View all news

Elitist European set-up cuts citizens out of debate

Press release issued: 18 November 2010

The elitist nature of European politics leads to a damaging inability of those in power to communicate with the public, while media representations only serve to reinforce the distance between Europe’s citizens and the governing elites, according to a new book by a University of Bristol political sociologist.

This and other highly critical conclusions are discussed in a new book, which has already been received in the US as the most far-reaching and empirically grounded study on the Europeanisation of media discourse and political contention to date.

In ‘The Making of a European Public Sphere: Media Discourse and Political Contention’, Professor Paul Statham from the University of Bristol and Professor Ruud Koopmans from the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin explore how European integration is debated in mass media, and how this affects democratic inclusiveness. 

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, has been informed by leading politicians, interest groups, NGOs, and journalists, and suggests that rather than encouraging public debate, political communication about the European Union is beset by a democratic deficit of its own making.

Profs Statham and Koopmans suggest that the European Union’s institutions would be better off trying to strengthen their communication to citizens through becoming politicised in national media debates, instead of their top-down initiatives, such as the failed Constitution, which was intended to stimulate public identification with Europe.

“In this way the EU could legitimate its performance on policies that concern people about globalisation – climate change, immigration, market regulation- instead of focusing attention on procedural institutional changes that are abstract, little wanted and remote from everyday life,” says Prof Statham, from Bristol University’s School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies.

The authors say that it is a myth that Europe’s democratic deficit is caused by Europe’s lack of visibility in the news. Detailed analysis of more than 20,000 cases from 28 newspapers across seven countries shows that national media adequately cover the European-level in those policy fields where it has competencies.

Prof Statham adds: “European Union politics appears regularly in the news, but the problem is that it is excessively dominated by spokespeople for elites, executives and governments, relative to interest groups and NGOs, when compared to national politics.

“Although politicians often blame media reporting for Europe’s democratic deficit, journalists can only write about the political world they see. Ultimately, the over-dominance of elites within news coverage of European politics is not an artifact of media reporting but reflects an accurate picture of the elite nature of European-level policy making.”

Prof Statham further notes that the EU’s inability to reach people through the media can be traced to an excessive attachment to technocratic language rather than sound bites that will get the political message across. 

He adds: “The problem is that European elites, unlike national politicians, never frame issues as political choices in a way that can journalists and the public can understand. Instead they produce dense technical reports that have little self-evident news value and which assume, at best, that the average EU citizen is a reader of the Economist.”

Commenting on the book Professor William Gamson, a former President of the American Sociological Association, states: “This is a book of major importance. It is hard to imagine how any future scholar addressing issues of Europeanisation could possibly ignore it.”

Further information

‘The Making of a European Public Sphere: Media Discourse and Political Contention’ by Ruud Koopmans and Paul Statham is published by Cambridge University Press. Hardback ISBN 9780521190909, Paperback ISBN 9780521138523.
Please contact Aliya Mughal for further information.
Edit this page