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Publicity

Theories of deliberative democracy tend to emphasize publicity as a critical element of democratic practice. This is a pertinent consideration for mini-publics because whilst participants go through a process of mutual learning and reflection, the general public are rarely aware of the existence of these institutions. Rafe Mair, one of British Columbia’s best-known political voices, suggests why publicity is important in discussing the BCCA:

We should start with the thought that 160 of our fellow citizens, in an overwhelming favourable vote, and after the most careful of examination of plenty of evidence, have made a recommendation. While that doesn’t mean we must agree with them - it does tell us that since none of us have gone through that exercise, we should give considerable weight to the recommendation made.

(quoted in Cutler et al. 2008: 174)

Polling evidence from the 2005 referendum in British Columbia indicates the significance that publicity can have in the development of broader public opinion: those citizens who were aware of the BCCA were more likely to support the proposition in the referendum. Citizens tended to be influenced by the Assembly’s expertise or the knowledge that a ‘representative’ group of ordinary citizens had come to a near consensus opinion (Cutler et al. 2008). However, publicity was far from fully realized: significant numbers of British Columbia voters remained oblivious to the existence and recommendations of the BCCA, as Amy Lang notes:

With advance polls indicating that only one-third of the population had heard of the Citizens’ Assembly or the referendum on electoral reform, one can imagine the surprise of many voters arriving at the ballot booth expecting to vote in a provincial election and being asked to approve or reject the voting system itself!

(Lang 2007: 36)

Critics contend that the lacklustre and poorly funded referendum debate failed to raise the Assembly’s profile. On this reading, the failure to fully realize publicity is the main reason why the proposition was rejected in 2005. This was reinforced in the 2009 rerun of the referendum, by which time the role and function of the Citizens’ Assembly was arguably long-forgotten in the minds of most citizens.

If most citizens were unaware of the BCCA - a mini-public that ran its own consultation process, where all households received a summary of the final report and where many participants acted as ambassadors, undertaking media interviews and giving talks - we should not be surprised about the low level of public awareness of most other mini-publics that lack such outreach activities. One significant reason is the difficult relationship between mini-publics and the media. First, in most mini-publics, much of the deliberation takes place behind closed doors in small-group sessions: typically only the plenary sessions are open to the public and the media. While plenary sessions of the BCCA and a number of deliberative polls have been broadcast on television (usually on public broadcast channels) and on the internet, small-group sessions are generally held in private (although they have been filmed in the coverage of some deliberative polls). Removing the glare of the media is seen as important for creating an environment free from the pressures that can undermine open deliberation between citizens (Elster 1998; Chambers 2004).

Second, media interest depends on the salience of the issue under consideration (Parkinson 2006). The BCCA had an advantage compared to many other minipublics. It was a high profile institution - the design had not been used before and it was considering a politically charged issue, one which had caused public conflict and disagreement. There was a general recognition that the existing electoral system was unsatisfactory, but little agreement amongst political elites about the necessary shape of reforms. But even then, the proceedings and recommendations of the Assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario did not receive as much media attention as might be expected, particularly given that they framed province-wide referendums.

In many ways, deliberative polling was designed with the media (in particular, television) in mind (Fishkin 1997: 175) and it has been reasonably successful in achieving television coverage: two National Issues Conventions were broadcast by PBS in the US before elections in 1996 and 2003 and deliberative polls have been broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 on subjects including the future of the monarchy and the National Health Service (NHS) and on ABC and Channel 9 in Australia as part of the run-up to the referendum on the republic. John Parkinson’s analysis of the NHS poll in the UK raises concerns about the way in which public deliberation is, or even can be, captured on television. He argues that the dramatic structure imposed on the three-part broadcast tended to highlight areas of conflict and polarization - for example, between the competing health spokespersons for the three main political parties - and the strong personality of the celebrity chair of the plenary sessions (Parkinson 2006: 108-13). What makes good television does not necessarily reflect the virtues of deliberation:

The issue here is not that the television crew failed to capture the vast majority of the actual deliberating; it is that they could not do so using the medium of television in an environment where the needs of the audience are a significant factor ... media dramatisation limits the access viewers have to any reasongiving that went on between participants over the three days, which gives viewers little basis on which to judge the quality of conclusions to which the participants come.

(Parkinson 2006: 112)

Rachel Gibson and Sarah Miskin offer a complementary analysis of the way that the Australian deliberative poll was televised, arguing that the crucial decisions about the structure and scheduling of the event ‘were clearly made in deference to media concerns rather than for the optimal knowledge gathering and deliberation on the part of poll participants’ (Gibson and Miskin 2002: 169). The current affairs program 60 Minutes was, like Channel 4 in the UK, highly selective in what it considered newsworthy (ibid.: 173). Gibson and Miskin highlight a paradox inherent in deliberative polling (and arguably in the practice of mini-publics more generally): Fishkin has long been a critic of the manner in which media coverage (especially the focus on ever-shorter sound bites) undermines the possibility of democratic deliberation (Fishkin 1991: 62-3), and yet he must rely on the self same media to publicize the poll’s existence and findings (Gibson and Miskin 2002: 172).

 
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