This essay introduces an approach to studying media, which deals with the interplay of economic, political, social and cultural life. The political economy approach we are outlining here is clearly critical and its focus will mainly comprise of the fundamental political and economic aspects of media in the news and current affairs sector. The historical development of current structures of ownership and production practices will also be exemplified in this essay, confining the main emphasis on four historical processes. A detailed argument of the advantages and disadvantages of analysing media with a critical political economy approach will also be discussed in this essay. Definitions of terms and several substantiating examples will be included to support the arguments mentioned.
Golding and Murdock (1991) in their article draw several terms and concepts used in ‘critical political economy’. The detailed definition and explanation of the term points out that social relations and the exercise of power play an impacting role in shifting cultural perspective in society – observing how the making and taking of meaning in productions are shaped at every level of social relations. Analysing the nature and source of regulation limits in media is also an essential point to study the way meaning is made and re-made through the concrete activities of producers and consumers.
As highlighted by Golding and Murdock (1991), four historical processes mentioned are especially central to the critical political economy of culture – the growth of media, the extension of corporate reach, commodification and the changing role of state and government intervention. These processes will subsequently lead us to expand into the advantages and disadvantages of the critical political economy approach.
The growth of media as explained by Golding and Murdock speaks of how society views the media industries as the logical place to begin an analysis of contemporary culture hence resulting in an increase in media production. This process has in return brought about a rise in large corporations, which increasingly move towards privatization. Corporations are dominating the industry to a point of moulding media productions to their interests and strategies. One major setback that will arise from such domination is that producers and other related industries can exercise considerable control over the direction of cultural activity of society. And this does not only limit the range to newspapers and magazines, but further affects the cultural production in television and radio for updates in news and current affairs.
The extension of corporate reach intensifies a third process namely the commodification of cultural life. According to Golding and Murdock (1991), corporations in commodity production initially produced commodities that can be directly consumed – several examples would be newspapers, magazines or novels. However technology has led to further advancement in domestic communication – such as the radio, television, computers and the Internet. Hence cultural consumption now requires consumers to purchase the appropriate equipment or hardware as a condition of access. The effects that such a resultant had now rely more on the ability of consumers to pay in order for communicative activity to actually take place. A good example to illustrate this sort of dependence – before a person could tune in to the latest updates on current affairs or news at home, he or she would at least need to own the essential hardware. Golding and Murdock (1991) also pointed out that the higher a household’s income, the more probable that the household would own key pieces of equipment – like a telephone, a video recorder or a computer – consequentially, this brings about a greater choice in communicative activities.
This line of reasoning takes us to examine a fourth process whereby corporations face a heavy dose of political pressure particularly in the areas of news and current affairs. Examples that were drawn by Golding and Murdock (1991) related well publicized attacks on the ‘impartiality’ of news coverage to police seizures of film, or government bans on live interviews with members of political parties. Such attempts are undeniably to narrow public discourse on the part of capitalist economic systems, as they assume a greater role in managing communicative activity. The changing role of state and government intervention in accordance to Golding and Murdock (1991) refer to two main forms – the production regulation in the public interest to ensure a diversity of cultural production. And regulatory functions extending to both the structure of media industries and the range of permissible public expression, for example in the usage of obscenities, portraying racial hatred and threatening the national security.
Hence to draw the conclusion that only a ‘critical political economy’ approach can adequately explain how the media work today may be a biased viewpoint as several pros and cons may be drawn from this approach.
A research done by Chandler (2000) interprets mass media research as ‘culture industries’ in terms of their economic determination. According to his analysis, the economic base of the organizations in which they are produced primarily determines the contents of the media and the meanings carried by their messages. Hence commercial media organizations then cater to the needs of advertisers and produce audience-maximizing products for advertising revenue. While specific media institutions whose revenues are controlled by the dominant political institutions or by the state tend to reproduce interpretations which serve the interest of the ruling class. The media aspects of news and current affairs perform a crucial role in defining events globally and also in reinforcing a consensual viewpoint by elevating the public opinion. Chandler (2000) also stresses that the base and structure applied to the mass media is associated with issues of the ownership and control of the media.
The strengths of a critical political economy approach draws our attention to the issues of political and economic interest in the mass media and highlights social inequalities in media representations. As cited by Chandler (2000) in his analysis, ideological analysis helps us to distinguish reality offered in media text. The approach comparatively emphasizes the importance of social class in relation to both media ownership and audience interpretation of media texts, which remains an important factor in media analysis. Furthermore, it underlines the material conditions of media production and reception through the study of ownership and control of the media and the influence of ownership on its content.
Besides these factors, the critical political economy approach also challenges us to consider issues such as differential access and modes of interpretation, which are shaped by socio-economic groupings. Representations in the mass media (e.g. political coverage or social groups) often need to undergo analysis in order to reveal underlying ideologies as audience interpretations continue to be affected by such content. Because of the distribution of power in society, some versions of reality have more influence than others, hence leading to structured variations in audience responses as highlighted by Golding and Murdock (1991). This further expands us to another point brought up in their article on how the critical political economy approach allows us to trace relations between the financing and cultural production organization. Commodification as a concern in the critical political economy approach has help to establish a self-perpetuating advantage in the market, which would avoid gross imbalances of power and price. Because the virtue of the market is such that there is compliance to the price laws of supply and demand, there is therefore always automatic pressure to reduce any temporary imbalances.
Another advantage of this approach can be seen in government regulation on production and consumption of cultural representations. Because media content affects the construction of society’s identity, there is hence an emphasis on the vitality to preserve national identity and security. Consequently, this brings about changes in public discourse and representation which challenges us to realise the need for analyses in textual organisations.
However Chandler (2000) also expressed arguments against the strengths of the critical political economy approach. Although the approach employed empirical methods in particular that included close studies of specific texts on the analyses of media representations. One such limitation referred to the approach shunning away from how audiences and consumers use the mass media. In support of this limitation, Golding and Murdock (1991) similarly mention that critical economy seeks to relate variations in people’s responses to their overall location in the economic system.
Critical political economy takes this line of reasoning to media corporations being regarded as potential abuses of owner power thus dominating institutions in society. Reproductions of the media’s viewpoint of dominant institutions largely gravitate towards a central and most obvious perspective rather than one which provides alternative representations. According to Chandler (2000) in his analysis, political economy in the mass media has a tendency to avoid the unpopular and unconventional, and alternately to depict on the beliefs and ideology which are most favourable and most widely legitimated. One excellent example drawn by Chandler (2000) was the media portrayals of elections composing the power structure in liberal democracies – voting was then seen as an ideological practice that helps to sustain the myth of democracy and political equality. The impact of election coverage was thus conceived in terms of reinforcing political values that were widely shared in Western democracies and were actively endorsed by the education system, the principal political organizations and the apparatus of the state.
The limitation brought up by Lehman also suggested that the powerful dominance of media production corporations only satisfied the needs of a narrowly construed range of consumers which takes place at the expense of the needs of the majority of the population. In the analysis of the critical political economy approach, we have learnt that power lies in the hands of capitalists, which demand increasing financial returns. In searching for increasing levels of revenue, the needs of many that do not have power to monitor corporate effects on the local community have therefore been ignored. Here, Lehman’s analysis on the power structure can be extended to consider the effects such an approach has on culture. This is especially crucial in the news and current affairs area of media, as proprietors would likely use their property rights to restrict the flow of valuable information on which the vitality of democracy depended on. An important supporting example illustrated by Golding and Murdock (1991) portrayed evidence of the Bertelsmann company of Germany which had control of RCA records and Doubleday books having control over a major chain of newspapers and magazines. Therefore the minimising modes of dominion ranging from government regulation to privatised control is crucial in shaping audiences mindsets.
In conclusion, we have analysed the political and economic forces that shape the media industries, and the forms of regulation government production practices and media output. The focal point of argument in the approach of critical political economy in communications arrays the exercise of control over cultural production and distribution, limiting or liberating the public sphere. We have seen in this essay the liberating aspects and the limitations imposed on the news and current affairs sector of media. Useful insights and examples be it in the positive or negative sense have been gleaned to support the important processes encompassing critical political economy approach – extension of corporate reach, commodification and state or government intervention. Although a detailed analysis of pros and cons were covered, it still leaves us room to consider other cultural and historical impacts on how society thinks before we can claim to adequately explain how the media work today.