An area of study and research among many media academics, activists and regulatory bodies. Very simply, it is the study of who owns what within the media sphere.

Why is it important?

Different models of the ownership of the means of production always affect the speed and quality of the production, as well as the profit margin and success of the business generally. The model of ownership, however, is especially significant when the product in question is information. The owner and producer of a particular newspaper, film or magazine will obviously decide, to some extent, the information contained within it. This is not to say that producers of information will always distort the truth for their own gain, but simply that it is human nature not to publish things which will directly harm you. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this. It only becomes a problem when the owners of various media publications are not entirely clear about their own interests and biases.

This is certainly the case at the moment, with many corporations working under a variety of names, causing confusion amongst audiences. And it is relieving this confusion that is one of the main aims of media ownership studies. Knowledge of who owns a particular publication won’t change its content, but will allow readers to analyse the information presented in a more balanced way.

Approaches

As with many areas of study and research, the work done on media ownership can be divided into two basic area: the theoretical (which deals with such issues as ‘which model of media ownership is best?’, ‘what rights and duties do the public and the media producers have?’, ‘to what extent should the owners of the media be allowed to censor and moderate the truth?’, etc.), and the more social science-based approach (‘what is the current state of media ownership?’, ‘what is the current trend in ownership patterns?’, ‘can future media ownership be accurately modelled?’ etc.).

Academic study

Media ownership has been studied for many years. The earliest event that occurs to me as significant within the world of media ownership would be the inventions of Johann Gutenberg, and their effects on the economic and religious system at the time (obviously, there were probably significant events earlier too, but I just want to show that this subject has been around for a while). In recent times it has become more prominent, thanks to the increasing popularity of media studies in general, as well as the growing need to address ownership issues raised by some of the new media possibilities. The world centre for ownership studies is (arguably) the Culture and Communications department in NYU, where Mark Crispin Miller runs PROMO. Also of note is the research taking place at MIT Media Lab (and Media Lab Europe, Media Lab Ireland), Columbia University (the journalism department) and Amsterdam University.

Some examples of media ownership structures

There are many variations on these structures, but they are some of the more common ways of organising media ownership.

State ownership

In this model, the state owns the media in question, and so has a certain amount of power over what opinions are expressed within them. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some of the media corporations, there are some advantages to having the media owned by the state. First and foremost, it results in very cheap, or even free media, since it is funded from the state coffers (of course, this money itself comes from taxes). Second, there is no need for commercial sponsors or advertisers, so your favourite programs and sports events can be shown without interruption. American noders may well be familiar with PBS, which represents the US version of this model, although it is severely under-funded.

On the downside, state-run media represents a severe concentration of power, which can often lead to terrible misinformation and propaganda. History is littered with examples (Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia…), but there are also several examples around at the moment, which show how much trouble can be caused by state control of the media. One example is Myanmar, where all publications must be government approved first. This has led, amongst other things, to the criminalisation of internet access, since it allows the public access to non-government-approved information. The Chinese government also exercises stringent control over the media, and has even managed to force non-governmental media agencies (such as News Corporation) to follow the party line.

There are, of course, more moderate approaches to state media ownership. The BBC in Britain is publicly owned, and run by the government, but in effect it is run by a (theoretically) non-partisan council, funded from obligatory TV licences. This combination of state funds without state intervention into content has led to some of the best radio and television programming in the world (as well as some of the blandest). Another interesting example is the Dutch national broadcasters, which are state funded, but the three major channels each represent one of the major political/religious viewpoints within the country. The result is three partisan stations, but since all three have guaranteed funding, plurality is still preserved.

Neoliberal/Corporate model

This is the model most widely in use today, thanks largely to the strong support it receives within the US. The model treats the media just as any other commodity, which means that in the modern economic environment, it is part of the same trend towards homogenisation and increased concentration of ownership. Advocates of this view are usually also strong advocates of ‘free market’ policies, and simply categorise the media as a particularly popular commodity.

This policy has several advantages. It reduces the cost of individual publications, thanks to the benefits of mass production. It also creates a seemingly wide variety of choice (those famed 500 TV channels) since corporations can afford to lose money during the initial setting-up period. The size of the corporations, and their close ties with modern telecommunications, means that most of their products are rapidly available globally, in all kinds of formats (which also raises some interesting issues regarding Cross Media Ownership). Finally, and this is the argument most commonly used by the corporations themselves, it allegedly represents true democracy, since media production is taken out of the hands of the government, and into the hands of ‘the people’, who are effectively choosing what type of content is produced each time they buy a magazine or switch channels.

On the negative side, many people fail to realise just how large and powerful these media corporations have become (almost all media produced worldwide is controlled by the 'big six'). In this sense, they have become just as powerful as state-controlled media, but without any obligation towards transparency or democratic decision making. The power of these corporations is often most painfully apparent within the business sections of newspapers, which rarely report negatively on their parent corporations stock prices, but it is also a factor in the glut of product placements in major movies and television series. Another criticism of corporate media stems from the quantity of advertisement that they have to air. In order to provide cheap and plentiful content, they often have to place advertisements in their products every couple of minutes or pages, which is generally felt to detract from the enjoyment of the product. Finally, although large corporations are able to provide content instantaneously around the globe, this tends to result in a lack of local media – whether it be coverage of local sports events, local council elections, or just local gossip. These things, which are what constitute daily life for most of us, are not important enough (read ‘profitable enough’) to warrant the attention of the corporations.

The most serious criticism of this media model, however, stems from its basic premise that information is just a product, like everything else. This is not an obvious truth, and has sparked much debate. For example, many people would complain if a particularly violent film was shown on television during the prime after-school slot. This is because they believe that some media is not suitable for children. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this view, a purely neoliberal model would show the film anyway, so long as there was enough demand to see it. This is why global media corporations are often criticised for catering to the ‘lowest common denominator’ (usually sex and violence). If the media is just a product like any other, why should they show educational programming, or public information bulletins?

True, at present there is still some regulation of what can and cannot be shown on television, or published in a magazine, etc. (notably more in some countries than others, for example Canada). However, if the corporate model is to be followed logically, the remains of these legislative efforts will have to be swept away. This is one reason why it is entirely possible to be a strong believer in free markets and global capitalism, yet still be against corporate ownership of the media. Quite simply, many supporters of neoliberal doctrine in other areas feel that the media should be treated differently, and require more regulation than other businesses.

Independent, alternative, distributed, grassroots and self-published media

Also known as the 'anarchist model' of media ownership, since it has no direct government or control. However, this term would suggest that all media published using this model have anarchist political sympathies, which is untrue. The model is basically a reflection of a general movement towards smaller-scale, distributed and localised production of all commodities. Despite its current popularity, the model is not actually new – self-published fanzines have been using this approach since the ‘60’s, and public notice boards (now, sadly, generally replaced by advertisements) used to serve a similar purpose. The model aims to allow more people to publish their information and opinions, without the need for either commercial or state sponsors. This results in a greater amount of the public sphere being created by the public themselves. In its own way, E2 is an example of this model, although it does contain self-regulatory mechanisms. The Indymedia network perhaps provides another example, but they also have a strong political agenda, and so cannot really be said to represent a true non-regulated publishing system. The simplest and most effective way, as always, is to do it yourself. In fact, although some people may think this is stretching the term ‘media’ a little far, I would say that graffiti is both the oldest and most direct form of independent media.

The effects of an Independent ownership model are most clearly seen within the news media. Since mainstream news declares to report 'facts', the difference in coverage compared to the alternative news media can sometimes be quite shocking.

Some resources

http://www.promo.org
http://www.mediachannel.org
http://www.indymedia.org
http://www.fair.org

The Bush Dyslexicon, by Mark Crispin Miller
Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
No Logo, by Naomi Klein
And many, many more...


This is a huge subject to cover. If I've missed anything, please /msg me, and I'll add it in.

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