In recent times, public opinion has emerged as a great power. It has been moulded from a traditional set of public beliefs and attitudes to a modern multi-dimensional concept. In the contemporary world, public opinion symbolizes the most dominant public sentiment, among many possible ones, on some issue(s). It must be pointed out at the very outset that the public opinion greatly owes its emerging value to the increased level of awareness among citizenry, thanks to media. The true spirit of this trend is conspicuously prevalent in developed countries that are known to be the flag-bearers of democracy. Public opinion holds great value in societies where democracy is practiced that’s why it has been said that democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. So public opinion acts as a binding force between the rulers and the ruled. It’s a normative force which integrates and stabilizes the democratic societies.
A society cannot be called democratic unless its members have freedom to express their opinions and to stand up for their rights. Democracy is an all-inclusive phenomenon and it is where everyone is represented equally. Through the voicing of concerns and participation in the democratic process everyone gets a chance to make a difference. Thus, in the present times when democracy is the most popular form of government, public opinion has assumed a greater role. No democratic government can ignore public opinion because they will be answerable to public which will judge their performance through their vote. The elected representatives — the children of public opinion — would come into power to govern the state. They will have to make honest endeavours to resolve the diverse problems faced by the people. It is because of the force of public opinion that they have to be vigilant all the time since it has the power to expel them out of the democratic dispensation. So, it can be rightly said that opinion of public serves as a barometer to judge the working of a democratic government.
Public opinion holds supreme importance in a democracy. It serves as a beacon of light as the views of people on various issues of national interest play a crucial role in determining the nature of government policies. The role of enlightened, mature and educated citizenry becomes crucial in this regard as it reflects the bulk of public opinion. It is indubitably true that if public opinion is highly enlightened and well-informed on current issues and problems, the government would also be more efficient and more progressive. In many developed countries, surveys and polls are conducted from time to time to gauge the opinion of the people on various important issues.
Unlike a democratic society which holds public opinion supreme in its affairs, a totalitarian regime or a dictatorship suppresses this very phenomenon. Dictators try to suppress the voice of the masses as they only want to prolong their rule as they have an utter disregard to what are the peoples’ aspirations. Intermittent martial laws and onset of dictatorial regimes in a developing country like Pakistan bear testimony to the fact that how the will and opinion of general public has been ignored, denied and suppressed.
Similarly, in a developing country like Pakistan, a political party that enjoys majority in the legislature can wear tunic of dictatorship by way of legislating such laws that favour it, though the laws may be against the welfare of public at large. It is only the media which can arouse public opinion against any such nefarious move of the government. The opposition could support media in order to crystallising the public opinion and ultimately thwarting any such move by the government. Henceforth, one cannot negate the power of public opinion in order to tackle the totalitarian regimes for the sake of national interests.
Here comes into play the pivotal role of print and electronic media in shaping public opinion. As a matter of fact, formation of correct public opinion is essential to the success of democracy, and media is the most important means to achieve this end. By reporting latest happenings and developments to the masses, the media not only exhorts people to take an active part in country’s affairs, but also tells them to press the government to abandon any policy that may go against public interest.
At present, in Pakistan, the role of electronic media particularly television talk shows and discussion forums are playing a significant role in giving more power to the elbow of public opinion. The anchorpersons bring many new issues to light and the discussions thereupon help a lot in building public opinion. The discussion sometimes turns out to be highly informative and educative. Today popular anchorpersons like Dr Shahid Masood, Kamran Khan, Hamid Mir etc. present in-depth analyses of the issues and the government policies and thus they set the agenda to form public opinion. Hence, the level of consciousness is raised to a higher level which augers well for the growth of democracy in Pakistan.
However, in remote areas, where TV facility is hardly available, radio can be used as an effective means in this regard. Programmes of national importance should be broadcast to educate people. Such programmes have a critical significance as they can be a key to shaping public opinion. Universities hold seminars on national problems where Veteran scholars, analysts, researchers and university students get the chance to hold discussions and exchange ideas on the issues of national interest. This also serves as a useful forum to indulge in question-answer sessions regarding the conflicting issues and get the expert opinion. The youth, thus gets motivated and gets appropriate knowhow of the socioeconomic conditions of the country.
However, if the electronic and print media do not function in a responsible manner, they can cause much harm also. If it presents distorted, biased views, the public may be misled. It can degrade the tastes of the people. One such example is that of newspapers which are only interested in minting money. They use lurid headlines and fiery language just to create sensationalism and to readily attract the public attention. This kind of irresponsible conduct of newspapers harms the public opinion on issues of sensitive nature. William J. Federer has rightfully pointed out that:
“The country is controlled by LAWS, LAWS are controlled by POLITICIANS, POLITICIANS are controlled by VOTERS, VOTERS are controlled by PUBLIC OPINION, PUBLIC OPINION is controlled by MEDIA.”
Public opinion is not always sensible as the illiterate masses in countries like Pakistan are usually moved by their feelings and not by their power of reasoning. Hence, they can be easily beguiled by the politicians for the fulfilment of their vested interests. It is, therefore, necessary that correct and reliable public opinion is garnered for the growth of democracy.
Importance of public opinion cannot be underestimated. It’s probably the most important pillar of a strong democracy. Indeed it has emerged as a great power and force in recent times. The rise and fall of governments in a country can greatly be attributed to public opinion. No government can afford to ignore or to set it aside. Every government has to respond to the call of public.
In the end, the whole discussion can be summed up in the adage “Vox populi, vox Dei,” which means, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”