparing Media Systems, pp. 274–6. 46 This is an important point to be elaborated in a comparative context by Katrin Voltmer, Structures of Diversity of Press and Broadcasting Systems: The Institutional context of Public Communication in Western Democracies, Discussion Paper FS 00-201, Wissen- schaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB), March 2000. 47 See, with further references, Trine Syvertsen, ‘Challenges to Public Television in the Era of Convergence and Commercialization’, Television & New Media, 4 (2003), pp. 158–9. 48 Raymond Kuhn, ‘Where’s the Spin? The Executive and News Management in France’, Modern and Contemporary France, 13 (2005), p. 309. 44 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  20. 20. Television, as it becomes more and more a fragmented and multi-faceted entity, controlled by a myriad of senders and fuelled by a myriad of services, loses some of its traditional assets and powers in the political arena. . . . Per- haps, as the media industry is increasingly cutting back on politics, for increasingly fiercer competitive constraints, then politicians are eventually going to be less harassed . . . by television(s).49 These are intriguing perspectives. The dominant trend to be observed in the bulk of contemporary Western democracies would seem to have been in the opposite direction, though. The concrete effects of multichannel television on the opportunity structure for public leadership in contemporary democracies have rarely been studied empirically; there is in particular a serious lack of compara- tive research. However, case studies on presidential leadership in the United States leave no doubt that the significant increase in television channels and outlets that followed the emergence of American cable television has reduced, rather than expanded, the outreach capacity of presidents.50 There is also little, if any, evidence suggesting that a development imagined by Mazzoleni has actually been underway in any of the major Western democracies. To the contrary, the overall trend would appear to have been towards an ever-closer monitoring of the actions and behaviour of politicians, and of political leaders in particular, and a steady expansion of the outer limits of ‘political’ reporting well into the private sphere of office holders.51 To some considerable extent, this is even true for the majority of countries representing the ‘Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model’ in Hallin’s and Mancini’s major study that were historically (and partly continue to be) marked by an unusual amount of deference by the media in their relations to political elites.52 There has been a strong international 49 Gianpietro Mazzoleni, ‘Political Communication and Television’, in Philippe J. Maarek and Gadi Wolfsfeld (eds), Political Communication in a New Era. A Cross-National Perspective, London and New York, Routledge, 2003, pp. 36–7. 50 See Matthew A. Baum and Samuel Kernell, ‘Has Cable Ended the Golden Age of Presidential Television?’, American Political Science Review, 93 (1999), pp. 99–114; Martin P. Wattenberg, ‘The Changing Presidential Media Environment’, Presidential Studies Quarterly 34 (2004), pp. 557–72. 51 See Jean Seaton, ‘Public, Private and the Media’, Political Quarterly, 74 (2003), pp. 174–83; see also James Stanyer and Dominic Wring (eds), Public Images, Private Lives: The Mediation of Politicians around the Globe, a special issue of Parliamentary Affairs, 57: 1 (2004). 52 Hallin and Mancini, Comparing Media Systems, pp. 123–5. 45GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  21. 21. move towards an ever-greater emphasis on uncovering political scan- dals and misbehaviour of any kind, which can be chiefly explained by the growing levels of commercialization and professionalization of the media.53 Some of the most notable differences between countries relate to the specific manifestations of media monitoring of the political class. Sensationalist popular newspapers in countries such as Britain, Germany or Austria largely find their functional equivalent in many of the Southern European countries in sections of the broad- casting sector, which is simply because a tabloid press never really developed in much of the Mediterranean region. Whereas close public scrutiny of political office holders has been widely considered to constitute an essential element of democratic government, the race for uncovering scandals and spotting public and private misbehaviour of politicians in media reporting contrib- utes little to the noble cause of facilitating democratic control over public officials. It may, in fact, rather undermine the ability of the political class to govern effectively, an aspect to be acknowledged as a central component of good governance even in Madisonian concep- tions of representative democracy. As Blumler and Kavanagh have maintained: ‘The relentless scrutiny and “unmasking” of the mani- pulative strategies and devices of politicians and their advisers by skeptical journalists compromise the authority of the politician as spokesperson. But governments may need deeper and more lasting public support to cope with certain problems that arise from the press of social change.’54 From the viewpoint of presidents and prime ministers, the prevail- ing focus of large parts of the media on any possible manifestation of political scandal has more specific implications. It may limit the pool of political talent from which suitable candidates for political office may be chosen. Whereas ministers or eligible candidates for ministe- rial office usually do not face quite the same standards as would-be prime ministers or presidents do in terms of media skills expected, they still find themselves confronted with an amount of media atten- tion and scrutiny that may bring them more easily into public disre- gard and, eventually, to fall than, say, 30 years ago. Moreover, some 53 Ibid., pp. 278–9; see also John B. Thompson, Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000. 54 Jay G. Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh, ‘The Third Age of Political Communica- tion: Influences and Features’, Political Communication, 16 (1999), p. 217. 46 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  22. 22. capable personalities may even feel altogether discouraged to join the game of politics, and prefer to look for less absorbing alternative careers. Only a rather superficial, and largely misguided, assessment could take this as a potential advantage for an incumbent chief executive in terms of keeping the risk of facing leadership challenges from capable and powerful fellows reasonably low. Politics in parlia- mentary democracies remains very much a team sport (which flows essentially from the fusion-of-powers construction at the heart of the constitution and the presence of more-or-less coherent political parties across the various arenas of public policy-making), and the overall performance of a government will always be influenced to some extent by the performance of senior members of the political executive.55 But even American presidents, while operating under fundamentally different conditions, have an obvious interest in secur- ing the collaboration of a reasonable number of able and publicly respected figures who can be entrusted with high political office.56 Some other media effects on executive leaders and leadership are somewhat more elusive than those described above, but nevertheless well worth looking into. As has been noted in different national contexts, the virtual ubiquity of competitive commercial media in the public arena has led to a contagion of the logic of politics by the logic of the media.57 The manifestations and implications of this process are numerous and complex, and have only recently become the subject of systematic political research. Among the more tangible effects of this silent transformation is an effective constraint on the room for manoeuvre of governments. Unlike their historical prede- cessors, contemporary administrations have to make a continuous and systematic effort to ensure that their actions win the attention of 55 For a convincing demonstration of this point in the British context, see Philip Norton, ‘Barons in a Shrinking Kingdom: Senior Ministers in British Government’, in R. A. W. Rhodes (ed.), Transforming British Government. Volume 2: Changing Roles and Relationships, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000, pp. 101–24. 56 This is at least what the history of the American executive branch suggests. See Shirley Anne Warshaw, Powersharing: White House-Cabinet Relations in the Modern Presi- dency, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996; Anthony J. Bennett, The American President’s Cabinet: From Kennedy to Bush, London, Macmillan, 1996; Ronald C. Moe, ‘The President’s Cabinet’, in James P. Pfiffner and Roger H. Davidson (eds), Understanding the Presidency, 2nd edn, New York, Longman, 2000, pp. 173–93. 57 One of the more substantive studies on this phenomenon is Thomas Meyer, Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002. 47GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  23. 23. the media – a breed of media, after all, that follows political devel- opments from a perspective focused on the commercial and en- tertainment value of political news. While satisfying the specific demands of the media is hardly the ultimate goal of governments, it has very much become an effective precondition for gaining the attention and support of the wider public, without which there is neither responsible government nor democratic leadership. The more recent history of presidential and prime ministerial communi- cations suggests that the too-ready adoption of media styles and strategies by governmental leaders may do little to increase their leverage. This appears to apply in particular to defensive strategies of public leadership. Perhaps the most compelling evidence relates to the early stages of the premiership of Britain’s Tony Blair, who proved a master of adopting media strategies not only for selling his policies, but also to fight criticism from the media – only to find the unique authority and resources of his high public office eventually being devalued and diminished.58 Another aspect of the encroachment of the media logic on politics relates to the significant acceleration of political communication and leadership to be observed in all established democracies. The altered pace of democratic decision-making, which is, precariously enough, accompanied by a growing demand for political time,59 cannot exclu- sively be blamed on the mass media. To some extent the mounting time pressure that all administrations face is caused by the dramati- cally increased workload of governments, which flows from the historical expansion of public policy agendas around the globe. However, the media have no doubt played a crucial part within this larger process. The two most important elements of change at the level of the media, with direct relevance to the altered speed of politics, have been the technological revolution in the media sector 58 A. Rawnsley, ‘Mr Blair versus the Barons’, Observer, 16 June 2002. 59 There are several reasons as to why the amount of time required for practising effective and responsible democratic decision-making has increased over the past decades. Perhaps most importantly, issues become more and more complex, often extending well beyond the horizon of the present generation of citizens and decision makers, as is particularly obvious in such fields as genetic research and nuclear energy. At the same time, the capacity of contemporary pluralist societies to draw on tradi- tional consensus, which could form the basis of bold and forward-looking decision- making, has largely declined. See Hartmut Rosa, ‘The Speed of Global Flows and the Pace of Democratic Politics’, New Political Science, 27 (2005), pp. 445–59. 48 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  24. 24. (especially the emergence of the new digital media) and the signifi- cantly increased competition between different media actors for commercial advantage.60 A widespread dedication to ‘real-time jour- nalism’ has largely undermined traditional standards of political reporting. The altered pace of politics inevitably has a constraining effect on the time frame of governmental decision-making and lead- ership. Even if governments manage to ease part of this constant pressure by enlarging their administrative and political support base, there remains a chronic lack of time, which increases the structural likelihood of poor decision-making and immediate policy failures that are bound to generate new constraints in terms of both politics and policy. A related question concerns the wider, but also more specific, effects that the challenges and changes just described have on the political executive. Many scholars tend to consider executives as the beneficiaries of these ongoing structural transformations.61 Such assessments may be tenable if the focus is strictly confined to the field of executive–legislative relations. There is, in fact, evidence from cross-national analysis that the executives of many contemporary democracies have gradually expanded their power in relation to, and at the expense of, the legislative branch.62 The overall effect of the changing conditions of democratic governance in the advanced democracies would, however, hardly seem to have been a substantial increase in the executive’s capacity to act, let alone to act autono- mously. Rather than being able to concentrate decision-making power in their hands, governments have long felt compelled to devolve and share power not only with other public actors, such as constitutional courts in particular,63 but also with powerful non-state 60 Benjamin R. Barber, ‘Which Technology and Which Democracy?’, in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn (eds), Democracy and New Media, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 36–7. 61 See in this vein, for example, William E. Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, p. 50. 62 Nicolas Baldwin (ed.), Legislatures and Executives: An Investigation into the Relation- ship at the Heart of Government, London and New York, Taylor and Francis, 2004. 63 Alec Stone Sweet, Governing with Judges: Constitutional Politics in Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000. 49GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  25. 25. actors like interest groups or global firms.64 There is a growing pro- portion of public policies whose viability and effectiveness depend largely on the support and specific resources of private sector actors. As those cannot be decreed by governments, they have to be secured through extensive informal negotiations between the state and non- state actors.65 Given the complexity of these multilevel transformations, the future of political communication and public leadership can only be speculated upon. If even the growing fragmentation of increasingly commercialized television markets has been considered to mark a development powerful enough to challenge the very concept of mass communication and undermine the structural basis of effective public leadership,66 how much more serious are the combined effects of the internet? No doubt, the internet represents a force to be reckoned with. Today, countries with a proportion of three-quarters of their popu- lations having access to the internet lead the field, but there will be few advanced democracies with significantly lower scores only ten years from now. Moreover, this development will be accompanied by the further spread of broadband technology allowing users to exploit internet resources more intensively. This notwithstanding, it would appear rather unlikely that the internet will supersede, let alone fully substitute, the traditional media any time soon. Case studies suggest that television has remained the primary source of national political information for a majority of citizens.67 Moreover, whereas newspa- per readership is declining in many countries, it is the major news- papers that have made by far the largest investment in making 64 Ludger Helms, ‘The Changing Parameters of Political Control in Western Europe’, Parliamentary Affairs, 59 (2006), pp. 88–90. 65 In fact, this perception has been the driving force behind the spectacular rise of the governance paradigm in international political research. For a concise overview of the competing approaches see Anne Mette Kjær, Governance, Cambridge, Polity, 2004, and Kers van Kersbergen and Frans van Waarden, ‘“Governance” as a Bridge between Disciplines: Cross-Disciplinary Inspiration Regarding Shifts in Governance and Prob- lems of Governability, Accountability and Legitimacy’, European Journal of Political Research, 43 (2004), pp. 143–71. 66 Mazzoleni, ‘Political Communication and Television’, pp. 33, 37. 67 Birgit van Eimeren and Christa-Maria Ridder, ‘Trends in der Nutzung und Bewertung der Medien 1970 bis 2005’, Media Perspektiven, 10/2005, p. 503; Jacques Gerstlé, ‘Les campagnes présidentielles depuis 1965’, in Pierre Bréchon (ed.), Les élections présidentielles en France, Paris, La documentation française, 2002, p. 94. 50 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  26. 26. content available on the internet, and which can draw on a unique experience and expertise in editing information and making it digestible for users. More importantly in our context, the negative impact of the inter- net on public leadership by presidents and prime ministers will prob- ably be considerably less dramatic than has been widely assumed. To begin with, there is little, if any, empirical evidence to bolster anxious assumptions that the internet will enhance the information of citi- zens to an extent that would make them significantly less amenable to the mobilization efforts of governments. It is even more questionable whether citizens drawing mainly or exclusively on the internet actu- ally have more or better information than others. Also, the popular thesis contending that the internet adds to the constraints on gov- ernments, by strengthening civil society and the principle of account- able government,68 would appear to apply mainly to non-democratic and democratizing countries with few alternative sources of informa- tion and channels for voicing dissent. Even if we look at more specific contexts, convincing proof of a major independent impact of the internet on the basic parameters of political leadership remains in short supply. There is, for example, precious little evidence that the internet has transformed the distribution of power within parties in favour of the rank-and-file69 – which could have truly major implica- tions for the state of party government within a given system.70 Party members may have lost less influence than medium-rank party elites, but the dominant trend among the majority of parties in Western 68 Mazzoelini, ‘Political Communication and Television’, p. 47; see also Rose, ‘A Global Diffusion Model of e-Governance’, pp. 16–22. 69 This is a point made by Vedel, who argues that ICT (information and commu- nication technologies) ‘allow party members to be provided with more information on what their leaders are doing and thus can allow a better accountability of parties’ elites. Besides the redistribution of power between local members and elites, ICTs might result in the decentralization of political forces. Minority groups within parties may communicate their view independently to the other members and express dissent, and link up with other minority groups to challenge party elites.’ Thierry Vedel, ‘Political Communication in the Age of the Internet’, in Maarek and Wolfsfeld, Political Com- munication in a New Era, p. 44. 70 Jean Blondel and Maurizio Cotta (eds), Party and Government: An Inquiry into the Relationship between Governments and Supporting Parties in Liberal Democracies, London, Macmillan, 1996; Jean Blondel and Maurizio Cotta (eds), The Nature of Party Govern- ment. A Comparative European Perspective, London, Palgrave, 2000. 51GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  27. 27. democracies would clearly seem to have been towards the centraliza- tion of intra-party power at the party leadership.71 Such observations are in line with the findings of recent studies suggesting ‘that because of the resource and power advantages existing elites and organisa- tional headquarters are more likely to dominate the e-agenda and use it to strengthen their position of power’.72 CONCLUSIONS Whereas the more recent history of political leadership includes a number of presidents and prime ministers evincing a remarkable ability to govern with the media, a comparative inquiry suggests that the mass media generally rather function as a major constraint on executives and executive leadership in many of the contemporary democracies. However, even a sceptical reassessment of recent devel- opments does not arrive at a doomsday scenario. If the bad news for government leaders in the established democracies is that managing the traditional media looks likely to become even more difficult than in the past, the good news is that the possible constraints on public leadership posed by the internet seem to have been largely overestimated. Many features that have come to characterize the more recent history of government–media relations, and the structural conditions of executive leadership, can be attributed to structural changes at the level of media systems (in particular the strong international trend towards commercialization) and changing patterns of behaviour among media actors (especially the gradual decline in journalistic deference to the political class). Such changes at the level of the mass media have been accompanied, and in fact functionally intensified, by changing expectations and increased demands of the public. While the factors influencing governing and public leadership are obviously not confined to institutionalized rules and institutional devices, institutions and institutional differences between countries 71 Peter Mair, Wolfgang C. Müller and Fritz Plasser (eds), Political Parties and Electoral Change, London, Sage, 2004. 72 Stephen Ward and Thierry Vedel, ‘Introduction: The Potential of the Internet Revisited’, Parliamentary Affairs, 59 (2006), p. 217. 52 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  28. 28. matter. Differences at the level of political systems and the offices of presidents and prime ministers have by no means been rendered irrelevant by the sweeping challenge of the mass media. This is because the mass media of different contemporary democracies have remained scarcely less different from each other than the constitu- tional frameworks and political settings of countries. It is no surprise, then, that particularly the structural and functional differences between political leadership in the United States and in the parlia- mentary democracies of Western Europe have largely persisted.73 But no sensible analysis can ignore the fact that – even in the face of the powerful repercussions of European integration – political leader- ship in different European parliamentary democracies has also remained highly diverse.74 Transatlantic comparison, in particular, suggests that future research on media and politics would be well advised to focus more strongly on the functional dimensions of public leadership in dif- ferent institutional settings. Different institutions not only create different opportunities and constraints for political actors, they also influence the effects of political strategies and actions at the politi- cal system’s level. The widely debated phenomenon of ‘going public’ may serve as a case in point. While it is a valuable observa- tion that, other things being equal, majoritarian democracies seem to provide stronger institutional incentives for ‘going public’ than do consensus democracies,75 it is not sufficient to link actor preferences for certain communication strategies to 73 This is also the central argument in a recent study by Richard Rose, ‘Giving Direction to Government in Comparative Perspective’, in Joel D. Aberbach and Mark A. Peterson (eds), The Executive Branch, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 72–99. 74 Jack Hayward and Anand Menon (eds), Governing Europe, Oxford, Oxford Uni- versity Press, 2003; Wolfgang C. Müller and Kaare Strøm (eds), Coalition Governments in Western Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000. There remains in particular a major gulf separating the leadership experience of Western Europe from that of Central and Eastern Europe; see Vesselin Dimitrov, Klaus H. Goetz and Hellmut Wollmann, Governing after Communism: Institutions and Policymaking, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006; Jean Blondel, Ferdinand Müller-Rommel and Darina Malova, Governing New European Democracies, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Thomas A. Baylis, ‘Embattled Executives: Prime Ministerial Weakness in East Central Europe’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 40 (2007), pp. 81–106. 75 Kriesi, ‘Strategic Political Communication’, pp. 202–3. 53GOVERNING IN THE MEDIA AGE © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd
  29. 29. specific institutional parameters of political leadership.76 ‘Going public’, if exercised with reasonable skill, may help chief executives in both presidential and parliamentary democracies to get their way. But the systemic effects of ‘going public’ in presidential and parliamentary regimes vary significantly. For whatever may be said about the wider, and possibly problematic, political implications of presidential public appeals,77 ‘going public’ in the United States fits in nicely with the basic constitutional parameters of presidential leadership. At least, it does little to challenge the constitutionally enshrined balance between the executive and the legislative branches. Something different holds true for public leadership in parliamen- tary democracies, though. Because parliamentary government, even in many of its ‘un-Westminster’ variants,78 tends to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, there are both important pragmatic and normative reasons as to why efforts of prime ministers to mobi- lize support for their policies should be firmly rooted in the parlia- mentary arena. ‘Going public’ challenges parliamentary government from different angles. Where extended ‘going public’ activities of prime ministers provoke serious opposition and dissent among MPs, this may lead to legislative gridlock and government instability. If, alternatively, MPs, however grudgingly, tolerate pseudo-plebiscitary moves by the prime minister, especially those designed to mobilize public support for policies that have not been agreed with the lead- erships of the majority parliamentary party group(s), policies will suffer from a lack of parliamentary scrutiny and reduced democratic legitimacy. Rather than turning a blind eye to such fundamental systemic differences for the sake of easier-to-handle research designs, future research on the changing parameters of executive leadership in contemporary democracies should be more ambitious about inte- grating institutional and functional, as well as normative, aspects more systematically. 76 Even though this may prove difficult enough at times, see note 20. 77 For a carefully balanced discussion see Brandice Canes-Wrone, Who Leads Whom? Presidents, Policy, and the Public, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2006. 78 Aurelia George Mulgan, ‘Japan’s “Un-Westminster” System: Impediments to Reform in a Crisis Economy’, Government and Opposition, 38 (2003), pp. 73–91. 54 GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION © The Author 2008. Journal compilation © 2008 Government and Opposition Ltd