The media and public accountability: mirror or spark?

Thomas Schillemans & Sandra Jacobs
Thomas Schillemans & Sandra Jacobs

by Thomas Schillemans and Sandra Jacobs

Europe currently faces the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Many European states are confronted with large numbers of migrants in need of immediate care, food and shelter. Responsible public agencies, such as the UK’s Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) in the Netherlands, face exceptionally complex challenges. A challenge that is aggravated by the fact that they are constantly criticized in the media and by politicians when things go wrong.

In our Policy & Politics article entitled Media and public accountability: typology and exploration, we explore the ways in which mass media are involved in public accountability processes by looking at examples of public sector organisations in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

In the Netherlands, for instance, COA was blamed for concocting unpleasant surprises for local governments when the organization decided to immediately direct large numbers of asylum seekers to their municipalities. A Dutch mayor called the situation ‘chaotic’: “The COA lost control of the temporary housing of refugees”, he said. COA was held accountable and had to explain its behaviour to politicians and citizens. The issue was heavily discussed in the media. Among other things, the media attention triggered members of parliament to ask additional questions about the issue in Parliament. The asylum seekers and COA became a hot topic and political interest was intensified. Members of Parliament now keep an extra critical eye on the way the agency handles this sensitive issue. This is by no means a local Dutch issue. In the UK, Visas and Immigration (UKVI) is criticized as well: “The Home Office is also failing to meet its targets for dealing with newer claims: there were 17,067 awaiting an initial decision in the final quarter of 2014, an increase of more than 70 per cent on the year before.”

In the above case, government agencies are criticized and held accountable in and by the media. This may prompt many important questions – one of them being: how does the role of the media affect processes of public accountability?

When we analyse this example in terms of accountability, we see that the media play a variety of roles in public accountability. We distinguish between four important roles. Firstly, COA as a public sector organization is criticized for its behaviour in the media by politicians and citizens. From a public accountability perspective, we could say that the media fulfil a forum function by reporting criticism on a public organization.

This might, and in this case does,  trigger a second function of the media in the shape of formal (political) accountability: members of parliament ask questions about a public organizations as a consequence of media attention. We call this the trigger function of the media in public accountability.

Thirdly, media depict the political discussion about the COA and this greatly extends public knowledge about the issue.  They thus amplify formal accountability processes by reporting on them. This is the classical watchdog role of the media. When we read about the COA being discussed in Parliament, the amplifying role of the media is brought into play. “The increase of asylum seekers is a ‘big challenge’ for the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the Aliens Police and the COA”, said the responsible State Secretary in a letter to the House of Representatives.

Lastly, media can invoke pre-emptive self-criticism in public organisations in anticipation of potential media scrutiny or by triggering formal accountability demands from members of parliament. The very possibility of media attention can cause pre-emptive self-criticism, which is called the spark function of the media in public accountability. This function is not embedded in our example, but one can imagine that COA employees might think about the consequences of their behaviour in terms of potential media attention and that they may want to anticipate negative news stories.

With this typology, we have made an effort to integrate existing views on the role of the media in society with existing models of public accountability. Discerning between four roles enables us to clarify the different ways media are involved in processes of public accountability. The typology does, unfortunately perhaps, not help UKVI, COA, and other organizations with their current challenges. However it does help to disentangle the various ways in which the media are involved in the rhetorical construction of policy failures and to understand how the political arena and the media arena are connected in contemporary democracies.

About the authors

Thomas Schillemans is Associate Professor in Public Administration at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Sandra Jacobs is in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Governance and the media: exploring the linkages by B. Guy Peters.

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