Who Owns the Media?
Most media organisations are owned by multi-national multi-billion dollar corporations that are involved in a number of businesses apart from the media, such as forestry, pulp and paper mills, defence, real estate, oil wells, agriculture, steel production, railways, water and power utilities. Such conglomerates not only create potential conflicts of interest in reporting the news but ensure the makers of the news take a corporate view.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corporation, has included book publishing companies, newspaper, broadcast television, cable television, satellite television, Festival Records, 20th Century Fox as well as interests in computer software, offshore oil and gas and air transport.
The boards of these media companies typically include representatives of international banks, multinational oil companies, car manufacturers and other corporations. Take for example the board of the New York Times. It includes representatives of Alcoa, Avon, Campbell Soup, Carlyle Group, Chase Manhattan, Ford, Lehman Bros., PepsiCo and Texaco.
Reference: Herman & Chomsky quoted in William A. Gamson, David Croteau, William Hoynes and Theodore Sasson, 'Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality', Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 18 (1992), pp. 379-80.
Also, during the 1980s because of the spate of corporate takeovers, many media organisations “lost some of their limited autonomy to bankers, institutional investors, and large individual investors whom they have had to solicit as potential ‘white knights’.”
Reference: Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press: Boston, 1983), p 32.
About a third of newspaper chain editors admitted in a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that they “would not feel free to run a news story that was damaging to their parent firm.”
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Noam Chomsky, who has documented a number of biases in the US media’s treatment of foreign affairs, points out that media corporations “are closely integrated with even larger conglomerates” and like other business they sell a product—audiences—to buyers—advertisers.
In short, the major media—particularly, the elite media that set the agenda that others generally follow—are corporations ‘selling’ privileged audiences to other businesses. It would hardly come as a surprise if the picture of the world they present were to reflect the perspectives and interests of the sellers, the buyers, and the product...
The owners of the media influence the selection, shaping and framing of the news to attract advertisers—“Proprietors determine the target audience and general editorial approach to that audience”—but also to ensure a favourable political climate for their media and other business concerns.
Windschuttle cites several examples of interventions by Australian media owners Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch (pictured), Frank Packer and Warwick Fairfax. Rupert Murdoch is well known for this. As early as the 1980s he controlled two-thirds of the newspaper market in Australia as well as one third of the market in Britain through ownership of three of Britain’s largest daily national newspapers and two of its largest circulation Sunday papers. He also controlled extensive satellite broadcasting in dozens of countries. His Star satellite service beamed television to 220 million people in Asia.
Murdoch's Fox network in the US soon became a fourth major commercial television network in the US and moved into cable television with a news service that attempted to rival CNN, which Murdoch was reported to consider “too liberal”. In 2010 Fox had 27 stations and was lobbying to increase the national regulated cap on what proportion of local broadcast any one company could control, then at 39 percent.
David Frum, who had worked as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush government, wrote in 2010 that "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox".
According to journalist Sasha Abramsky, Murdoch “has—and uses—the power to make British politicians, and to break them unless they toe his line.” Murdoch papers gave Margaret Thatcher “glowing press” throughout her rule and Murdoch received a knighthood—one of the few non-British citizens to do so. Thatcher received a “lucrative” book contract from Murdoch’s book publishing firm HarperCollins (as did Newt Gingrich whose contract was for $4.5 million). His papers, said Abramsky, “have consistently opposed the peace movement, trade unions, progressive social programs... while supporting the death penalty, lower taxes at any cost and hawkish foreign policies.”
In the 2012 Leveson Inquiry former British prime minister John Major told how in 1997 Murdoch demanded he change policy on Europe or his newspapers would oppose him at the next election, but he declined. "Mr Murdoch's The Sun tabloid, Britain's best-selling daily newspaper, switched its support to Sir John's Labour rival, Tony Blair, shortly afterwards, and Mr Blair went on to win the 1997 election."
PM David Cameron also admitted to the Leveson Inquiry that the UK government had become "too close" to the media. Whilst in opposition he had an average of 26 meetings with media proprietors and editors per month. Just before the election he was speaking on the phone more often than each week with former News International chief, Rebekah Brooks, and frequently saw her socially on the weekend.
Media owner Robert Maxwell (pictured), until he died, was also an interventionist owner who, according to Brian McNair, “boasted that his ownership of national newspapers gave him the power ‘to raise issues effectively. In simple terms, it’s a megaphone.’” McNair, author of News and Journalism in the UK, argues that in Britain “the economic interests and political preferences of the proprietor continue to be the most important determinant of a news outlet’s editorial line.”
In Australia, mining magnate, Gina Rinehart (pictured), one of the richest people in the world, has bought up shares in Fairfax Media, one of Australasia's dominant newspaper owners, to become the company's largest shareholder. Rinehart was demanding seats on the board, one for herself and one for Hungry Jack founder Jack Cowin, (both of them are already on the Ten television network board) and a third seat (cuurently there are 8 people on the board). Cowin argued "newspapers were a business, not a public service" and therefore the purpose of news content was to attract readers and editorial policy should maximise readers to optimise profits.
Commentators noted that Rinehart is seeking influence over Fairfax newspapers. According to journalist Paul Barry: "As I understand it, it's about having a voice for the mining industry, it's about having a voice for her political views, it's about making it less left-wing as she regards it." Rinehart refused to agree to the board's charter of editorial independence.
It's not as though this and other Fairfax papers were always free from interference by conservative proprietors. Sir Warwick Fairfax loved a good meddle and was keen to stop the Vietnamese commies getting any closer to Fairwater, his home in Double Bay. Coincidentally, that was the line repeatedly taken in Herald editorials. Indeed, Sir Warwick was keen that all his papers take a common line on a great many issues.
Murdoch is just one instance of the highly concentrated media in the UK where ownership is in the hands of a few “proprietors with explicit conservative views.” By the 1990s about 80% of the press in Britain was controlled by only four corporations and the situation was similar for broadcast media.
In Australia, in "1926, there were 26 capital city newspapers published on a daily basis and 21 independent owners. In 2005, this had reduced to 12 newspapers predominantly owned by John Fairfax Holdings and News Corporation... Four metropolitan companies own the majority of metropolitan [radio] stations and each has a radio audience reach of over 50 per cent; one company owns almost 45 per cent of all regional stations. Television is a similar story."
The pattern of media concentration in Australia and Britain is repeated in Europe. Before his death in 1996, Robert Hersant, imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis, owned newspapers whose combined circulations included one third of France’s readers of national papers and two fifths of Poland’s readers. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi (pictured) owns three television channels and three pay TV channels as well as newspaper and magazines. Berlusconi used his media empire to win political leadership in Italy but was forced out of government in controversial circumstances.
The trend in media ownership is not only towards concentration within countries but also towards the creation of ‘global media empires’ that include newspapers, television stations, magazines, movie studios and publishing houses.
The majority of US media outlets including newspapers, magazines, radio, cable and broadcast television, books and movies are controlled by half a dozen huge corporations (compared with forty six in 1983). "Five companies Viacom (owner of CBS), Disney (owner of ABC), News Corporation, NBC and AOL (owners of Time Warner), now control 75 per cent of all prime-time viewing in American homes".
According to Fortune 500, the five largest media companies in the US in 2012 were:
- The Walt Disney Company, including the ABC television network and various cable television stations
- News Corporation, including Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and Twentieth Century Fox
- Time Warner, including CNN
According to Robert McChesney:
It used to be a largest media companies 20 or 40 years ago only produced newspapers, they only made movies, they only had a TV network. Now they're dominant players in each of these markets. They're highly non-competitive. They don't have to worry about a newcomer coming in. The barriers to entry, as economists talk about, are so high that basically it's a private club, a gentleman's club of like a half-dozen, seven-eight companies that really rule the thing. And they're closely linked. I mean they know each other. They have deals together, and what they're able to do with this tremendous power between them is hyper-commercialize their content without fear of competitive retribution.
Radio is a classic case in point of how that works and the company Viacom, which owns MTV, is a big player in this... Well, in the 1996 Telecom Act, without a shred of debate in Congress or any hearings discussing it, the ownership restrictions were lifted on radio from 28 stations for one single company to as many as they wanted to own. And you were allowed to own up to eight in the largest markets. Overnight over half these stations in America were sold from small companies to big companies and big to huge... So you have a handful of companies like Viacom that now dominate American radio.
Even cable television, which was supposed to be a means of providing diversity to television content has ended up becoming an interconnected network of channels, “most of them owned by an interlocking set of a half-dozen or so giant corporations” including 90 percent owned by the same companies that own the broadcast networks, in particular, Disney, Time Warner, and General Electric. Those cable stations not connected to the big cable owners, like the small independent TV and radio stations, need to be well funded and often have corporate or wealthy conservative sponsors.
Independent newspapers have also disappeared in the US. By the 1990s not only did 98 percent of US cities have only one newspapers but those almost half the circulation of those newspapers was controlled by ten newspapers chains. "And even the remaining independently owned papers are dependent on the wire services and generally follow the nation’s newspapers of record.” By 2007 "Less than 275 of America s 1500 daily newspapers are independently owned and more than half the market is dominated by one paper." For example the Garnett Company, which owns USA Today, also owned 85 daily newspapers supplying one in seven daily newspaper readers across the US. It also sells 1000 other publications to another 23 million people in the US and "owns 17 daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and 300 non daily publications".
The mechanism of control generally exercised by media proprietors is through the appointment of editors, “who become the proprietor’s ‘voice’ within the newsroom, ensuring that journalistic ‘independence’ conforms to the preferred editorial line.” The power of the media is not just through its editorial line but also in covering some issues rather than others, some views but not others. It is this power that makes politicians so reluctant to cross the large media moguls and regulate the industry in the public interest:
In this sense, the media have enormous power over national elections... those candidates who are placed on the media’s agenda have a chance to win; those that are ignored languish. Those issues — either policy or personal — which the media spotlight become the yardsticks for measuring candidates. When candidates receive heavy (and favourable) publicity, their campaigns flourish...
They also have power to influence the policies that elected governments implement and plenty of reason to exercise that power. “In recent years, media companies have been among the most profitable businesses” in the US. Chomsky points out:
What is at issue is not the honesty of the opinions expressed or the integrity of those who seek the facts but rather the choice of topics and highlighting of issues, the range of opinion permitted expression, the unquestioned premises that guide reporting and commentary, and the general framework imposed for the presentation of a certain view of the world.
- 'Concentration of media ownership', Wikipedia
- 'News Corporation', Wikipedia
- 'Who Owns What', Columbia Journalism Review
- 'Interlocking Directorates', Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
- 'Corporate Ownership', Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
- 'Media Giants', Frontline, PBS
- 'Media Ownership Policy', Free Press
- 'Who Owns the Media?', Free Press
- 'Media Consolidation', SaveTheNews.org