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How are we to view the role of the press in Britain today?

Democracy under attack cover

Democracy under attack: out now in paperback

Professor Howard Glennerster’s new foreword to Democracy under attack by Malcolm Dean, publishing in paperback today.

How are we to view the role of the press and the wider media in Britain today?

Does it hold politicians to account or merely scare them into submission? Does it raise issues of national concern or trivialise them? Does it trample on individuals’ privacy or save them from bureaucratic indifference? Perhaps it does all of this but if so what does it do most?

There are plenty of views, individual complaints and an official inquiry underway. But this book is different – a retrospective and carefully documented account by one of the country’s leading journalists of the part the media has played in shaping public and political attitudes to social affairs over the past forty years. Malcolm Dean spent most of his journalistic life writing about social policy, observing politicians at work and immersing himself in the policy process. Here he distils that lifetime experience. It is not just an account by an insider but by a hugely well informed insider, one with a feel for history. He looks back at changes in social policy from the 1960s on and at changes that have overtaken journalism. But above all he looks in detail at the part the media have played in shaping policy on law and order and prison reform, on drugs policy, on child poverty, vocational education, housing, health and social care. He includes the contents of numerous interviews with people others would likely not have reached and includes his own experiences. It is a unique blend. Having been involved in the policy debate myself, and the political process at times too, his accounts ring true.

Dean knows the specific academic literature that underpinned the debates, or should have done, and the day to day interaction between politics and the press room. What we learn is an arresting and sometimes shocking insight into the power of the press to shape the way politicians think and see the issues they are legislating about. It frames their world view.

Some academics have played down the role of the media seeing it as a sounding board at best or a mere form of entertainment or perversion of reality at worst. This is a much more subtle and revealing account. Sometimes the press can be more even handed and well informed than politicians think. They would have done well to show courage, drug policy is one case. In other areas like housing the absence of specialist informed reporting helped take it off the agenda. Working with a well informed press policy can be developed that will win the public over as in the case of child poverty or pension reform. But sometimes politicians are simply scared stiff by what they think the press will say and about how they judge the public will react. These detailed accounts give us all shades of grey and some glimpses of the sun too.

This will be an indispensible read for those wishing to understand the media and the policy process in the United Kingdom whether they are interested in social policy or not.

Democracy under attack is now available for just £7.99 at www.policypress.co.uk

Cyberbullying: the new visibility of an old problem

In the past year or so, policy makers have been grappling with the new visibility of an old problem. Children bullying one another at school, just like adults bullying each other at work, is a familiar problem, and yet curiously intractable. Perhaps because it’s called ‘bullying’, society doesn’t treat this as assault or abuse. Perhaps because it’s often what kids do to other kids, society doesn’t treat this as a crime. And fair enough, through school and parental management, most children (both bullies and victims) grow up, move on. But for some, the effects are serious, even tragic, and for many the effects are subtle but pernicious.

Fast forward to the age of the internet, and a lot of hostile activity is suddenly visible. Especially on social networking sites, though also on blogs, message boards and elsewhere. The semi-public, semi-private spaces of the digital age make our everyday nastiness to each other newly prominent. What’s happening to John and Edward on X Factor, where, it seems, thousands of people (many of them ‘grown ups who should know better’) have been verbally abusing these boys, seems almost commonplace. Such behaviour is the reverse of the equally unpalatable sight of teenagers insulting their teachers, also on Facebook – 15 per cent of teachers have experienced cyberbullying, a recent survey reported.

Something is happening to civility, some argue. Perhaps. Equally the case, however, is that what happens is visible because of the internet. Our everyday interactions with each other are mediated more and more. And mediated conversations are quick and convenient, informal and impromptu. Like stones thrown in a pond they spread rapidly through ever wider circles of friends and of friends of friends. Unlike the stone, however, they leave a permanent record, unforgotten by observers and so prolonged for their victim. It is unsurprising, then, that policy makers from the European Commission down to headteachers across the country are seeking a solution. Should one control the internet or the child? Should one educate the bully or help the victim? And what if, as does happen, the bully and the victim are one and the same, locked into a cycle of fear and hostility?

Cyberbullying, so called, is just one of the risks posed to today’s children by use of the internet. In our book, Kids Online, I and my colleagues from the European research network, EU Kids Online, review the latest research across a range of online risks and, to balance this, a range of online opportunities. Our aim is to develop evidence-based policy recommendations by which all those concerned with children, and the society in which they live, can reach informed and proportionate judgments by which to shape children’s future engagement with the internet.

Sonia Livingstone

Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-editor of Kids Online: Opportunities and risks for children.

Visit The Policy Press website at http://www.policypress.co.uk


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