In Other Words

The Moguls are the Medium

Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 26, No. 5, September 2004, London It’s not easy being Rupert Murdoch. Over the years the billionaire mogul has become the poster boy for the evils of media consolidation. With each new addition to his empire, Murdoch’s critics grow in size and volume, angrily decrying the insidious danger of one ...

Media, Culture & Society,
Vol. 26, No. 5, September 2004, London

It’s not easy being Rupert Murdoch. Over the years the billionaire mogul has become the poster boy for the evils of media consolidation. With each new addition to his empire, Murdoch’s critics grow in size and volume, angrily decrying the insidious danger of one person wielding so much influence over so many. But a CEO as reviled as Murdoch might take comfort in knowing he is just one man in a long history of cable barons. To be sure, these captains of the media industry ruled over a very different kingdom a century ago. But they cut a similar figure in the public imagination: the controlling oligarch holding information captive.

The cable companies of the mid-19th century — that is, the telegraph cable companies — were "interconnected in a complex series of monopolies and cartel arrangements" centered in London. Company officers held stakes in and sat on the boards of each other’s companies, pooling resources and quashing competition. This "cable cartel" was an instrument of the British Empire’s power and influence. In the 1850s, Britain funded cable companies to ensure priority for government messages, and from the mid-1870s subsidized cable construction to strategically important areas of the world.

Ownership of telegraph cables, like ownership of the airwaves today, was power. British cartels charged news services such as the Associated Press astronomical prices. Because the British news agency Reuters was able to use the imperial cable system under more favorable terms, it soon became the portal for all foreign news. Even in U.S. territories such as the Philippines, news from the United States had to pass through Reuters.

The rise of these British syndicates sparked the first media reform movement, which pushed for greater state ownership and regulation of rates. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson only realized the extent of the problem when a European news agency mangled the translation of one of his speeches. Alarmed by Britain’s media juggernaut, Wilson created the Committee of Public Information in 1917 to distribute U.S.-produced news, and he placed Chicago newspaperman and lawyer Walter Rogers at the agency’s helm. Like the idealistic media protesters of his day, Rogers believed that affordable cable access would expand peoples’ access to information and thereby improve the conduct of states.

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way. Canada-based scholars Robert Pike and Dwayne Winseck, in a recent article appearing in the British journal Media, Culture & Society, offer an impressive historical account of this early moment in media consolidation. They ultimately conclude that would-be reformers such as Rogers — or for that matter, today’s critics of media conglomerates — fail to grasp the "reality that corporate power, in league with the state, [has] made a mockery of prospects for a democratic global media system." For the authors, media consolidation is not another malefic product of modern globalization. As they point out, the U.S. radio industry subsequently followed a similar pattern of monopolization in the 1920s. What we are witnessing — then and now — is the ebb and flow of markets, and nothing more.

Pike and Winseck’s history lesson ultimately tells us less about today’s global media consolidation than about popular anxiety over it. They identify issues of ownership and control, cost, and technological entrenchment as the "cornerstones" of what would become an enduring debate about the politics of global media. The proliferation of news sources through media such as the Internet and cable television have now largely neutralized reformers’ concerns about technology — and, to some extent — cost. But fears over ownership still resonate for today’s media reformers, who see access to information suppressed by what media critic Ben Bagdikian calls the "Big Five" media companies: Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann.

The authors might argue that this anxiety flies in the face of studies showing that the portion of global media that multinational companies control remains relatively small. Still, modern critics have a point: The media barons of the 19th century wielded political power by controlling the means of transmitting information — and that’s about it. Today’s media behemoths control the distribution and content for global news operations their predecessors could never have imagined.

Woodrow Wilson did, however, anticipate these tensions. Pike and Winseck note that the Wilson administration understood that the drive to use information technologies could serve either "purely selfish national purposes," or "the equal benefit of all nations and all people." Substitute the world "national" for "corporate," and those sentences could appear in any media watchdog missive today — and suggest Wilson wouldn’t have liked Rupert Murdoch, either.

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