Media of varying types form a significant part of the everyday cultural life of modern industrial societies and as traditional sources of moral and cultural authority begin to wane these media-based entities become more influential in our cultural, political and material lives. As the power of religious institutions weakens, the power and influence of media institutions and their products strengthens. The daily routine of people’s lives, once marked by pause for prayer and religious observance, is for many now regulated by the television schedule of their favourite soaps or celebrity gossip programmes. Likewise many look to the behaviour of on-screen persona as a measure of how lives should or should not be lived, depending on whether they choose to be in admiration or in shock.
However, it is not just culturally that media institutions hold great influence. In the areas of economics and politics a concentration of resources can lead to a concentration of influence. A typical Hollywood movie can cost $50m to produce and, while some low-budget productions have gone on to win critical acclaim and box-office success, the dominant themes of cinema in the Western world and beyond are being produced mainly by large corporations with the resources to produce commercially successful films.
There is no certainty that a large investment in a movie will result in a profitable return so it can be argued that the simplest way of maximising profit is by extending control of the market. This argument posits a tendency towards concentration of ownership, usually through either horizontal or vertical integration. The latter involves one company taking over another company that operates at a different stage in the production cycle while the former takes place when a company, usually larger than its competitor, takes over that competitor. Media conglomerates such as News Corp Holding can thus emerge, owning interests in multiple areas of media production and distribution, from newspapers to television broadcasting to film. Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp likewise owns multiple media entities covering various different sectors in Ireland and beyond.
However, concentration of economic power into the hands of fewer individuals does not necessarily result in a concomitant ideological influence as far as the political system is concerned. Some newspapers in Rupert Murdoch’s News International group have been openly partisan when it comes to electoral politics in Britain, on different occasions urging their readers to vote for one political party or another. It is questionable whether or not this had any great effect in terms of how people actually voted and it could be said that this open display of political preference is far less pernicious than an effort to influence the political landscape by means of a more hidden agenda. At least with Rupert Murdoch you know who he is and what he stands for. Some of the supposedly more liberal media establishments like to pose as defenders of diversity and plurality while becoming increasingly monocultural in their coverage of a wide range of issues, particularly those ‘social’ issues by which liberals measure their own supposed sophistication against a caricatured conservative nemesis.
Marxist analysts and others might point to the support given by wealthy media corporations to the Conservative Party in Britain or the Republican Party in the United States and a tendency among the media companies they own to promote business interests. However, in Britain the Labour Party is heavily funded by the trade union movement and has also received editorial support from News Corp. The newspaper industry in the United States would, I believe, be shown by any objective analysis to be far more pro-Democrat than pro-Republican, at least as far as the present presidential incumbent is concerned. In any functioning democracy there are also many regulatory mechanisms and bodies that ultimately derive from the will of the people, or at least those people that could be bothered pulling themselves away from their television sets to go and vote. This imperfect system of democratic regulation, coupled with the need for media companies to take into account people’s needs and desires in order to make a profit, is, it could be argued, far superior to any system Marxists have offered as an alternative.