Expert panel analyse media impact on constitutional affairs

17 June 2011

On 16th June the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society convened a panel of legal experts and political scientists to assess how the media presents and reports on constitutional affairs, in a workshop at Jesus College.

Participants each analysed the effect of the media on constitution-making and implementation in a specific region, including the Horn of Africa, Poland, Italy, and the Constitutional Treaty of the EU, from which a number of interesting patterns emerged.

Nicole Stremlau from the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies opened the workshop with a vivid depiction of her experience in Ethiopia, where the government implemented a series of reforms to liberalize the media, in order to help overcome the problem of constitutional legitimacy that they were faced with following their armed ascent to power. Dr Stremlau explored the potential role of the media in providing a forum for constitutional negotiation, but found that the free press became so adversarial towards the government, that it chose to ignore the media rather than engage in dialogue, which severely reduced the scope for public negotiation.

Adam Bodnar from Warsaw University assessed the Polish media landscape and its impact on the constitutional drafting process, in terms of raising awareness of the importance of the constitution and providing space for public debate. Dr Bodnar described how the press satiricised the process at times, but also supported a referendum on the constitution and promoted its adoption.

The media lawyer Monika Magyar drew on her experience working in Brussels to assess representations of the EU Constitutional Treaty in the media, focusing in particular on France and the Netherlands, where 'No' votes in referenda lead to the failure of the Treaty. The role of the Brussels Press Corps in filtering information on the Constitutional Treaty was critiqued, and factors including the complexity of the issues were also found to contribute to ineffective reporting of the Treaty by the media. Faced with such complexity, journalists often resorted to the caricaturization of constitutional nuances as conflicts between heads of state to present the Treaty in a negative light, tapping into popular concerns for national sovereignty and identity.

Lastly, political scientist Cristian Vaccari addressed the situation in Italy, where weak media independence and weak legal-rational authority are exacerbated by the influence of Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian Prime Minister's ownership of three television stations has played a significant role in polarizing opinion and creating a political environment in which the constitution has become a space for political contention rather than consensus.