What is the relationship between news and power?

The relationship between news and power is subtly complex, nuanced by changing power dynamics, technology and agendas for control. But the result is always blatantly clear: if one controls the news, one has power.

Mass media is the key to informing and potentially controlling the public sphere (el-Nawawy, Powers 2006:440). The public sphere is growingly being informed by a mix of news journalism and public relations/propaganda(McNair 2006:11) (Herman 1996:125). With that in mind, the next two questions is to ask, who wants the power of control over the news and who has the power to control the news? I put it to you, that the answers are the government and large corporations who want to control the news and that most of the power over the news lays in the hands of media owners and advertisers, as their monetary influence forms chains that news editors must respect.

That isn’t of course to say that the government has no power either; legislation obviously has clout over the industry, but this is always subject to how such legislation is viewed within the public sphere of news discussion and further always undermined by the fact that the government has close relations with the various organisations such legislation is likely to affect (Cunningham 2010:32).

Thus whilst governments have obvious desires to control the public sphere, be it for military, economic or political reasons, they are always subject to the power relations of media owners who fund the tools they use to control/subvert discourses apparent in the public sphere. But why? Why do governments and corporations wish to control the flow of information to the public? Habermas adequately investigated answered this question for through his exploration of the coffee houses in the 17th century. As the industry of journalism grew so did public discussion of what affected citizens the most, journalism was thus charged with the role of ensuring that individuals had a diverse spectrum of information sources to sustain their views. Maintenance of this reasoning public is dependent upon a news media which can express a plurality of conflicting opinions and views (Allan 2010:15). Hence we see the birth for news media and its importance for the public sphere as the ‘fourth estate’, that it is an essential element along with free speech for a proper functioning liberal democracy (McCutcheon, Pusey 2011:22).

With the importance for news media established it isn’t difficult to see why a corporation or government would seek to control it. Power over this tool is literally power over the public eye. What the public is not exposed to is thus something it cannot challenge, something it cannot question and something it cannot defend its self against. So apparent is this power that politicians successfully sought to preserve the general secrecy of parliament in Great Britain until 1803 (Allan 2010:14).
The methods for control are however not necessarily conspiratorial clandestine practices as critics of this notion would say. The ‘Propaganda Model’ as put forward by Edward S. Herman explores how within our neo-liberal modern day society, the industry of news journalism exists within frame works which structurally  place media owners at an advantage to doctor the news to their own ends. Herman notes that there are five factors which feature as filters by which a story must pass before publication, those are:

  • ·         Ownership (Immediate capital interest)
  • ·         Advertising (Secondary capital interest)
  • ·         Sourcing (Sources of information’s interests)
  • ·         Flak (Criticism from official, unofficial, competitors or public spectators)
  • ·         Anti-communist ideology (A general trust from the elite in the benevolence of the market based system and antagonism for economic left policies)

Further government and non-media businesses are also well positioned to pressure news media with threats of funding withdrawal (advertising), TV licenses, libel suits or other direct/indirect modes of attack (Herman 1996:116). What the most important element of the propaganda model is however, is that this is a decentralised and non-conspiratorial notion of how media is doctored. There isn’t an illuminati of media owners and governments in cahoots to push forward a neo-liberal rightwing agenda to the public. This is a theory which puts forward that the position of news media businesses as capitalist entities within a neo-liberal market based economy will naturally through its interests doctor the information passing through it to suit its needs. It is a decentralised and natural consequence of the market based economy.

This understanding of the filters that information must pass through are important not to just students of the media industry but to the greater Australian populace in particular. We live in a nation with one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world (McCutcheon, Pusey 2011:22), the effects that media owners have is unequivocally over pronounced within Australia, when Fairfax and Newscorp team up to bully a government or institution, the effects are immediate. When you take into account the power of the news, the filters that information must pass through and the high concentration of media ownership the result is blatantly clear: if one controls the news, one has power.

 

                                        

References:

Allan, S. “News, Power and the Public Sphere.” In his News Culture, Third Edition, 8-26. New York: Open UP, 2010.

Cunningham, S. “Policy.” In The Media and Communications in Australia, Third Edition, edited by Stuart Cunningham and Graeme Turner, 31-48. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2010.

Herman, E. “The Propaganda Model Revisited.” Monthly Review 48, no. 3 (1996): 115-28.

McCutcheon, M., and Pusey, M. “From the Media Moguls to the Money Men? Media Concentration in Australia.” Media International Australia no. 140 (2011): 22-34.

McNair, Brian. “Cultural Chaos and the Globalisation of Journalism.” In his Cultural Chaos: Journalism, News and Power in a Globalised World, 1-18. London: Routledge, 2006.

el-Nawawy, M., and Powers, S., “News Influence and the Global Media Sphere: A Case Study of Al-Jazeera English.” InThe Routledge Companion to News and Journalism Studies, edited by S. Allan, 438-49. Oxon (UK): Routledge, 2010.

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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