Brian McNair

8Journalism as Public Sphere

Abstract: This article describes the origins of the concept of the public sphere, and its relationship both to democratic theory and to the normative expectations of liberal pluralist journalism. It then considers the revisions to the concept which have been necessitated by trends in the wider political culture, the political economy of the capitalist media and, most recently and still ongoing, the impact of digital technology and the internet

Keywords: journalism, public sphere, political communication, media, democracy


The concept of the public sphere is one of the most important and influential in the sociology of media and culture. For the study of journalism in particular, it provides a key framework within which the role of news media are understood and evaluated. If journalism’s social and democratic functions are to be realized, the public sphere is where journalistic content is located and, in theory, made accessible to citizens (or publics, who then engage with that content in various ways up to and including the participatory, user-generated content modes of the digital era). This article describes the origins of the concept of the public sphere and its relationship both to democratic theory and to the normative expectations of liberal pluralist journalism (that is, the practice, roles, and functions of journalism characteristic of liberal democratic societies). It then considers revisions to the concept which have been necessitated by trends towards greater public participation in media culture, the political economy of the capitalist media and, most recently and still ongoing, the impact of digital technology and the internet on the capacity for user engagement and interactivity. As we will see, while the public sphere remains a valuable concept for the study of journalism, the ways in which it operates, the manner in which it is used by today’s publics, and the forms of content it delivers, have and are being transformed in the 21st century. The article draws on research undertaken by the author and funded by the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project number DP130100705).

2The concept of the public sphere

It is principally because of his work on the conceptualization of the public sphere that German sociologist Jurgen Habermas has become one of the most cited scholars in the world. It is difficult to find any scholarly book or article dealing with journalism and related topics such as political communication that does not cite him. Habermas’ key work is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, published in German in 1968, and in English for the first time in 1989. Subsequent essays and books by Habermas have refined and revised the concept (1974 (with Lennox & Lennox); 2006), and a vast literature of scholarship has grown up around it.

For Habermas, the public sphere refers in its simplest form to the communal communicative space within which a society organizes the distribution and discussion of the information required for deliberative democracy to function; information, that is, about matters of public, political concern, around which public debate and political processes flow, parties rise and fall, and governments win or lose elections. It is the sphere of publicly accessible knowledge, usually (but not always) produced in the form of journalism and various kinds of response to journalistic texts such as readers’ letters and, in the present day, blogs, tweets, and other forms of online user commentary. The public sphere is a virtual structure, not physically defined by the particular media platforms which give it concrete form such as newspapers, but a cultural imaginary comprising the content of all media which produce this publicly useful information. Newspapers and other media have existed in authoritarian societies, but they do not comprise a public sphere. Only in the presence of empowered publics can we speak of a public sphere.

We cannot “see” the public sphere, then, which is typically invoked as a boundary separating forms of information useful to democratic processes from others deemed less so. But virtual or imagined as it is, the functionality and performance of the public sphere has real consequences for and connections with the political and material realities within which our societies exist. For that reason, the various criticisms of the concept set out below, and criticism of how it has been realized in practice, are of more than merely academic interest, but go to the essence of democratic culture.

3The emergence of the public sphere

Habermas sees the public sphere as emerging alongside bourgeois democracy in the early modern period in Europe. Before then, in the era of feudalism and absolutist monarchy, there were no publics, and no citizens. People were the subjects of their feudal lords, popes, kings, queens, and emperors. There was no right to vote, and no such thing as public opinion driving politics. Absolute rulers ruled absolutely, though not of course without constant challenge and conflict. Power and authority were derived from divine ordinance and heredity rather than democratic debate and elections. Wars were frequent and bloody, and there was no concept of “civil society” for use in peaceful conflict resolution. The early media outlets which existed in those times did not produce critical, scrutinizing journalism as we know it, or participate in public and political debate as champions and enablers of the people, but delivered only what the ruling authority decreed permissible. Dissent from this requirement could lead to imprisonment or death for publishers and authors.

To understand what this pre-democratic world looked like, one can observe contemporary authoritarian states such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where dynastic rulers continue to exercise absolute authority over both the people and the media. In these societies, like those of the feudal era, there are prohibitions on any media content which is critical of ruling elites, and of internet and social media platforms which enable ordinary people to communicate with each other in ways that bypass state censors. Some societies, such as Russia and China, show evidence of embryonic public spheres but continually suppress them, as in Hong Kong where dissident journalists and publishers have been attacked, kidnapped and “disappeared” with some regularity. Increasingly however, authoritarian states are unable to maintain the degree of control over media which was possible in the pre-digital age, facing instead what I have characterized elsewhere as a chaotic communication environment (McNair 2006, 2016).

The transition to bourgeois democracy which accompanied the rise of capitalism altered the relationship between power, the people and the media fundamentally. With each revolutionary phase (the English, French and American revolutions being key milestones) democracy expanded to encompass more and more of the people as citizens with voting rights (although universal suffrage did not arrive anywhere in the world until the 20th century, and remains elusive for large swathes of the global population). In Europe and north America bourgeois publics emerged, with democratic rights and thus the need for information which allowed them to choose between competing political forces, as well as for a space in which debate and discussion of public affairs could take place, safely and without state censorship. Thus emerged the concept of freedom of ideas and of the press as articulated in the English poet John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Aeropagitica, and the growth of a “coffee house culture” in Europe. This term refers to the network of coffee houses, bars, and salons which developed in the capital cities of Europe and where emerging bourgeois publics would meet to read newspapers and periodicals, discuss their contents, and deliberate on their significance and meaning. This communicative and deliberative practice, integrally linked to the formation of public opinion (where to be “public” is defined by access to citizenship rights) formed a central foundation for the spread of democratic polities thereafter. They can also be viewed as the building blocks of what would become the Habermasian public sphere. As Habermas puts it:

By the public sphere we mean a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. … Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion – that is, within the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions. (Quoted in Pusey 1978: 89)

Democracy requires these freedoms in order to make political “choice” and pluralism meaningful concepts. We have seen societies which may have multiple political parties, but where only one is ever likely to win power, because there is no public sphere to facilitate objective or fair discussion of the options. Competing claims to power should, in a democracy, be tested as part of the deliberative process leading to electoral contests (Aalberg & Curran 2011; Chambers & Costain 2000; Coleman et al. 2015), and the public sphere is where this discursive work happens. It comprises “the communicative institutions of a society, through which facts and opinions circulate, and by means of which a common stock of knowledge is built up as the basis for collective political action”(McNair 2017: 18).

The key democratic distinction between the feudal political environment and that of liberal capitalism is that where in the former, “the people” confront power as something which stands over them and against which they have no civil rights, in the latter, power must come before the people and be legitimized by them through elections and other modes of collective expression. The role of journalism and the public sphere in making this relationship meaningful are central.

4Journalism and the public sphere

Journalism has existed as a cultural form for five centuries or so. For much of that time, as noted above, journalists and their publications performed largely administrative and propagandistic functions, communicating news and correspondence deemed important for the pursuit of trade, diplomacy and other spheres reliant on timely and accurate information, but prevented from criticizing absolute rulers and feudal elites. Penalties for dissent were brutal, as they remain in contemporary authoritarian societies such as Saudi Arabia (exemplified by the sentence of 100 lashes given to a young blogger in 2015 who had made some online remarks critical of the Saudi ruling elite).

Change in the role of journalism began with the English Civil War, in which for the first time newspapers and pamphlets took sides as between the reforming roundheads and conservative royalists (Raymond 1996; Conboy 2004). In addition to reporting news, these early newspapers began to engage in political debate, and to scrutinize the performance of political elites. Some journalists supported one side in the partisan struggle, others followed the opposition. Journalists became active participants in political processes, in other words, as opposed to passive reporters of it. Thus began the era of journalism which we today refer to as “the Fourth Estate”, in which journalists have a “watchdog role”, monitoring the exercise of political power on behalf of the people, or public, who make up their readerships – what Habermas terms critical scrutiny.

In those days, of course, the democratically empowered public comprised only a small minority of wealthy and educated men, but over time, with successive milestones such as the American War of Independence of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789, then into the 19th century of steady democratic reform and mass media expansion in the form of cheap, popular newspapers and pamphlets, the composition of the public broadened and became more representative. By the mid-20th century, most capitalist societies, if not all – in the United States some states still excluded black Americans from democratic processes in the 1960s (to this day voting rights are still a political battleground in the US); South Africa deprived its black population of the vote until the 1990s – allowed nearly all adults to vote, and supported numerous journalistic outlets of various kinds. These media – collectively forming the public sphere − targeted different sectors of the population. “Red top” tabloids, for example, such as the UK Sun, engaged primarily with the lesser educated working class sectors; broadsheets such as The Times spoke to wealthier, more educated readers.

Public service broadcast media developed, serving nations as a whole, alongside commercial audiovisual media. Where corporate media were driven by profit, public service media were financed from taxation and freed from the pursuit of proprietorial interest. All provided journalism at the heart of their schedules, in the public service case ostensibly impartially, while commercial providers had more leeway to express opinions, or editorialize about politics. While there were and remain many criticisms of the commercial media’s capacity and readiness to contribute to the public sphere – proprietorial influence from barons such as Murdoch and Berlusconi, for example, has long been seen to work against the provision of useful information for publics in democracies – it is fair to observe that most commercial media of “quality”, competing in tight markets where the perception of political independence and journalistic reliability are marketable assets, have played their part. The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s is an exemplary case, as would be the mainstream US media’s coverage of Donald Trump in 2016/17.

With the exception of media legally mandated not to be politically biased – the BBC, for example, and its public service equivalents in other countries (NHK in Japan, ABC in Australia) – journalism performed a number of democratic functions in the context of editorial partisanship of varying degrees. Newspapers informed their readers about politics, and also served as champions or advocates, representing the views of the readers to political elites. Editorials in a UK tabloid such as The Sun, for example, would call for action on this or that issue, on the basis that this is what its readers wanted. In doing so, they also pursued a persuasive function, seeking to build support for competing ideological positions. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tended to promote his right-of-centre worldview on political matters such as Britain’s relationship to the European Union. Murdoch’s Times, by contrast, while still broadly right-of-centre, adopted a more nuanced line on the EU and other matters. Indeed, in the “Brexit” referendum of June 23 2016 the Times advocated “Remain”. Left-of-centre newspapers such as, in the UK context, the Mirror and the Guardian, served correspondingly leftish readers, and editorialized accordingly.

Media took sides, then, as part of their public sphere function. They also sought to hold power to account through critical scrutiny of elite performance and conduct, thus enabling readers to make informed judgments on their electoral options. Unsurprisingly, the editorial biases of the press were reflected in the content and style of this scrutiny, as in their political coverage overall. A Guardian reader would thus find the Sun’s political journalism to be outrageously tendentious, while the Sun readers (and Sun journalists) might regard the Guardian as “elite liberal” nonsense. The important point to note here is that editorial partisanship coexists with the reportage function of the media, at least in the private sectors of the public sphere. This is consistent with the democratic role of journalism, assuming that the structure of journalistic bias broadly reflects the diversity of viewpoints to be found amongst a population. When it does not, as in the UK during the Thatcher era, the criticism that the public sphere has become dysfunctional is valid. Then, although only about 25% of the British people voted for the Conservatives, only two daily newspapers supported the Labour Party. All the rest backed the Tories or remained neutral (McNair 2009).

The public service media, on the other hand, supported by taxpayers’ money, were from their beginnings in the early to mid-20th century required to refrain from editorializing and to concentrate on the work of reportage and analysis of politics. Many commercial broadcast media adopted a similarly “objective” stance, avoiding the overt partisanship of the press and speaking to the public in general. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, for example, in both the UK and Australia where strong public service media existed, approached politics in most of their content from a nonpartisan standpoint. Although they also made space in some of the schedule for opinionated punditry of the type familiar in the press these organizations, and other private providers such as ITV in the UK, sought to avoid identification with one party or another. Fox News in the US, however, where there is no substantial public service media to maintain standards of objectivity, adopted a highly partisan approach to American politics, and nearly always on the Republican side. Fox News was a cheerleader for the successful Donald Trump campaign, as it had been for GOP candidates before him, and a constant critic of the presidency of Barack Obama.

5Journalism in the public sphere – five functions

To summarize the public sphere role of journalism we can identify five functions (McNair 2000).

Information – required for citizens to make meaningful choices about the political options available to them in a democracy. This incorporates the adversarial function of critical scrutiny, pursued through such means as investigative journalism, and interviews with politicians conducted by journalists. Critical scrutiny will often generate information which is negative for the political actor in question, by exposing their flaws and failures. This is the “watchdog” role of journalism in action, accessed by publics every day on TV and radio as well as the press in democratic societies. The controversial campaign of Donald Trump for the US presidency included many such interviews, of varying degrees of toughness, which probed his long history of contentious statements about women and other topics. His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton received the same kinds of critical scrutiny, and it is integral to the public sphere role of journalists that they have the freedoms and the resources to carry out that function. One of the most eye-catching aspects of the Trump campaign was his habit of banning media he judged to be critical – such as the New York Times and Slate – from attending and reporting his campaign events. This attempt to deflect critical scrutiny alarmed many observers as to the likely style of a Trump presidency, and its tolerance (or lack of) for the freedom of the media which is integral to the US Constitution. At his first press conference after winning the election, in January 2017, Trump refused to answer a question from CNN reporter Daniel Acosta, shouting, “you’re fake news” (Acosta had dared to ask a question about the damaging dossier on Trump’s links with Russia then in the news).

Interpretation – required for citizens to make sense of the complex realities around them. Where information can be viewed as the delivery of facts about politics, interpretation tells us what those facts mean, in circumstances where political actors may be using public relations and other techniques to massage their messages and (they hope) manipulate and persuade publics towards support for their policies. In their sense-making role journalists become pundits (“wise men” in Sanskrit), their authority as experts generating audience trust in their interpretations. Journalistic authority has to be worked for, and maintained, and one of the challenges of the public sphere in the digital age is to command the public’s trust in what journalism says. The proliferation of journalistic, or quasi-journalistic outlets in the digital environment, accompanied by exposure of some of the flaws of media outlets traditionally seen as authoritative and reliable – the case of Stephen Glass and the New Republic for example, or Jayson Blair and the New York Times (the first faked dozens of feature articles; the second plagiarized other journalists’ content) – has generated what some observers describe as a “crisis” of public trust in journalism (see below), and of the concept of objectivity itself. The rise of Donald Trump, and of populist politicians in Europe such as Nigel Farrage, has been associated with the onset of “post-factual democracy” – i.e. a public sphere in which truth is highly relative and either contradictory of the known facts, or ignorant of them. This same trend has seen the emergence of a category of “fake news”, deployed by scholars, journalists, politicians (see above), and publics to describe journalistic information which is perceived to be false or fabricated in some way.

Interrogation – this relates to the adversarial or watchdog function of journalism, through which critical scrutiny of power is exercised. When a journalist interviews a politician, or an investigative journalist exposes political corruption, he or she is interrogating power, subjecting it to scrutiny on behalf of the public as a whole. Through the mediating presence of the journalist the politician is held accountable before the people. Clearly, a precondition of the effective performance of this function is that the journalistic media should be free and independent of power, be it governmental, state-based or economic. Journalists in Saudi Arabia or China are not free to scrutinize and interrogate the political elites of those countries, and thus one can state that they can support no public sphere as we are using the term in this article.

The interrogative function of journalism is not conducted without resistance, however, even in the most democratic of societies. Politicians frequently complain about what they perceive to be overly aggressive, or just plain rude journalists who, they say, hinder rather than help the deliberative process. Sometimes political leaders, such as Tony Abbott when prime minister of Australia, “boycott” media organizations which they judge to be “biased” against them – in his case, the public service ABC (Neil Kinnock when leader of the British Labour party boycotted News International titles). The competition between media and political elites is a constant of democratic political culture, and as long as journalists have their rights to report, interrogate, and interpret protected in law, such competition is compatible with a healthy democracy. Without it, indeed, any democratic system would be weakened. Neither the political elite, nor the media tasked with holding it to account, can be free of scrutiny in a democratic system.

Representation – this function demands that the media represent the views of their publics before power, holding elites to account on behalf of the citizenry. This function can be realized through readers’ letters, online comment, and other forms of user-generated content. It may take the form of public access to the media in such modes as talk radio, live studio debates such as those hosted by the BBC’s Question Time in the UK, and other events in which political leaders are confronted by citizens, with journalists chairing or facilitating the exchanges. The Australian public participation format, Q&A, is promoted to the people who might take part in or simply watch it, as “Democracy in action’. Such formats deliberately symbolize the representative function of the media. As noted below, digitalization has generated new modes of public representation, participation, and interactivity in and with the public sphere and political elites.

Advocacy – finally, as noted above, journalists in the public sphere have a right to take sides in political debates, to be partisan. With the important exception of public service media, journalistic organizations are participants in, as well as reporters of the democratic process. Journalists are themselves political actors, with the power to shape public opinion in significant ways. Journalists who engage in this role are known variously as pundits, commentators, columnists. They take sides in political debates, often quite aggressively (journalists of this type may be described as “controversialists’). The effectiveness of this function relates back to the issue of trust, since only those journalists or outlets which are seen to be authoritative and trustworthy will be able to exercise the influence on which effective advocacy depends. In Australia, the radio presenter Alan Jones is widely perceived as being an important player in this respect, and in the general election campaign of 2016 the incumbent Malcolm Turnbull, who had boycotted Jones’ radio show because of previous criticisms which he (Turnbull) regarded as unacceptable, repaired his relationship with the “shock jock” and appeared on the latter’s show several times (McNair et al. 2017).

With that summary we can visualize the Habermasian public sphere as a centralized, vertically-oriented structure, in which a few media organizations deliver journalism downward to mass publics – audiences of millions have been common for the most popular newspapers and broadcast outlets in democratic capitalist societies through the 20th century and into the 21st. These inform, interpret, represent, and advocate to their various audiences, forming a cultural bridge between the masses and the political elites which govern them, or who compete to do so by campaigning in elections and other democratic activities. The public sphere must be accessible, in the sense that there must be both freedom of speech so that citizens are exposed to diverse viewpoints; accessible too, in that citizens can freely receive content, by purchase or some other mechanism. Public service media, for example, are required to be accessible to all taxpayers, technology allowing. Newspapers have typically been relatively inexpensive commodities, enabling a title such as the UK Sun to sell four million copies a day at its circulation peak in the 1980s. Denser, lower circulation titles such as The Guardian have typically been more expensive, and periodicals more expensive still, but still sell at prices which allow them to be accessible to all but the very poorest in a society (less than a pint of beer, for example). The ideal public sphere is premised on freedom of access to political media, which implies affordability.

6The normative critique of the public sphere

The origins of the public sphere in early modern Europe determined its formation as an elitist communicative space. In those days, for example, and indeed until very recently, women were excluded from positions of wealth, influence, and power in capitalist societies. Women were largely excluded, too, from formal education. The rare exception was precisely that – an anomaly in an otherwise clearly male dominated social structure, which we call patriarchy. The coffee houses of London and Paris were largely male spaces, as were the pages of newspapers and pamphlets. Politicians, entrepreneurs, and others of influence such as clergy were almost exclusively male.

The early public sphere also reflected the social stratification system in other ways – it was not only male-dominated, but until universal suffragecy became a reality in the 20th century, excluded sectors of the population who did not have the right to vote, such as ordinary working people and ethnic minorities. For these reasons, a critical approach to the public sphere emerged after Habermas’ work had become well known and influential. This critique noted that if the public sphere was intended as a “communal” communicative space, it did not serve all, or even the majority of a population. It was in fact a restricted space, which from the normative perspective had to be expanded to reflect the needs and interests of the people as a whole if it was to genuinely serve the democratic process (Fraser 1990).

7The political economy of the public sphere

A further criticism of the Habermasian ideal, and one which he himself has frequently made, relates to the fact that most if not all of the media outlets which supply the journalism within it are privately owned and run on commercial lines. Journalism does not serve the public in a purely disinterested way, but in many cases – such as the Murdoch-owned News Corporation – editorial policies and journalistic content are moulded so as to reinforce a particular viewpoint, that of the proprietor. Not all private media are guilty of this flaw, and even News Corporation may permit individual titles and outlets to adopt different ideological stances, but in general we can say that news media organizations are businesses, and journalism is a commodity as well as a public good. This fundamentally restricts its value as a source of information in a deliberative democracy, in so far as private interests come to bear on the public sphere functions of journalism as we have set them out above.

On the other hand, as noted above, the information marketplace is competitive, and users require certain qualities such as reliability, accuracy, and insightfulness in their information. For that reasons, which is itself a commercial logic, quality newspapers all over the world present themselves as trustworthy news brands, rather than propaganda outlets for a particular corporation or baron. News Corporation must compete with the BBC and CNN, as well as the Guardian and the Telegraph. Notwithstanding the possibility of proprietorial bias (and there is a vast literature on this in relation to Rupert Murdoch’s empire – see McKnight 2012 for an account of Murdoch’s political role), the workings of the media marketplace militate against outlets becoming so tendentious that they no longer have value as “news”.

8The degradation of the public sphere

A third criticism concerns the influence of public relations and other forms of persuasive communication on the public sphere. Again, Habermas identified this concern, noting that the public sphere was subject to pressure from motivated communicators who wished their messages to penetrate the mass. There is an entire literature devoted to the ethics and impacts of public relations in the economic, military, political, and other spheres (such as celebrity culture) (Davis 2002). This literature frequently argues that public relations distorts the public sphere by filling it with “spin”, leaving publics vulnerable to being deceived or misled by political actors.

Each of the above critical approaches has merit, and much of the media and communication studies literature has adopted them in analyses of the public sphere as a flawed, distorted, restricted space, with limited value as a democratic resource (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995). Recent developments, however, arising from advances in communication technology, have impacted upon the structure and functioning of the public sphere, and in doing so addressed each of the above sets of criticisms, at least in part. We will turn now to tracing these developments and their impact on Habermas’ model.

9The digitized public sphere

Although the potential for differential decoding of messages, and oppositional readings of journalistic texts – that is, an active audience – has always been part of the communicative process, publics are relatively passive in the analogue era of the public sphere, with few opportunities to feedback and contribute content of their own. Until quite recently, indeed, the reader’s letter was the main form in which members of the public could gain access to the media and make political statements. Important as this form of access has been (and remains – newspapers still feature the readers’ letters prominently in their layout), the limitations of space characteristic of news print allowed only a very small number of citizens to gain entry to the public sphere. Editors necessarily selected only the best, in their judgement, based on such criteria as ideological affiliation to the editorial line, the quality of a writer’s prose style, the incisiveness of a reader’s insight on the issues of the day, and so on. Some TV programmes also utilized readers’ letters as a form of audience feedback (and an inexpensive thirty minutes or so of broadcast time).

The development of radio phone-in shows, or “talkback” radio as the Australians call it, provided a further channel for feedback and public participation. Phone-in radio has tended to be the domain of the “shock jock’, however – overtly opinionated, provocative anchors who cultivated angry debate and controversy as a way to boost ratings. TV day-time talk shows have also provided space for publics to engage in debate about issues of the day, as well as opine on more sensational topics of the type addressed by Jerry Springer and his equivalents.

There have been two key impacts of digital technology on this model. First, has been the dramatic expansion of the size or volume of the public sphere accessible to the average citizen in the average capitalist society. A country such as the UK, as recently as thirty years ago, supported only four broadcast free-to-air TV channels, and four national radio networks (all BBC). The UK had 22 daily and Sunday national newspapers, supplemented by local and regional titles (McNair 2009). The onset of digital TV and radio transformed this environment, making channels such as Sky and CNN more accessible to cable and satellite subscribers.

Then, from the mid-1990s, came the internet, and the explosion of online journalism outlets, including web editions of established analogue news brands (the Guardian pioneered online journalism in the UK; the BBC launched iPlayer with access to live streaming of its news and entertainment programming for internet users in the UK – overseas users could access iPlayer content by using a VPN). The online environment also allowed a host of digital start-up journalism sites, from the Drudge Report which broke the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998 to Slate, Huffington Post, Gawker (which was closed by legal action in 2016) and many others. By these means the quantity of information available to the net-enabled citizen in advanced capitalist societies came to surpass that which any individual could possibly consume in a waking day. Where the analogue public sphere was characterized by information scarcity and access to a finite quantity of content from the viewpoint of the individual, the digitized public sphere was, in practical terms, infinite. There was information surplus to a degree unprecedented in human cultural history.

Moreover, much of the information disseminated in the digitized public sphere was free at the point of access. The news commodity of the print era was replaced by freely downloadable content from high quality providers such as the BBC and the Guardian. This development ushered in what many refer to as the “crisis of journalism” which has been a feature of the internet age – the crisis of the analogue business model, that is, in which the production of journalistic content was funded by subscription and advertising revenues (a crisis which continues to elude resolution). But it has also had the effect of making a vast sphere of journalistic content accessible to unprecedentedly large publics. Some organizations, notably News Corporation and the New York Times, have set up “pay walls” which require subscriptions to enter, but these experiments remain unproven as sustainable business models. Digital advertising revenues are increasing steadily as more and more users move to online platforms for their consumption of journalism, and some outlets – notably those specializing in particular high-value types of information, such as the Financial Times and Bloomberg – are making profits from subscriptions, but overall, online news media continue to struggle to find sustainable revenue streams. Thus, while there is more journalistic information available to more people from more sources than at any time in human history – on the face of it, an enhancement of the Habermasian public sphere – the sustainability of “quality” journalistic production in the digital environment is far from certain.

10The networked public sphere

A second key impact of digitization has been the expanded capacity of users to interact with and participate in the public sphere through social networks and social media. We noted above the limited modes of media feedback available to citizens in the pre-digital age. In the era of the internet and social media, the possibilities for access not only to consumption but to production of information are vastly enhanced. Online news pieces and commentaries may receive hundreds, even thousands of readers’ comments, as opposed to the handful of readers’ letters which a traditional newspaper article might once have attracted. And these comments appear to public view within minutes of an article being posted. Commenters may challenge the journalist’s argument, or praise it. They may engage in debate with other readers, often aggressively. As a result the issue of how to maximize civility in public discourse has become a prominent element of internet ethics debates, as “trolls’ attack “shils” and “haters” vent their anger in the online comments sections now maintained by nearly all journalistic outlets. Political actors, most notoriously Donald Trump, are increasingly using Twitter or other social media platforms to “tell it like it is”, generating controversy and media attention as they do so.

Citizens have the capacity to produce their own podcasts, blogs, and video channels on YouTube. They can tweet to their “followers” on Twitter, and post about politics on Facebook. Surveys by the Reuters Institute, Pew, and others suggest that more and more people, particularly amongst the young, access their news from social media sources such as Facebook Feeds. Through online sharing news and commentary spread virally through social networks, often bypassing the traditional editorial pathways of established public sphere media. For this reason we can refer not only to a digitized public sphere in contemporary conditions, but a networked sphere. While the “Big’, “legacy’, or just plain “old” media still exist, and indeed will retain their pre-eminence as information sources for at least some time to come, their hierarchical, top-down, industrially-organized mode of information dissemination is being replaced by more complex, horizontally structured networks of users organized around social media and other online platforms. Journalism and journalists are themselves part of these networks, of course, their relationship with what used to be relatively passive consumers of content transformed into one of routine engagement with active, digitally empowered users (or, as Bruns terms them in recognition of their capacity to input into the digitized, networked public sphere with unpredecented ease, produsers [2008]).

This trend has been disruptive of established media, which continue to seek to adapt to the digital environment. Cohen-Almagor observes that digital technologies have created a “macrosystem of interconnected private and public spheres” (2015: 1), with associated costs and benefits. “The mix of open standards and diverse networks and the growing ubiquity of digital devices makes the Internet a revolutionary force that undermines traditional media, such as newspapers, broadcasting, and telephone systems, and that challenges existing regulatory institutions based on national boundaries” (ibid.). Former Guardian Media editor Emily Bell, in a speech to the Reuters Institute in 2014, noted that “we have reached a point of transition where news spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley”. This is an exaggeration, to be sure, and many of the big news brands of the analogue era remain powerful in the digital arena (the BBC, CNN, News Corporation, etc.). But Bell is correct to note that the balance of cultural power has shifted away from “legacy” journalism towards a host of new providers, and digitally-enabled global publics who engage and interact with professional journalistic content in ways which traditional gatekeepers and editorial processes struggle to contain.

11The globalized public sphere

The classic Habermasian model of the public sphere necessarily focused on the nation state. Newspapers and broadcast media have until recently served national and local publics, situated within the geographical territory of the state. Where newspapers and broadcast journalism were exported overseas, it was in a temporally limited form. Copies of the Wall Street Journal, for example, might be available in Paris one week after publication in New York. Copies of the UK Sun and Mail would be on sale to British tourists in Spanish holiday resorts a day or more after publication in the UK, delivered by air across the English Channel.

Broadcast media, too, were largely confined within the national networks made possible by analogue technology. Reception of BBC news would be available only within the United Kingdom, and also the Republic of Ireland because of its proximity across the Irish Sea. The same was true of national broadcast networks in every country. Early live transmissions by satellite allowed some rare events to have an extraterritorial audience – Olympic Games, for example, or royal coronations and weddings. Only with the arrival of Cable Network News in 1980, however, did broadcast journalism begin to be routinely transnational in its reach. The growing capacity of satellite technology to cross national borders enabled the possibility of real time transnational news services such as Sky News, Al Jazeera, and BBC World. Now, the provision of access to news services could reach beyond the physical location of their production base, be that in Dallas (CNN), London (Sky News, BBC World), or Qatar (Al Jazeera).

The arrival of digital technology and the massification of the internet in the late 1990s intensified this trend, and made it possible to speak for the first time of truly global media, and a globalized public sphere within which boundaries of space and time cease to be constraints on the delivery of content. Cable and satellite technology allowed for the emergence of transnational 24-hour or real time news channels from the 1990s. A brand such as CNN would have a US version of its service, tailored to that particular environment, and a European service. BBC World and Sky would have similarly editionized services, available within set satellite footprints in Asia, or Europe, or Africa. With the internet, however, all online content, no matter where it was produced or for whom, became available to everyone, anywhere on the planet with a networked device. Thus this author, resident in Australia as of this writing, could read at his convenience The Scotsman, the Guardian, the Times and any other publication produced in the UK, or indeed any other country, alongside the local Australian media. Several global news brands – the UK Mail, Huffington Post and Guardian, for example – editionized for the Australian market, but one could just as easily go to the US or UK editions of these titles, accessing the political agendas and debates of those countries in precisely the same way as local residents would. In this way, billions of internet users across the world are literally plugged into a globalized public sphere (or GPS) of a depth and diversity which could never have been imagined in the analogue era.

Many of the political issues raised as matters of news coverage and debate in this GPS are global in character – that is, they are global problems which require global solutions, such as anthropogenic climate change, Islamic jihad, and internet security. The latter issue arises from the fact that the internet is uniquely hard to control or censor, and some of the information disseminated around the world has challenged the authority of both democratic and authoritarian states. WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have exposed secret information affecting the big western powers – most notoriously in recent times, WikiLeaks’ release of hacked Democratic National Party emails believed by many to have come from Russian sources, and then to have influenced the 2016 election in favour of Donald Trump – while the Committee for Investigative Journalism has, through global stories such as the Panama Papers, exposed corruption in Russia, China, and other states hitherto governed by secrecy. The Panama Papers also forced the resignation of a senior Icelandic politician, and severely embarrassed then-UK prime minister David Cameron. Elements of the internet have been “banned” in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries where the free flow of information it allows has been deemed to threaten local elites.

From the point of the view of the globalized public sphere as an agent of democratic development and change, such strategies have had limited success. The 700 million Chinese internet users, for example, despite the Party’s efforts to control them, find access to external sources of news and journalism relatively easy. Which is not to say that states do not and will not continue to seek to impose limits on the internet and the GPS it enables. Some in both democratic and authoritarian governments would greatly prefer a less open system of global communication, and the future of internet governance and regulation has become a genuinely global topic, pursued by global publics by means of their access to, and capacity for participation in global media.

12The postmodern public sphere

A further, and final dimension of evolution in the structure and functioning of the public sphere relates to its form and content. The foundation of the public sphere, as we have seen, is the cultural form we have called for four centuries and more journalism. Journalism reports (informs), analyses and makes sense of complex reality (interprets), interrogates power, comments on and participates in public debate (advocates), and “speaks” for the citizenry before power (represents). It does so in the form of “straight” news and analysis, investigative journalism, commentary (punditry), and editorial. Its political subject matter is understood to be the stuff of public affairs – traditionally focused on formal politics, economic policy, foreign affairs, and international conflict; important matters around which political actors compete for the right to govern and make decisions affecting the citizenry as a whole. Given the historically patriarchal nature of liberal democratic polities, the journalism which mediates it in the public sphere has also been produced within a patriarchal context. Men still dominate political journalism in most capitalist societies, especially at the more senior levels of the profession. The public sphere, as we noted above is, even in these post-feminist times, largely populated by what are sometimes caricatured as “middle-aged white men in suits’, who define their subject matter as serious and worthy, and oppose it to the dumbed down, trash culture found in some other forms of journalism, such as celebrity, lifestyle, and human interest coverage. This public sphere is defined, then, both by its focus on a certain type of content, and its coverage through a certain set of formal journalistic genres, and by terms such as “hard news” (often favourably contrasted with “soft news” in this context).

These binaries and expectations have increasingly been challenged, however (Temple 2006; McNair et al. 2017). On the one hand, the definition of what counts as “political” has expanded, under the influence of feminist and other formerly marginal discourses, to include topics which were once excluded from the public sphere. The personal is now accepted as being political, and issues such as same sex marriage, domestic violence, and abortion rights have become prominent within the policy debates of many democratic societies. The range of what is seen as political, and therefore the appropriate province of the public sphere, has expanded as a direct consequence of the campaigns and interventions of social movements and identity-based groups which often straddle party political boundaries.

And the number of modes by which these issues are presented within the public sphere has expanded also, incorporating genres which frequently diverge from journalism as narrowly defined. The day-time talk show, discussing domestic violence before a studio full of women, to a national audience of those interested in the issue, can be regarded as part of an expanded public sphere. Its deliberations may well impact on the political sphere – as the domestic violence debate has in Australia, the UK, and other societies in recent times. At another level – and hence my use of the term “postmodern” here (see Brants and Voltmer (eds.) 2011 on the postmodern public sphere) – these and other formats blur the boundaries of journalism and not-journalism, creating hybrid forms which may be both entertaining and informative as they engage with previously marginalized issues, before previously marginalized sections of the public. The unfolding global scandal of child sexual abuse within the churches and other institutions has been similarly mediated within the globalized public sphere – made the subject of day-time talk shows and self-help columns as well as “hard” investigative journalism of the type depicted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight (McCarthy 2015).

As the personal has been politicised, so the private has become increasingly the legitimate subject of the public sphere. In Australia, the public service ABC in 2012 developed a programme called Kitchen Cabinet, in which senior politicians were interviewed in their domestic environments, over food and drink, about their personal motivations and histories. Capturing the global trend for reality-style cooking shows (such as Masterchef), presenter Annabel Crabb set out to cover aspects of the political which normatively approved journalistic formats rarely address (and when they do, usually in the context of political scandals). Kitchen Cabinet was a hybrid form, deliberately “human interest’, unashamedly “infotainment” as well as informative; an interview-based format, but not adversarial; about politicians and what makes them tick, rather than the policies they are advocating; and incorporating the domestic environment in its treatment of politicians rarely seen in public without a prepared speech and a spin doctor to keep them “on message’. The programme has been highly successful in ratings terms, and also well-reviewed in Australia, even by those “middle-aged white men in suits” who dominate the public sphere as more conventionally defined (McNair et al. 2017).

Other hybrid political media formats in the Australian context include The Project, which mixes light entertainment and satire about politicians with “serious” political coverage, in a blend which seeks to engage younger audiences in particular – relatively disengaged from the political process as they are assumed to be, in Australia as elsewhere. In the United States Saturday Night Live mercilessly satirized Donald Trump, as did Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which ran from 1999 to 2015 and combined political satire with journalism and political interviews. Such formats can all be regarded as part of the expanded, postmodern public sphere of the 21st century.


The concept of the public sphere remains a valuable tool for analysing the political communication system in the digital age. Habermas’ original notion of a communal communicative space remains applicable to the networked, globalized, public sphere of the digital era. This system is indeed closer to the Habermasian ideal in many respects than was the pre-digital public sphere of centralized, top-down media platforms addressing largely passive mass audiences with information to which the latter could not easily respond to or interact (although they could and did disagree). The emerging public sphere is accessible, information rich, diverse, and decentralized to a degree unknown in the analogue era. There is more information available to more people, in more places around the world, than ever before, and they can do more with it, including contribute directly to the public debate through digital channels such as online comments and social media.

In this respect the public sphere has expanded. It has expanded too, in the range of content forms which it includes. Journalists are joined by content-generating users on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and online reader commentaries, making public citizens’ responses to what journalists write. Traditional definitions of political journalism have also been tested, as hybrid forms – often condemned in the literature as dumbed down infotainment – have emerged. In Australia, formats such as Kitchen Cabinet combine elements of the global fashion for cooking-based reality TV shows in order to cover the more personal, private aspects of the political actors which are its subjects.

Journalism remains at the core of the public sphere, however, acting as sensemaker of complex reality, advocate for and representative of the people, scrutineer of the powerful. Journalism’s role in this regard requires that journalists retain their authority as sources of information and analysis. And as of this writing, the majority of people still trusted the mainstream journalistic media, and used it as their main news source (Newman, Levy & Nielsen 2015). Research also shows a shift away from legacy media, particularly amongst younger demographics, and it seems likely that generational transition will continue that trend. As it does so, politicians such as President Trump increasingly communicate and govern online, bypassing the more traditional sectors of the public sphere. Digital and social media are now part of the mainstream, interlocked with it, and increasingly, media organizations and journalists understand this. Concerns about the future capacity of digitized cultures to sustain quality journalism are real, however, and the challenges are many. The public demand for journalism has never been higher. It remains unclear who will pay for it going forward, and how.

Further reading

Aalberg, Toril & James Curran (eds.). 2011. How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach. London: Routledge.

Coleman, Stephen, Anna Przybiska, & Yves Sintomer (eds.). 2015. Deliberation and Democracy: innovative processes and institutions. New York: Peter Lang.

Conboy, Martin. 2004. Journalism: a critical history. London: Sage.

Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, & Frank Lennox. 1974. The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. New German Critique 3(Autumn). 49–55.


Aalberg, Toril & James Curran (eds.). 2011. How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach. London: Routledge.

Bell, Emily. 2014. Silicon Valley and Journalism: make up or break up? Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Blumler, Jay & Michael Gurevitch. 1995. The Crisis of Public Communication. London: Routledge.

Brants, Kees & Karin Voltmer (eds.). 2011. Political communication in postmodern democracy: Challenging the primacy of politics. New York: Springer.

Bruns, Axel. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Chambers, Stephen & Anne Costain (eds.). 2000. Deliberation, Democracy and the Media. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cohen-Almagor, Raphael. 2015. Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side: moral and social responsibility on the free highway. Washington DC: Cambridge University Press.

Coleman, Stephen, Anna Przybiska, & Yves Sintomer (eds.). 2015. Deliberation and Democracy: innovative processes and institutions. New York: Peter Lang.

Conboy, Martin. 2004. Journalism: a critical history. London: Sage.

Davis, Aeron. 2000. Public Relations Democracy: Politics, public relations and the mass media in Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 1990. Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text 25(26). 56–80.

Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, & Frank Lennox. 1974. The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. New German Critique 3(Autumn). 49–55.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Political communication in media society: Does democracy still enjoy an epistemic dimension? The impact of normative theory on empirical research. Communication Theory 16(4). 411–26.

McKnight, David. 2012. Rupert Murdoch: an investigation of political power. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

McNair, Brian. 2000. Journalism and democracy: a qualitative evaluation of the political public sphere. London: Routledge.

McNair, Brian. 2006. Cultural Chaos: journalism, news and power in a globalized world. London: Routledge.

McNair, Brian. 2009. News & Journalism in the UK. 5th edn. London: Routledge.

McNair, Brian. 2017. An Introduction to Political Communication. 6th edn. London: Routledge.

McNair, Brian. 2016. Communication and Political Crisis: Media, Politics and Governance in a Globalized Public Sphere. New York: Peter Lang.

McNair, Brian, Terry Flew, Stephen Harrington, & Adam Swift. 2017. Politics, Media and Democracy in Australia. London: Routledge.

Newman, Nic, David A. Levy, & Rasmus K. Nielsen. 2015. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015: tracking the future of news. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Pusey, Michael. 1978. Jurgen Habermas. London: Tavistock.

Raymond, Joad. 1996. The Invention of the Newspaper. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Temple, Mick. 2006. Dumbing down is good for you. British Politics 1. 257–273.

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