How corporate media ownership and advertising hampers democracy

Capitalism just doesn’t seem to have the interests of democracy at heart – just look at the attempts to establish the post-democratic TTIP. And now we’ve got corporate censorship at the Telegraph – not surprising when you consider the overwhelming dependence of mainstream media on advertising revenue. Despite the author’s deluded dewy-eyed view of the Telegraph’s upstanding history, the linked article makes for interesting insider info on one media corporation’s censorship of key public-interest items. It seems the need to obsequiously protect its advertisers’ (Tesco & HSBC) reputational interests overruled any notion of informing its readers:(Click for the article at OpenDemocracy here).

This isn’t the first or last time such corporate manipulation of the media has occurred. The following offers just some of the conditions of influence or conflicts of interest through which the media’s supposed “window on the world” is smudged via its immersion in the business world (note that I am describing media as it is run under so-called democratic regimes as opposed to the more stringent state censoring under totalitarian regimes):

Much of the media is in the hands of a few massive corporate conglomerates. Just take a look at this info-graphic on media ownership in the US. Often conflicts of interest can ensue between the media section and some other part of the corporate empire. Corporate owners have been known to silence their media wing on such occasions. Murdoch’s Newscorp had one of their publishing houses drop the publication of former British Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten’s book – heavily critical of China’s government – so as to not impede his drive for satellite TV expansion into China. While Patten’s book was eventually published by another publishing house I have yet to find a copy of Mark Dowe’s “Corporate Murder”. The book was due for printing in 1979 but was dropped by Simon and Schuster, despite the unanimous support of the senior editorial staff. The publishing house’s president rejected it for making “all corporations look bad” – and this just after its parent company Gulf and Western’s spent $3.3 million sprucing up its corporate image in a 64 page ad in Time magazine (note: the book did not mention the parent company).

It’s not always concerns for profits that is the driving force behind such interference. The personal politics of owners and high-ranking executives has also played a large role. William Sarnoff, when formerly a chief of all Warner book operations, prevented the publication of Chomsky and Herman’s Counter-Revolutionary Violence because he perceived it as an “attack on respected Americans” and too left for his liking.

On a much larger scale, William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce used the disseminating power and legitimacy of their two media empires to place the virtually unknown preacher Billy Graham before an international audience, warning them of the dangers of communism. Both Graham and the Hearst empire also lent their not insignificant support to the witch-hunting campaign of Senator McCarthy and so it was that the personal fears of two media tycoons over the growing liberalism in the US was translated into the mass hysteria that virtually paralysed American politics for five years in the 1950s.

One wonders whether such interference is also at play in the anti-democratic blinkering of the public sphere in support of right-wing economics. Bagdikian writing in 1992 identified two major media themes in the US throughout the 80s: (1) The damage to viability that tax burdens place on corporations; (2) the damaging effect to national productivity and the economy that labour-union induced wages have. Yet concealed beneath such bias was the massive reduction of the corporate share of federal revenue between 1950 to 1984 from 25% to 8%.

This permeation of the ideologies and personal politics of media elites is alive and well today – just look at Murdoch’s Fox News and also the much higher tendency in general for Murdoch’s media outlets to present the contrarian view on climate change. Actually its rather ironic that the Telegraph, from the aforementioned story on corporate censorship, has since dismissed the accusations and linked its failure to give the news item its warranted limelight to its support for free enterprise and free markets.

Corporations don’t necessarily have to step in directly to filter news items; they can and often do so indirectly. For example through hiring based on the political persuasions of editors and journalists and through the basic threat of punitive measures, which alone has been found to instil a policy of self-censoring in editors. In the past many editors surveyed have been found to “not feel free to run a news story that was damaging to their parent firm” (Bagdikian: 1992, 30).

Mass advertising has had the added effect of diminishing the pluralism of the media market through assisting the formation of media monopolies. The vast amount of media revenue stems from advertising and typically newspapers that have had the most circulation have been able to charge higher prices than their smaller competitors. Extra revenue leads to better competitive advantage such as better sales and editorial personnel and so many small papers eventually collapse. Their circulation is then often swallowed up by the bigger media fish who in their quest to attract “readers of all political persuasions” are liable to tone down radical news reporting in favour of a more centrist tone (somewhat similar to what political parties have been doing) creating a more complacent and establishmentarian type of media. The success of Fox News swinging more to the right would suggest that business-wise the move to the safe vanilla style reporting was perhaps the wrong option.

With their huge clout with the public it is not surprising that many voter hungry politicians have kowtowed to media elites. When Murdoch switched his newspapers long-term support for the Tories, and their moves towards deregulation, to Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ it seems suspiciously coincidental that Blair’s government allowed for Murdoch to sell his newspapers below cost-price. Also Blair obtained a column in one of Murdoch’s newspapers and was later found promoting Murdoch’s bid for a television network in a conversation with the Italian Prime Minister. There were some similar sort of shenanigans at work between Murdoch and Jimmy Carter during his 1980 US presidential campaign.

With this history of business interference, in what for democratic purposes should be as clear a window on the world as is possible, it would be nice to be able to imagine a public sphere where the separation of business and media were possible.

However, although likely an improvement, such separation would unlikely be the window-cleaning panacea that one would hope for. Journalists and bloggers, absent the skill of critical thinking, are liable to continue reproducing  many existing myths. Bourdieu defined the media as comprised of “doxosophers” in that they disseminate doxa: a set of “presuppositions that are regarded as self-evident and so outside the field of discussion” (McCullagh, 2007: 140). Often lacking the necessary critical training, journalists operate as merely the public voice of doxa, parroting the presumptions of the establishment view of the world. They create and distribute a particular worldview in the guise of analysis, description and discussion, which unwittingly and uncritically reinforces pre-existing categories of perception (Bourdieu, 1998a: 7), along with cultural and social hierarchies: defining for many what is salient, relevant, worthy of consideration, what is good/bad, polite/vulgar, male/female, expert/non-expert – the list is endless.



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