Media Discourse During the Financial Crisis: An Inquiry into the Nature of the Contemporary "Fourth Estate"

By Shaun Docherty
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 4/5 |

A Commercialised Estate

Our study of media discourse during the financial crisis has clearly demonstrated press support for , which reasserted its hegemony at the expense of other discursive ideas which were suppressed, silencing a persuasive process designed to affect change in society. This study will finally examine the proprietors of our publications under analysis, to ascertain whose interests a modern Fourth Estate represents. It is argued that due to the nature of ownership and revenue streams, the influence of shareholders, and ; our watchdog has become a product of the free-market, and will suppress criticism and constructive discourse of our internalised norm, Neoliberalism, as it possesses a vested interest in its perpetuation.

The Scott Trust vs. News Corporation

Although our publications under analysis have different business models, when closely analysed we find they are subject to different degrees of similar market forces. The Guardian Newspaper is part of the Guardian Media Group (GMG), owned by a single shareholder, the Scott Trust.122 The entire organisation’s business model is designed to protect the editorial independence of its flagship enterprise the Guardian.123 As media economics specialist Robert Picard highlights these not-for-profit organisations, although not under direct pressure from financial markets, experience financial pressures like any other business.124 Like any other enterprise operating in a free-market economy its survival depends on revenue streams.

The Guardian Media Group secures funding through advertising, publication sales, GMG Radio (commercial radio stations), GMG Property Services, Trader Media Group (a range of classified advertising publications), and Emap (a business-to-business media brand service).125 These business interests, involvement in commercial media, advertising and the property market, demonstrate the extent of commercial interests and level of interaction with the free market economy that even a not for profit media organisation must engage in for its survival. Even a benevolent organisation such as the GMG designed to insulate the Guardian from outside influence is still vulnerable to market forces. When scrutinised more carefully, these business interests could compromise, even slightly, its objectivity. These commercial interests may shed some light on our findings, offering even a tentative explanation of the Guardian’s reticence to publicly sanction and promote new norms which challenge neoliberalism and may have harmed its business interests.

News Corporation, the owner of our other two publications, operates on a different business model. Effectively a publically traded company, where ownership is sold on the stock market and divided among shareholders, its founder, Rupert Murdoch, owns a controlling stake.126 This gives us an interesting mixture of private ownership where an individual can use the organisation as a platform to voice their personal views (an accusation routinely levelled at Murdoch by communications scholars like David McKnight127). As a publically traded company it is also influenced by shareholders, the majority of whom are institutional investors interested in maximising returns on their investment.128 Like all media groups, News Corporation’s main source of revenue is advertising which in 2011 accounted for almost double that of the corporation’s circulations and subscriptions at $4.945 billon.129 It is one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world, and considered by many experts, due to its asset spread throughout multiple markets, to be the only genuine global media conglomerate.130

It’s publications under analysis offered clear support for the Neoliberal Frame, although was expected of the tabloid, the Sun, The Times also rallied behind the ideology every time it seemed to be challenged by an emerging norm. News Corporation’s publications appeared throughout our study to ensure that the internalised norm maintained its dominance through consistent public sanctioning, and as with the Guardian, through a mobilisation of bias where discussion of the economy, of our crucial mechanism of persuasive change, was gradually muted throughout the year. It is posited in this study that the discursive process and criticism of inconvenient norms was silenced through a combination of a mobilisation of bias and normative hegemony: one group exercising over another. This study interprets the group in possession of power as those who benefit most from the public sanctioning and mobilisation of bias: the media’s diverse range of ownership and revenue streams, society’s commercial interests, which have a vested interest in maintaining neoliberalism as the dominant political economic ideology.

Ownership

News Corporation, like the majority of media conglomerates, is a publically traded company, it is effectively owned by investors whose sole concern is the growth of the business and maximising returns on their investment.131 These owners have no interest in media publications upholding the democratic ideals of the fourth estate, they do not represent the people but their own business interests. Since the inception of our internalised norm in the 1980s and the de-regulation of financial markets, they have witnessed unprecedented growth and returns. These investors have a vested interest in the internalisation of a political economic that facilitates their thirst for perpetual growth and profit maximisation. Although owners like shareholders may be naturally inclined to support our internalised norm, it is difficult to ascertain how individual investors’ alleged political conservatism could be transferred into frame sponsorship, affecting our findings and the democratic process so dramatically.

Institutional investors like banks and equity firms provide the majority of capital to the global media market. The extent of their capital support has led many academics to voice concern over the level of influence these groups wield over media organisations.132 Such influence is evidenced by News Corporation whose second largest shareholder after the Murdoch family is Southeastern Asset Management, Inc.133 From the late 1990s onwards financial markets have wielded more power over the media than in any period before. Robert Picard tells us that in 1999 over 50% of all venture capital in the USA was invested in the media and communications sector.134

This level of investment has transformed the boardrooms of our fourth estate where representatives of these firms now sit as directors monitoring their investment, marking a big departure from the early 1990s when government representatives possessed executive positions,135 and for us, illustrates an organisational shift where our watchdog now represents the interests of capital as opposed the public good. Somewhat ironically, private equity investment in media markets also appears to increase during periods where there is excess capital in the economy,136periods that usually precede financial crashes.

Such an intimate relationship with financial markets demonstrates a degree of cognitive capture of the fourth estate and illustrates how deeply intertwined both industries are to our internalised norm which has facilitated unparalleled growth in both sectors over the last three decades. The intimacy of this relationship is reflected in our findings where publications influenced by such investors rally behind our internalised norm attempting to curb any change or reform to a failing financial system. This exercise in normative hegemony is executed through the media sanctioning norms which are beneficial to commercial aspects of society. What makes our fourth estate such a lucrative investment for owners is this commercial potential. Advertisers are another group who today exercise a large degree of power over our fourth estate.

Advertisers

As our brief analysis of the Guardian Media Group has illustrated, the contemporary fourth estate has to compete as an effect business to survive in the competitive climate created by neoliberalism. Due to this new environment created by our internalised norm, Robert Picard tells us newspapers’ primary concern as a business is to function, “as an advertising delivery system” with contemporary publishers being “completely dependent” on their revenue.137 This dependency is not restricted to newspapers, with almost half of News Corporations revenue coming from advertisements the entire global media industry can be seen to be built upon commercial foundations, effectively, a business model where audience attention is sold to advertisers.138

These commercial interests have become the primary audience, interest and concern of our watchdog. Robert McChesney comments this degree of commercial influence affects content by introducing “a layer of commercial vetting,” and creates a class biased content as advertisers are interested in more affluent sections of society who possess more purchasing power.139 This vetting results in content designed to appeal to as broad a range of audience as possible, where unorthodox stories, issues and ideas that may create a financial risk are suppressed by widely accepted norms; and where coverage is limited to “safe” issues that restrict the range of ideas and opinions voiced.140 Such influences, evidenced in our findings, represent a clear mobilisation of bias where unpalatable stories, like a failing economy, are systematically removed from the discourse.

These are the commercial interests, unleashed by market forces which now define our fourth estate. From such an ontological approach, and through our study, we can see how the fourth estate cannot effectively provide a platform for rational critical debate. As our discursive study highlighted: representing commerce, as opposed society, our fourth estate systematically suppressed criticism of neoliberalism, a norm which enhances its business potential. The Normative Hegemony exercised by our watchdog ensured only safe issues were discussed and norms beneficial to commercial interests sanctioned, whilst challenging norms which questioned such orthodoxy were suppressed.

This commercial dependency of the fourth estate has tightened its bond to the free market. Economists have found a correlation between levels of advertising and economic performance, establishing a clear link between growth in Gross Domestic Product and advertising expenditure;141meaning media organisations, like both our subjects, have a vested interest in a booming economy. The Principle of Relative Consistency (PRC) posited by Maxwell McCombs, states media income, based on consumers and advertisers, is determined by the general health of the economy.142 The fourth estate’s roots have become so deeply embedded in the free-market, in our internalised norm, that its behaviour can be interpreted as being dictated by market forces. These market forces encourage what Robert Picard calls, “self-interest behaviour aimed at exploiting market potential.”143 The interest of commerce has superseded that of the public, the public sanctioning and domination of neoliberalism evidenced by our study, reflects the normative hegemony of these commercial interests sanctioning norms beneficial to their concerns at the expense of others.

Just like any other business the fourth estate is subjected to a range of market forces, which left unchecked, has distorted its nature, adversely affecting the public sphere by representing commerce instead of the public good. Given its critical role in the discursive process this distorted estate is using its power to advance its own commercial interests, exercising its Normative Hegemony to sanction beneficial norms like neoliberalism, whilst silencing others.

The results of our analysis of media discourse need not be interpreted as some conspiracy by evil executives abusing their power. The normative hegemony and mobilisation of bias identified by this study can also be viewed in raw economic terms as an externality.144 This distortion of the role of the fourth estate, producing tendentious content, acting as a watchdog for business interests as opposed society, can be interpreted as yet another unintended impact unregulated market forces are having on society. These externalities, a product of neoliberal ontology, are arresting the discursive process which propels societal change, intoxicating the public sphere and severely restricting the democratic process.

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