Skip to main content

1.4 The `public interest' in communication: political, cultural and economic aspects

Although the precise meaning of the term can be disputed, we can speak of there being a `public interest' when something at issue is widely considered to be essential to the longer term welfare of society and its members. Societies differ in how they interpret the specific content of the public interest in respect of communication. Nevertheless there are many cross-national similarities in the arrangements made to protect, control or encourage communication and in the main reasons for doing so. From early times, physical communications such as roads, bridges, canals and harbours were built and maintained at public expense for the general good.

Modern mass media have added a new layer to the communication services, raising new and more complex issues about what is in the public interest. These issues can be considered in terms of three main functions: political; social cultural; and economic. These can be located in a broader framework of policy and regulation as shown in Van Cuilenburg and McQuail model (Van Cuilenburg and McQuail, 2003, p.184).

Let us now briefly consider the three main components of the public interest as indicated in their model.

1.4.1 Political functions of communications media

The machinery of politics, especially competition between parties for support via democratic elections, simply cannot operate without a large and continual flow of information in the public arena. Active participation in political life by the majority is an essential component of democracy, but it too depends on an adequate flow of communication to and amongst citizens and constituent bodies. Possibilities for expressing and disseminating views critical of government have to exist, along with proposals for policy and new ideas. Regulation may be needed to secure all these conditions.

1.4.2 Social-cultural functions of communications media

The social and cultural functions of communication relate to the whole range of news, entertainment and arts, amusement, sports coverage and public education. The media now play an essential part in: the expression and continuity of national and cultural identity; the reflection of regional, ethnic and other forms of diversity; and the `binding together', by intercommunication, of society as a whole and of particular communities and constituent elements. Each separate institutional field of social and cultural life (e.g. education, the arts, leisure and sport, religion, science) has extensive internal and external communication requirements.

1.4.3 Economic functions of communications media

The economic value of communication to society is unmistakable and is increasing all the time. The mass media and many related communication activities are often industries in themselves, producing informational products. A large and growing sector of industrial production is devoted to electronics and information technology hardware and software of all kinds, from radio sets to mainframe computers or telephone systems. It is thus not surprising that communications businesses are regulated just like other businesses. Special policies are often formulated to stimulate the application of communication technology in the economy and the growth of the information technology sector. They may also be intended to protect national economic interests - see, for instance, complaints about piracy and arguments about cultural protectionism between the USA and Europe in the context of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Media market regulation also aims at reducing monopoly and stimulating competition for reasons of efficiency.