Definition , Nature , Importance and Agencies of Public Opinion

Definition , Nature , Importance and Agencies of Public Opinion

Meaning of Public Opinion 

The desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people - or the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem - is called public opinion.

Public opinion or Political opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

Lord Bryce has beautifully defined public opinion in the following words:

“The term is commonly used to denote the aggregate of the views, men hold regarding matters that affect or interest the community. Thus understood, it is a mixture of all sorts of different nations, beliefs, fancies, prejudices, aspirations.”

Most authentic definition of Public Opinion has been given by Lowell. In his book “Public Opinion and Popular Government”, Lowell writes, “In order that an opinion may be public a majority is not enough and unanimity is not required, but the opinion must be such that while the minority may not share it, they feel bound by conviction, not by fear, to accept it and if democracy is complete, the submission of the minority must be given ungrudging”.

Nature of Public Opinion

In the field of political theory the concept of public opinion has been subjected to a through analysis in recent years. Still, there is no general agreement as to its meaning or function and in the absence of analytical clarity, the discussion on its nature, to quote Sait, have "often introduce confusion rather than enlightment."

The concept of public opinion came to limelight in the wake of democracy. The governmental policies gradually became the function of opinion rather than of force, and the means for the expressions of opinion like constitutionally guaranteed liberties, elections, political parties etc., were at hand, the role of public opinion in the government came to be generally recognized. The theory of public opinion is thus a derivative from democracy as a form of government. 

The broad assumption on which the theory is built are:

1.     that the public is interested in government;

2.     that the public knows what it wants;

3.     that the public has the ability to express what it wants;

4.     that the public's will would be enacted into law.

Granting those conditions how should public opinion be defined? To follow Finer, most definitions of public opinion are intended to mean one of the three things:

1. A Record Of Facts : As a record of fact, opinion means such a simple statement as ' the Soviet Union has exploded a super-bomb'.
2. A Belief :  As a belief, opinion implies not only a record of facts but also their valuation.

It also involves a prophecy about the future course of events. The sentence, 'There shall not be a war on the Berlin issue', illustrate the point.
3. A Will : As a will, opinion is not is not merely a record and valuation of facts; it also asserts a course of action. For example, when we inquire, 'India should go to war with Pakistan over the question of the azad Kashmir-yes or no?' we mean that it is worthwhile to pursue a course of action. In the field of political dynamics, public opinion is intended to produce a concrete governmental policy. Hence, as Finer observes "Politics is most concrete with public opinion as will which, typically eventuates in a statue and in administration."

Importance of Public Opinion

Public opinion occupies an important place in democracy. The democratic government derives its powers from the public opinion and it is based on it. Each government tries to keep the public opinion in its favour and it should not go against it at any cost.

The ministers are very much afraid of the criticism voiced in the press.
The electorate elects the government after every four or five years. After the elections the government cannot become despotic because of public opinion. The government which violates the public opinion cannot stay long. The public opinion acts at beacon to government and legislature.
The opposition parties create public opinion in their favour by criticising the government. The voice of the people is the voice of God. Thus the government which ignores public opinion is bound to meet its doom very soon. Public opinion is considered the best protector of the fundamental rights of the people.
In countries where public opinion is not awakened, the government becomes absolute. It is, therefore, collect said that “An alert and enlightened public opinion is the first essential of democracy”. Even in dictatorship, government tries to create public opinion in its favour and for this purpose it controls the means which create it.

Hindrances to the Creation of Sound Public Opinion:

In order to make public opinion strong in the real sense, it is essential that there should be no hindrance to the mean which create public opinion. But in practice no government is willing to do so. In dictatorship, the government imposes many restrictions on the means for creating public opinion.

Besides, the following are the hindrances in the creation of sound public opinion:

(1) Illiteracy;

(2) Partial press;

(3) Disinterested towards social life and absence of political consciousness;

(4) Formation of political parties on wrong principles;

(5) Defective education system;

(6) Poverty

Conditions for the Expression and Formation of Sound Public Opinion:

(1) For the formation of sound public opinion, the first necessity is educating the people, so that they may be able to understand politics well.

(2) They system of education should be such that there should be no narrow-mindedness and people should become broad-minded.

(3) The press should not be under the control of a particular party. It should guide the government and the people impartially.

(4) The government should banish communalism and poverty from the country so that everybody should have the opportunity to receive education and be able to think with an open mind.

(5) The political parties should be organised according to economic and political principles. They should not be organised on the basis of religious principles.

Agencies for the Formation and Expression of Public Opinion:

§  Press;

§  Public Meetings;

§  Political Parties;

§  Political Literature;

§  Radio, Television and Cinema;

§  Educational Institutions;

§  Election; and

§  Religious Associations.

(1) Press:

The main agency for the formation of public opinion is press. A good press acts as a Light House for democracy. Newspapers can be called ‘the book of democracy’. Impartial, free and fair press is a boon for any country. A free press crticises the government severely and creates a sound public opinion fearlessly.

It not only controls the views of the government and the people, but also shows them the right path. The newspapers give us information about everybody’s problems and create political consciousness. The press acts as an important link between the people and the government.

An enlightened press decides conflicts in the country and takes it to the heights of development. But if the press is controlled by some selfish party, community or the capitalists, the country suffers a great loss- Therefore, the government should have a strict check or control on press.

(2) Public Meetings:

Public Meetings are also an important agency creating public opinion. The ministers support the policy of the government in the public and the opposition parties criticise the government bitterly and expose its shortcomings. This process gives political education to the people. The views of the people are molded in public meetings. But all this is possible only at a place where the people are completely free to express their views.

(3) Political Parties:

Political parties play an important role in the formation of public opinion. Generally, there are three types of people in public. In the first category leaders of many political parties are included. The second category is that of the elite and the third category is that of the majority of the illiterate persons.
Though the number of people in the first category is very small, yet they wield a great influence in society. In our country, there are many parties, such as Janata Party, the BJP, the Communist Party, the C.P.M., etc. Each party makes efforts to place before the people a very attractive programme to secure their maximum support.
For this purpose they undertake certain constructive programmes and deliver impressive speeches in order to propagate their ideology. In the end, we can say that political parties play an important role in moulding, developing and strengthening the public opinion.
Gettell says, “Political parties carry on extensive campaign of propaganda for the purpose of directing public opinion in favour of their interests. In addition to the use of newspapers and magazines favourable to their point of view, they prepare party platforms, text-book and a flood of documents, pamphlets, posters and other forms of prepared opinions. In many cases, the voter reads only the material furnished by his own party and thus is strengthened in his traditional allegiance”.

(4) Political literature:

The leader of political parties, editors, professors and other educated persons write and publish many types of political books every-day. The people read this literature and their views are moulded accordingly. Most of the people have no firm thinking of their own, and they are easily swayed by the views expressed in these books.

 (5) Radio, Television and Cinemas:

Radio, television and cinema also influence the views and opinions of the people. Radio, television and cinema not only serve the purpose of entertainment but they also convey the news and views of many public leaders to the masses.

The people establish their contact with the people who were present in the meetings addressed by the public leaders could listen to them, but now millions of people can listen to them simultaneously at far flung places. Therefore, this is also a good medium for the moulding of public opinion.

(6) Educational Institutions:

The views of the students are formed in educational institutions. Usually, the students adopt the views of their teachers. In school such colleges, subjects like Economic, Civics, Political Science, History, etc. are taught which help in the formation of political views. Besides, in each school and college, there are many study circles and associations which arrange lectures of many educated persons.

These lectures help a lot in the formation of public opinion. In dictatorship, Hitler and Russian leaders made special efforts to win over public opinion. They appointed teachers of their own choice in schools and colleges and prescribed text books in order to propagate their ideology.

(7) Election:

Election is also a good means for expressing public opinion. Each party tries to place before the people its ideology and programme. It helps in the formation of public opinion. The people vote for the party whose programmes policies impress them.

 (8) Religious Associations:

India is a country of religious-minded people has a great impact on our politics. If religion means morality, its effect nail be useful, but many a time, certain political parties use religious places for political propaganda. It has an adverse effect on politics, because religious places become a forum for propaganda by selfish leaders and their sanctity is destroyed.

During middle Ages, the orthodox religious leaders had a great influence on politics. The division of our country in 1947 was the result of religious hatred and bigotry among the two major communities-the Hindus and the Muslims.

Importance of the Press in a Democracy and Formation of Public Opinion

Gettell is of the opinion that the press expresses its opinion through articles and the newspapers comment on many problems. If the events are brought before the people in a proper and impartial manner, the press can play an important role in keeping the people informed about everyday problems.
The press includes daily, weekly, monthly papers, periodicals and books. News and views are expressed in the press. Also the press publishes cartoons, crossword puzzles, book reviews, market rates and reports relating to the weather and sports. The columns of newspapers are full of political, economic and social events.

Besides, there are editorials and feature articles by many writers of repute. It helps in the increase of the knowledge of the people. Most of the readers form their opinion after reading the newspapers.
If the editors are free in expressing their views and if they are not under the control of the newspapers owners, they can safeguard the interests of the society in a better way. But most of the editors are the employees of the capitalists or are the puppets in the hands of political parties. They are bound to please their owners or support the policies of their parties. In fact, the editors should be given full freedom so that may be able to serve the people in a better.
The Press has an important place in democracy. It criticises the policies of the government and thus keeps it alert. It serves as beacon to the government and the people through editorials. It educates the people and helps in the formation of correct public opinion.
It keeps the people informed about daily events and moulds their views accordingly. The editorials influence the government and the people alike. The press is also the guardian of the freedom and the interests of the people, the citizen bring their problems to the notice of government through the press.
When the government imposes unjust taxes on the people, they start a campaign through the press and get their demands accepted by the people, because through the press the people come to know of the activities of the government and also the government is able to know the wishes of the people. The press acts as a co­ordinator between the government and the people, which is essential for democracy. Thus the press should be free.

Free press is the main basis of democracy

The freedom of the press is hindered by the interference of the newspaper owners and also by the government. Shree Sachin Sen, in his presidential address to the All India Newspaper Editors Annual Conference, held on January 7, 1956 said, “The duty of the press is to comment on the views of public interest, to give information to its readers, to educate them, to entertain them, to enhance their knowledge and to create a forum for exchange of views. If the press is under the influence of the government, it cannot perform it’s duty in a proper manner.
It should serve the people without the interference of the administration. In a liberal democracy, the press should be free from the influence of the ruling party. The press should have the right to express its differences with the government and it should have the right to criticise it. Press is the test of civilization and culture. Criticism based on arguments is the life of the free press. Though in the publishing of the news, the press should be free from the interference of the administration, yet the press cannot be given unlimited freedom.
It should not show unpleasantness in controversies, it should not promote class struggle and it should not criticise the basic things on which the security of the state is based”.

Dr. Sen further said, “It is also the duty of the press to give co-operation to the government. Five-Year Plans are not the plans of the particular political party, but they are the national plans. Thus the press should not create any difficulty in the implementation of these plans. The press should not ignore the drawbacks and weaknesses of the government. However, when the government takes up some commendable work in its hands the press should invariably praise its efforts.
The press does not lose its freedom by free co-operation. At the same time its co­operation cannot be sought forcibly. If the press-owners are blind to the needs of the free society, the press is not free. The press will also be not free when the government imposes a control over it in the name of social development. The press should be responsible to the people”.

Thus the press should keep in view the public interest. If the press is under the control of some selfish party or some capitalist, a great harm is done to the society. Therefore, the press should publish neither false news nor provoking articles. The newspapers should not create an atmosphere of hatred. The government must, have some sort of control over the press so that it may not preach hatred among the people.
In dictatorship, there is a strict control over the press. The press cannot criticise the wrong policies of the government and it has to support government in every matter. Hitler and Mussolini considered the press as one of the best media for propagating their politics.

Importance of Radio or Broadcasting in the Formation of Public Opinion or Working of Democracy

Radio is also one of the most effective methods for the formation of public opinion. We listen to many types of news, sweet songs, entertaining and educative plays and weather reports through the radio. Radio has greater influence over the people than the press.

The reason for this is that while the newspapers can be read only by educated persons, radio can be listened to both by the literate and the illiterate alike. Radio is more entertaining than the press as it imparts education in an entertaining manner.

In a country like India it has a very important place because here most of the people are illiterate and they cannot read the newspapers. Thus, they can benefit themselves by listening to interesting speeches, news, music, plays, etc.

Radio talks influence a nation very much. In case a dangerous situation, the leaders appeal to the people for facing the challenge with courage and determination. In India, radio can be very useful in removing untouchability and religious fanaticism. Through all India Radio, the social and political life of the masses can be revolutionised.

People can be provided with leadership on important political questions. Sometimes radio is misused. This was done by Hitler in Germany when he used it for spreading hatred against the Jews and when he carried on a false propaganda against them.

Propaganda and Rumour

Propaganda has a great value in modern age. Each party and state depends on propaganda for their existence. In our country the government carries on propaganda to make Five-Year Plans successful. In order to secure the co­operation of the people, the medium of propaganda proves very useful.

If the propaganda is made in an able and efficient manner, it has a great effect, on the People’s minds. In India, Mahatma Gandhi made extensive propaganda for the attainment of freedom and for the creation of political awakening amongst the people. But the medium of propaganda can be misused as was done by Hitler in Germany who kept all the propaganda-machinery under his own control.
Hearsay is rumour. Its veracity is always suspected. Sometimes the enemies spread rumours in order to defeat their rival countries. Selfishness is always at the base of gossip. Thus thieves, bad characters, dacoits and rogues create rumours to achieve their selfish motives.
At the time of elections one party tries to defeat the other through rumours. Sometimes the administrations are overthrown and the innocent people face hardship unnecessarily. Thus rumours play a very dangerous role.

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