What is Public Opinion?

Nature, Importance and Agencies of Public Opinion

Meaning of Public Opinion

The desires, want, 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 the adult population holds. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

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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 different nations, beliefs, fancies, prejudices, aspirations."

The most precise definition of Public Opinion has been given by Lowell. In his book "Public Opinion and Popular Government", Lowell writes, "So 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 ungrudgingly".


Nature of Public Opinion

In political theory, the concept of public opinion has been subjected to a thorough 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, has "often introduced confusion rather than enlightenment."

The concept of public opinion came to the limelight in the wake of democracy. Governmental policies gradually became the function of opinion rather than force. 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 recognised. The theory of public opinion is thus a derivative of 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 can 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, opinion means such a simple statement as 'the Soviet Union has exploded a superbomb.

2. A Belief:  As a belief, opinion implies a record of facts and 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 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 political dynamics, public opinion is intended to produce a concrete governmental policy. Hence, as Finer observes, "Politics is most concrete with public opinion, typically eventuates in a statue and in administration."


Importance of Public Opinion

Public opinion occupies a vital place in a democracy. The democratic government derives its powers from the public view and 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. A government that violates public opinion cannot stay long. Public opinion acts as a 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 a government that ignores public opinion will meet its doom very soon. Public opinion is considered the best protector of the people's fundamental rights.

In countries where public opinion is not awakened, the government becomes absolute. It is, therefore, collected said that "An alert and enlightened public opinion is the first essential of democracy". Even in a dictatorship, the government tries to create public opinion in its favour, and for this purpose, it controls the means which make it.


Hindrances to the Creation of Sound Public Opinion

To make public opinion strong in the real sense, there must be no hindrance to the mean that creates public opinion. But in practice, no government is willing to do so. In a dictatorship, the government imposes many restrictions on creating public opinion. Besides, the following are the hindrances in the creation of sound public opinion:

(1) Illiteracy;

(2) Partial press;

(3) Disinterested in 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) The education system 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 an education and think with an open mind.

(5) The political parties should be organised according to economic and political principles. They should not be collected based on religious tenets.


Agencies/Media/Ways for the Formation and Expression of Public Opinion

Eight agencies are mentioned in the following.


§  Public Meetings;
§  Political Parties;
§  Political Literature;
§  Radio, Television and Cinema;
§  Educational Institutions;
§  Election; and
§  Religious Associations.

(1) Press: The central agency for forming a public opinion in the press. Good media acts as a Light House for democracy. Newspapers can be called 'the book of democracy'. The impartial, free and fair press is a boon for any country. Free media blisters the government and creates a sound public opinion fearlessly. It controls the views of the government and the people and shows them the right path. The newspapers give us information about everybody's problems and create political consciousness. The press acts as an essential link between the people and the government. An enlightened press decides conflicts in the country and takes them to the heights of development. But suppose the press is controlled by some selfish party, community or capitalists. In that case, the country suffers a significant loss- Therefore, the government should have a strict check or control on the press.

(2) Public Meetings: Public Meetings are also an essential agency for creating public opinion. The ministers support the government's policy in 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 moulded in public meetings. But all this is possible only at a place where the people are entirely free to express their views.

(3) Political Parties: Political parties play an essential role in forming 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 illiterate persons. Though the number of people in the first category is minimal, they wield a significant influence in society. In our country, there are many parties, such as Janata Party, the BJP, the Communist Party, the CPM, etc. Each party makes efforts to place a beautiful programme to secure their maximum support before the people.

For this purpose, they undertake specific constructive programmes and deliver impressive speeches to propagate their ideology. We can say that political parties play an essential role in moulding, developing and strengthening public opinion. Gettell says, "Political parties carry on an extensive propaganda campaign to direct 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, textbooks 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 people have no firm thinking of their own, and they are easily swayed by the opinions 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 serve the purpose of entertainment and convey the news and opinions of many public leaders to the masses. The people who established contact with the people present in the meetings addressed by the public leaders could listen to them, but now millions of people can listen to them simultaneously in far-flung places. Therefore, this is also a suitable medium for moulding public opinion.

(6) Educational Institutions: The students' views are formed in educational institutions. Usually, the students adopt the opinions of their teachers. In school, such as colleges, subjects like Economics, Civics, Political Science, History, etc., are taught, which help form political views. Besides, many study circles and associations in each school and college arrange lectures of many educated persons. These lectures help a lot in the formation of public opinion. In a 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 textbooks to propagate their ideology.

(7) Election: Election is also a suitable 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 and policies impress them.

(8) Religious Associations: India is a country of religious-minded people who significantly impact our politics. If religion means morality, its effect nail is helpful, but many a time, certain political parties use religious places for political propaganda. It hurts politics because religious places become a forum for propaganda by selfish leaders, destroying their sanctity. During the Middle Ages, orthodox religious leaders greatly influenced politics. The division of our country in 1947 resulted from religious hatred and bigotry among the two significant communities-the, the Hindus and Muslims.


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

Gettell thinks that the press expresses its opinion through articles, and the newspapers comment on many problems. If the events are brought before the people impartially and adequately, the press can play an essential role in keeping the people informed about everyday issues.

The press includes daily, weekly, monthly papers, periodicals and books. News and views are expressed in the media. 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 increase the knowledge of the people. Most 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 newspaper owners, they can better safeguard society's interests. But most of the editors are the employees of the capitalists or are puppets in the hands of political parties. They are bound to please their owners or support their parties' policies. In fact, the editors should be given complete freedom to serve the people better.

The press has an important place in a democracy. It criticises the policies of the government and thus keeps it alert. It serves as a 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 freedom and the people's interests; citizens bring their problems to the government's notice through the media.

When the government imposes unjust taxes on the people, they start a campaign through the press and get their demands accepted by the people. Through the press, the people come to know of the government's activities, and the government can understand the people's wishes. The press acts as a co­ordinator between the government and the people, essential for democracy. Thus the press should be free.


A 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 press has 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 the exchange of views. If the press is under the influence of the government, it cannot properly perform its duty.

It should serve the people without the interference of the administration. In a liberal democracy, the press should be free from the ruling party's influence. 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 civilisations and culture. Criticism based on arguments is the life of the free press. Though in publishing the news, the press should be free from the administration's interference, the press cannot be given unlimited freedom.
It should not show unpleasantness in controversies, it should not promote the class struggle, and it should not criticise the essential things on which the security of the state is based".

Dr Sen further said, "The press also must cooperate with the government. Five-Year Plans are not the plans of a particular political party, but they are the national plans. Thus the press should not create any difficulty in implementing 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 through free cooperation. 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 accessible when the government imposes 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 controlled by some selfish party or capitalists, great harm is done to 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 a dictatorship, there is strict control over the press. The press cannot criticise the government's wrong policies, and it has to support the government in every matter. Hitler and Mussolini considered the press 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 forming public opinion. We listen to many types of news, sweet songs, entertaining and educative plays and weather reports on the radio. Radio has more significant influence over the people than the press.

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 entertainingly imparts education.

A country like India has a significant place because most people are illiterate and 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 of a dangerous situation, the leaders appeal to the people for facing the challenge with courage and determination. Radio can be instrumental in removing untouchability and religious fanaticism in India. Through all Indian Radio, the social and political life of the masses can be revolutionised.

People can be provided with leadership on important political questions. Sometimes the radio is misused. In Germany, this was done by Hitler when he used it to spread hatred against the Jews and carried on false propaganda against them.


Propaganda and Rumour

Propaganda has a great value in the modern age. Each party and state depends on propaganda for its existence. The government carries on propaganda to make Five-Year Plans successful in our country. To secure the co­operation of the people, the medium of propaganda proves very useful. If the propaganda is made ably and efficiently, it has a significant 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 the rumour. Its veracity is always suspected. Sometimes the enemies spread rumours to defeat their rival countries. Selfishness is always at the base of gossip. Thus thieves, flawed 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 innocent people face hardship unnecessarily. Thus rumours play a hazardous role.

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