The Media Giants: Monopolising the 'marketplace of ideas'

April 5, 2000

If you thought the "new communications revolution" was going to weaken the grip of the world's media giants, then think again. It's doing the opposite.

Fifty years ago, media companies were politically influential but economically peripheral. Today, media companies like AOL Time Warner, Disney and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation are economic powerhouses in their own right, with yearly revenues greater than most countries, and are central players in the fastest growing sectors of the world economy.

Nine giants dominate the international media market. While their largest investments are in the US market, the nine — AOL Time Warner, CBS/Viacom, News, Disney, General Electric/NBC, TCI/AT&T, Seagram, Bertelsmann, Sony — are global in operation.

They're chased by a further pack of 50-odd companies (such as Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Limited), whose interests are largely limited to their country of origin but which have global ambitions of their own.

'Old' and 'new'

Each of these media companies seeks to dominate not only the forms of distribution — book, magazine and newspaper publishing, cable and network television — but also the "content" on them, including monopolising all the major movie and television studios, the largest record labels, fleets of journalists, the rights to major sporting events, even entire sports themselves.

They are swiftly moving to dominate the so-called "new media": digital television, satellite communications, home entertainment equipment, digital video disks (DVD) and, most importantly, the internet, where they seek to dominate both the medium of transmission (broadband cable and internet service provision) and content (particularly the high-traffic advertising-heavy web sites).

Their plans are not restricted to the media and entertainment industry, but extend into telecommunications and computer technology. These three industries are converging, leading to the emergence of a global communications cartel.

In March 1999, US communications giant AT&T completed its long-coming buyout of TCI/Liberty Media, which owns the second largest cable network in the US. In September, Viacom announced its merger with the US CBS television network. And, most stunningly of all, in January, Time Warner and the US's largest internet company, America Online (AOL), announced a US$350 billion merger.

Australian plans

In this country, media merger mania hasn't yet hit, but it will. Half a dozen firms already dominate Australia's media market. They can't go much further until cross-media ownership laws, which prevent a company owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, are scrapped — something the federal government has been considering.

However, Australia's media companies are still pursuing aggressive plans of their own to dominate the "new media". Cable television has already been cornered (by Telstra, News and PBL, joint owners of Foxtel, and Optus Vision) and other technologies are firmly in their sights.

In December, a bitter feud between the media companies erupted over control of digital television transmissions, due to be introduced by 2006. A federal cabinet decision favoured the existing free-to-air TV channels, especially Kerry Packer's Nine Network, much to Rupert Murdoch's disgust.

Possibly even more strategic will be the fight for control of the new broadband cable network, which allows the transmission of far more data than existing lines and which is required if the internet and cable television are to becoming truly mass media. The big prize is dominance of the Australian internet market.

Telstra is the most advanced, using its control of the phone lines and massive public profile to snare a large chunk of the internet service provision market through Big Pond; a January attempt to buy out Ozemail was ruled out by the competition commission but it is still seeking further internet acquisitions.

Kerry Packer's PBL also has well-advanced plans of its own. The company has set up a web site, ninemsn, with Microsoft, drawing on Microsoft's technology and the Nine Network's content, and is being heavily promoted on Nine as a "first stop" on the internet.

PBL has launched an e-commerce company, ecorp, which has stakes in a number of other web sites of its own. And, on March 21, Packer announced that his FXF Trust, through which he owns 15% of Fairfax, will be turned into an investment fund to buy up newly emerging internet technologies.

News has established an internet company of its own, News Interactive, which has a stake in a number of high-traffic web sites, including that of the AFL, job finding service Career One and online auction house, Go Fish.


The further concentration of media power in the hands of a tiny number of corporations poses a grave threat. The problem is not just that we enrich these companies with every newspaper, magazine or movie we consume; growing concentration also has an enormous impact on what we consume in the first place.

The larger the company, the more diversified its interests and sources of profit, the less interest it has in its holdings serving any socially useful, public function, like providing relevant, accurate information.

News, current affairs and social analysis become just another form of "content" with which to attract consumers and thus advertisers and merchandisers. Quality reporting is a long way down these companies' list of priorities.

All the big media executives will avow the contrary. But the real impact of growing concentration is better indicated by media executives' constant talk of "synergy" — what you or I would call "flagrant self-promotion".

"Synergy" means that Time magazine (owned by AOL Time Warner) features Pokemon on the cover when this coincides with the release by Warner Bros (owned by AOL Time Warner) of Pokemon: The First Movie.

US TV network ABC (Disney) will run similar promotions, in its nightly news, for Good Will Hunting (from Miramax studios — Disney), for The Horse Whisperer (Touchstone — Disney) and for Armageddon (Buena Vista — Disney), but not for another movie with the same meteor-hits-Earth subject matter, Deep Impact (DreamWorks — not Disney). Viacom does the same on its MTV and Nickelodeon networks.

In Australia, ABC's Media Watch counted 42 "news stories" in News Limited's papers promoting Career One (owned by News), 61 promoting GoFish (News again) and 100 plugs in six months for Fox Studios (News).

"Synergy" also means you can bury stories prejudicial to your company's interests (at least from coverage in your newspapers and TV channels).

"Synergy" also means you can use your media to pressure politicians and governments to take your side in commercial dealings. The Murdoch and Packer media here were flagrantly biased towards the interests of their owners in the digital TV dispute in December, for example, and revenge was clearly behind a (short-lived) series of anti-government articles in News' tabloids.

Market values

As it is, in the major "news" institutions, every step of the process — the decision on what is and isn't "newsworthy", the sources, the writing, the sub-editing and headline-writing — is filtered. The product, whether news, opinion or editorial, rarely departs from acceptable bounds, and is kept well within the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Increased media monopolisation will worsen this, both by homogenising the political outlook within a given empire and by marginalising those media which aren't part of any empire.

The pro-corporate bias is also strengthened by the giant corporations' marketing strategies — and the increasingly obvious divide between "down-market" and "up-market" brands.

The "down-market", "popular" media (Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Melbourne's Herald Sun, Nine's A Current Affair) aims at the stereotyped "little guy" — the Australian-born, white, suburban working-class family man — and serves a standard fare of blaring sensationalism, crime stories, sport and gambling. Its political spin is generally little more than Hansonite: tough on crime and dole bludgers, anti-union, crudely nationalist, covertly racist, with the occasional slap at the banks.

The "up-market", "quality" media plays to prejudices of a different kind: those of the wealthy, well-educated, inner-city professional.

Politically, the "up-market" media can display somewhat more variety. Murdoch's Australian and Fairfax's Australian Financial Review are written largely for business audiences and it shows (AFR's new magazine is called, honestly, BOSS). If they are ever critical of government, it's for not being pro-business enough (or for getting in the way of Murdoch's business interests).

As for the liberal establishment media, the Sydney Morning Herald or the Melbourne Age, they make much of being far more critical of government, especially on social issues.

But while, for instance, the Herald can all but campaign for the overturning of mandatory sentencing for juveniles in the NT, it also editorialises in favour of the government's welfare "reform" and against union demands for a short working week and leads its weekend business section with pieces called "Capitalism triumphs". It's simply a less blunt pro-business bias.

The one hold-out is public television and radio, the ABC and SBS — which is why the Coalition government has stacked the ABC board with right-wingers, cut its funding, sought to intimidate the staff union and continually sought to interfere in programming, with considerable effect.


So what do we do about it? Writing in the April 2000 edition of his influential US media criticism magazine, Brill's Content, Steven Brill argues: "These mega-companies, therefore, present a new sweeping and unprecedented threat to free expression, independent journalism and a vibrant, free marketplace of ideas."

Brill argues for measures such as tougher anti-trust laws to slow monopolisation, an end to government benefits to media companies whose primary business isn't journalism, changes to libel laws to treat "biased, corporate-conflicted speech" as commercial speech rather than public interest, the enforcement of ombudsmen at each media outlet.

Such proposals are fine as far as they go — but don't go very far and, to a certain extent, miss the point.

The problem is not that the "marketplace of ideas" isn't free enough. The problem is that there is a "marketplace of ideas". Under capitalism ideas have been turned into commodities that can be bought and sold. The admixture of money and ideas is every bit as debased as that of money and sex, or money and art, or money and happiness.

After all, the rise of these giant media empires is a result of the operations of the marketplace.

The solution is to break the connection between money and ideas, to break the dominance of marketplaces and the corporations and governments that control them. That requires more than somewhat stricter laws on media — it requires a mass rebellion by those the mainstream media regards as little more than "consumers" or "market segment".

When planning their protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in December, organisers recognised that they would never get a fair run from the mainstream media. So they set up media of their own — the Alternative Media Center put the protesters' story out on the internet, into print, radio and television.

The same principle — we need our own media to build our own movements — motivates many community radio and television stations, "underground" newspapers and 'zines, many of those who've set up activist web sites, who produce pirate radio or TV programs. It's also this newspaper's reason for existence.

Confronting corporate power means movements and struggles from below; confronting the corporate propaganda machine requires a media from below too. And its slogan? "Free ideas from their corporate prisons."


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