By Felix Dolton Martin
This article will look at the role of the media in shaping foreign policy. In order to understand how media can have an impact on foreign policy we must first establish what we mean by the media. Looking solely at democratic states, the media can be seen as an independent faculty which is used to promote open debate on important topics such as wars or international crises. News media refers to formats like newspapers and television news, and while social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.) can be included under this term, the more traditional organizations like the BBC are still the preferred providers of the news.
Two models dominate the conversation when it comes to the media in relation to shaping foreign policy. The elite model posits elite groups as the power behind both the media and politics. In this sense the media is simply a tool for the government to make the public aware of their policies and to present them in a positive light. This model suggests that the media does not fulfil the role it is supposed to in democracies (as an objective way in which current affairs are made aware to the public) – but rather is simply an agent of the elite; so, it has no direct effect on foreign policy because the policies have already been set out. The pluralist model on the other hand argues that power is spread across various groups, including both the media and political elite, suggesting that the media can therefore influence foreign policy decisions as a separate entity.
Arguably the most compelling argument for the media as a massively influential force in shaping foreign policy decisions stems from the collection of arguments known as the “media empowerment thesis” Robinson (2016, citing Robinson et al. 2010; Robinson 2011). Here it is argued that the pluralist model is accurate – the media in its many forms creates the discussions of the modern world (it sets the agenda by promoting the most important topics for the public to review) and in this sense the media affects how governments go about forming foreign policies. For instance, the increase in availability of news is obviously correlated with the rise of 24 news channels and the intrinsically ubiquitous internet. These developments have made international news available instantly for the majority of the world, meaning that policy makers are forced to combat issues as the whole world is watching. By setting the agenda, the news media directs policy makers towards certain issues over others. A recent example of where this pluralist theory can be argued is Britain’s divorce from the European Union. The Brexit campaign by many media outlets was in direct opposition to the position held by a lot of prominent figures in the government. Mostly newspapers, these campaigners were “viscerally anti-EU” (Barnet, 2016) compared to the position of many politicians at the time who were fighting for a remain vote. Following the vote to leave the EU by the British population, it is clear that the media had an even more forceful impact on people’s decision than their politicians. While, of course, the EU referendum was a decision made by the public, the result will forever change British and possibly European foreign policy, so in this sense the media totally dominated the referendum and will shape the foreign policy decisions that follow.
On the other side of the coin is the argument that foreign policy is not impacted by the media – or its influence is minimal at best. This argument follows from an assumption that the elite model is correct, but focuses on the source of the information utilised by the media (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Due to the nature of journalism, it is impossible to keep up with all news events, particularly when they occur in places that aren’t usually consistent sources of news. Therefore, important news information is often retrieved from a smaller number of sources – and these sources are favoured to be official. For example, Chomsky and Herman (2002 p.19) list sources such as “The White House, the Pentagon, and the State department, in Washington, D.C”. The preference for official government sources stems from the assumption that these accounts will prove more factual and reputable. Herman and Chomsky also cite the cost of investigating less mainstream sources as an influence on where journalists go for information. The assumption of reputability that comes with government sources cuts out the need to do more comprehensive research to determine the credibility of the source – saving both time and money in many cases.
However, in preferring official sources and avoiding the more marginalised sources, the news media creates a bias in which governments are often the primary source of news. This gives said governments a huge say in what gets printed – and therefore reinforces the elite model’s position that the government are the principal influencers in foreign policy decisions; the media simply report it to the public.
To go even further, it has been argued that governments and the political elite are not only on the production side of the media that the public get to see, but that they actually manipulate and distort it. As stated by Robinson (2016, p.203), organised persuasive communication (or OPC) refers to “highly organized and strategic approaches to managing information in order to persuade”. It attempts to “influence beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour” using elements of “distortion, deception, and even sometimes coercion”. The 2003 Iraq war can be used as a clear example of where the political elite have had a direct influence on what was presented to the public, with the sole intention of persuasion. The Chilcot report (2016, The Executive Summary, p.10) outlines how the invasion of Iraq was due, in part, to Saddam Hussein’s “assumed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes”. The UK and the US have since been criticised for how they framed the information presented to the public to create a stronger sense of Iraq as a dangerous nation possessing WMD’s, when this may not have been the case (MacAskill, 2016).
The use of ‘Shock and Awe’ tactics during the war in Iraq are another example of where the media has been used as a tool to create a general feeling amongst populations. These tactics, also known as rapid dominance refer to “the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight” according to Anon. (2015). For example, violent acts ensued in Iraq to show citizens that the US and its coalition were a force to be reckoned with, in an effort to impact Iraqi foreign policy decisions.
Despite convincing arguments both for and against the media being a large influence on how foreign policy decisions are made, whether or not media shapes foreign policy is a question that is unlikely to ever be answered categorically due to the unanalysable nature of the relationship. It is impossible to quantitatively analyse whether the media influences foreign policy decisions because the decisions are made by individuals – and their influences aren’t officially documented. On top of this there is not, nor is it likely that there will ever be, a ‘scale of influence’, as it were, where influence or impact can be measured to produce a quantitative result – for example ‘the news media shaped ‘x’ foreign policy decision by 25 influences’. It isn’t implausible to convert inherently qualitative data to a numeric form, but it wouldn’t give an understandable answer. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the media industry and the sphere of foreign policy are intrinsically interlinked.
To conclude, it is clear that there is evidence for both sides of a discussion about the role of media in shaping foreign policy. It is unclear whether one account provides an accurate description of the role of the media, but what can be said is that after examining the proof it is hard to suggest that the media is truly an independent adjudicator when it comes to foreign policy decisions, and that the work of Chomsky (amongst others) suggest that there is more going on beyond the public’s knowledge.
Barnet, S. (2016) The Tragic Downfall of British Media. Foreign Policy [online] 8 July. Available from: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/08/the-tragic-downfall-of-british-media-tabloids-brexit/?wp_login_redirect=0 [Accessed 27 November 2016].
Chilcot, J (2016) The Report of the Iraq Inquiry – the Executive Summary. The Report of the Iraq Inquiry [online]., p. 10. [Accessed 23 November 2016].
Herman, E.S. and Chomsky, N., A Propaganda Model. In: Herman, E.S. and Chomsky, N. (2002) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
MacAskill, E. (2016) Spy agencies ‘produced flawed information on Saddam’s WMDs’. The Guardian [online] 6 July. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/06/spy-agencies-flawed-information-saddam-wmds-iraq-chilcot [Accessed 23 November 2016].
Robinson, P., The role of media and public opinion. In: Smith, S., Hadfield-Amkahn, A., & Dunne, T., eds., (2016) Foreign policy: theories, actors, cases. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford university press.