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Democratic Participation and Public Access Broadcasting: Caller Perspectives on Election Call
Unformatted Document Text:  This pre-existing interest in politics is a common characteristic of individuals who are politically engaged or who take part in public access broadcasting opportunities (McNair, 2001) but the fact that nearly half the women callers describe themselves as ’interested in politics’ goes against the more common perception of women’s disinterest. The domain in which women have traditionally been regarded as practising their politics has been in the domesticated (private) sphere of the family and even their actions as citizens have routinely been allocated to this private space (McLaughlin, 1993). The media are much more likely to situate women as, say, mothers battling to save the local nursery, than as political activists challenging the decision-making apparatus of county hall (see also Lemish and Barzel 2000). Partly this is because women are less publicly active for any number of reasons – as the gender breakdown of callers in even this small study demonstrates (see below) – and partly they are rendered invisible and inactive because of what Siltanen and Stanworth (1984) and others describe as 'male-stream' media discourse. Part of the problem here is that women will often say that the policy issues which are regularly debated in the media are often not the ones which they think are most important, either to themselves or for the wider society. Such a view is held not only because some women do have different policy interests to men (Women's Communication Centre, 1996; Tibballs, 2000), but sometimes also because women will think of issues in different ways, more particularly, how specific policies affects themselves and their families. In other words, their interpretation of politics is more likely to be framed within the intimate context of their own personal lives and friendship networks, than in the more abstract context of 'society'. However, regardless of women and men's different political vision, most callers (92%) in our study believe that they were 'speaking for' a wider public when they put their question to the politician: it was only in a few situations where callers were concerned to raise a question or make a point in relation to a very specific and usually personal experience, where they believed that they were not representing the views of the public 'at large'. Giving voice – the selection process When we asked participants what they thought about the selection process which was used to decide who would be invited to put their question on air, nearly two-thirds (62%) were surprised that they had been successful in getting on air. For about half these callers, this was because they assumed that there would be too many other people trying to get through, although there were a number of other reasons given. Women tended to be rather more diffident about how relevant or interesting their question was (41%) than men (4%). There were also mixed views on the extent to which the selection process was ’rigged’, either to favour or to wrong-foot politicians, with some callers feeling reassured that this was not the case by virtue of their own question actually being selected, while others were sure that some kind of ’unfair’ bias was being introduced. In Wahl-Jorgensen’s (2001) study of decision-making in the selection of ’letters to the editor’, she suggests that there is an editorial preference for individualised concern (over activist group appeal), together with stories which are explicitly emotionally charged. Similar kinds of propensities were evident in the Election Call production team’s selection processes, on the grounds (in their view) that strong attitudes made ’good radio’. The production team were in fact quite careful to ensure that callers were ’ordinary’ members of the public rather than political activists or, worse still, ’plants’ who asked difficult or easy questions, depending on their political allegiance. Interestingly, views on the partiality of the BBC have changed considerably over the past decades with contemporary views that the BBC is too left-leaning contrasting markedly with work from the early 1990s which showed that voters believed that the BBC was more favourable to the Conservatives who also happened to be in power at the time (Miller, 1991). A few callers believe in the public service remit of the BBC to represent a spectrum of different views and expected to be given a chance despite the hostile tone of their question.

Authors: Ross, Karen.
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This pre-existing interest in politics is a common characteristic of individuals who are politically
engaged or who take part in public access broadcasting opportunities (McNair, 2001) but the fact
that nearly half the women callers describe themselves as ’interested in politics’ goes against the
more common perception of women’s disinterest. The domain in which women have traditionally
been regarded as practising their politics has been in the domesticated (private) sphere of the
family and even their actions as citizens have routinely been allocated to this private space
(McLaughlin, 1993). The media are much more likely to situate women as, say, mothers battling
to save the local nursery, than as political activists challenging the decision-making apparatus of
county hall (see also Lemish and Barzel 2000). Partly this is because women are less publicly
active for any number of reasons – as the gender breakdown of callers in even this small study
demonstrates (see below) – and partly they are rendered invisible and inactive because of what
Siltanen and Stanworth (1984) and others describe as 'male-stream' media discourse.
Part of the problem here is that women will often say that the policy issues which are regularly
debated in the media are often not the ones which they think are most important, either to
themselves or for the wider society. Such a view is held not only because some women do have
different policy interests to men (Women's Communication Centre, 1996; Tibballs, 2000), but
sometimes also because women will think of issues in different ways, more particularly, how
specific policies affects themselves and their families. In other words, their interpretation of
politics is more likely to be framed within the intimate context of their own personal lives and
friendship networks, than in the more abstract context of 'society'. However, regardless of women
and men's different political vision, most callers (92%) in our study believe that they were
'speaking for' a wider public when they put their question to the politician: it was only in a few
situations where callers were concerned to raise a question or make a point in relation to a very
specific and usually personal experience, where they believed that they were not representing the
views of the public 'at large'.
Giving voice – the selection process
When we asked participants what they thought about the selection process which was used to
decide who would be invited to put their question on air, nearly two-thirds (62%) were surprised
that they had been successful in getting on air. For about half these callers, this was because
they assumed that there would be too many other people trying to get through, although there
were a number of other reasons given. Women tended to be rather more diffident about how
relevant or interesting their question was (41%) than men (4%). There were also mixed views on
the extent to which the selection process was ’rigged’, either to favour or to wrong-foot politicians,
with some callers feeling reassured that this was not the case by virtue of their own question
actually being selected, while others were sure that some kind of ’unfair’ bias was being
introduced. In Wahl-Jorgensen’s (2001) study of decision-making in the selection of ’letters to the
editor’, she suggests that there is an editorial preference for individualised concern (over activist
group appeal), together with stories which are explicitly emotionally charged. Similar kinds of
propensities were evident in the Election Call production team’s selection processes, on the
grounds (in their view) that strong attitudes made ’good radio’. The production team were in fact
quite careful to ensure that callers were ’ordinary’ members of the public rather than political
activists or, worse still, ’plants’ who asked difficult or easy questions, depending on their political
allegiance.
Interestingly, views on the partiality of the BBC have changed considerably over the past decades
with contemporary views that the BBC is too left-leaning contrasting markedly with work from the
early 1990s which showed that voters believed that the BBC was more favourable to the
Conservatives who also happened to be in power at the time (Miller, 1991). A few callers believe
in the public service remit of the BBC to represent a spectrum of different views and expected to
be given a chance despite the hostile tone of their question.


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