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The CNN Effect circa 1910

July 14, 2016

Having dug pretty deeply in the literature on the impact of the media on policy making I recently discovered that I’d missed Oron Hale’s Publicity and Diplomacy.  Published in 1940 it examines the role of the press in creating the hostility between Britain and Germany in the quarter century before the First World War.

It’s valuable for two reasons

Firstly,  the research design is rather more sophisticated that a lot of the more recent writings on the topic as Hole recognizes that he needs to look at firstly, the effect of the press on policy makers, secondly, the effect of the policy makers on the press in both countries and thirdly, at the interaction across national boundaries.  Of course this is something that it’s much easier to do in a historical study where documents and memoirs are available that it is in a more recent period.  The mass circulation press (along with the expansion of the franchise) was still something of a new media at this point and policy makers gave it a great deal of attention because of their perception of its mediating role between public and policy makers, policy makers and public and across borders.  Policy makers studied the press to track public and party opinion. They were also aware that they could address audiences at home and abroad through the press but balancing the two was not easy. Press coverage could be partially managed by policy makers but was partially autonomous and this generated plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  The overall thrust of the analysis is that from the Boer War there was growing mutual antipathy between the press of the two countries.  As with other studies that look at media coverage over time (eg Bahador 2007) he sees a ratchet effect where repeated escalations in tension do not fully recede, at the core of these escalations was the naval arms race.  This is important because the reduction in tensions between the two governments from 1912 was not reflected in the press and he sees the sustained period of tensions as producing the alliance system and perspectives on Germany that led Britain to enter the war in 1914.  If this study was published today you’d probably see constructivist and structurationist themes at work.

Secondly, it also suggests that it’s very easy to overstate the differences between the diplomacy and media of today and those of a century ago.  Contrary to our image of ‘secret’ diplomacy Hale finds that there were few developments that did not find their way into the press.   Hale provides plenty of examples of journalists willfully placing the most negative interpretations on events.  The German representative at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 complained that he’d been the subject of  three fabricated interviews in one week.  During the Boer War a news agency operating from London did good business selling fake news calculated to appeal to the anti-British German press.

 

Hale, Oron J. 1940. Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. New York: Appleton Century.

Bahador, Babak. 2007. The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West Toward War in Kosovo. New York: Palgrave.

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