How does the public field work?

Public discussions involve a diverse range of participants. There are the spontaneous, informal, public fields 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 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.

A necessary precondition for allowing the voice of an individual or of a group to be heard is the existence of a democratic society. In addition, the continuing expression of opinions is itself important for securing that democracy. The public field consists of several channels, including the press, public events, information leaflets, non-commercial advertising, and other modes of communication. Questionnaires reveal that people are most open to public engagement where this concerns the curbing of crime, (42% of those questioned), environmental protection, (39%), and the protection of and provision of assistance to children, (28%). (Riigikogu 2002).

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

In the shaping of public opinion, rational and objective engagement should occur in five ways: by inter-personal communication, by communication within groups and organisations, by focused, public communication, and by 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 ensuring that debate is sustained. As necessary, experts should also be involved to ensure that public opinion is well informed.

The public field and texts
Much information reaches the public field in the form of published texts. These consist of official texts which originate from state agencies, and a variety of unofficial texts from sources as diverse as literature, economic interests and journalists. The public field 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 semiotic systems shape the dominant Weltanschauung of the era. In a closed society, where the field of formal, public texts is strictly controlled, the public field 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 an 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 access to the public field, their freedom to interpret processes and phenomena is problematic. In the press, ghost writing and the presentation of anonymous texts via news channels constitute a grey area, as an illusion of objectivity and consistency afforded to normative texts may be created, (see Fig.1). If the author of a text is identified, however, both the author’s role and group affiliation become significant, and may impact considerably on the text’s meaning and function.

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