Des Freedman shows how the media is neither a simple monolith of power, nor a free-market of ideas, but that its contradictions allow mass movements to exert real pressure, argues Lindy Syson
Des Freedman, The Contradictions of Media Power (Bloomsbury 2014), 192pp.
Activists are used to the lies, distortions and general hostility of the media. This is clear, for example, in the lack of reporting of strike activity or the under-estimation of the size of mass demonstrations. It can be perplexing, therefore, when we are faced with examples of media support for those involved in activity and resistance. An example is the Daily Mirror newspaper’s support for the huge anti-war demonstration in 2003. This apparent contradiction is just one of many that are revealed and analysed in Des Freedman’s excellent new book on media power. Freedman’s analysis explains the Mirror’s anti-Iraq war stance in this way:
‘The degree to which there are different positions expressed in the media relates to the need in a competitive market to address (in however skewed a way) both the interests of different audiences and the existence of conflict amongst capitalist elites as well as pressure placed on mainstream media by countervailing forces’ (p.28).
Given the complexity of media power, this book does not just focus on powerful individuals, ownership issues and media corporations, although these are real examples of media power, but sees the media as a ‘relational property’ (p.31). It is helpful, Freedman argues, to view the media as: ‘… organised … like a force-field – the meeting point of institutions and individuals in defined contexts’ (p.146). In this view, then, the media is a ‘conflict ridden process’ (p.69) with conflicting interests. This, in turn, points to some of the weaknesses of the media and the limits of its authority, which, respectively, can be exploited and challenged.
Freedman’s starting point is an assessment of the way in which power is analysed, locating media power within a wider societal framework. The book begins with an exposition of four main paradigms of media power which are interrogated throughout the book. They are: the consensus view which offers a pluralist notion that power is dispersed in liberal democracies; the chaos paradigm, involving cultural studies; the control paradigm which focuses on political economy and, finally, the contradiction paradigm (Freedman argues for this paradigm).
The media and capitalism
Within the contradiction paradigm the media is located within neo-liberal capitalism and is, therefore, subject to the same tensions and economic tendencies. Capitalism is a system fraught with internal contradictions such as: the tension inherent in the need to constantly revolutionise the means of production, set against the need for stability and acceptance of the system; the tension between the interests of worker and capital; and contradictions in people’s consciousness between what Gramsci called ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’. The media usually underpins ‘common sense’ ideas, but it can articulate ‘good sense’ when forced to by mass mobilisations, such as in the case of the Daily Mirror and its anti-war coverage in 2003.
Although Freedman argues for the contradiction paradigm he suggests that all four paradigms can overlap, and given the complexity of the media, we can draw on aspects of all of them. A fascinating analysis is given in the book’s final chapter when these four paradigms are applied - and their implications considered - to the Channel 4 Series ‘Benefits Street’. For example, those arguing from a consensus paradigm might argue that the series offered the opportunity for different views to be heard. The chaos paradigm could argue that social media was available to create a ‘back-lash’ against the series.
Whilst agreeing with much of this, Freedman focuses on the implicit assumption behind the series - that there are those who will not work and that this will cause problems for the wider society which can no longer afford benefits. Responses which focus on the media alone cannot compensate for the underlying assumption as it involves political issues, requiring political arguments in response, such as: welfare payments make up a tiny proportion of the welfare budget and in any case, why focus on those reliant on welfare and not the mega rich who avoid tax by hiding their wealth in off shore accounts? It is true, though, that the media can become unsettled when it is itself subject to scrutiny e.g. the backlash to ‘Benefits Street’.
Another issue that is highlighted throughout the book is that of ‘exclusion’. This refers to ideas and concepts that are not mentioned; hidden assumptions; areas where power is not visible, where questions are not asked and issues not analysed. For example, a detailed analysis of recent UK government policy documents on developments in the media (the rise of digital technologies, computer software, the re-structuring of telecommunications) shows that, while the government argues that it best serves the public and business by intervening as little as possible, this in effect is supporting a market based system with all the inequalities in wealth and power that that entails.
Freedman emphasises the link between ownership and media power, pointing to an increasingly small group of the elite who have increased their share of the world’s wealth and have used the media as part of the re-structuring of capitalism. There are still media barons: ‘… according to the Sunday Times (2012) media, film and sports interests comprise 84 of the 1,000 richest individuals’ and, ‘In 2012, seven of the top twenty highest paid executives in the USA were from media companies …’ (p.45). There are networks were power is extended and where a range of elite interests gather. Freedman gives examples of the ‘club’ nature of the media elites showing how members of the board of media companies interchange with directors of industry. He evidences the inter-locking characters of elites, giving the example of the dinner parties of the ‘Chipping Norton’ set involving David Cameron, Elizabeth Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Rachel Whetstone (Google’s head of communications and public policy), which came to light at the time of the Leveson Inquiry.
New media and the concentration of ownership
On the basis of this detailed exploration of media ownership and control, Freedman engages with the views of network theorists such as Manuel Castells, who argue that this concentration of ownership is not significant because it has been diluted by the rise of digital technologies and the emergence of autonomous forms of ‘mass self-communication’, allowing for a diffusion of power in networks. This is similar to the view that social media has brought advantages in terms of resistance, for example, in the Egyptian revolution and in other social movements.
Freedman argues that whilst the internet has offered the possibility of re-structuring the public arena, allowing voices to be heard, these claims are often overstated because they can fail to appreciate the concentration of power which must be seen in the context of power relations and therefore in the context of capitalist relations of production. Freedman argues: ‘… new media technologies have both shaped and are shaped by contemporary power relations’ (p.111). The same companies that are said by some to be responsible for dispersing concentrations of power are at the same time accumulating wealth, profits and power. Digital technologies such as Facebook, Google and other social media companies show particularly the tensions between ‘socialised production’ and ‘private appropriation’ (p.113). Corporate media power is flourishing and is adapting to the digital economy in an on-line world that is subject to the same uncertainties and tensions inherent within capitalism.
The Leveson Inquiry
The book considers the Leveson enquiry and its aftermath, with a chapter on policy activism considering differing responses to Leveson. Returning to the paradigms of power, it is suggested that the consensus paradigm of democratic pluralism and individual liberty would want to maintain self-regulation of the press and the need for free speech. But responses to Leveson should be critical and not simply reproduce the ‘current terms of the debate’ (p.86). This is not about administrative changes but the need for ideological changes. It is not about needing more robust mechanisms of accountability and competition, or allowing a greater range of voices. We need instead to understand and reveal the failures of the media to represent working people and hold those in power to account by focusing on internal contradictions such as moments of crisis that open up critical spaces in which we can challenge media power and press for accountability.
The media and moments of crisis
Drawing on the work of Rosa Luxemburg, Freedman makes the point that we need media reforms but from a revolutionary perspective. His analysis also incorporates the Gramscian notion of ‘moments’ that offer the possibility of radical transformation. In moments of crisis, for example, the British Government’s decision to go to war in Iraq and the 2011 phone hacking scandal, there is the space to move beyond public scepticism. It is at these ‘moments’ of crisis that generally accepted explanations are no longer secure and people can begin to question and criticise. Arguments for austerity start to make sense no longer. This is not a mechanistic development, but when this begins to happen, a space is opened where it is possible that large numbers of people are prepared to both consider alternatives and also participate in movements that expose them to new ideas.
Des Freedman’s book offers a critical, dialectical, analysis of media power which links this to the possibilities for resistance and fightback. This book is expansive in its range, covering issues such as ownership, net neutrality, press freedom, and digital switchover. All of these aspects of the media are seen in ideological terms, rather than just administrative or policy issues or in instrumental terms. They are analysed as located within a neo-liberal capitalist system in which the media is characterised by huge disparities of wealth and power, tied to powerful interests and owned by powerful elites. However, this does not mean that the media is immune from social forces and social challenge. A key point in this book is that the media is not a static or homogenous bloc. Because the power of the media is seen as located within capitalism with all its contradictions and complexities, we are aware of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities and we can exploit these, building on activity and organising for change. We can locate critical spaces and press for reforms, but on the basis of activity, as these contradictions, these exposures of the system, will not, on their own, change things. What is needed is solidarity and organisation.
This valuable book theorises those complexities in ways that point to possibilities for resistance and transformation. Today, as the crisis deepens, broad-based movements such as the People’s Assembly against Austerity, linking struggles locally and nationally, can offer alternative analyses of capitalism and the opportunity for activity as the basis for resistance.
Lindy is an ex-teacher who now works in higher education. She is also studying part-time for a PhD. Her research topic is critical pedagogy and academic activism. Lindy is a member of Counterfire.