As mass media play an increasing role in our societies by providing an arena of public debate and making politicians, policies, and relevant facts widely known, they are expected to follow certain rules of conduct. These rules and the normative media theories they draw upon typically imply presumptions as to the public interest the media should serve (McQuail 1992; 2005). Presumptions about what is the public interest, directly or indirectly, determine the institutional set-up of media systems, legal regulations, and media policy measures as well as journalistic codes of ethic and performance standards.
Not surprisingly, there is no agreed definition of the public interest, although its history goes back to classical times. The modern understanding of the concept can be traced back to the Enlightenment era when political philosophers who discussed the notion of interests in general, especially partisan interests and the aggregation of private interests, developed the idea of a public interest as a normative objective of political action. The various meanings of the concept we can find today may be subdivided into substantive and procedural interpretations. While the former are concerned with the content of political actions and their consequences, the latter focus on the quality of decision-making processes (Alexander 2002). For example, procedural interpretations of the public interest are implied in the concept of deliberative democracy and in Habermas’s idea of procedural rationality created in political discourse. Instances of substantive interpretations are the three main views distinguished by McQuail (2005): utilitarianism, unitary, and common interest approaches.
Utilitarianism, or the majoritarian view, equates the public interest with aggregated individual values and preferences. The public interest is merely the sum of individuals’ wealth, happiness, and avoidance of pain. Therefore, the state’s role must be limited to maximizing individuals’ benefit according to the overall popular vote. In the case of the media the public interest will be best achieved by free market forces and by giving the public what it says it wants (Veljanovski 1990). A common assumption is that audience ratings and public opinion polls indicate the preferences of the citizens. On the other hand, this involves the risk of a “tyranny of the majority.” Also, pleasing the majority in the media market may lead to a mainstreaming of media content and an erosion of quality standards.
By contrast, the unitary approach derives the public interest from a collective moral imperative that transcends particular or private interests. In other words, the public interest necessarily takes precedence over the interests of individuals, in order to pursue a vision of an ideal society (Berki 1979). The public interest is decided by reference to some single dominant value or ideology. However, this would work only in a paternalist (or even nondemocratic) system in which decisions about what is good are made by guardians or experts. As to political communication, the unitarian approach may lead to a “manufacture of consent” since the media will tend to confirm the political status quo (or the “official” ideology as defined by the ruling elite or party).
A third approach conceptualizes the public interest as common interest (Held 1970; McQuail 1992; 2003). In this view the public interest is not an aggregation of individual interests, but rather a shared interest. In other words, the public interest is equated with the interests all citizens have in common. Based on this idea modern states provide public services of transport, power, water, and even broadcasting. Basic features of national broadcasting systems and the services they provide (for example, frequency allocations, access to political parties, rules for advertising) are thus justified on grounds of a wider “common good,” transcending individual choices and preferences. The principle of media freedom may itself be supported on grounds of long-term benefits to society that are not immediately apparent to many individual citizens. A key element of the common interest approach is the notion of accountability which stresses that media freedom has to be balanced by responsibility (McQuail 2003).
In one way or another, the public interest has been the subject of three different sorts of skepticism. First, it has a rather vague and confusing meaning that seems to include the public welfare, the common good, and the national interest (Dennis 2002). Second, it is hardly possible to identify empirically where the public interest lies. And third, there is some doubt whether the practices and institutions of modern politics and the media are such that the public interest is pursued, even if there is agreement on how it should be defined. By and large, the conventional wisdom even among political and social theorists is that vested and concentrated interests often are more able to promote their interests at the expense of the public interest.
- Alexander, E. R. (2002). The public interest in planning: From legitimation to substantive plan evaluation. Planning Theory, 1, 226–249.
- Berki, R. N. (1979). State and society: An antithesis of modern political thought. In J. E. S. Hayward & R. N. Berki (eds.), State and society in contemporary Europe. Oxford: Robertson, pp. 1–20.
- Dennis, E. E. (2002). The press and the public interest: A definitional dilemma. In D. McQuail (ed.), McQuail’s reader in mass communication theory. London: Sage, pp. 161–170.
- Held, V. (1970). The public interest and individual interests. New York: Basic Books.
- McQuail, D. (1992). Media performance: Mass communication and the public interest. London: Sage.
- D. (2003). Media accountability and freedom of publication. London: Sage.
- McQuail, D. (2005). McQuail’s mass communication theory, 5th edn. London: Sage.
- Veljanovski, C. (1990). Market driven broadcasting: Not myth but reality. Intermedia, 18(6), 17–21.