Communication and Political Crisis

Media, Politics and Governance in a Globalized Public Sphere

by Brian McNair (Author)
©2016 Textbook 187 Pages
Series: Global Crises and the Media, Volume 16


Communication and Political Crisis explores the role of the global media in a period of intensifying geopolitical conflict. Through case studies drawn from domestic and international political crises such as the conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, leading media scholar Brian McNair argues that the digitized, globalized public sphere now confronted by all political actors has produced new opportunities for social progress and democratic reform, as well as new channels for state propaganda and terrorist spectaculars such as those performed by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. In this major work, McNair argues that the role of digital communication will be crucial in determining the outcome of pressing global issues such as the future of feminism and gay rights, freedom of speech and media, and democracy itself.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • List of tables and figures
  • Part I: Trends and theories
  • Chapter 1. The new chaotics
  • Chapter 2. Fifty shades of freedom: The democratic century
  • Chapter 3. The globalized public sphere and the non-linear dynamics of cultural chaos
  • Part II: Consequences and cases
  • Chapter 4. The communication crisis of democratic governance
  • Chapter 5. Communication and the crisis of authoritarian control
  • Chapter 6. Non-State actors, communication and politics
  • Chapter 7. Beyond chaos?
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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No book is ever entirely finished, and from this distance my 2006 study of Cultural Chaos seems more like the beginning of a project than its end. Much of what was written there was necessarily speculative and hypothetical, making connections between media control and power—rooted not in hard data but instead in what I presented as reasonable inference, given the methodological complexity of studying media effects and impacts. This book resumes the discussion, with the benefit of a decade’s observation of global political communication and its relationship to the crises which have unfolded over that period in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. There are no ‘proofs’ of direct media impacts on the conduct and evolution of global politics in the following pages, because causation is, for practical purposes within a chaos paradigm, impossible to isolate from the broader environment within which the communication process unfolds. I hope, however, to have marshaled in the following pages enough evidence to substantiate the thesis that more communication—globalized, digitized, networked communication—in circulation around the world reinforces the tendencies towards global democratization seen since the late twentieth century.

I also hope to have presented a case that these same trends and tendencies permit us to imagine a future for the human race in the decades ahead that is ← vii | viii → more optimistic and progressive than the media’s more dramatic representations and narratives of present-day conflict and looming environmental collapse suggest. If, to again employ a metaphor I found helpful in Cultural Chaos, the world in both its natural and social dimensions appears gripped by stormy weather and turbulence, the underlying direction of evolutionary change is not without grounds for optimism and hope for bluer, calmer skies ahead.

I am grateful to Simon Cottle and Mary Savigar at Peter Lang Publishing for their patience in waiting for this book. The research and writing were unavoidably delayed by a move from the United Kingdom to Queensland University of Technology in Australia and a subsequent period of departmental headship. Even though the extra time has allowed, I believe, for a richer and more timely text, given the many political crises now afflicting the globe, I am grateful to Simon and Mary for allowing the project to proceed at its own pace and never making me feel under pressure to deliver.

I would also like to acknowledge the support offered by my colleagues in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT. When John Hartley urged me to accept the Chair in Journalism, Media & Communication there, he assured me that I would not regret moving to QUT’s ‘high-performance culture’. He was right about that. I have been inspired by the intellectual environment in Brisbane and the collegiality I have found there. I trust that this book is up to the high standards set by my QUT colleagues.

Brian McNair

Brisbane, April 2016

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Cultural Chaos, to which the current volume provides a kind of sequel or extension, suggested a paradigm shift in the way media scholars have understood the relationship between communication and power. Having been steeped in—and, in my own early work as a sociologist of culture, contributed wholeheartedly to—the maintenance of a control paradigm in which the possession of economic and political power translated relatively easily into media and cultural power, and vice versa, I argued there that it was necessary to reorient the sociological gaze on the implications of what I characterized as an emerging chaos of communication in the digital age and an associated loss of control by economic and political elites not just of the media—Althusser’s ideological apparatuses of control (1970), as viewed in much materialist sociology since the early twentieth century—but of the mechanisms of power more broadly. The exercise of power in liberal capitalism has been and remains largely hegemonic in the Gramscian sense (Gramsci, 1971)—that is, consensual—legitimized by democratic processes and their supporting media channels. The erosion of media control, or the onset of cultural chaos, was thus also, potentially, the erosion of hegemony (embodied, in this context, in popular acceptance of the assumption that those who govern and the system by which we are governed are fully equipped and the most entitled to do so). ← 1 | 2 →

Cultural Chaos, written in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist spectacular, was inspired by that event’s visceral demonstration of two phenomena which, if not unique to the digital age, have been dramatically enhanced by it. First, the events of September 11 2001 demonstrated the capacity of marginal political actors with an understanding of how media images work on the political environment to seize control of the global news agenda by asymmetrical means1 and thereby to publicly challenge dominant or elite ideological frameworks in unprecedentedly direct ways (Freedman, 2014).

Second, 9/11 showed the capacity of the emerging globalized public sphere (GPS) to disseminate those images and the subversive messages they seek to communicate instantaneously (or as near as makes no difference) to the entire world. Through internet, satellite and cable TV channels, the attacks were witnessed live as they happened by hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. For this author in Australia it was late in the evening when the attacks began; in the UK it was early afternoon, and in the Middle East early evening. But thanks to the erosion of time-space distantiation facilitated by the technologies available for communication by 2001 (Giddens, 1986), we all watched the same event, wherever in the world we were and whatever time it was. Different types of media covered the events of 9/11 in many different ways (Zelizer and Allan, 2002), and those who watched it responded differently according to their views on the political issues Osama bin Laden claimed to be addressing. Some celebrated, most were shocked and alarmed, but all shared in that spectacular moment of terror targeted so precisely at the symbolic and corporate heart of the liberal capitalist system.

This was a mediated terrorist event of an unprecedented kind—unprecedented both in the destruction it caused on the mainland of the United States and in the scale and reach of its impact on global politics, which was to generate an immediate and intense sense of crisis in the United States and amongst its allies. As news broke of the attacks, and even before national security agencies fully understood what was happening, President George W. Bush was interrupted while visiting a school in Florida and whisked away on Air Force One, in the same manner as if nuclear warfare had just broken out (this scene, like so much of what made up the 9/11 events, was recorded on video and subject to subsequent analysis—for clues as to what the president was thinking when he heard the news and of the nature of his reaction). Vice President Dick Cheney was installed securely in a White House bunker, and US air transport came to an abrupt halt as some 10,000 civil aircraft were immediately grounded. ← 2 | 3 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
islamic state confilcts middle east
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 187 pp.

Biographical notes

Brian McNair (Author)

Brian McNair (PhD, University of Glasgow) is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of twelve previous books, including Journalism and Democracy (2000) and An Introduction to Political Communication (5th edition, 2011). His books have been translated into fourteen languages, including Russian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.


Title: Communication and Political Crisis