Marxist views on the Ownership and Control of the Media
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Last updated 14 Nov 2018
Traditional Marxists argue that those who own the media also control it.
They note that the media is owned by members of the bourgeoisie: very wealthy business owners. They argue that these bourgeois owners instruct editors and journalists to put across particular messages to the audience. These messages spread the dominant ideology which seeks to justify the power and privilege of the bourgeoisie. Through this, the media is able to contribute towards creating a false class consciousness.
This idea of direct control by owners is sometimes described as the manipulative/instrumental approach and is associated with the writings of Ralph Miliband. He argued that the editors and journalists in newspapers and other media organisations depend on the owners for their jobs and therefore will not use any apparent autonomy they may have to resist the dissemination of bourgeois ideology.
There certainly are examples of owners directly interfering with the content of the media. Richard Desmond, former owner of the Express, apparently regularly visited the newspaper offices making clear demand of what should be included. While Rupert Murdoch claims he only took large, long-term decisions (such as which party the paper would support at a general election or what their view on the European Union should be) former editors of his have suggested a much more hands-on approach. Andrew Neil, who edited the Sunday Times for Murdoch, has says that Murdoch was the de facto “editor in chief” of the Sun and, despite not seeing himself in that role for the Times or the Sunday Times, nevertheless he did make direct interventions (such as insisting that no articles were published that would offend the Malaysian prime minster of the day).
Curran (2003) found lots of evidence of owners directly manipulating media content. In the middle of the 20th century, “press barons” were quite open about their propagandist role, and also that there have always been a lot more Conservative-supporting newspapers than those critical of that party, which reflects them serving the interests of their wealthy owners. He argues that in the later 20th century and today owners are, if anything, even more interventionist, with again Rupert Murdoch being the obvious example.
Furthermore, politicians clearly believe media moguls to have a great deal of control over media content because they try to get on the right side of them! Tony Blair famously flew to Australia to meet with Rupert Murdoch and was rewarded with the support of the Sun. Several years later, David Cameron repeated this with the same outcome.
Evaluating traditional Marxist views
- One criticism of traditional Marxist theories of the ownership and control of the media comes from neo-Marxists, who point out that the bourgeois owners of media companies do not have time to micro-manage media content. Traditional Marxists suggest the owners have a clear political view and a clear set of economic interests and ensure that their media companies project those views and disseminates an ideology that supports their interests. But in reality, owners can have so many business interests that they can really only control the big picture, leaving real control of media content down to editors. Even the editors of large publications or programmes cannot control everything and give some autonomy to their journalists.
- A further criticism comes from pluralists who argue that proprietors are predominantly businessmen, not editors. James Whale (1997) argues that “media moguls” are busy dealing with global business matters, not what story to run in a particular national newspaper. A journalist who has written extensively about media control, Roy Greenslade, asks the question, why would you own a newspaper if not to try and put across your opinions? But pluralists have a clear response to that: to sell them and make lots of money. If the aim of media owners is to make money, then their interest in the content of the media does not relate to ideology or politics but to the more basic question of what will sell. Owners might intervene sometimes in media content, but they will do so because they want to ensure good sales figures. Even Curran, whose research provides some evidence to support the Marxist perspective, argues that Rupert Murdoch’s interventions in his publications are more based on commercial needs and sales than being part of the ideological state apparatus.
- Many sociologists always question the idea of a passive audience who are delivered the dominant ideology from above, which is discussed in more detail in a later section.