Ownership and control of the media

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • trends and patterns in ownership and control of a range of mass media
  • the theoretical perspectives on the relationship between ownership and control of the media

Trends in ownership and control

KEY POINT - Recent trends in media ownership and control suggest that the number of companies controlling global mass media has significantly shrunk in recent years. Bagdikian (2004) notes that in 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the USA, but by 2004 media ownership was concentrated in seven corporations.

Curran (2003) notes that ownership of British newspapers has always been concentrated in the hands of a few powerful ‘press barons’, e.g. in 1937 four men owned nearly one in every two national and local daily newspapers sold in Britain. Today, seven powerful individuals dominate the ownership of British national daily and Sunday newspapers.

The content of commercial terrestrial television is mainly controlled by one company, ITV plc, whilst access to satellite, cable and digital television in Britain is generally controlled by two companies – News Corp, (owned by Rupert Murdoch) which owns BSkyB, and Virgin Media (owned by Richard Branson).

Global conglomeration

KEY POINT - The major difference in media ownership and control compared with forty years ago is the movement of media corporations into the global marketplace. The major media companies are now global conglomerations – transnational corporations (TNCs) with a presence in many countries.

Horizontal and vertical integration

Ownership and control of the mass media is a complex business as the following examples illustrate. Some media companies are characterised by horizontal integration or cross media ownership – this refers to the fact that global media corporations often cross media boundaries and invest in a wide range of media products. NewsCorp, for example, owns newspapers, magazines, book publishers, terrestrial and satellite television channels and film studios in several countries.

Some media companies have focused on increasing economic control over all aspects of the production process in order to maximise profits, e.g. film corporations not only make movies, but distribute them to their own cinema chains. This is referred to as vertical integration.

Diversification, synergy and technological convergence

Some media corporations are not content to focus on media products, but have diversified into other fields. The best example of this is Virgin which began as a music label and record shop chain, but has expanded into a wide range of products and services including cola, vodka, banking, insurance, transport, digital television, cinema and wedding dresses.

Media companies often use their very diverse interests to package or synergise their products in several different ways, e.g. a film is often accompanied by a soundtrack album, computer game, ring tone or toy action figures. A company may use its global interests to market one of its own films through its television channels, magazines and newspapers in dozens of countries at the same time.

Technological convergence is a recent trend which involves putting several technologies into one media product. Companies that normally work in quite separate media technology fields are joining up or converging in order to give customers access to a greater range of media services across technologies such as interactive television, lap-tops, MP3 players and mobile phones.

Theories of media ownership and control

KEY POINT - Doyle (2002) suggests that examination of ownership and control patterns is important for two reasons.

  • All points of view need to be heard if society is to be truly democratic.
  • Abuses of power and influence by elites need to be monitored by a free media.

Doyle argues that too much concentration of media ownership is dangerous and unhealthy because the media have the power to make or break political careers and have a considerable influence over public opinion.

The pluralist theory of media ownership

Pluralists argue that media owners are generally responsible in the way that they manage information because media content is mainly shaped by consumer demand in the marketplace. They therefore only give the buying public what they want. Moreover, editors, journalists and broadcasters have a strong sense of professional ethics which act as a system of checks and controls on potential owner abuse of the media.

Pluralists suggest that the mass media are an essential part of the democratic process because the electorate today glean most of their knowledge of the political process from newspapers and television. Pluralists argue that owners, editors and journalists are trustworthy managers and protectors of this process.

Furthermore, pluralists argue that media audiences are the real power holders because they can exercise the right to buy or not to buy. If they did not like the choices that media owners are making available to them, or if they suspected that the media product was biased, such audiences would respond by not buying the product. The media, therefore, supply what the audience wants rather than what the owner decides. If some viewpoints have a greater range of media representing them, this is not necessarily biased. It merely reflects what the audience wants or views as important.

Pluralists also argue that concentration of ownership is a product of economic rationality rather than political or sinister motives. It is driven by the need to keep costs low and to maximise profits. Globalisation too results from the need to find new audiences rather than from cultural imperialism.

Pluralists argue that it is practically impossible for owners to interfere with the content of newspapers and television programmes because their businesses are economically far too complex for them to regularly interfere in the day-to-day running or the content.

Public service broadcasting

Pluralists point out that a significant share of the media market in Britain is taken up by public service broadcasters (PSB), i.e. media outlets controlled by the state such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC has a legal obligation to inform, to educate and to ensure that all programming is pluralistic and diverse, i.e. that all sections of society are catered for. Pluralists argue that PSB is impartial and objective, and balances out any potential bias in the private sector.

Pluralists note that the power of media owners is also restricted by state, or government, controls, e.g. in some societies, owners are not allowed to own too much media or different types of media. Many countries also have crossownership rules preventing people from owning more than one type of media. Furthermore, newspapers, television and radio in Britain are subject to legal controls and rules imposed on them by The Press Council and the Office for Communications (Ofcom).

Media professionalism

Pluralists stress that the professionalism of journalists and editors also constrains the power of owners. They argue that journalists are fierce in their pursuit of the truth and consequently they have too much integrity to be biased regularly in favour of one particular perspective. Investigative journalism also has a good reputation in uncovering abuses of power and corruption among the ruling elite.

The Marxist critique of media ownership and control

argue that the economic system of Britain, i.e. capitalism, is characterised by great inequalities in wealth and income which have been brought about by the exploitation of the labour power of the working classes. Marxists believe that in order to legitimate and reproduce this system of inequality, the capitalist class uses its cultural power to dominate institutions like education and the mass media and transmit ruling class ideology. The function of these agencies is to socialise the working class into accepting the legitimacy of the capitalist system and capitalist ideas. Consequently, Marxists argue working class people experience false class-consciousness – they come to accept that capitalism is a just system that benefits all social groups equally. They fail to see the reality of their situation that they are being exploited by a system that only benefits a powerful minority.

The media and ideology

Marxists believe that media owners (who are members of the capitalist elite) use their media outlets to transmit ruling class ideology. Miliband (1973) argued that the role of the media is to shape how we think about the world we live in and suggested that audiences are rarely informed about important issues such as inequalities in wealth or why poverty persists. The capitalist system is rarely criticised or challenged. Instead, Marxists suggest that owners shape media content so that only ‘approved’ and conformist views are heard.

Tunstall and Palmer (1991) suggest that governments are no longer interested in controlling the activities of media owners because they need their support to either gain power or hang onto it.

Evidence for the ideological nature of ownership and control

Marxists are suggesting that media owners, wealth holders and the political elite are united in some sort of ideological conspiracy to brainwash the general population. However, it is almost impossible to scientifically gather empirical evidence that supports this hypothesis. Sociologists generally only have anecdotal evidence to confirm their suspicions that concentration of media ownership is damaging democracy.

However, Curran’s (2003) detailed systematic examination of the social history of the British press does suggest that the evidence for owner interference in and manipulation of British newspaper content is strong. Curran notes that in the period 1920–50 press barons openly boasted that they ran their newspapers for the express purpose of propaganda that reflected their political views. Curran points out that even when engaged in investigative reporting, the majority of newspapers in Britain have supported the Conservative Party.

Curran also notes that the period 1974–92 saw the emergence of Rupert Murdoch. However, Curran rejects the idea that Murdoch is part of a unified capitalist elite but acknowledges that Murdoch’s newspapers are conservative in content and strongly supportive of capitalist interests. He argues Murdoch’s motives are economic rather than ideological in that Murdoch believes that right wing economic policies are the key to vast profits.

Curran’s analysis of British newspapers suggests that both pluralist and Marxist theories may be mistaken in the way they look at media ownership. He argues the pluralist view that media owners do not intervene in media content is evidentially false. Curran argues that since 2000 there has been even greater intervention by owners such as Murdoch. However, Curran disagrees with Marxists about the motive for this. He notes that the actions of media owners are not collectivised, rather they pursue their economic goals in a ruthlessly individualised way in an attempt to obtain a bigger share of the market than their capitalist competitors.

The Glasgow University Media Group

KEY POINT - The Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) suggests that media content does support the interests of those who run the capitalist system. However, this is an unintended by-product of the social backgrounds of journalists and broadcasters rather than a conscious capitalist conspiracy. The GUMG points out that most journalists working for national newspapers, television and radio tend to be overwhelmingly male, White, and middle class, e.g. 54% are privately educated.

The GUMG claims that these journalists and broadcasters tend to believe in middle-of-the-road (consensus) views and ideas because these are generally unthreatening. Journalists believe that these appeal to the majority of their viewers, listeners and readers. Ideas outside this consensus are viewed by journalists as ‘extremist’. People who hold these opinions are rarely invited to contribute their views in newspapers or on television, or if they are, they are ridiculed by journalists.

The GUMG argues that these journalists are not motivated by a desire to defend capitalist interests. Media companies are profit-making businesses. Those who commission and plan programmes, or decide newspaper or magazine content, usually play safe by excluding anything that might offend or upset readers or viewers. Losing several thousand readers, or viewers, because they were offended by ‘extreme’ views and potentially losing millions of pounds in revenue and profit is too much of a risk.

Barnett and Weymour argue that such decisions have had a negative cultural effect in the sense that education, information and news have been increasingly sidelined. They compared television schedules in 1978, 1988 and 1998 and argued that the evidence suggests that television in Britain has been significantly dumbed down, e.g. the number of one-off dramas and documentaries has halved, while soap operas and cheap reality shows have increased fivefold. There are also now more repeats and cheap American imports. Time allocated to news programming has fallen dramatically, and more time on serious news programmes is devoted to celebrity news and human interest stories. Barnett and Weymour note that even the BBC is succumbing to these commercial pressures. Furthermore, they conclude that despite having hundreds of television channels, we do not have more choice, just more of the same thing.

Agenda setting

The result of this journalistic consensus, argues the GUMG, is that the media set the agenda and decide what issues are discussed by society and which ones are not. This is known as agenda setting. The GUMG argues that the media consequently present society with a fairly narrow agenda for discussion. Agenda setting therefore results in cultural hegemony. The basic principles of capitalism – private enterprise, profit, the free market and the rights of property ownership – dominate media content and are presented as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’. There is actually little choice for audiences in that there is no radical alternative to the mainstream newspapers and dissenting views on subjects like the monarchy are rarely presented.



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