What does ‘institutions’ mean?

It is worth remembering that unlike other creative subjects (for example, photography, fine art, music, drama etc) Media Studies is really an examination of the relationship between the TEXT (the media product that is produced), the AUDIENCE (those who consume the product) and the INSTITUTION (those that make the product). In this sense, institution is suggesting an analysis that looks at the companies, organisations, economics and policies that lie behind media production. As such, it is often closely linked to an understanding of MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES.

Conceptual Ideas

A key theoretical and conceptual approach towards an analysis of MEDIA INSTITUTIONS is to look at the idea of Media Institutions working towards a PUBLIC SERVICE rather than a COMMERCIAL SERVICE. As a starting point have a look at this video, by the Media Reform Coalition, that is calling for a re-think between the relationship of big business (specifically new technology companies) and the need for greater diversity and voices in terms of media ownership and thus media production (you can find more information their 2019 report on this post):

Key Terms

There are some key ideas that underpin this approach. For example, there has always been a recognisable pattern of  big organisations (usually around half a dozen conglomerates) who tend to occupy a large percentage of ownership and control. As such, there is often a lot of discussion around the ‘big 5’ or ‘big 6‘ media companies who thereby hold a concentration of ownership. Usually a recognisable shape of ownership and control is structured around both vertical and horizontal integration of other companies or organisations, which although usually just falling short of a monopoly – which are generally made illegal through government regulation – are nevertheless able to build massive organisations. The relationships between governments and big organisations are often criticised particularly when governments deregulate certain areas of business, for example, technology and communications. The UK government generally controls the media industry through both regulation and deregulation through a number of departments and / organisations. The most important one is, Ofcom (the Office of Communication). However, there a number of other relevant bodies and associations that are useful to know about depending on what media form that you are studying.

Media students therefore need to analyse this situation to ask a number of questions such as:

  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of this pattern of ownership?
  • What are the impacts on artists, creatives and producers?
  • What does this mean for audiences, society and culture?

Key words:

  • Media concentration / Conglomerates / Globalisation (in terms of media ownership)
  • Vertical Integration & Horizontal Integration
  • Gatekeepers
  • Regulation / Deregulation
  • Free market vs Monopolies & Mergers
  • Neo-liberalism and the Alt-Right
  • Surveillance / Privacy / Security / GDPR

In an article entitled: “Power in the Digital Economy“, (taken from Big Media and Internet Titans, ed. Granville Williams, 2014, pp.94-105) Des Freedman outlines the role of institutions in the era of new media. He suggests that ‘despite Utopian promises about the dispersion of new media power, we have seen that the digital media environment is often even more concentrated than its offline counterpart and that highly undemocratic ownership structures are undermining the capacity of the internet to meet the needs of all citizens.’ (p. 103) To support his argument he puts forward ‘the clearest example of the extent to which digital companies are beholden to the power of profits above the the interests of the public is their determination to pay minimal amount of taxes’ (ibid)

It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.

Eric Schmidt, Google Chief Executive, quoted in Telegraph, 13 December, 2012.

This line of argument is supported by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde who has called for governments to react over growing concerns that digital companies pay little tax in most countries where they operate, which denies exchequers vital funds for public services and welfare (see Guardian 25 March 2019). Overall, this provides an overarching approach to this topic, which is looking at the ownership of cultural production, which is currently under severe scrutiny as not only does it have a significant role to play in shaping our culture and society, see for example, Mass Media in the Public Interest (Denis McQuail) or Mass Media and Democracy (James Curran) in the Public Service, but it is also characteristic of the way in which New Tech / Big Tech companies are able to organise themselves globally ie beyond national boundaries, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to be regulated or controlled.

However, looking to counteract some of these concerns there is a prevailing argument that the media need greater state (ie government) intervention, for example, through greater regulation of ownership, content, affiliation, reach etc as well as a greater degree of transparency and accountability so that we are all able to gain access and see how Big Tech companies are organised and what they are doing with ‘our’ data – with a suggestion that personal data should remain with the person, as fundamentally it is theirs and so they need to retain ownership and/or any profit that it accrues. For an outline of this argument look at the report by ResPublica: Technopoly that engages in this debate and puts forward a number of possible solutions.

There is a very real threat to future economic and personal freedoms, from an increasingly concentrated if not monopolised market place.

Technoploy report, p. 7

Theoretical Ideas

  1. The ideas of Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent
  2. The ideas of Jurgen Habermas – the transformation of the public sphere
  3. The work of Curran and Seaton – the development of the press & the origins of the BBC as a PBS (PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTER)

1. Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent

Key ideas

  • Gate Keeping
  • Agenda Setting
  • Selecting, Shaping, Emphasising
  • Social, Political and Economic Bias
  • Lack of independence, impartiality, diversity

Politics and Bias

Noam Chomsky takes a left wing perspective that looks to challenge the ideas of Western Capitalism. For instance, making a direct connection between the ideas of ruling class as the ruling ideas. I have mentioned this before when looking at the ideas of Roland Barthes (follow this link), but provide the link to Karl Marx again here:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,

Marx, German Ideology (1845)

In terms of setting an agenda and mapping a clear political bias watch the video below where anchors at Sinclair-owned local news stations parrot a script pushing Trump talking points and “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.”

In this sense Chomsky would see mainstream media as generally quite ‘reactionary’  in that they reinforce dominant ideas. However, Chomsky would recognise the value of some media organisations, those who are more liberal and independent as providing a challenge to the dominant ideology which can be referred to as ‘radical’. Although even ‘grass roots’ journalism can be open to corporate manipulation . . .

So can we trust the Media?

2. Jurgen Habermas

a public space between the private domain and the state in which public opionion was formed and ‘popular’ supervision of government was established

Mass Media and Society by James Curran and Michael Gurevitch (p.11: 1996)

This extract: Mass Media and Democracy by James Curran has a focus on Jurgen Habermas and his concept of the Public Sphere, that basically argues how the developments in education and the mass media allowed for a greater access to information particularly with regard to government and control:

3. Curran and Seaton

Answer this question: Why are the culture Industries different from other industries?

A good starting point is to read this summary of James Curran and Jean Seaton’s work found on  page 121 of the AQA Media Studies text book (Hendry & Stevenson), that highlights their 1997 book: Power without Responsibility (James Curran and Jean Seaton) .

To help you understand some of these ideas in more detail I have taken some pages from Mass Media and Society by James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, which should help to give you an overview. For example, this opening chapter Culture Communication & Political Economy by Golding and Murdock puts forward the ‘critical political economy perspective’ that

“shows how different ways of financing and organising cultural production have traceable consequences for the range of discourses and representations in the public domain”

(p.11: 1996)

Key Questions

  • What are the processes of production, distribution and circulation used by organisations, groups and individuals in a global context
  • What can you say about the specialised and institutionalised nature of media production, distribution and circulation
  • What is the relationship of recent technological change and media production, distribution and circulation
  • Can you identify the significance of patterns of ownership and control, including conglomerate ownership, vertical integration and diversification
  • Can you discuss the significance of economic factors, including commercial and not-for-profit public funding, to media industries and their products
  • Do you know how media organisations maintain, varieties of audiences nationally and globally
  • Do you understand some of the regulatory framework of contemporary media in the UK
  • What is the impact of ‘new’ digital technologies on media regulation, including the role of individual producers.
  • How can you describe the interrelationship between media technologies and patterns of consumption and response

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