How does the public sphere function?

Public discussions involve a diverse range of participants. There is the spontaneous and informal public consisting, amongst others, of NGOs, organised opinion groups and subcultural groups. In addition there are many official institutions whose texts bear the opinions of their representatives. Views expressed publicly by intellectuals, including writers, scientists and other figures of public stature have traditionally been of considerable significance in Estonia. In times of oppression, joint addresses and texts tabled by interest groups and pressure groups have played a powerful role as exemplified by the so-called Letter of the Forty, published in 1980, in which Estonian intellectuals attempted to draw society’s attention to the impact of the Russification policies being practised by the Soviet central power.

The necessary precondition for allowing the voice of an individual or of a group to be heard is the existence of a democratic society. At the same time, the continuing expression of opinions itself is important for securing democracy. The public sphere consists of several channels, including the press, public events, information leaflets, non-commercial advertising, and other modes of communication. Studies have revealed that people are most open to public engagement where this concerns the curbing of crime, environmental protection, and the protection of and provision of assistance to children.

In order better to understand publicly debated issues, opposing views must be heard and evaluated. Nevertheless, an attitude frequently prevailing in Estonia was that discussion of matters in public constitutes gossip or ‘snitching’, a needless complication in the decision-making process, which is neither part of the people’s normal debate nor a natural, intermediate stage on the path to decision-making.

In the shaping of public opinion, rational and objective engagement should occur on five levels: in inter-personal communication, in communication within groups and organisations, in focused, public communication, and in wider public communication encompassing all strands of society. The quality of the information used and the scope of the resulting discussion are factors which significantly influence the meaningfulness of the public debate. Being able to reach common, agreed decisions through the objective analysis of information is a mark of maturity. The media have a particularly important role to play in this process. Editors ought to ensure that the debate is sustained, involving experts to ensure that public opinion is well informed.

Text and the public sphere
Much information reaches the public sphere in the form of published texts. These consist of official texts which originate from state agencies, and a variety of unofficial texts from fields as diverse as literature, economics and journalism. The public sphere is a point of convergence of a variety of formal and informal publications, at which they acquire additional meaning from their shared contexts, and from one another.

Public texts have specific purposes and functions in society, including the dissemination of information, the promotion of debate and the co-ordination of ideas. They make it possible not only to establish opinions and meaning in society but also to modify and control them. The dominant opinions and systems of meaning shape the dominant Weltanschauung of the era. In a closed society, where the field of formal, public texts is strictly controlled, the public sphere may refuse to accept the Weltanschauung on offer and diverge to the non-formal, peripheral domains, (as for example, to that of literary criticism as happened in Soviet Estonia during the 1980s).

The press is the institutionalised channel for the distribution of formalised, public texts. The authors of texts published in the press nonetheless face a dilemma: whilst they enjoy preferential treatment as ‘voices’ with immediate access to the public sphere, their freedom to interpret processes and phenomena is problematic. In the press, ghostwriting and the presentation of anonymous texts via news channels constitute a grey area, creating an illusion of objectivity (see Fig.1). If the author of a text is identified, however, both the author’s role and affiliations become significant, as they influence the text’s meaning and function.

Different types of author texts in the public sphere

Official text
Non-official text
Unknown author
Anonymus text, including so-called objective text 
The representation of the author is diminished, the text is mediated by a broadcaster
Known author
Text by a formalised author or personalised formal text (for example, one of a party)
The author is at the forefront and his affiliations can be determined

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