Protest is migrating from the streets in to the newspapers. Instead of reporting dissent, the media is making it.
Recent surges of single-issue protest over issues such as fuel prices, foxhunting and the war in Iraq suggest that voters are far from apathetic – but that they do have interests which diverge from the standard political agenda.
Newspapers, faced with falling circulation, are joining the twenty-first century version of the picket line by shaping and sometimes making protest. This press activism has helped foster a new kind of social movement: dramatic surges of single-issue sentiment that occur outside party politics and can be activated by surprisingly small groups of people.
The rise of the single-issue, press-backed campaign suggests a shift to a consumer driven politics that demands immediate response.
The conjunction of media power and popular protest is reshaping the terms of political engagement. But does this phenomenon offer a new channel of expressing opinions ignored by political elites – or does it threaten to short-circuit representative democracy?
Politicians and political parties need to adapt to ensure that they better identify and respond to emerging issues of public concern. At the same time, political structures are required which incorporate and legitimise the principles of direct democracy.
But the new activism of the Fourth Estate also highlights the need for more effective means to hold the media to account – and for a more honest and conscientious journalism.
Kirsty Milne is a journalist and visiting scholar at Harvard University. A former columnist and editorial-writer for The Scotsman, she has also worked for the New Statesman, New Society and the BBC.