Ownership is only part of the media picture

David Hesmondhalgh
29 November 2001

The media ownership debate in openDemocracy was launched recently by two distinguished US commentators. Robert McChesney argued that media monopoly had disastrous implications for democracy. Benjamin Compaine responded with a complacent tribute to the magical powers of the market. McChesney is partly right. Ownership is important, and recent developments in the media are of great significance. But both McChesney and Compaine fail to provide an adequate assessment of the contemporary media. Both deal poorly with crucial issues of content – of what the media actually put out. And both are reductive in seeing the shape of the media as the result of economic factors: while McChesney attributes all ills to ownership, Compaine sees media companies as the servants of audiences via the profit system.

A relentless trend towards corporate control?

McChesney, along with Noam Chomsky, is the foremost exponent of a particular type of cultural commentary from the American left – and both are indebted to the father of this type of media political economy, Herbert Schiller. McChesney mourns the loss of “truly competitive markets” and provides endless figures purporting to show an unstoppable tendency towards oligopoly in the media. Every takeover or merger and every announcement of a corporate alliance is presented as if it were evidence of terminal decline. But this approach gives ammunition to free marketeers such as Compaine, who can argue quite correctly in response that some media have become less concentrated over the last twenty years. McChesney’s yearning for perfect competition means that media criticism becomes associated with an unpragmatic demand for the impossible. By portraying media companies as all-powerful giants, this ultra-leftist approach doesn’t allow for contradiction within the system. It is concerned only with informational media, and is dismissive of popular culture. By focusing so insistently on ownership, it fails to explain how the media operate on a day-to-day level.

A crucial factor, ignored both by the McChesney/Chomsky approach and by Compaine and his fellow market celebrants, is the pervasive risk and uncertainty within the media business. The failure rate in the media industries is considerably higher than in other sectors. Misses enormously outnumber hits. Nearly thirty thousand music albums are released in the US each year, of which fewer than two per cent sell more than fifty thousand copies. Of the four hundred or so films released each year in the US, only a dozen will be major box-office hits. Hits are notoriously hard to predict, even with massive marketing machines at work – hence the regular news stories about big-budget movie flops, from Dr. Dolittle in the 1960s to Bonfire of the Vanities to Kevin Costner’s epic Waterworld. The same is true in books, television and the launching of new video game systems.

Media businesses adopt different strategies to cope with this high level of risk. Formatting is one strategy, whereby new products are branded by genre (as horror films, or as romantic fiction, and so on) or by stars (as an Eminem album, or a David Attenborough documentary). This can lead to formulaic output, but crucially, the big hits are reliant on a spark of difference and originality. Media businesses tend to assume that this spark is best achieved by leaving creative workers to do their own thing during the conception stage of a film, a book, or a record. This also means that innovative creative work is subcontracted to small companies. While the corporations dominate market share, as they do in all mature industries, many media are characterised by the existence of large numbers of micro companies.

Of course this does not mean that the media corporations are hapless victims of audience fickleness. Profit margins remain healthy in most media industries. And control over output is re-exerted with a vengeance in the marketing and distribution of the product. But the crucial question for democracy is whether the output ultimately serves the interests of the owners and executives of the media companies – and those of their political allies. The answer is only a very qualified ‘yes’. There is sufficient autonomy for media workers to create products which do not always conform to the interests of the owners and executives of their companies. Cultural companies compete to outstrip each other in satisfying – and building – audience desires for the shocking, the profane and the rebellious. This may result in a deeply unserious and often trivial culture. But this is not the same thing as conformism, and serving the interests of big business. Indeed, much contemporary popular culture contains images which are fundamentally hostile to big business. Of course, no coherent programme of democratic reform is outlined. But it would be absurd to expect such a programmatic politics from everyday media.

Another significant factor here is the long-standing view that culture should not be dictated by the needs of commerce. Even in the belly of the commercial beast, in News Corporation, this view has an influence, and can help to ensure that creative workers are not entirely at the behest of their paymasters. Hence Murdoch’s Fox developed the once-subversive animated show The Simpsons. The result is a far more complex and contradictory media landscape than that painted by the approach which focuses excessively on ownership.

The decline of journalism?

The one area of life in media organisations with which the ownership-based approach tends to concern itself is the ideal of objective professional journalism. This is portrayed as the chief line of defence against owners pursuing their economic and political interests with impunity. Journalistic professionalism, the argument goes, has been eroded by commercialism, as owners have insisted that news organisations pursue the bottom line. This line is important and has some real validity. There is sustained evidence of trivialisation in the news, a narrowing of the news agenda, and an under-reporting of foreign affairs and labour issues. Local television news in the USA has been particularly afflicted by the worst excesses of tabloid television. Violent crime continues to be over-reported in all news media, distorting people’s sense of the dangers they face. Compaine’s response to McChesney is naïve in arguing that these negative developments are simply the result of the tastes of the mass audience. Markets never respond in an unmediated way to the demands of consumers. They help to create and shape the nature of those desires. This is especially true of media – indeed it is one of the distinguishing features of the media industries.

Yet evidence for a decline in journalism is more complex than may at first appear. The ‘golden age’ of journalism in the US, from the 1950s to the 1970s, was, as a number of writers have shown, never quite as golden as such nostalgic accounts suggest. Professionalism remains resilient in many quarters. There is much more coverage of long-term trends than in the past, and more contextualisation of breaking news stories. The media are much more prone to question and satirise themselves than they once were. The fact that the notion of spin is now one of the most widely-used words in news coverage suggests that media scepticism about information management is increasing, even as the PR industry continues to expand. Certain stories, dismissed as trivial by those who equate high-standard news with coverage of policy-making and international affairs, can draw attention to important social and cultural issues, such as when a footballer’s wife reveals that she has been the victim of domestic violence. The personal is political too. Even if there has been a decline in, for example, the standards of local newspaper journalism, this cannot be attributed entirely to the interests of owners and executives. Readers have turned towards other forms of information and entertainment since the ‘golden age’ of broadcast and newspaper journalism. They have become less concerned with issues of civic concern, as sociologist Robert Putnam has shown in his book Bowling Alone.

The consequences of ownership: fewer media voices?

A key point made by the critique of the idea of media monopoly is that oligopoly in itself reduces the number of voices in the marketplace. Compaine is quite right to respond that some markets have become more diverse in output over the last twenty years. But even in cases where market concentration has increased, there is no necessary link between oligopoly and reduced diversity. Studies of the music industry confirm this. As the multinational entertainment corporations extended their share of the international recorded-industry market in the 1980s, more music was issued, in a wider range of genres. Of course, this is not because concentration causes diversity. The important point is that there are other factors, besides ownership, at work in explaining media output.

In the case of music, the arrival of the CD created a new source of income for record companies, and this allowed expansion. But the response by record companies to social and cultural fragmentation was also a key factor. The record companies felt that in order to maximise profit they had to appeal to a much wider range of niche markets than before. These factors mattered more than competition in determining output. One of the ironies of debates about media ownership is that the ultra-left critiques of McChesney et al. have the same one-dimensional concern with competition as the neoclassical economists at the other end of the political spectrum.

The inadequacies of neoliberalism

But Compaine is even further from providing an adequate account than McChesney. His assumption that the market is responsible for any increased diversity is particularly misguided. In fact, the remarkable range of high-quality programming on many European television systems is the result of a commitment to public service broadcasting. Some US commentators fail to understand that commercial channels in the UK and elsewhere operate under a public-service mandate. Just as importantly, the public service ethos has helped to create a system where the media are scrutinised in public debate. When the UK’s main commercial channel, ITV, moved its main evening news broadcast from its traditional 10pm home to a graveyard slot, the full range of British newspapers gave considerable coverage to the resulting brouhaha. Public service broadcasting in Europe has been under attack for two decades, and indeed has been eroded, but it remains surprisingly robust. While the pessimists write premature obituaries for public service, free-market cheerleaders such as Compaine fail to understand its enormous importance in countering the worst excesses of commercial media companies.

Worse, Compaine is utterly complacent about the existence of large corporations in the media landscape. At least McChesney understands that the presence of vast corporations matters. Their immense resources give them tremendous lobbying power, as recent legislation in the USA and the UK shows. Their need to satisfy the demands of shareholders means they have a thirst for expansion which can never be slaked. As restrictions on cross-media ownership and vertical integration are removed, it will be harder than ever to defend public service broadcasting, and to maintain conditions in which independent companies can remain genuinely independent. This is a vital area in which citizens need to intervene in media policy. But the cause of progressive media reform is not ultimately helped by painting an inaccurate and unrecognisable picture of complete corporate control and uniform output. A younger generation of potential activists, raised on popular culture in all its contradictions, will not find such a monolithic picture credible.

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