Is concentrated media ownership essentially undemocratic? : A research project looking at the far reaching effects of concentrated media ownership

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“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”
– Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, 1998

Introduction of topic

The issue of media ownership has been debated and discussed for decades. Ever since technology allowed for a mass media there have been discussions on whether who owns the media has power, and if they do how they use it. In recent years, the debate seems to circulate around media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the power he holds behind his empire. Obviously he is not the only owner of media outlets but as the Murdoch family controls News Corp which is the world’s second-largest media group in terms of revenue, and the world’s third largest in entertainment it makes sense that he is well known (Street, 2011). Couple this with the scandals that seem to follow Murdoch’s various takeovers and dealings, the most recent and explosive being the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in 2011, and the Murdochs have made themselves as famous as the people their newspapers report on.

Murdoch is notorious for controlling what his media outlets say and what political line they take. This leads to questions of whether it is undemocratic to allow someone who is unelected to hold this much opinion-changing power. However, a media owner using their outlets to broadcast their own opinion is not a new phenomenon. In 1947 Lord Beaverbrook admitted he ran the Daily Express for propaganda purposes and more recently media proprietor Robert Maxwell called the Daily Mirror his own personal megaphone (Starkey, 2007 p49).

Democracy also seems to take a hit in this topic because it is not uncommon for media moguls and politicians to be friends, or at the very least on social terms. Most recently, the now Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has admitted to having social lunches with Rupert Murdoch which mirrors the fact that Murdoch’s papers were distinctively pro-Liberal in the last election. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was also supported by the Murdoch-owned media, is the godfather of Murdoch’s children which further shows how connected the two industries are.

Of course, some people argue that the whole issue of media ownership is irrelevant now because the rise of the internet has given people more freedom in where the get their news from. Alternative views and sources are easier to find and share and the traditional media outlets are no longer the only way to get information. This has also given a rise to people not associated with the press reporting on what happens around them and sharing it on the internet. This is sometimes called citizen journalism and was a significant part of the Arab Spring.

Aims and Significance of the topic towards Journalism

This topic not only has significance for journalism, but society as a whole. As mentioned above, there is often a close relationship between politicians and media moguls. Essentially, what this can mean is that the media and politics often work together to achieve a common goal without the public’s knowledge. Often it is to gain support of the public on an issue so it will look like the government is doing what the public wants, when really the public has been manipulated into thinking this is what they want. This will be discussed further below but the most recent example of this is the way the media reported on the invasion of Syria earlier in the year.

To the journalism industry specifically, concentrated media ownership is an issue that can lead to many other problems. One is that the quality of journalism will decrease if only a few people own the majority of the media outlets. One company owning many media outlets can lead to job losses, several outlets getting their information from a single source, and ultimately limiting the public debate. This relates back to the idea that concentrated media ownership is undemocratic and puts too much power in a few people’s hands. It can be argued that ‘Social justice, therefore, within the media actually requires publicly regulated and accountable media institutions and structures that are not allowed to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of private magnates’ (Stevenson, 1999). However, as the media ownership laws were relaxed by the Howard government in 2006 the chances of this happening are slim. The government and the media work in a mutually beneficial relationship that allows them to maintain their power and control the population without them realising.

There are a few aims of this research project. One aim is to find out how three significant stakeholders view the issue of media ownership. These three stakeholders are academics, the media and the general public who consume the media. The different views and concerns of these parties will be analysed together and individually for a holistic view of the issue. The second aim is to determine how far-reaching the consequences of concentrated media ownership are. This includes looking closer at the connections between the people democratically elected to hold power and those like Rupert Murdoch who have gained power in other ways. Do they have agendas and partnerships that are not common knowledge? This research project has been used to look at all aspects of media ownership, even if some of them were not possible to include in the project itself.

Research Questions

The research that was undertaken was based around answering some fundamental research questions. These questions were:

  • What are the main concerns surrounding media ownership?
  • Is giving a select few people power through concentrated media ownership an attack on democracy?
  • Does who owns the media outlet affect how the information is framed?
  • What are the hidden connections between those who have power through media ownership and those who have been ‘democratically’ elected?
  • What is the impact of all these answers on a functioning society?

These questions were intended to focus my research but in actual fact they often lead into different tangents while I was trying to find the answers. They are also all connected to each other and the answers from one question influenced the following question. Despite this, the questions helped to keep a clear vision in what I wanted to achieve.

Literature Review

While there were many sources used to create this research project, there were a few that were the most helpful. The types of sources and the information found in them varied greatly so instead of doing a lot of sources poorly, I chose to write about a select few sources that were the most helpful in educating myself about the topic.

One such source was Rob Harding-Smith’s issue brief from 2011. The brief was called ‘Media Ownership and Regulation in Australia’ and written for the Centre for Policy Development. Harding-Smith goes into all the traditional problems associated with concentrated media ownership, but also addresses more modern elements that have grown with the spread of the internet. While some people claim that media ownership is no longer an issue because the internet allows people to access information easily, Harding-Smith found that the internet is not an instant fix. Of the top 100 sites visited in Australia, only 12 of them were news sites and 8 of those were still owned by News Corp (previously News Ltd) or Fairfax. Harding-Smith goes on to outline how the changes in policy have affected the issue and how News Corp and Fairfax grew under each change. To make the most use of this reference it has to be seen in the context that it comes from. It was written for the Centre of Policy Development which sees itself as “a public interest think tank dedicated to seeking out creative, viable ideas and innovative research to inject into Australia’s policy debates” (CPD, 2013). This means that this article is useful because it is by a non-government based group that views its identity as one that is problem fixing and helping society. However, it still has to be considered if they have their own agenda with releasing this brief. Despite taking these things into account the article is still deemed useful because while the information is good none of it is unheard of and can be found in other places.

A different tact is taken on the topic by Ian Ward in ‘The Media, Power and Politics’. In this article, Ward argues how much power the media possesses and how much of this power media owners personally wield. Ward believes despite being intended as a watchdog for the public, the media’s interests lie more in commercial success than politics. He goes onto say that they will use what influence they can for commercial gain and this can include political connections but this is not their main goal.

Ward also looks further into the idea of how much power the media actually holds, whereas most academic articles takes it as a given. Ward states that media effects are still being debated and no one is entirely sure how much effect the media has over people’s decisions, with some saying it has very little. This can be seen in the fact that despite the millions political parties spend on advertising a large majority still vote the same in every election. However, Ward finds that the medias power comes from its ability to set the agenda and decide how we see things. Agenda setting is the theory that suggests audiences see issues that are given more prominent news coverage as more important. This type of control is less noticeable and therefore more dangerous than more obvious forms of persuasion and Ward’s analysis of the phenomenon creates another layer to look at within the overall issue.

Essentially, the value of this source lies in the way it questions things others take for granted. Ward questions the assumption that media kingpins like Rupert Murdoch have a direct influence on policies and laws. He points out that policy is not just simply implemented by a government and that it involves debates and lobbying between stakeholders like corporations, trade unions, public interest advocacy groups etc. It is admitted that the media does have large pull in this discussion but there are other players that are often left out of the debate. The reason behind the author looking at the issue from a different angle is that it is just one chapter in a political textbook. While many sources were found in journals that were focused on media studies, this one was from a different discipline and therefore looked at the subject matter a different way. This was beneficial to the findings because they address more of this issues surrounding media ownership instead of just the ones as seen by people who have been studying the subject professionally. Ward gives information that is still of an academic standard but it from a step back, which helps to give the author a fuller picture.

The final source that was used for familiarising myself with the topic was John Street’s Mass Media, Politics and Democracy (2011). The value of this source lays in the way it covers all the major points that have been associated with media ownership over the past 50 years. It outlines the major media empires that have formed and gives numerous examples of how a media outlet has swayed the outcome of elections. Street also has many references for the arguments he makes, meaning that it was relatively simple to follow the argument and get a better rounded idea of what the problem is. Street also gives financial statistics of how much the big media corporations are worth and what they own. This is beneficial because it allowed me to analyse the information that was coming from each source to determine whether they all held the same bias and the same general story (they did). This final source was one of the most helpful because of the different directions it lead me in my research.

Methodology

The beginning of this research was characterised by reading countless academic sources. These sources were both old and new, with some dating back to the mid-1980’s. This was to determine what academics and people who considered themselves experts in the field thought of the issue. The similarities in the arguments and the progression of the arguments were noted and compared. The purpose of this was to build a good foundation of background knowledge on the subject before I looked further. What I found was that almost all the sources I looked at used the same arguments and often cited each other as references. What was most interesting about the academic sources was that even the older ones had very similar arguments as more recent ones, despite the factors that have changed the issue in the passing decades. Essentially, the debate does not seem to have moved on with the social and technological changes as much as expected but it was easy to pin point what the academic world saw as the major problems with media ownership. The information was also often very one sided, with the authors demonising the issue without giving much consideration to the other side of the dispute.

The nest step in gathering information was to analyse the public debate around the issue. This mainly consisted of looking at media stories on the issue from sources like The Project, Media Watch, blogs and news articles. These articles were often not easy to find and were often only part of a bigger debate. An example of this is the international uproar of concentrated media ownership and the power this entails that occurred in early 2011. This coincided with the breaking of the News of the World scandal which revealed illegal and immoral work practices in Murdoch’s paper. During this time there were many debates about the possible need for restrictions when it came to how much media one person can own. However, as the heat died down on the Murdoch Empire, so too did the debates over media ownership restrictions.

While the mainstream media often stuck to the generic aspects of media ownership, it was in the independent media that a lot of useful information came out of. This included blogs and independent news sites that dug a little deeper into the issue to find other answers. These were the sources that were used to find a different angle on the subject and to make the research better rounded.

The final step in collecting data was to conduct primary research. Thirty people were surveyed and asked what they knew about media ownership, how they felt about and where they got their news from. This information was used to determine how aware the general public are of concentrated media ownership and if they even cared. If the majority of people do not think it is an important issue then it will just be a group of out of touch academics chasing their tales and not achieving anything. There are some obvious restrictions that will have to be taken into account when looking at the data received from the primary research. The first one is that the sample size is very small and not reflective of Australian diversity. While measures were gone to make the results as varied as possible it was difficult to get a good range of people to participate. Another problem with the primary research is that a survey is not the best way to collect detailed feedback and get the best information possible. While there was the opportunity for extra comments in the survey, methods like focus groups and in-depth interviews will often bring out more thoughtful responses and give the responder more time to think. However, these types of data collection were not possible in this research project because of time and budget restraints so a survey was the only option. The primary research could have been discarded completely because of its drawbacks but to get a full view of the problem there needed to be some input from the general public. The information gathered from the surveys still gives helpful insight to the issue of media ownership and the results gathered are still useful, but the shortcomings need to be taken into account when analysing them.

Findings and Discussion

As this topic was looked at under three different stakeholders, the findings will be split into three and then brought together for the discussion.

Within the academic community there were three points that consistently came up in different sources. These three points were factors that were often drawn back to the conclusion that concentrated media ownership is undemocratic and harmful to society. The points used to prove the undemocratic nature of the issue were that it gives an unelected person too much power, it limits the public debate and that it lowers journalism standards.

Most writers agreed that Murdoch holds too much power because of how many news outlets he owns, and the basis of this power is in the way his media can influence what people think. This is further illustrated in the mind of these academics by the numerous accounts of Murdoch having a large say in what his papers say. Murdoch’s influence over the content of his papers has been spoken of on many occasions, with many claiming that Murdoch was the undisputed king and he had no problem with changing stories so that they better suited his own political ideals- even the Wall Street Journal has ‘perceptibly tilted to the right under Murdoch’ according to Ryan Chittum (2011). Former News of the World editor Barry Askew says that while Margaret Thatcher was campaigning for office Murdoch would ‘come into the office and literally rewrite leaders which were not supporting the hard Thatcherite line’ and because Askew didn’t do this, he was only in the job for nine months (Curran, Seaton 2003). Andrew Neil, who was the editor of the Sunday Times also supported this by saying ‘Rupert expected his paper to stand broadly what he believes’ (Curran et al., 2003). These writers go on to condemn this influence Murdoch holds over his papers as undemocratic because although Murdoch is one person (and often not even a citizen of the countries his media outlets are run in) he holds influence over millions of people’s opinions, which in turn effects how the vote and view the world.

The second point commonly raised was that concentrated media ownership limits public debate within the community. Essentially, the argument behind this is that being able to participate in debates means both sides of the argument need to be made available and people are free to choose which they agree with. Media supporting a political party and demonising another does not allow the audience to make up its own mind without coercion and certainly does not show both sides of the debate. In a democracy, each individual’s opinions are as important as the next so the fact that Murdoch uses his papers to make his voice overshadow others is undemocratic (Doyle 2002, Curran et al. 2003, Hitlin 2011). An example that was given for this point of view was how the Murdoch owned Fox News covered the News of the World scandal. Fox News gave about one-fifth of the time to the breaking story that CNN and MSNBC, two other prevalent news networks did (Hitlin, 2011). CNN and MSNBC averaged about sixteen minutes on the story a night while Fox News only averaged about three minutes a night. This is also an example of agenda setting which was a common way in which academics felt concentrated media ownership was limiting public debate, where they choose which stories to focus on and therefore influence peoples priorities (Parker, Summers, Woodward, 2006).

The final major point brought up by the academic community was that it has a detrimental effect on journalism standards. When Murdoch acquired the Wall Street Journal in 2007 there was a mass exodus of the staff of the Pulitzer award winning journal under protest. Since 2007 there has also been a de-emphasis on analysis and deep reporting which was what the Wall Street Journal was known for, and as a results the journals credibility has taken a hit (Chittum, 2011). If the majority of media outlets are owned by the same company, then it is very likely that at some point this company will begin to make cut costs to increase their profit, meaning job losses because they don’t need several reporters on one story. Now the company will only have one journalist for each story so all news is coming from the same source but it is published in many different outlets. Less journalists also means they have less time to work on each story and the quality of the writing itself will diminish but more importantly the investigative element of reporting will become less and less.

While these are the main concerns of the academic community regarding concentrated media ownership, not all of these are mirrored in the public debate of the issue. As mentioned previously, the only time media ownership came up in the media was when another, bigger story put it there. For example, when the News of the World scandal broke and the subsequent Leveson inquiry began there was huge uproar on the matter. However, as the news stories began to fade into the next big controversy, the subject of media ownership faded with it. . A similar thing happened in Australia in the lead up to the election, when Kevin Rudd accused Murdoch of attacking him to stop the Labor party’s NBN plans (Taylor, 2013). The media was alive with talks of the truth behind this statement for a few days, with some agree with Rudd and others calling him paranoid and narcissistic, but before long the topic was all but forgotten.

However, the internet has given rise to alternative sources of information and these sources tell a different story. There is a large amount of people who have found various connections between politicians, major banks and media moguls (Keiser, 2013). Between these leaders they have been found to control countless aspects of society and work together to form a power elite. What this means is that people in these powerful positions do what they want but most people don’t know about it because they own the media so the media doesn’t report it. There are several examples of this but a recent one is the treatment of Syria earlier in 2013. Especially in America, the media was blatantly supporting military action in Syria even though the information surrounding the use of chemical weapons was not proven. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted that ‘one tendency in the corporate media seemed to be to jump to the conclusion that the chemical attacks were launched by the Assad regime, while admitting that this was perhaps not proven’ (Hart, 2013). There was a huge push for what the Obama government wanted, which was a military intervention, but there was very little spoken of the fact that 70% of people in America were against arming Syrian rebels or any involvement (Shechter, 2013). Essentially, the media was being a cheerleader for the government and not simply informing people like it is meant to. If anyone had dug deeper into the situation they would have found that Murdoch is an investor in Genie Energy Company which had received an exclusive petroleum exploration licence for Golan Heights. This land is currently in Israeli territory but Murdoch stood to make millions if the boarders were rearranged, which was quite likely if there was to be conflict in the area (Shechter, 2013). This fact was not mentioned anywhere in the main media (and certainly not anywhere in Murdoch’s media) even though it qualifies as a conflict of interest.

This is not the first time that a major fact has been left out of the media because it could harm the power elites hold. The mainstream media does not report that the UN has condemned the US’s activities in Iraq as breaching human rights or the whole truth about the lives of people who live there. The US occupation of Iraq is estimated to have killed 10% of the Sunni population and caused a further 25% to leave their homes (Davies, 2013). Under the genocide convention, these types of statistics fall under the definition of genocide but this fact is not picked up on and explored further. Instead, the media uses ‘passive reporting’ to relay information of what’s happening in the Middle-East so people don’t become concerned. Passive reporting includes reporting on facts like bombing and deaths and mundane, every day events when in fact they are concerning acts that need to be addressed. This example ties back into the power that the media has in regards to agenda setting and therefore how much power media owners have over what we think.

The misinformation and the gaps in what we are told can also be seen back in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The American government were given intelligence that said there could be a terrorist attack on American soil but the FBI and CIA were told not to worry about terrorism and that it wasn’t a threat (Wilkerson, 2013). However, as soon as the attacks happened they were used to ramp up nationalism and fear instead of looking for a reason. The fact that the government knew there was the chance of an attack did not feature in the media and instead, once again, the media became a cheerleader for an invasion of Afghanistan. This was despite the fact that that Al-Qaeda was based in Pakistan at the time and Osama bin Laden was Saudi Arabian. The 9/11 attacks were used by The Bush Administration to push their real agenda forwards which was to get on the ground in the Middle-East (Wilkerson, 2013). This is the beginning of the ‘blood for oil’ movement where the Western countries occupy oil-laden countries through military action for the commodity (Keiser, 2013).

The results of the survey that was carried out on the topic were quite varied. 61% per cent of the 30 people surveyed were male and 39% were female. 60% were 18-25 while the rest were over 35 and the responses ranged from one extreme to another. All of them had heard of Rupert Murdoch but six did not know what he was known for. One person did not think that the ownership of Australian media was too concentrated, three didn’t understand the question but everyone else said that the media landscape was too dominated by a few people. Every person surveyed got at least some of their news from an online source but they were all still the online equivalent of a major media outlet, like the Sydney Morning Herald or the BBC. 50% also got their news from a social media site. From this information it can be seen that while there is a move towards the internet for news and other media it is still for the same information that can be found in newspapers and television programs. However, 100% of responses came back that who owns the media outlet effects how the news is told so people seem to be aware of the bias that is present in the media. This is a positive finding because although people are still getting their news from mainstream sources they recognise that it can be twisted and used for different purposes. To follow up these findings it would be helpful to carry out more in-depth interviews with these people and get more of a range of different people to get an accurate cross-section of society. This survey gives a little insight into how people view what they are being told and their reaction to it. Judging by some of the responses it is quite a hot topic for some people and it has probably been ramped up again by News Corp’s blatant support of Tony Abbott in the most recent election.

A major way to fix this group of power elites controlling the whole of society without anyone realising is to have a greater amount of transparency in the system. People need to be able to find out who is in alliance with whom, who owns what and how this effects everything we do. However, this is not the only problem that surrounds journalism and media ownership. Wikileaks has released mountains of information that could be used to make those in power more accountable, yet very little of it was actually used. There is even a search engine for the information to make it user friendly, yet there is still so much in the files that isn’t acknowledged by the mainstream media. A reason for this could be the system as a whole is flawed. Journalists cannot write anything too controversial because it won’t be printed because the outlet will come under fire which will have financial repercussions. This is where the internet comes in and while citizen journalism is a great development it has not fixed the entire problem (Diadiun, 2013). Traditional media sources still have a greater reach than one person’s blog and are often seen as more reliable sources because they have been vetted by an editor. In actual fact, traditional media outlets are at the disposal of their owners to make sure their agendas are fulfilled.

Society as a whole needs better media training so they can make their own minds up on what is true and what is being pushed by someone for personal gain. Mass media used to be the only way to be informed about world events and as such it was seen a trustworthy. Now the media has become a tool for those who own it, as well as their powerful connections. People should also be taught how to find alternative views on the internet, because although most people know there are other places to get information they are unsure where to find a source that is reliable. Essentially, concentrated media ownership and the power elite it is a part of are only possible because people are unaware that it is happening. All the issues that were identified by the academic community, the alternative media and the public come down to the fact that the people with power have been getting away with this behaviour for so long that the media is falling apart. By informing people about what they are doing and causing outrage there is a better possibility that the system will be broken and the media can become a better version of what it is and regain some prestige.

Conclusion

Whether most people realise it or not, the media influences every part of our lives. People are exposed to thousands of advertisements a day and technology has made itself seem like a necessity. Within this interconnected world of media and technology is a select few that practically control it all. People like Rupert Murdoch hold a great amount of power because the media ownership across the globe, especially in Australia, is highly concentrated. This means that Murdoch controls a big part of what we see, what we hear and what we’re told. This is an issue that is of great concern to many groups, most of all the media itself, academics and the general public. There are many problems that concentrated media ownership has brought up, like it limits public debate, it gives one person too much power and that it has a negative effect on journalism standards. While all these things are true the problem goes deeper and can be traced all the way to a small group of people in power who scratch each other’s backs and rule over society without anyone knowing. All the previously mentioned problems can be traced back to the fact that those with power are in alliances and this is being hidden from everyone. To fix the problems that are plaguing the media, the problems with the way the system works must be fixed and the first step to this is to work towards transparency in society.

Elizabeth Logan (3946277)

References

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