Preachers to the Converted

Ten years ago, a distinguished American journalist predicted that 'By 2000, all the media in the world worth owning will be in the hands of a half a dozen giant companies'. As we enter 2001, Matt Henry looks into the impact of the concentration of ownership on the journalistic enterprise.

By Matt Henry

In January 1998, Bill Clinton proposed to curb the campaign fundraising 'arms race' in Presidential elections by providing all candidates with free commercial airtime. Despite universal acknowledgment that this would be good for democracy, the bill was killed almost instantly. Clinton had failed to account for the influence broadcasting corporations now exercised in Congress – cries for democracy fell silent on ears more in tune to the sounds of advertising jingles.

That media corporations could have such a swift and decisive effect on the policy process, says little for the allegiance such companies can now demand from editorial staff. The deregulation of America's media in 1996 spurned a series of mergers, buy-outs and partnerships that has left America's media at the mercy of a few giant multinational corporations. Five players with global muscle have now emerged: Disney, Bertelsmann, AOL/Time-Warner, Viacom and News Corporation.

The American Society of Magazine Editors' declaration last year that editors now need 'maximum possible protection from untoward and other extra-journalistic pressures' reflects a growing concern at the effects of this on journalistic integrity.

Like most things American, such a trend is liable to be exported. In the UK, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Culture are currently poised to produce a white paper recommending an increased deregulation of the UK's own media ownership rules. Expansion at home may ultimately be the only way of surviving in the global market the US has now created.

"What scares me most," says Gene Kimmleman, co-director of the Consumers Union in Washington, "is that eventually we may have most of the big players in cahoots with each other and there will be no one who has a major ownership stake in the dissemination of information with a market incentive to criticise. Who's going to blow the whistle? The way the public gets its information will be predominantly controlled by those who are benefiting from a monopolistic environment."

Yet  fears about corporate self-censorship of news information seem already vindicated. The ABC network was reported to have blanketed a story that Disney Corporation (which owns ABC) had hired convicted child molesters at its theme parks. And few in Britain can forget the case of Murdoch's publishing company, Harper Collins, cancelling a book critical of the Chinese leadership by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.  Murdoch's business interests in China had already led to the removal of the BBC World Service from his satellite broadcasts following a programme criticising Mao Tse-Tung.  

Australia is no stranger this manipulation of news content either – a Murdoch financial columnist went as far as to advise readers to buy stock of News Corporation. Four days later, the same columnist appeared in the News Corp's Sunday Mail interviewing the boss: "You've certainly led one of the most extraordinary lives in the 20th century and it's been entirely of your own making. Can you accept the accolade that you are probably the most remarkable Australian in about 200 years?"

The annual Project Censored awards in the US are testament to the rise of media self-censorship in Corporate America. A team of academics and media commentators scan the specialist and alternative press for stories of public interest that failed to make an impact on the mainstream press. The organisation reports that the number of these stories is growing year on year. AOL boss Steve Case denies that business interests at AOL/Time Warner would ever be allowed to restrict the work of news reporters. "This is not about trying to have some influence over all these media properties for some kind of self-serving reason." It is rather difficult, however, to accept such multi-nationals could exercise such professional restraint – even more difficult when you consider that media corporations have given some $75 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office since 1993.

While editorial self-censorship is quite common, Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University, does say that direct corporate intervention is probably quite rare: "Usually it isn't necessary for the boss to interfere. The culture of the newsroom in this corporate system tacitly requires you to learn the ropes. You learn what to do and what not to do. You've got to make a living."

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America says much of the problem stems from the difficulty of proving a negative: "On the one hand the public understands that concentrated ownership creates problems. On the other it doesn't know what it's not getting."

If journalism could ever have been described as a guardian of democracy, its capacity for protecting the public interest has been all but eroded by the corporate profit-motive. Veteran war reporter Peter Arnett claims the country's newspapers, magazines and TV stations now feed the public a diet of crime news, celebrity gossip and soft features, choosing to exclude more serious topics that news managers fear would not stimulate public attention. Project Censored's top ten "most obsessively over-reported stories of the year" do little to assuage such fears. Last year's winners included the sexuality of Teletubbie Tinky-Winky, the new Star Wars film and Pamela Anderson's breasts.

A growing opposition to corporate domination of the media expressed itself in the recent US presidential elections, where candidate Ralph Nader pledged to attack the concentration of media ownership. Such corporate hegemony was also an important catalyst for last year's anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle that saw the creation of the world's largest independent media news service. The Independent Media Centre (IMC) sort to frame the demonstrations in the context of such issues as media ownership to bypass mainstream news focus on vandalism and clashes with police. Allied to this is the increasing pressure for low-power local radio and more public access to television airwaves.

Recognition of the importance of public discourse in encouraging a healthy and open democracy seems to be a growing trend that new media such as the internet may help to foster.  However, as long as issues like these are ignored by the mainstream press, such advocates will remain contained preachers to the converted. Breaking this catch-22 will become a global 21st century struggle for the restoration of real democratic values.
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