Public Opinion

Public Opinion attitude of the whole or greater body of the public to burning issues of the time. Discounting public sentiments, Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) denied the value of any general public opinion and confined it to that which is subject to change. The Roman authors in the main showed little respect for mass opinion. In the ancient societies, public opinion played some part, but the public was limited in number and size and the mechanisms for expressing their opinions were rudimentary. Wide-ranging conquests of Rome brought the value of news and information to the fore and the Romans came to speak of the vox populi. It was not, however, until the late 18th century that political theorists started speaking of vox populi, vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God). In France, Jean Rousseau and later Jacques Necker frequently used the term opinion publique. In England, Jeremy Bentham insisted that public opinion was a significant force for social control of misrule and an important basis for democracy.

Since Plato's time there has been no accepted definition of public opinion, although it is now part of daily vocabulary, especially that of politicians and mass media men. In fact, there has been little agreement among political scientists, sociologists and social psychologists on the exact meaning of public opinion. The term has at times been loosely used in reference to widespread beliefs, climate of opinion, consensus, the more and more settled convictions of a group. According to one definition, a public opinion includes the expressed opinions of all the members of a public including those of the minorities. If the differences are so great and persistent that the minorities will not acquiesce in functioning with the majority, then there is no one public but several separate publics. The emphasis put on rationality of the opinion process by the writers of the 19th century was ignored by the theorists of the 20th century. After 1900, the social psychologists increasingly emphasised nonrational factors. The manipulative techniques of the practitioners of publicity, advertising and propaganda further eroded faith in rationality. Some public relations practitioners sought to transform individual attitudes into a collectivity that could exert influence. The biggest users of public opinion research were business and industry as they invested massive funds in advertising their products and services in a competitive market. Political parties also invested large funds in organising rallies and advertising to manipulate public opinion in their favour. The struggle for power and the control of opinion was conducted by interest groups with the newer means of communication.

Measurement of opinions based on polling representative samples of large populations came into practice in the United States following the presidential election of 1936. Use of the sample survey method spread rapidly thereafter with gradual improvements in polling procedures. By 1965, public opinion polling spread to many parts of the world. In the western countries hundreds of survey organisations developed with more and more universities opening their own research bureaus to study public opinion. Quantitative studies have led to numerous generalisations with little validity for most.

One such finding is that large number of people pay surprisingly little attention to political personalities and issues, even when these are featured by the mass media. Surveys conducted in western European countries have found that more people are familiar with the names of leading sports and entertainment figures than with all but the most prominent politicians. It can be said that relatively small numbers of people regularly show a serious concern for public affairs. This has led some scholars to distinguish between the 'general public', the 'attentive public', the 'informed public' and the 'elite'. Repeated studies in several countries have shown that people have a remarkable ability to ignore easily available facts when these facts are of little interest to them. The rapid spread of public opinion measurement around the world points to the fact that it is increasingly being put to a number of uses, especially by governments on questions of domestic and foreign policies. Politicians, private businesses and associations make frequent use of polls to measure prospects of their success in elections and campaigns. Labour unions, churches, professional bodies and academic researchers conduct innumerable large and small polls to assess what the people think about various issues.

Opinion polls are not a widely known or used instrument in Bangladesh to measure the views of the people. Some rare polls taken by newspapers to focus attention on issues of public concern usually produce very poor response. One such poll taken at the close of the year 2000 by an English daily of Dhaka, owned by a leading industrial group, on the question of privatisation of the energy sector produced a response of only eleven but that did not deter the newspaper from publishing a detailed analysis using percentage terms concluding that 'privatisation won't worry power consumers'.

The media in our country is no longer in a nascent stage of development, and radio and television broadcasting has since come out of the total control of the government. TV's penetration among the masses is still far short of the desirable level on account of high cost of the receiving sets and lack of electricity or frequent interruption in its transmission, particularly in the rural areas. TV programmes are overwhelmingly oriented towards light or frivolous entertainment. The newspapers enjoy limited circulation because of high cost and low literacy. Advertisements, which are main sources of income for both print and electronic media, are still limited because of the low level of industrialisation and service economy.

The principal users of public opinion are the government, political parties, businesses, industries, lobby groups and NGOs. They depend almost solely on the newspaper reports and the readers' letters and lately on the TV talk shows. The practice of conducting scientific opinion polls is still rare. Campaigns for elections to the local bodies and parliament are characterised by war-like confrontations frequently resulting in armed violence. The political culture veers round organising the people into massive rallies strictly controlled by musclemen. Political parties and trade unions often resort to local or nationwide strikes forcing a shutdown of all activities for a few hours, or even for a few days irrespective of the public opinion. This is done repeatedly until the government or the authorities are forced to surrender to the pressure groups. Some political parties, when in opposition, are on record to have called countrywide strikes for 100 to 173 days during a period of five years. The death toll in the violent clashes during those strikes is capitalised to direct public opinion against the government. The party in power behaves in the like manner when it goes into opposition. The charisma of a political leader, right or wrong, always rides over public opinion. Public opinion had to take a long vacation until violent mass movements succeeded in overthrowing an undemocratic regime to make way for democracy to return. Even under democratic order, issues involving religious beliefs or edicts, communal relations, and similar sensitive matters are scrupulously avoided in the assessment of public opinion as any resultant criticism opens the door to sentiments conflagrating to violence and social disorder. [Enamul Haq]