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In 1980, UNESCO published a report written by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems titled ‘Many Voices, One World.’ This report recognized concentration in the media industry as a phenomenon that in people's views “constitutes an extremely serious threat to the existence of a free and pluralistic press.” The report addressed the need to strengthen self-reliance among media in developing countries and to preserve diversity and choice. This report came to be known as the MacBride report, and its publishing was soon followed by protest from the United States of America and the United Kingdom, who believed the recommendations of the report to be an ‘attack on freedom of the press.’

Present conditions differ significantly from the time of the MacBride report- media technologies are more accessible, and we consume content through a variety of online platforms. However, an underlying concern remains. Who owns the media now?  And are they preserving media’s integrity?

Concentration in media ownership is a global phenomenon in the media industry recognizable through the frequent mergers and acquisitions by powerful conglomerates who hope to build global media empires. The present trend of ‘convergence’ in the media can be viewed as two-fold:

  1. Convergence of various technologies those were previously independent of each other. Such as television programming, radio, and news, now united by the internet, are available on a single online platform or app.
  2. Oligopolization in the media market wherein few players with subsidiaries control a large part of the media and may even control multiple forms of media. This leads to a precarious situation where power lies in the hands of few.

With traditional borders erased by globalization and the internet, the media’s reach has widened and allowed companies to have a greater share of the global pie. The desire to earn massive profits may be coupled with a more unsettling motive that involves conglomerates using the media as a tool to serve their other business interests. As sociologist John Thompson points out, media is often used as an exercise of symbolic power by-“How ideas are used to hide, justify or legitimate the interests of dominant groups in the social order.”In India, the problem arises with increasing political ownership in media. In an article published by The Hoot on ‘Media Ownership in India,’ it is mentioned that political parties and persons with political affiliation own or control increasing sections of the media in India. This is evident in the number of news channels run by political parties and local politicians, especially in South India. 

One of the main consequences of concentration of media ownership is on content. Propaganda and doctored news are terms often associated with authoritarian regimes where the people are shown what the government or society elite would like them to see. But there is no denying that subtle practices of this do exist in our democracies. In sociology, the Conflict Perspective on Media sheds light on how economic interests in media ownership work to exclude those voices that lack economic power. One such example is of Big Tobacco companies, who were known to influence the media narrative to keep hidden the harmful effects of tobacco, up until the 1990s. 

India has a vibrant media landscape with an impressive number of regional channels and newspaper circulation. The problem of ‘paid news’ and corporate influence has permeated the system. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2014, sought to look into matters of cross-media ownership and vertical integration in India. Both these matters are of utmost importance as consolidation in Indian media is in its earlier stages.

Another aspect to this is Western media imperialism. We have witnessed Western cultural products- TV shows, music, film, and news, being accepted as superior and even eliminating smaller local media outlets. This kind of imperialism can be dangerous for a country’s culture and people. A critique of media imperialism, in the present day and age, is that attempts have been made by corporations to consider local customs and modify their products accordingly. This type of ‘glocalization’ allows them to market their products successfully in other countries.

Do we trust the media to report all facets of a problem? Do companies eliminate content that would be potentially damaging to their commercial interests?

One of the most well-known critics of our time, Noam Chomsky, sought to address these points. He came up with Five Filters that determine how the media presents news. The filters were namely Ownership, Advertising, Sourcing, Flak and Fear Ideology. A closer look at the ownership of medium filter would tell us that a media organization is solely driven by a profit motive. He held that the media does not keep a check on power but instead abuses its power and audiences. If anyone tries to raise their voice against such an unjust system, they are subjected to the ‘flak’ machine, which seeks to discredit ideas that challenge the prevailing assumption.

Media is inching towards becoming an oligopoly-a market system with few sellers and intense competition between them. It brings with it the problems of a monopoly-like situation where consumers are left with a minimal choice, and prices are deliberately set high. Healthy competition would be in the best interest of the people.  It would ensure a better quality of products and services, competitive pricing, and stability in the market. But an oligopolistic situation eliminates such competition. In 2018, we witness Comcast and The Walt Disney Company, first and second largest media company in the world respectively, in a bidding war to acquire another large company- Fox Studios. The consequences of a deal being struck left to be seen, but it does highlight a trend that policy-makers can no longer ignore. It prompts them to look at the possible concerns of majority corporate or political ownership of media and the need to uphold principles of freedom of expression and market-fairness. Thus antitrust laws and watchdogs would play an essential role in ensuring a stable and healthy marketplace for businesses and consumers in the future.

One could argue that social media and online platforms have democratized information, seemingly reducing the impact that propaganda or biased reporting could have on the general public. People can just choose what they want to see and when they wish to see it. Such a ‘participatory culture’ has transformed us from passive recipients of information to active participants in making of news, trends and other content. At the helm of this transformation, are big tech companies and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc. But the IT industry might be heading towards the same worrying trend of consolidation. In addition, online advertising and the desire to become a one-stop destination for all content, has transformed the likes of Alphabet and Facebook to more than just internet companies. They too have a stake in today’s media.

Aided by mobile technology, media has widened its reach exponentially, bringing millions under its fold. Raging debates on sexual harassment and racism show that audiences around the world are becoming more aware and responsible citizens. In times like this, we need to ensure that our media institutions do not fail us but engage in reporting the truth and giving voice to the people. Therefore, the consolidation of businesses in the media industry needs to be carefully watched to ensure that its integrity and purpose is protected.

References

Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1995). Manufacturing consent: Political economy of the mass media. Vintage. 

Djankov, S., McLiesh, C., Nenova, T., & Shleifer, A. (2003). Who Owns the Media? The Journal of Law & Economics, 46(2), 341-382. doi:10.1086/377116

Demorest, J. (2009). Corporate Interests and Their Impact on News Coverage | The Institute for Applied & Professional Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/2001-conferences/corporate-interests-and-their-impact-on-news-coverage/

Guha Thakurta, P. (2012). Media Ownership in India-An Overview. Retrieved from http://www.thehoot.org/resources/media-ownership/media-ownership-in-india-an-overview-6048

Fitzgerald, T. (2018). Comcast jumps into the race for fox with 60 billion dollar bid. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonifitzgerald/2018/05/23/comcast-jumps-into-the-race-for-fox-with-60-billion-bid/

Giddens, A., & Sutton, P. (1991). Sociology. UNESCO (1980). Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow, Many Voices One World, Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Kogan Page, London/Uniput, New York/Unesco, Paris.

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Written By Smriti Natarajan

Undergraduate student at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai

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