22 March 2003
The press of course have always been a critical component of maintaining state power and through it, the preservation of the capitalist system, so what is different about the situation now?
“[The number of media corporations has shrunk] from fifty…in 1984 to twenty-six in 1987, followed by twenty-three in l990, and then, as the borders between the different media began to blur, to less than twenty in 1993. In 1996 the number of media corporations with dominant power in society is closer to ten…. [T]he newest dominant ten are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation Limited (Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications, Inc., Seagram (TV, movies, cable, books, music), Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric.”
“The Media Monopoly” 5th edition (1997) by Ben Bagdikian
So over the past twenty years media ownership has been concentrated into a handful of giant global conglomerates. But even more telling is the fact that the ‘digital revolution’ has seen media, IT/communications, weapons companies and the state fuze together to the point whereby, their interests and objectives have become indistinguishable.
“In 1996, when Disney merged with ABC/Cap Cities, it was a $19-billion deal…. This union produced a conglomerate that is powerful in every major mass medium: newspapers, magazines, books, radio, broadcast television, cable systems and programming, movies, recordings, video cassettes, and, through alliances and joint ventures, growing control of the golden wires into the American home-telephone and cable.” – “The Media Monopoly”
And of course since the last edition of Bagdikian’s book in 1997, there has not only been a further decrease in the number of corporations, the accelerating ‘convergence’ of technologies has brought about a qualitative change that is now global in scope. The rapid spread of propaganda ‘hooks’ that flooded the planet such as ‘WMD’ or the ‘war on terror’ is a visible expression of the power of the information monopolies to blanket our perceptions with illusions to the exclusion of any other interpretation of events.
The media’s sweep is also due in no small part to technology and the collaboration between the state and private business ie, ‘outsourcing’ and the privatisation of state propaganda and surveillance functions.
And there is no doubt that the lessons learned from the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War meant that if possible, the US were not going to allow such uncontrolled access to the scene of conflict, a feature that saw its first expression during the US invasion of Grenada, where journalists were physically prevented from observing and reporting on the invasion.
“The world should be grateful that the most powerful nation in all history wields its military and economic power so benignly.” – The Financial Times, 30 December 2000
The next ‘dry run’ occurred during the invasion of Panama. So successful was the censorship of events that the entire destruction of a neighbourhood of Panama City that resulted in the murder of thousands of people was hidden entirely from public view. Comparable massacres during the 1990 2nd Gulf War and during the invasion of Afghanistan were kept from the public domain through the total control exerted by the military over the coverage of both the corporate and independent media.
The primary lessons drawn from Grenada, Panama and Iraq, was the use by US Department of Defense of PR and media corporations to deliver the ‘message’. And here it’s the skills and experience of the advertising industry in the ‘art’ of persuasion that really counts. The most insidious aspect of this accelerating process is the merging of the media with the military-industrial complex that in turn, binds the media to the state. There are several, dangerous aspects to this process.
In the first place, the centrality of IT in the war business or so-called infowar that is in turn intimately connected to the construction of the corporate security state. Choicepoint in the US is a prime example of this process whereby private databases on tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people are now directly available to the state. To this must be added DNA databases, biometric ID cards, security cameras, credit cards like Oyster in the UK that records not only your buying habits but also your physical location every time you use it. Finally, under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, is the sharing of information between states, all conducted with absolutely no public oversight or control over the kinds of information collected (let alone its accuracy).
Choicepoint is one of the prime contractors for the implementation of the Patriot Act and in turn, to be ‘Choicepoint compliant’ means that all third party suppliers are tied directly to the Choicepoint way of doing business and it’s no coincidence that a prime contractor for the Patriot Act and the construction of the corporate security state is Sybase, a company owned in part by Marvin P. Bush, younger brother of George W Bush.
Choicepoint is also the company that ‘cooked the books’ in Florida that erased 57,000 names from the voter roles that enabled Bush to steal the 2000 election. Business and government become one and the same thing.
Secondly, the concentration of ownership of the media has centralised ‘news’ gathering, enabling corporate owners to control the content and flow of information from the corporate centre. Increasingly, the individual ‘journalist’ is simply a supplier of the raw material, the ‘product’, with control now in the hands of a central editorial office. In turn, the editorial office is merely a component in larger enterprise that ‘freezes’ and ‘refreezes’ products for a variety of different media markets.
Thirdly, the ‘press’ in the traditional sense (print, tv and radio) is no more. Instead, it has not only become a vehicle for the advertising both of products and of government/corporate propaganda but with the increasing privatisation of many of the state’s functions, the line between the two is fast disappearing.
Fourthly, as the ownership of intellectual property becomes the ‘final frontier’ in the clash between the public and private spheres, the ‘media’ is just one facet of the total control of the information process. Through its ownership of the scientific/technological processes that underpin the appropriation of intellectual property, the corporations that also own the media outlets, increasingly dictate the nature of how the media functions and critically, where. Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctors’ are all drawn from the advertising and public relations world and bring with them a totally ‘amoral’ approach to the selling of government policies. Selling the war in Iraq or selling toothpaste, it makes no difference, both are ‘products’ that have to be sold.
As the state increasingly withdraws from key spheres of public life, especially education, the arts, sport and entertainment (the so-called creative industries), the ‘media’ has extended its influence into these areas in the guise of sponsorship and underwriting. And this is a global phenomenon that extends even to remote areas of the world. What was previously perceived as advertising and propaganda is now effectively the ‘branding’ of a way of life – the western way of life. The fusion is now complete and the effect pervasive and all-embracing – the total corporatisation of public spaces.