The media is one of the most important forces in our society, affecting the way we think, act and behave.
Since the latter half of the 20th century, media ownership has become increasingly concentrated, dominated by a few key players.
Perhaps most powerful amongst them is Rupert Murdoch, the founder and CEO of News Corporation. Recently, however, Murdoch has become the subject of backlash from competitors who believe his presence could become just too powerful.
The concentration of media ownership
Australian-born Rupert Murdoch is perhaps the quintessential media baron.
His assets include 20th Century Fox, FOX Broadcasting, BSkyB , FOXTEL, Sky Deutschland, SKY Italia, The New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, the UK Times, Sun Herald, The Sun and a variety of smaller publications.
Another well-known mogul is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has a vast media empire controlling three of Italy’s largest private television stations, and a further three public stations when he is in office.
Germany’s Axel Springer corporation is one of Europe’s largest multimedia companies, with over 80 publications in 36 countries including Germany, France and Spain.
Adding to this concentration is the fact that many publications source news from three main agencies: Associated Press (AP), Reuters and the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Recently China’s Xinhua News Agency has emerged as an alternative source of news, signing content deals with government-run media outlets in Asia and Africa.
What does this mean for the audience?
Concentration of ownership is often criticised for limiting the diversity of ideas in the public sphere.
For instance while someone might think they receive a range of opinions by watching FOX, or reading The Australian and the UK Times, they are all owned by the same person, often running news from the same news agency.
Furthermore, owners control the editors, who in turn influence the writers and content. This means owners can promote their own values or seek political advantage through editorial bias.
Concentration under the spotlight
Media concentration in the UK has come under the spotlight in recent weeks after News Corporation put in a bid to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB they don’t already own.
The proposal prompted an unprecedented response from nearly all non-News Corporation owned companies in Britain including the Telegraph media group, Guardian media group, BBC, BT and Daily Mail.
The companies wrote a letter asking UK Business Secretary Vince Cable to refer the case to Ofcom, the UK’s competition watchdog, on the basis the takeover would have “serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality.”
In the UK, News Corp already owns 37% of the daily newspaper market, and with the total ownership of Sky, would control two-thirds of pay television.
In the US, Murdoch’s content reaches 40% of the domestic audience, with an estimated one in five American homes tuned to a News Corp show at any time.
This latest deal would give Murdoch unprecedented dominance in shaping the news agenda and opinion. And that can lead to political influence.
In 2001, the New York Times reported that Murdoch’s personal political views led The Sun, The Times of London, the Sunday Times and News of the World to drop their traditional conservative affiliation in favour of endorsing Labour’s Tony Blair.
At the time, Blair backed a bill with a provision dubbed the ‘Murdoch clause’ designed to loosen the restrictions on foreign media ownership.
Currently, Murdoch has close ties to the conservative Tory Party in the UK, with his former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, serving as chief media aide to Prime Minister David Cameron (Murdoch’s wish to weaken the government’s financial support given to the BBC was delivered with yesterday’s BBC spending cuts).
In the US, Murdoch’s views are equally pervasive. His personal political stance has been reflected in Fox’s coverage of the war in Iraq and the Obama administration.
In October 2010, Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association for the upcoming mid-term elections, signalling News Corp has begun to take a more direct role in political campaigns.
Murdoch’s move is further evidence that the mainstream news that influences the way we think, act and behave comes from an increasingly concentrated source.
And as the medium for how democracy works, it’s important to appreciate where the news is coming from.
By Victoria Craw