State of State of the media world-wide


M. Ziauddin
In many countries around the world today, political transitions and the rise of digital technology have changed the way governments influence the media. Political transitions in many countries have changed mechanisms of control. Instead of a censor marking up advance copies of local newspapers, journalists receive morenuanced signals as to what should be covered.  In countries undergoing political transition, another change witnessed in the past two decades is that the threat to journalistic independence no longer comes from the government alone, but from the private sector, and from collusion between the two. In many countries the ties between government and media are close. Such links can be forged through advertising or some form of state subsidy to the media, or simply through the relationships between political elites and media owners, but the effect is frequently the same: media that does the bidding of elites and thus is not truly free. Media and communications scholars have long looked at questions of commercial influence, ownership, the role of government, ideology, pressure from sources and corporate ownership as factors that influence coverage.  Perhaps the best working definition of the media capture phenomenon is that provided by political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: “By ‘media capture’ I mean a situation in which the media have not succeeded in becoming autonomous in manifesting a will of their own, nor able to exercise their main function, notably of informing people. Instead, they have persisted in an intermediate state, with vested interests, and not just the government, using them for other purposes” (Mungiu-Pippidi 2013, 41). In many parts of the world government control of the media is entwined with control by  business interests. As such, the involvement of the private sector is what fundamentally distinguishes media capture from the familiar forms of government control of the media, though this is not to say that media are captured in the same way.  States pursue different capture strategies; media markets have structural differences; and the digitization of communication also frequently has a unique complexion in some settings—all having implications for the nature of capture in each context.  Originally coined by the economics profession, “capture” is an economics term that describes what happens when regulators become overly empathetic or supportive of those they are meant to be regulating.  It can almost be understood as “poacher turned gamekeeper.” If we assume that one of the roles of the media is to regulate an economy or a political system by providing information that can lead to action by other agents in society, then media capture becomes a useful term to look at some of the reasons why the media do not always fulfill that role. These may all be said to be captured in some way: media that are ideologically controlled by government; media that are controlled by advertisers and owners; media coverage that pushes a certain agenda. When the media get captured by those they are supposed to oversee—whether government, corporations, or other institutions in our society—they cannot or will not perform their critical societal role.” Even where preemptive censorship no longer exists it is possible for formal press freedom to coexist with substantial political influence on the media.  How citizens, when confronted by alternative policy options, are dependent on the media in order to formulate an informed decision. When one of those options goes against public interest but holds a significant benefit for powerful interest groups, there is a risk that those interest groups will persuade or pressure media owners and managers to sway coverage in favour of the option that goes against public interest. This form of collusion between powerful interest groups and the media is more likely in societies with high levels of wealth concentration. In a situation where the media are captured by the rich who can influence what is published, it can become impossible for voters to know what their true interests are, worsening inequality.  Capture by the rich can have a longer-lasting effect than capture by politicians. Politicians can be voted out of office, but the rich cannot. In short, media capture is a way of understanding how media systems are swayed or controlled by powerful interests around the world. It explains media systems not only in countries that have long been democratic but also in countries such as Burma and Tunisia—that recently have undergone dramatic political transitions but ended up with media systems that still are shaped by government and corporate influences. As long as capture exists, and it usually exists in one form or another, then the media are not truly free. Central to the issue of media capture are questions of media diversity. Ten years ago it was assumed by many although not by all that lower barriers to entry would mean more media outlets. This would lead to more competitive media markets and thus make it more difficult to capture media, creating higher quality journalism and presumably political decision-making.  Rapid developments in the media landscape thus require us to revisit the question of capture. To what extent, and in what ways, has the rapid spread of digital technology affected some of the earlier theories about media capture? However, rapid developments in the media landscape and rapid spread of digital technology had had an opposite effect on the media industry world -wide. Many of the new outlets that appeared in the last 10 years were not high quality, and many of the old outlets that were known as quality publications became open to all kinds of financial arrangements they might not have accepted 20 years earlier. For instance, paid insertions which are referred to in the United States as “native advertising,” have recently grown more common. The growth of native advertising, the erosion of the barriers between editorial and advertising, and the rise of large digital platforms may all have given rise to new forms of media capture. In a situation where the financial future of the media is shaky, the influence and power of the funder increase. In a situation of scarcity—that is, where there is little available advertising—the power of the advertiser becomes more pronounced. This is true even in countries where advertising revenues are growing because these additional revenues have been scooped up by multinational companies like Google. Print and broadcast media are often captured through the ownership of powerful plutocrats affiliated with political elites, who limit the scope for political debate. While new communication technologies and outlets can provide a check against this plutocratic capture, new platforms in the developing world can be captured—like their developed world cousins—by advertising and corporate pressure. Because “traditional” and “new” media technologies have emerged at the same time in many developing democracies, these forms of capture do not replace one another, but combine and compete with one another. Moreover, the motives of media proprietors are likely to become less economic and more political in nature. In an age of declining profitability, when owning  a media outlet is not as profitable as it once was, then who would want to own a media outlet? Only someone with a strong desire for political influence. There are three reasons for owning a media outlet: power, public service, and profit. Around the world and throughout the last 200 years, these three motives have been a core part of why people take on media ownership. Of course, the balance shifts at different times and in different places, and since the digital era the balance again has shifted in favor of power as a driving motivation for media ownership. This gives rise to all kinds of new opportunities for capture. In the future we will see “a twenty-first century resurgence of more captive, politically instrumentalized news media. This type of media—subsidized by proprietors, social and political groups, or governments—is common in most of the world. Is it possible to avert this resurgence? Are there policy solutions that actually could be put in place? We know some of them: controls on cross ownership; diversification of funding sources; regulations; the creation or support of public broadcasters with arms-length relationship to the state. But how likely is it that any of them will be implemented? There is an important role for governments to play in using antitrust and competition law to promote diversity of ownership, requiring transparency of ownership, putting in place strong rules on government advertising, and strengthening media regulators. As social media continues to play an important role in publishing and disseminating news and information, it also will be important for government to try to maintain a level playing field and enforce competition laws that are relevant for tech companies.  A huge part of protecting free expression is making sure that independent voices are heard. In this digital era and in the current political climate, the question of how to prevent capture is more urgent than ever. We need not only to be aware of the growing problem of capture, but also to understand and push for policies that can help tackle the problem. (The above is an abridged version of the chapter introducing the book In The Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy, edited by Anya Schiffrin. This collection looks at the state of media around the world with an emphasis on what we call “media capture.” It comes out of a conference held at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in April 2016, and aims to introduce the concept of capture to a broader audience, show how capture is manifested in different parts of the world, and highlight some possible solutions. This is the first collection on media capture around the world and the first to consider how digital technology is affecting the issue.)

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