POLITICAL ECONOMIC THEORY II

Diversification

The trend to the concentration of ownership dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. However, cross-media ownership control by non-media companies, the integration of media companies and the internationalization of ownership have widened and deepened media concentration to an unprecedented degree.

theories of communication  POLITICAL ECONOMIC THEORY II

One commentator puts it more graphically when he states the great media empires spanning the world have subjugated more territory in a decade than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan did in a lifetime. The expansion these empires has been furthered by attendant political factors. Freeing media companies from regulations on what they can own and control has been done in the name of competition, choice and quality.

The arguments forwarded has been that emergence of more channels and outlets, increase access to information and knowledge , and more control over when and what people watch and listen to appears to confirm the argument that free market brings more choice for the individual. Thus any concerns about the increased concentration of ownership are offset by more choice. Supporters of the free market see the explosion of choice as making redundant old – fashioned anxieties about media monopoly as deregulation encourages competition, investment and a growing diversity of product. Critics such as Graham Murdock acknowledge that the more choice argument is highly plausible and seductive, but he argues a distinction must be made between plurality and diversity. He says, “There may be more communication goods and services in circulation but many of them are versions of the same product in a variety of packages”.

While there may be more television channels, they are increasingly broadcasting the same programmes. Murdock argues there are four ways in which media owners limit diversity and thereby pose a threat to democracy.

Four ways in which media owners limit diversity
  1. The consequences are to be observed in the reduction of independent media sources, concentration on the largest markets. They use their power to shape the terms and nature of the competition of the markets in which they are major players.
  2. Avoidance of risks reduced investment in less profitable media tasks (such as investigative reporting and documentary film-making they can insist their outlets support their general business interests by giving publicity to success, and suppressing coverage that is potentially embarrassing.
    1. Neglect of smaller and poorer sectors of the potential audience and by attempting to maximize the complementarities or ‘synergies’ between various components of their media and business operations , media owners can limit peoples perspectives.
    2. The effects of economic forces are not random, but as Murdock and Golding puts it: “ consistently to exclude those voice lacking economic power or resources… the underlying logic of cost operates systematically, consolidating the position of groups already established in the main mass-media markets and excluding those groups who lack the capital base required for those least likely to criticize the prevailing distribution of wealth and power. .. Conversely those most likely to challenge these arrangements are unable to publicize their dissent or opposition because they cannot command resources needed for effective communication to a broad audience.”
  3. Often a politically unbalanced range of news media they use their resources to support certain political or ideological causes. Murdock cites the case of Time Warner and Batman. By owning the

rights the comic character the multi-media giant can orchestrate the development of the product to maximize its profits. Batman developed into a film publicized by Time Warner through its magazines and promoted via its cable and television networks, the soundtrack of which was released on its record labels and whose merchandising included children’s toys produced through its manufacturing interests.

The predominant character of what the media produce can be largely accounted for by the exchange value of different kinds of content, under conditions of pressure to expand markets, and by the underlying economic interests of owners and decision-makers.

Economic interests of owners and decision-makers

These interests relate to the need for profit from media operations and to the relative profitability of other branches of commerce as are result of monopolistic tendencies and processes of vertical and horizontal integration.

How ownership is linked with control. For political economists such as Murdock and Golding who have documented the expansion of the global media giants there is a direct relationship between ownership and control.

Two approaches analyzing the relationship between ownership and control Murdock in 1980 identifies two approaches in Marxist thought to analyzing the relationship between ownership and control – what he labels as:

  1. Instrumental: direct intervention
  2. Structural: economic structures shape the activities of media owners
Instrumental: direct intervention

In its most crude form instrumentalism focuses on ‘conspiracy and direct intervention.’ Owners and managers are seen to conspire to determine which person, which facts, which versions of the facts and which ideas shall reach the public. The policy of the owners is seen as working as a whole to produce a press that strongly defends private enterprise… and may be bias towards the political leanings of the proprietors. Sometimes the impact of the views and prejudices of those who own and control the capitalist media is immediate and is direct by the constant and every day interventions. Political economist scholar Miliband does not simply examine how owners influence particular papers but focuses on the ways in which the press as a whole represent the interests of the ruling class. According to him there are a number of pressures apart from capitalist ownership e.g. advertising censorship, the consensual values of people working in the media, the official climate- which all work in the same conservative and conformist direction. Thus instrumental approaches focus on the control exercised by individual capitalists to extend their own interests, and ways in which the media as a whole work to reinforce the general interests of a capitalist class.

Structural: economic structures shape the activities of media owners

Critics see such analysis too simplistic. It presents the mass media as ‘servants’- or more graphically as the ‘cudgel of oppression’ – of a ruling class with little or not autonomy. The media simply act as a conveyor belt for the ideas of the ruling capitalist class. This ignores the ability of journalists and media workers to resist intervention of owners. Researches have shown that while owners often try to exercise control over editorial content they do not often do not succeed.

Similarly researchers have also doubted the ability of a single individual to oversee the empires of the contemporary global firms. So the other strand of Marxist thought is the structural approach which locates discussion of ownership and control in the context of the mode of production of political economy. And the limits it places on the choices and actions of press proprietors and personnel, whatever their origins, social connections or personal commitments. Analysis is not centered on the activities and interests of individual owners but on the constraints and limitations placed on owners, managers and workers by nature of the capitalist economy.

So structuralists in the word of Murdock ‘examine the ways in which the policies and operations of corporation are limited by the general dynamics of media industries and capitalist economies.

Economic structures shape the activities of media owners, controllers and workers and pressures under which they work. These pressures emanate from the emphasis on the need to maximize profit and the demands of competition. Thus Murdock argues that there is no need for owners to intervene directly because the logic of the prevailing market structures ensures that by and large the output endorses rather than opposes their general interests.

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