Global media concentration: shifting the argument

James Curran
22 May 2002

The debate launched by the McChesney-Compaine exchange has been one of the most read sections of openDemocracy. It has also been used in university seminars in two continents. But now that the two duellists have fired their parting shots, and their seconds have packed away their pistols, what should we make of it all?

Perhaps two key questions stand out from the many issues that were raised in this debate. The first is a basic factual question: is media concentration increasing? The answer given by Benjamin Compaine is, essentially, no. The market share of the fifty largest media corporations in the United States was, he declared, only a little higher in 1997 than it was in 1986. New enterprises like Amazon and C-Net have joined the ranks of leading players, while others like Playboy Enterprises have been eclipsed – a sure sign of market dynamism and healthy competition. In a wider global context, the media industry remains fragmented.

These arguments were greeted with open incredulity by Bob McChesney, and others who joined the debate. Media concentration, insists McChesney, is advancing on a global scale. Jonathan Burston illustrates this general argument by showing the way in which transnational corporations like Disney have moved into theatrical production, producing megamusicals as “standardised as a Big Mac” in different venues around the world, as part of a global corporate strategy.

More generally, William Hoynes argues, the growth of horizontally integrated media conglomerates is “a qualitative new development”. According to Silvio Waisbord, media concentration was already well advanced in Latin American but has become worse.

The perspective of history

What are we to make of this seemingly irreconcilable difference of opinion? Surely, both sides cannot be simultaneously right? At the risk of casting myself in the role of an unwanted conciliator in a fight that both sides clearly relish, the clash is not in fact as irresolvable as it seems. Those backing the McChesney position on media concentration are right to stress the importance of the emergence of new media megacorporations operating on a more global basis, while Benjamin Compaine is also right to draw attention to countervailing trends. Both perspectives are best understood – and squared – in an ‘historical’ context.

In the mid-1980s, there was a relatively stable media landscape in which each media sector, in most countries, was dominated by an oligopoly. The core television system was the first to be convulsed by competition, as a consequence of the development of new delivery systems. This was followed by new external challenges, generated by increased globalisation, and the unfolding ‘threat’ of the internet and new communications technologies.

The flurry of media mergers that took place in the 1980s and 1990s was essentially a defensive response, borne out of fear of uncontrolled competition. It produced new or consolidated alliances – most notably between film, television and net companies in the United States – that led to the re-stabilisation of corporate control. The top fifty media concentration ratio failed to diminish, notwithstanding an enormous expansion of the media system, because a number of leading companies joined forces to colonise new markets, and fight off new entrants.

However, we are still at a relatively early stage of what will almost certainly be a continuing process of global media concentration. While the dynamic shift has been towards the increased global integration of media markets, the global media system is still fragmented. The ownership of television, radio and the press, in most European, Asian and Latin American countries, is still predominantly national rather than global – something that cultural globalisation theorists repeatedly ignore.

A diverse media terrain

If the majority of contributors sided with McChesney about the extent of media concentration, the opposite was true in relation to the second key question of the debate – does the development of private media concentration matter? Here, the thrust of commentary was openly sceptical or questioning.

There is no necessary connection, Hoynes acknowledges, between media concentration and the absence of content diversity. Governments rather than media moguls threaten media independence – a point made, in different ways, in relation to Pakistan (Beena Sarwar), Hungary (Ildiko Kaposi), and Japan (Barbara Gatzen). Media concentration does not automatically eliminate staff autonomy nor extinguish the power of the consumer.

This, argues David Hesmondhalgh, explains the rich diversity of music products, subversive anti-business images in media entertainment, and the emergence of new emancipatory forms of journalism. Media concentration, concurs Silvio Waisbord, has not prevented the development of progressive telenovelas or heroic feats of watchdog journalism in Latin America.

So what’s the problem, chimes my co-editor, David Elstein, in an eloquent survey of market trends? Media moguls repeatedly stumble, get it wrong, launch flops. The reassuring implication is that media controllers are subject to the wayward caprice of the sovereign consumer, the ultimate source of power in the emancipatory environment of the marketplace.

Perhaps taken aback by these responses, Bob McChesney shifted ground in his final reply. He focused attention on elite source influence rather than ownership power as the principal explanation for recent shortcomings of American journalism.

Yet McChesney was in fact entirely right in his opening piece to draw attention to the problem of media concentration. He did not suggest that this was the source of all evil in a ‘reductionist’, single factor explanation of media failure – the position of which he stands tacitly accused. What is at issue is whether it matters at all that media concentration is a significant feature of the contemporary media system. The answer, surely, must be that it does matter for three telling reasons.

A pattern of domination: four sources of concern

The first is that the private concentration of symbolic power potentially distorts the democratic process. This point is underlined by the way in which Silvio Berlusconi was catapulted into the premiership of Italy without having any experience of democratic office. How this happened, and why the experience should have been repeated, is the subject of three articles in openDemocracy (Mancini and Hallin, Mastolonardo, and Ranieri).

While all three articles adopt different positions, and point to the complexity of what happened, one thing remains clear. Berlusconi would not be ruling Italy now if he did not dominate a massive media empire that enabled him to manufacture a political party. As Aidan White reminds us in a contribution on recent developments in Korea, media moguls ‘make politics’ not just profits.

The second reason for concern is that the power potentially at the disposal of media moguls tends to be exerted in a one-sided way. Of course, this power is qualified and constrained in many ways – by the power available to consumers and staff, the suppliers of news, regulators, rival producers, the wider cultural patterns of society. But it is simply naïve to imagine that it does not exist.

Murdoch may have presided over the subversive Simpsons but he is also the man who bullied his British journalists to follow a right-wing agenda, and gave birth to the conservative Fox TV in the United States. This is part of a more general pattern in which shareholder interventions sometimes advance conservative or market-friendly positions, but more rarely their antithesis.

The third reason for concern is that the concentration of market power can stifle competition. A fundamental reason for the long-standing deficiencies of the British national press, for example, is that it has been controlled so long by an oligopoly. No new independent national newspaper has been launched, and has managed to stay independent, during the last seventy years.

To this can be added perhaps a fourth concern. The dominant position that emerged in this debate – that media concentration undoubtedly exists but matters relatively little – fairly accurately reflects the balance of opinion, both in the relevant academic literature and in wider political debate. This is giving rise to a one-sided protection of our freedoms: a state of constant alert against the abuse of state power over the media, reflected in the development of numerous safeguards, not matched by an equivalent vigilance and set of safeguards directed against the abuse of shareholder power over the media.

Indeed, one consequence of the current quiescence is that media conglomerates have been able to persuade governments around the world to ease monopoly controls. In the 1980s, lobbyists argued that these were redundant since the advent of new communication technology would lead to the break-up of media empires. Now the argument is more frequently heard that media ‘consolidation’ is necessary for success in the competitive global marketplace. This shift symbolises the way in which successful media giants have so far weathered the storm of increased competition, and won increased acceptance in the era of market liberalism.

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