Have media conglomerates suffocated the ‘perfect information’ dream?

Tom Stevens 

Prior to the late 1970s, mass media was a public service to inform and educate populations on domestic and foreign affairs, shaping a general consensus and justifying policy. The BBC encapsulated this model, a state-owned enterprise that was exploited by Anthony Eden in the late 1950s to incite popular support to overthrow Egypt’s General Nasser throughout the Suez Crisis.

Free marketeers rallied against the public sector media monopoly during the 1970s. These outriders gradually shifted attitudes internationally and the floodgates for widespread privatisation and deregulation were opened by Carter, Reagan and Thatcher’s policies. The 1996 Telecommunications Act in the US permitted cross-ownership across multiple media platforms, with the aim of creating a pure, competitive communications market. Neoliberals envisaged a free ‘marketplace of ideas’ open to everyone, a pluralistic community devoid of bias – a system of ‘perfect information’.

The rise of the conglomerate, however, has disillusioned many to deregulated international media.  Multi-national corporations, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s expansive News Corporation empire, operate a model of vertical integration, allowing them to cross-promote and cross-sell their brand through their many channels of production and implementation. The British and Australian populations may be all too aware (or perhaps more worryingly, unaware) of the influence Murdoch possesses in domestic politics, however the role of conglomerates as international actors is perhaps more sinister still.

It is generally agreed that the greater the number of parties in a state, the higher degree of media pluralism and transparency of information. Conglomerates’ frightening power to mould public opinion towards foreign policy within the US and UK throughout the Iraq War in 2003 revealed the enormous potential for disinformation in two-party states. Harvard’s political commentator Matthew Baum has proven that independent newspapers were far more likely to publish ‘hard’ stories focussing on policy success and military issues during the Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo conflicts, than media conglomerates who far more frequently wrote ‘soft’ articles about personalities and humanitarian issues. This pattern is only being continued through the dissemination of hostile rhetoric towards migrants from Sudan and Syria from Murdoch’s US Fox News and the UK’s The Sun, rather than the degree of success of Angela Merkel’s integration policies. The lack of concrete information broadcast by these elite corporations are a massive threat to the accountability of the West’s foreign policies, with public scrutiny constantly being squashed by their framing of public discourse.

At the dawn of the internet, neoliberals looked forward to the formation of inter-connected ‘digital boroughs’ of international groups sharing political values. Ironically, digitised news corporations have frequently sought to entrench national particularism within the countries they operate in, with the alarming effect of creating online echo chambers in which a collective consciousness of ‘us’ against ‘others’ is perpetuated. Analysis by Oxford researcher Vyacheslav Polonski on the internet behavioural patterns of the opposing campaigns in Britain’s EU referendum has demonstrated how these communities are as distinct and separate online as they are in reality. The echo chambers of Brexiteers were housed on media conglomerates’ websites, whereas Bremainers were more disparately spread across many platforms. Few would contest that these self-affirming echo chambers are not harmful to the international ‘democracy of ideas’ vision that a deregulated, digitised media promised.

Has globalisation and the information revolution accidentally caused a regression into national self-assertion? Are global media elites allowing governments’ foreign policies to go unscrutinised? These questions will doubtless cause a campaign for greater public ownership of the media, but for now it is clear that conglomerates have tarnished the neoliberal dream of an open, transparent market place of ideas. Indeed, their power as international actors continues to swell unchecked.