It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. But
it wasn’t 1984, it was 2015, and a young university student had just sat down at her desk and begun to write her BCM110 blog post on the public sphere. In the course of the writing of this blog, her online whereabouts will be tracked and recorded. The scan of her rewards card at the grocery store will be being tabulated and analysed. Advertising companies will be scheming to use this data to draw money from her. But unlike George Orwell, who begins his tale of the public sphere in the future, she begins hers in the past, with a man named Habermas.
Jurgen Habermas is a German sociologist who came up with the notion of the public sphere in the 1960’s. He addressed questions regarding the definition of “the public” and the power they have in a democracy, and how public opinion can shape a democratic society. The public sphere is a concept; not an existing element. It is a metaphorical space which acts as an arena for debating and deliberating contemporary issues and is, by definition, a separate entity from the vested interests of the state, the church and home life.
The most common example used to illustrate the idea of the public sphere is the coffee house. The idea was that unique varieties of people could meet here and discuss and debate modern events, thus creating some sort of democratic equality. But does the public sphere enhance democratic equality, or degrade it?
Philosopher Stephen Hicks – in his study of English coffee houses – writes that they brought “businessmen, artists and scientists together for drinking and socialising“. This touches on the big issue with the public sphere; so many voices remain unheard. Going back to the coffee house idea, it was mainly the educated and wealthy who spent their time there – the working class, historically, could not afford to use these establishments. Already we lose the voices of a massive percentage of society. Therefore the public sphere can be seen as a very capitalist movement, where the working class, and women to an extent, were not a part. Therefore the concept of the public is automatically void, with so few having access to take part.
Today, Australian society has a much flatter democratic structure, with class division playing little part in its organisation. The public sphere has moved away from just coffee houses, with the integration of the internet into out everyday lives, so we all have access. Women have all the voting rights that men have, so the public sphere is equal and free for all, right?
No. Although we believe we are in an equal, free and democratic society, this world’s public sphere – especially the media – is heavily mediated in disguise. For example, the TV show Q and A is a model of Habermas’ public sphere. Citizens from all walks of life unite to debate the issues of the day; it screams equality, right? Wrong. Let me list the problems:
1) The ABC, the channel that produces the show, is owned by the Government #bias
2) The show generally caters to an educated, older audience #noninclusive
3) Not everybody in the audience gets to share their opinion, or add value to the conversation #noninclusiveagain
4) For those who do get to speak, it’s not freely. Q and A highly regulates what is said; the audience have to submit their questions earlier for review
by the production team, who then choose who will get to speak #censorship
5) Unequal representation of gender equality – usually one woman and five men on the panel #inequality.
So you can see that although Q and A is, at first glance, a democratic public sphere, its pseudo representation of debate and high levels of regulation and control make it a poor-functioning public sphere. In essence, nothing has changed here since the old English coffee houses.
However, the media can also enhance the public sphere through sparking debate. For example, the representation of same-sex relationships in the media in recent years has sparked much debate, particularly about what is appropriate on childrens’ channels. Below is a short discussion on a scene from the Disney show Good Luck Charlie, where Amy and Bob Duncan discover their daughter’s friend has “two mommies”.
Of further interest is the comments section of the video, if you go onto youtube.com – this demonstrates how the media can provoke debate on current issues and therefore enhance and contribute to the public sphere. It’s interesting that a children’s Disney show contributes more to the public sphere than an academic show like Q and A, but there you have it.
George Orwell ends his tale at Corrupt Public Sphere:1/Resistance:0. But the university student ends hers with a quote from Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This quote demonstrates the immense power of the public sphere; how it can be used and what it can do – if it is inclusive of all levels of social status, gender, age, academic prowess and so on. When a legitimate public sphere is at play, particularly in the media, society evolves; such as with the more widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships. However, when a public sphere is used artificially, it has the potential to degrade a society. Unfortunately, in many public spheres (even in the media), censorship and illegitimate representation occurs, so information is not truly free.