How Media and Political Elites Influence the electorate in Britain and Nigeria
By Yushau A. Shuaib
This paper submitted to MA PR 2010 Class of the University of Westminster, London discusses the notion that Elites hold the power to influence public opinion, which leads to a limitation of democracy. It also provides perspectives for a better understanding on Democracy, Elites, Media interference with references to a European country, Britain and African nation Nigeria.
It is important to note that while Britain practices a representative democracy where citizens elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf, a developing nation like Nigeria which is most populous country in Africa practices the Presidential system fashioned after America’s constitution. In addition, democratic system in Britain is as old as modern civilisation; its ethos is just being observed in Nigeria after decades of military rules.
In the modern world democracy is acknowledged as the best form of government where the ultimate power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodic free elections. Salim (2009) also shared this view by adding that every nation craves for the best form of democracy to empower the people socially, politically and economically.
As a political system, it allows citizens within the society the right to have equal shares of on how they are governed and in the political estimation. Through an electoral process democracy is devoid of authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies of other systems like monarchy, militacracy, and diarchy that are mostly practiced in the Arab world, Africa, and some Asian nations.
Democracy gives all people the right to participate in governance regardless of religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, physical well being and any other form of discrimination. After duration of mandatory tenures, elections are held to usher new governments. Whether in a Parliamentary or Presidential system, elected government are responsible to the electorate and are held accountable. The citizens exercise control and power to elect or remove a government during elections.
Democracy is not only enjoyed by the citizens but also received supports from people in various sectors of the economy. Miller and Dinan (2000) even point out that PR has traditionally helped financial capitalists and big-business interests maintain their dominant position in the political economy of liberal democracies.
The Powerful Elites
Elites are powerful and influential groups of people within a larger society. In most cases they are in the minority in term of population, but their privileged instruments and positions make their status look larger than the society itself. With their privileged and intimidating personages, other members of the community see them with envy because of their superior intellectual, social, or economic status.”
The elites may not necessarily be in the government to influence decisions in government and private businesses. In some countries some elitist groups have impacted positive on the economic development of their communities but in other cases, they install people into government to win contracts and protect their businesses.
Moloney (2006) notes that Capitalists are an elite who control the accumulation and distribution of funds needed by business for profitable growth and that the control makes them as powerful as, if not powerful than, elected governments and certainly more powerful than other interests in liberal democracies. In operating their control, the capitalist elite have access to professionals such as investment managers, deal makers, accountant, lawyers, marketeers and public relations agencies.
There are clear cases of elitist conspiracy against democratic processes not only in the developing nations where electoral processes are largely in their infancy but all in the developed economies that carry the flags of democratic evangelism.
The fraudulent elections engineered by politicians in Nigeria and excessive partisanship of media in political campaign in Britain expose on how elites hold the power to influence public opinions which leads to a limitation of democracy.
Political Elites Manipulate Elections in Nigeria
The Nigerian elites since the re-emergence of democracy in 1999 have continued to manipulate public opinion by sponsoring political campaigns for their preferred candidates who would protect their interest. It is unfortunate that those that have the credentials for top public positions must appear beggarly to the elites who determine their eligibility to win elections based on unwritten agreement to protect some parochial interest. Not even the educated citizens have the courage to make positive contributions, in discourse, to influence public opinion.
Writing in the Nigerian Village square, Oke Ndibe insists that Nigerian intellectuals, for the most part, have abdicated the historical duty of fashioning a discourse capable of clarifying the forces at play in the Nigerian polity as well as charting possibilities. According to him the failure of this class to find a language adequate to the task of articulating the nation’s predicament and prospects accounts for the confusion at the heart of the project called Nigeria. “Most of our intellectuals have grown lazy, both intellectually and morally. Their first dream is to be invited to serve in the corridors of power. In order to snag an invitation, they’re willing to go blind, to lull themselves to sleep. They are willing to broker all kinds of deals with the Devil. Anything for the opportunity to breathe the air polluted by those who wield power.”
The elites are so selfish and so self-centred that all they need is to milk the country. The former Minister of Federal Capital Territory, Nasir El-Rufai says: “We have a short-sighted political elite that has put their own need for power and accumulation of wealth above the interests of the country.”
The brutal approach of the elites in Nigeria who also have controlled on some of the media is traced to their antecedents in dictatorial regimes. Most of them are retired military and paramilitary officers who have ruled the nation arbitrarily and would not like their past misdeeds to be exposed. A columnist Salisu Suleiman discloses that it is common for analysts of all sorts to blame the ills of Nigeria on the ‘ruling elite’ who are in the political class, top businessmen, traditional rulers and others in the higher echelons of society in this class. He insists that if one is looking for members of this class, the person should look towards the military.”
He said the movers and shakers of Nigeria who set the agenda for manipulation of public opinion have military background. Top elected public figures are products are products of the military. Past civilian Presidents including civilians: Shagari and Shonekan and Yar’Adua were all products of the military. The elites do not necessarily need to hold power political offices to influence and install elections of civilians to protect their interests. Thus they have remained firmly in control of policies and programmes of democratic government they installed through sponsored publicity and grandstanding.
With massive wealth elites control the media and entertainment industry to deny ordinary citizens the right to choose their leaders through free and fair elections.
Media Elites’ Lopsidedness in British Electioneering
During the campaign towards 2011 Elections in Britain, the hands of the major influencers become more glaring day by day. The media owners’ bias towards some of the candidates for the election directly manipulates public opinion and the chance of ordinary voters to make independent choices.
Democracy, Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are fine in theory but the reality on the ground do not always match the theory considering the influence of opinion moulders which is the press being controlled by their respective proprietors. With the public rarely having the time to read the hand-writings on the wall, the media elites manipulate the information flow and spoon-fed the electorates with ideas and ideals that promote other hidden agenda.
The influence of media in British politics is not new; they now collaborate with politicians in attempts to satisfy the appetite of the media barons. Neil Clark writes that “to get elected, and gain the support of big business and the powerful Murdoch media empire, (former Prime Minister) Blair embraced the economic tenets of Thatcherism – mixed in with a generous dose of social liberalism to give the solution a ‘progressive’ gloss. Such a combination of economic and social liberalism would not only gain the approval of the Sun, Times and News of the World, but the Guardian too. And in terms of winning elections in a country where big business and the City now called all the shots, it worked a treat. What all of this means is that: the vast majority of Britons who don’t sign up to the phoney Westminster elite consensus are effectively disenfranchised.
Writing in the Guardian, David Yelland, a former editor of the Sun exposes the hypocrisy of media barons who claimed neutrality in press coverage of political programmes. He recalls his experience at the Sun when the paper deliberately ignored and refused to provide media coverage of other contenders to elections.
Making reference to campaigns towards the 2011 British election, Yelland points out that “if the Liberal Democrats actually won the election – or held the balance of power – it would be the first time in decades that Murdoch was locked out of British politics. In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite.”
The partisanship of the Sun and its publishers was exposed in past elections when Yelland recalls his first year in the paper when reporters were not sent to cover Liberal Democrat conference. According to him “We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them… So while we sent a team of five, plus assorted senior staff, to both the Tory and Labour conferences, we sent nobody to the Lib Dems. And while successive News International chiefs have held parties at both those conferences, they have never to my knowledge even attended a Lib Dem conference.”
He went on to paint a gloomy picture of the situation when very serious men and women stay out of politics because the national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. Point out that what currently exists in the United Kingdom is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless.
Other lesser parties are completely and deliberately underreported except when there are excuses to highlight their bad images. They are the ‘invisible party, purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored.’
The broadcast media are fairer and objective in their reportage in electoral coverage than the print media. The owners and the editors of newspapers are culprits and guilty not only the Murdoch and his Sun. Writing in article, Yushau Shuaib believes the Independent seems to be the only newspaper in Britain that’s free from proprietorial influence and political allegiance. He observes that “the Labour Party and its leader, Gordon Brown receives editorial sympathy from the Mirror and the Guardian; the Conservative Party and its Leader, David Cameron receives supports of Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Time and the Sun; while Nick Clegg of Liberal Democrat has no major newspaper’s official backing except public goodwill and sincerity of some reporters.”
When Public Opinion is Questioned
Opinions of the public count in production of goods and services and formulation of programmes and policies. A Nigerian author, Osuji (1999) describes public opinion as an expression of a belief held in common by members, a group or public on a controversial issue of general importance.
Such definitions have been expressed by scholars in mass communications and sociology like Key (1961) who defines public opinion as consisting of those opinions held by private which government finds prudent to heed. 
In most cases public opinion is viewed as the collective individual attitudes and beliefs on a given issue of importance. It is usually influenced by those in public relations and the media. Political leaders and their collaborative elites invest huge resources in their attempt to sway public opinion. The media, as a reliable tool plays a critical role in forming the opinion.
Kegley and Niltkopt (1991) agree with this definition when they said that public opinion is the sum of all private opinions of which government officials in some measure are aware and which they take into account in determining their official actions.
When the media is very powerful and influential, the public opinion dances invariably to the editorial tune to favour the argument, even if it is one-sided exposition. The media influences public opinion in many ways including how they vote and rating of individuals and groups in the society. Media is everything to the people: what they see, hear, understand about everything that give them ideas on forming opinions.
One of the recent scandals on how media suppresses public opinion was highlighted by the Independent newspaper when it reports an allegation that the Sun failed to publish a credible and authoritative YouGov poll that ‘voters fear a Liberal Democrat government less than a Conservative or Labour.’ The Liberal Democrats and other electorates have accused the Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Sun for suppressing the finding. 
In Nigeria, not only during the democratic era, the past military administrations in their desire to transform into elected leaders they attempted to manipulate public opinion to favour their candidacies. J.A. sambe Introduction to mass Communication Practice in Nigeria, spectrum books limited Ibadan 2008, discloses that a former Nigerian military president, general sani abacha saw public opinion as a vital government instrument. He used the media effectively to mould public opinion to his favour in his bid to succeed himself. The media accentuated his stage-managed and sponsored adoption by political, various groups and movements all over the country. The media, by stage-managing the public opinion, created false impression of overwhelming support of Nigerians for Abacha.
From the foregoing, this essay observes that the relationships between the elite and political office holders have been too close like Siemens to the point that their separation is better imagine. The elites in media and business sectors decide ahead their preferences for leaders in democratic systems before elections are held. They invest heavily for victory of their choices in the most undemocratic fashion.
Many media programs have a political allegiance. Depending on what particular new medium the people are exposed to, their reasoning and opinions are reflective of information they received from the press whose major patrons are either financial or political elites. Because the media is the major source of information to the public, it exerts enormous power and control over decisions in the society.
The citizens have the right to get essential information that is untainted to form their opinion in exercising their franchise to demonstrate that a democracy is a “government of the people by the people for the people.”
The political class and the media must ensure that they utilise the best approach to win the public supports without greenwashing and brainwashing in their attempts to sustain the relevant in democratic polity. How of such approach is the use of PR strategies through accurate and timely information. Michie (1998) writes that PR puts information into the public domain and is a precondition for informed choice in a democracy.
Public Opinion must be objectively conducted gives a clear picture of event and perception on individuals, groups, products and service and their rating. Examples have shown that media utilizes a wide variety of advertising and propaganda to influence people’s choices.
Utilisation of techniques of Public relations practice can be better in persuading the public to form an opinion rather than dictatorial tendencies of elites. Molloney (2006) agrees that PR has a beneficial co-existence with democracy from the perspective of liberal equalitarism, which argues for a diminution of discrimination between individuals through redistribution of resources in the name of social justice.
A democracy that is foisted on people through manipulation and underhand dealing can not be said to represent the people in a given system.
If the elites should hold the power to influence public opinion, they must ensure that the citizens have the rights to use the platform to express their views because public opinion itself is the view expressed by a significant number of persons on an issue of general importance. The elite could control the information platforms like the media but for the survival and growth of society, the editors should provide objective editorial and fair coverage through news items, features and commentaries for maximum contribution to national discourse.
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