University of Leeds
8 October 2011
The Leeds/Liverpool Political Culture symposium
This one-day Symposium came about as the result of a collaboration between staff at the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, and was funded from a Liverpool AHRC award, ‘Media Genre and Political Culture’ (https://www.liv.ac.uk/communication-and-media/Staff/politicalculture.htm). It was held at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds, and attended by some of the leading researchers in this developing field.
The symposium was designed to acknowledge a ‘cultural turn’ in the study of media and politics, with its increasing attention to political drama, infotainment, political comedy, editorial cartoons and lighter styles of writing in the press. Key participants included Jeffrey Jones (author of Entertaining Politics), Liesbet van-Zoonen (author of Entertaining the Citizen), John Corner (co-editor of Media and the Restyling of Politics) and John Street (author of Politics and Popular Culture). The largely British focus of the examples and illustrations that were discussed was tempered by comparisons with both American and other European instances.
When the first publications in this field began to appear, there was a sense of trying to understand relations between two very distinct domains of social experience. Politics was an earnest discourse which made serious demands on citizens as well as on politicians and journalists. (Popular) culture was where citizens went for distraction from such demands. In 2011 we now understand much more about the interpenetrations of politics and culture thanks to research on ‘soft news’, on politically themed entertainment (including drama), on emotion and affect in political life, on politicians as celebrities, and on political humour.
In the first session of the day, the two papers by Angela Smith (Sunderland) and Liesbet van Zoonen (Loughborough) brought the visual portrayal of politicians to the fore, with respective presentations on the media constructions of David Cameron as an ‘ordinary’ father, and voter responses to the glamorous photoshoots of female UK election candidates printed in Grazia magazine.
In the second session, there was an emphasis on parodic performances of the political, with Jeffrey Jones (Old Dominion University, Virginia) drawing on examples from US comedy shows such as The Colbert Report to show how such theatrical mimicry of politician’s speech invites us to share in the comedic revelation of its often patronising and incomprehensible nature; while for Alan Finlayson (Swansea) such parodies of political speech might flatter their audiences with a shared feeling of superiority, but are not always as subversive as they may seem.
Katy Parry (Leeds) and John Corner (Leeds) turned their attention to the various generic framings offered in television portrayals of politicians, drawing on analysis of political performances in reality television, the celebrity interview and comedy docudrama, as well as respondent group reactions to the material. A more eclectic post-lunch session brought together papers on political dramas of New Labour by Steven Fielding (Nottingham); on how the media and politicians cast figures such as ‘Joe the Plumber’ and Gillian Duffy as proxies for ‘the public’ following their fateful encounters with political leaders on election campaign trails (by Stephen Coleman, Leeds); and on the space for public culture offered by popular music radio stations and the unlikely figure of Radio 1 DJ, Chris Moyles (John Street, UEA).
The final panel saw a return to the figure of David Cameron as the key subject, with Michael Higgins (Strathclyde) analysing a variety of written and spoken texts delivered by the prime minister to unpick the faux-inclusivity of the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric of the coalition government. In a paper concerned with child poverty in the media, Stephen Wagg (Leeds Met) included the contributions of those who might be dubbed ‘celebrity politicians’, Bono and Bob Geldof, along with discussion on documentaries such as ‘Poor Kids’ (BBC).
Our point of departure, then, was the difference between political culture and political communication as frames for the study of mediated politics. The ‘communication’ frame draws attention primarily to news and journalism, while the ‘cultural’ frame draws attention to the conditions that make communication possible in the first place. In the realm of political communication the issues are with things like media management and spin, or with ‘dumbing down’. But communication, political or otherwise, takes place under particular sociocultural conditions which have not only cognitive-rational aspects but also normative aspects and affective aspects. Various mixtures of cognitive, normative and affective orientations shape what citizens understand as ‘politics’ in the first place, and then what they think about politics, as well as whether and how they care about it in relation to their own lives. These mixtures vary from country to country, they vary within countries in ways that can be mapped in sociodemographic terms, and they vary with particular aspects of ‘the political’. Media texts like Have I Got News for You or editorial cartoons, look like the canapés and hors d’oeuvres, not the main dish, from a political communication perspective. But they tell us a lot about the cognitive-normative-affective shaping of politics as part of contemporary experience. This was the area which the symposium explored. Satire and parody were given due attention, but so too were drama-documentaries, reality TV programmes, and popular women’s magazines. Imagery of politicians as ‘private’ as well as ‘public’ selves was discussed, and theoretical contributions were presented as well as empirical studies.
Some researchers continued a tradition of relating politics specifically to popular culture; this additional finessing of the frame indicated an interest not only in how culture articulates to pleasure rather than duty, but also to culture’s potential breadth of accessibility. Contributors to the symposium heeded the warning not to collapse these two factors into a single one, recognising that the pleasures to which mediations of politics may articulate include those of elites and niche audiences, as well as those of the broad general citizenry.