The concept of the public sphere based on the theory by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas is a significant idea in democratic theorizing (Haas, 2004). With modern mass media playing a significant role in informing the public as well as influencing the publics opinion, the media seen by some as a type of public sphere, provides a crucial room for debate to all citizens (Gillwald, 1993). Because journalists, and by extension the media itself, are seen now as a representative of the public, questions arise over whether there’s a wide enough range of opinion to accurately represent the public’s interests (Media Studies, 2018, p.41). The original theory of the public sphere has been critiqued for a variety of reasons and been further developed by Habermas himself as well as other academics (Garnham, 2007, p.201).
This Essay examines whether or not the concept of the public sphere, as originated by Jürgen Habermas and refined by Curran and Garnham, is useful in critically analysing and making suggestions to reform modern mass media.
The concept of the Public sphere
According to Habermas’s theory, the public sphere is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” (Habermas, 1964, p.49). He states that it emerged as a neutral sphere for private individuals to come together and debate the needs of society in the 18th century. Habermas claims that with the guarantee of freedom of assembly as well as the freedom of expression, citizens will behave as a public body (p.49). Several aspects are seen by him as vital to the existence of a Public sphere: The accessibility to all citizens, said acting as private individuals arguing in matters of general interest instead of their private concerns and the sphere being established in every conversation by the public (Media Studies, 2018, p.42). According to his theory, the public sphere is separate from private interest since it is based in “rational discourse, political views and decisions being open, not to the play of power, but to that of argument based upon evidence” (Garnham, p.41) and the concern with the public good. The success of the public sphere does depend as mentioned previously on the citizens access to said, but its autonomy and the rule of law amongst other factors as well (Soules, 2007). Habermas states that the Public sphere requires “specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it” (Habermas, 1964, p.49). It depends therefore not only on the quality of discourse but also the number of participants in a debate.
The idea of ‘the public’ involves people in general rather than referring to a particular group. It appears in concepts like public opinion or public education and stands in contrast to private health and private education amongst other things. The public sphere is supposed to provide a public opinion based on an informed debate. Important to note here is that according to Habermas, in order for a public opinion to be formed, the availability of a record of state-related and judicial activities to the public is crucial.
According to Habermas, the conditions for liberal democracy were provided by the competitive market capitalism in Britain at that time. The political class the philosopher is referring to when speaking of the bourgeoise had as Habermas puts it “both the time and material resources” (p.40), to create institutions such as newspapers, universities and publishing enterprises. Within these institutions public opinion could be formed. However, citizen interacting in the newly created sphere were likely to be well educated, wealthy males, assuming their interest equivalate the public good (Meehan, 2019). This period in the eighteen-hundreds Habermas’s characterized as ‘the golden age of the Public sphere’ therefore had severe restrictions on who would be included the Public sphere. The “bourgeois sphere” as it is referred to, accordingly was exclusionary, which goes against Habermas’s own requirement for the success of a Public sphere, which states that said has to be accessible to anyone. According to Nicolas Garnham, Professor at the University of Westminster, this exclusion could be viewed “as a case of the imposition of “ruling ideas” in favour of the interests of the ruling class” (Meehan, 2019). However, as James Curran, Professor of Communications at the Goldsmiths University of London explains, the “public sphere cannot be established (. . .) by enabling those who were formerly excluded (. . .)” (Curran, 1991, p.83-84) but has to be revaluated. The same goes for the role of the media has in relation to the Public sphere and contemporary society.
Habermas’s liberal model of the public sphere is idealised. It is not reflected in the reality of international modern democracies (Media Studies, 2018, p.43). Instead, it is more of an ideal portrait for a modern democracy. According to Garnham the Public sphere should be seen not as a concrete space or a set of specific practices but a perspective on the modern world (Garnham, 2007, p.203). He states that the fact that according to Habermas’s definition, every participant in the public sphere would have to have access to all information and take part in every debate is unrealistic (Garnham, 1986, p.44). Nevertheless, Garnham points out that Habermas’s theory is valuable for a number of reasons: Among others, it underlines the importance of an independent sphere to democratic politics and emphasises the gravity of rationality and universality in democratic practice. The access to information is crucial for making polictical decisions (Mehann, 2019).
Habermas’s original theory has been criticised, explored and reviewed since it was first published in 1964. The main points that have been discussed in relation to the original theory, are as mentioned his idealisation of the bourgeois Public sphere as well as the division separation of private and public and his concept of discourse ethics as a test for undistorted communication (Garnham, 2007, p.207). An additional argument that has been made is his claim of the existence of a singular public sphere instead of multiple ones which is seen as a utopian ideal (Grbeša, 2004, p.112).
Shanto Iyengar, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Curran argue, that while the theory of public sphere has provided a useful basis to critically analyse the media, it is vital to take the changes in society into account (Iyengar and Curran, 2009). One of their concerns is the commercialization of television in many countries as response to more channels and therefore greater competition, deregulation as well as a decline of public service broadcasting. According to Iyengar and Curran, this resulted in television being adapted to consumers’ needs rather than that of the citizen. The active citizen is turned into a passive spectator (Grbeša, 2003, p.112).
Habermas acknowledged in his recent works the attempts to modernise the original idea according to today’s social circumstances (Garnham, 2007). The public sphere has to be seen in a national as well as international context based on globalisation and the rising connectiveness of individuals in general.
According to Habermas himself, the capitalist competitive market which initially set out the conditions for the public sphere to form, is also contributor to the deuteriation of rational-critical discourse and the public sphere itself (Garnham on Habermas, 1986, p. 41). He claimed that the unbalanced distribution of wealth throughout society and the rising costs of entry into the Public sphere led to an unequal access to it (Garnham on Habermas, 1986, p. 41). However, the medias ability to initiate public debate has been recognized (Grbeša, 2003, p.110) and according to researchers like Garnham and Curran plays and an important role in sustaining said.
Modern mass media and the concept of the Public sphere
As mentioned, the media play a crucial role in maintaining and especially informing the public sphere. It is not only the media and society but the media in society that one has to consider when analysing the relevance of the theory of public sphere today. The media does not separate itself from society. However, some still argue that the media takes the role of the public sphere itself, since citizens reading the newspaper or watching the news on television would allow them to step into a public realm. However, the fundamental principles to the public sphere to be universally accessible and independent is not fulfilled in this case (Gillwald, 1993, pb .71) since the accessibility of newspapers and news programs are not universal in our current capitalistic competitive market system. The potential of mass media to contribute to the public sphere by informing or initiating is however significant (Grbeša, 2003, p.115), especially in the case of public service broadcasting and the Internet. Both are relatively easy to access with the later even more than the former.
The role of Public Service Broadcasting
While Habermas argues that the competitive market as well as broadcasting partially caused the decline of the public sphere, academics such as Garnham claim that public service broadcasting contributed substantially to its existence (Grbeša, 2003, p.116). However, he also explains that the commercialisation of public information has damaged the democratic function of the media (Gillwald, 1992, p. 72). According to Marijana Grbeša, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Science of Zagreb University, public service broadcasting the public had restricted access to information and the public sphere itself. Unlike the profit interest of commercial broadcasters, the focus of public service broadcasting lays in its universal availability to the public (Gillwald, 1992, p.116).
There is an imbalance of access to information within the society (Garnham, 1986, p.38), which ideally could be solved through a major publicly-owned public service broadcasting network providing every citizen with mixed quality programs including well researched, balanced news under minimal regulations (Curran, et.al., 200). Curran along with other academics found in a study on public broadcasting and its influence on citizens knowledge of different news topics in the US, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Finland (Curran, J. et al., 2009) that Public service broadcasting provides a higher accessibility for the public to leading channels and through that promotes a higher engagement with and consumption of television news. Through doing so, it minimizes the knowledge gap between individuals that would, based on their socio-economic background, be information rich or information poor otherwise. Public service broadcasting therefore provides a basis for a more coequal society (Curran, et.al., 2009, p.22).
As Garnham mentions, the increase in private ownership of the media as well as the style of consumption results in a deviance between information rich and information poor individuals. First are provided with high quality informative Journalism while the other is faced with mostly entertainment services (Garnham, 1986, p.38). Information in itself is increasingly handled as an item of value (Mehann, 2019) linked to significant profits. As Garnham argues, the public sphere is an integral part of a democratic society and to defend and expand said, it is necessary to re-evaluate the public service model (Garnham, 1986, p.53). Especially in correlation with Currans finding in the cross-nation study, to provide equal access to the Public sphere and close the mentioned knowledge gap a national and international publicly-owned service broadcasting network would significantly contribute to informed debates and the Public sphere itself.
The potential of the World Wide Web in relation to the public sphere
As Garnham explains, “public communication lies at the heart of the democratic process” and the equal access to vote is equally substantial as their access to information (Garnham, 1986, p.37). The free market according to Curran should promote a free-thinking democracy (1991, p.97). For said to be possible it is necessary that one can freely express what they think to whomever it may concern. The right to publish could be seen as a safeguard to this freedom of expression (Curran, 1991, p.97). The World Wide Web offers a variety of platforms to share and debate. The rapid growth of the internet and therefore the simpler access to information, has fuelled a significant amount of research on its hypothetical influence on democracy (Grbeša, 2003, p.118) and raised expectations on the possibility of reassessing public debates (Gerhards and Schäfer, 2010, p.155). It is not only an easily accessible medium but provides the infrastructure for debate as well as information seeking and therefore opens up options for the development of an international civil society and public sphere. However, it is relatively unstructured in comparison to mediums like newspapers and television in relation to public discourse. There is no central platform to host debates or distribute information. Websites such as OpenDemocracy (a United Kingdom-based political website, founded in 2001), which encourages democratic debates and is mainly funded by the FordFoundation (an American private foundation aiming to advance human welfare) demonstrate the opportunity the World Wide Web offers in organising a global civil society (Curran, 2005, p.144). An international version of this website published by national public service broadcasters could provide a unique channel for debate and discussion online. Through the funding of high-quality journalism, the hosting of discussing and the provision of access to its sources, such a platform could have a significant contribution to a global civil society (Curran, 2005, p.144) and the Public sphere.
While Habermas’s original theory of the Public sphere is too idealistic, through the inclusion of critical remarks by academics such as Curran and Garnham it ultimately provides a useful concept to deal with the possible contribution to the common good and democracy modern mass media could have in relation to the public sphere. Despite the problems raised with the original concept it is possible to consider and translate the theory into modern democratic society.
Public service broadcasting offers the opportunity to close an existing knowledge gap between privileged and unprivileged individuals and can contribute significantly to informed debates in a discourse rather than class based Public sphere. The media in general provides a vital platform for public debate to private citizens and the possibility to formulate an informed public opinion (Curran, 1991, p.83). Society as a whole can “collectively determine through the processes of rational argument the way in which they want to see society develop, and this shapes in turn the conduct of government policy.” (Curran, 1991, p.83). As mentioned before, the access to information is crucial for making political decisions (Mehann, 2019). The media not only provides the platform for the Public sphere but also the information needed for a rational discourse and these informed decisions, crucial to our modern democracies. A diversity of perspectives and values in news coverage as well as entertainment can enable citizens to “reinterpret their social experience, and question the assumptions and ideas of the dominant culture.” (Curran, 1991, p.102-103).
In conclusion, the concept of the Public sphere can certainly be useful to analyse and make suggestions to reform and develop modern mass media. One has to keep in mind however that the capitalistic competition-based market system influences the distribution of information in the Public sphere significantly. The ideal of the Public sphere has to be tempered with the realistic conditions of the free market. An independent Public sphere is how crucial importance for modern democratic societies. An interesting perspective on modern public sphere could be the rise of alternative journalism.
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Note: This was originally published as an academic essay. References have remained in the text to ensure correct citing.