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Preparing the Ground for Welfare Cuts: An Exploration of Stuart Hall's Encoding and Decoding Theory

Preparing the Ground for Welfare Cuts: An Exploration of Stuart Hall's Encoding and Decoding Theory

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Iain Russell. Originally submitted for Sociology of the Media at University of Limerick, with lecturer Dr Patricia Neville in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Iain Russell. Originally submitted for Sociology of the Media at University of Limerick, with lecturer Dr Patricia Neville in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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11/14/2013

 
Title:
Preparing the Ground for Welfare Cuts: An Exploration of StuartHall's Encoding and Decoding Theory
In October 2010 the Conservative government
1
of the United Kingdom announced budgetary cuts against state spending. Much of the discourse that took place in themedia prior to the announcements was in relation to a reduction of social welfarespending. The focus of this discussion is to explore how these cuts were presented toBBC television audiences by testing whether Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding modelstands up to scrutiny.A strong focus of Hall’s work, as Ruddock points out, has been to challenge researchconducted by social scientists that analysed the media from a liberal-pluralist position.In doing so, Hall contended – like the Frankfurt School of sociology - that the massmedia are a societal structure created and used by social elites to promote anideological belief system that serves their interests (Ruddock 2001, p. 120). In hishighly influential essay, ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse’ (1973),Hall argues that television audiences do not receive and interpret ideological messages passively (Smith and Bell 2007, pp. 82 - 83); instead he equates the tele-visualmedium as being a communication system that is akin to a “systematically distortedcommunication” (Hall 1973, p. 1). In setting forth his argument Hall’s message istwofold. On the one hand there is the encoding argument which he suggests that the purpose of television is to encode ideological messages that audiences are to interpretas being ‘common sense’ and relevant to them. In expansion, Hall proposes thattelevision elites decide how news stories are told when they determine whether: “the
1
 
Although it is conceded that the current government is a Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition, it is the Conservatives whoare the dominant party.
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symbolic form of the message has a privileged position in the communicativeexchange”, and that they also determine whether an event is a: “story before it can become a
commutative event”
(Hall 1973, p. 2). Hall goes on: “[for a message to]have an ‘effect’ (however defined), or satisfy a need or be put to ‘use’, it must be first be perceived as a meaningful discourse and meaningfully decoded” (Hall 1973, p. 3).In other words, it is broadcast elites who determine what events are newsworthy, butthen also - and perhaps more importantly - decide how news stories are told and thenmade relevant to the ‘common sense’ viewpoint of the audience. The second andmore crucial aspect of Hall’s thesis is his assertion that the decoding of ideologicalmessages can be become corrupted when they become: “differentiated momentswithin the totality formed by the communicative process [due to] a lack of equivalence” (Hall 1973, p. 3).In setting out his arguments Hall explains there are four constituent elements of thecoding process, that of: the
dominant/hegemonic code
; the
 professional code
; the
negotiated code
; and the
opposition code
. In describing the
dominant/hegemoniccode
, Hall refers to the way television audiences receive and interpret a televisedmessage in compliance with the intended ideological assertions. In particular, hesuggests that: “the viewer takes the connoted meaning [and is therefore] operatinginside the dominant code.” (Hall 1973, p. 16).Before we turn our attention to the application of Hall’s theory to television analysis,we need to contextualise the Conservative government within its ideologicalframework and how this relates to the way in which the budgetary cuts were presented2
 
to television audiences.
2
The Conservative Party by tradition is a right wing sociallyconservative political party that favours low taxation and the reduction of stateapparatus (Heywood 2000, p.p. 68 - 70); it is, by definition, a political party thatobjects to the role state for social welfare provision. So how does this relate to the BBC News coverage? Let us consider how the budgetcuts were announced in October 2010.For the government to gain public support for the spending cuts they presented their case to the general public. According to the encoding/decoded model, as McQuail points out, elites need put ‘spin’ on announcements to make them relevant and‘common sense’ (McQuail 2010, p. 73). For example, let us reflect on the televisedinterview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne that was broadcaston the BBC Ten O’Clock News on the 17
th
October 2010. In this interview Osborneappeals to the audiences’ ‘common sense’ when he suggests that if the budgetary cutsare not implemented the economic situation would worsen; that the IMF and theOECD would demand cuts in state spending; and that the UK will slip into bankruptcy. What is more, to compound the message, he goes on to describe how thegovernment intends to crackdown on social welfare spending which he equates as being as a: “social tragedy” that relegates those on benefits to non-productive lives(Ten O’Clock Newsa, 2010). To reinforce the message, the BBC repeatedly plays thenews clip in all its news bulletins.
2
 
Again, although the current government is a Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition it is the Conservatives who are thedriving force behind the budgetary cuts.
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