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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

The Political Economy of International Communications: Foundations for the Emerging Global Debate about Media Ownership and Regulation



In this paper, Robert McChesney and Dan Schiller examine the changing balance of public and private control over media and telecommunications in the global political economy, patterns of concentration and investment in the overall communication sector, and possibilities for improving the contribution of media and telecommunications to development in different parts of the world. The authors begin by discussing global media and then turn to telecommunications. They conclude with some general proposals on how media, telecommunications and new information technologies could be more systematically used to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups and nations.

Nearly all variants of social and political theory hold that the communication system is a cornerstone of modern societies. In political terms, the communication system may serve to enhance democracy, or to deny it, or some combination of the two. Less commented upon, though no less significant, the communication system has emerged as a central area for profit making in modern capitalist societies. Much scholarly effort is therefore employed to assess the relationship between communication as a private activity, and the broader and necessary social and political duties that those same communication systems must perform. This is a central and recurring theme in media studies. The dual role of the communication system, at once a pivot of the emerging global economy and a key foundation of political democracy, constitutes a vital tension on the world stage. According to McChesney and Schiller, it is imperative that citizens organize to create new communication policies in order to preserve and promote democratic values.

Few industries, indeed, have been as changed by capitalist globalization as communications. Prior to the 1980s, national media systems were typified by domestically owned radio, television and print media. There were considerable import markets for films, television shows, music and books, and these markets tended to be dominated by firms based in the United States. But local commercial interests, sometimes combined with a state-affiliated broadcasting service, were both substantial and significant. Media systems were primarily national, and often possessed at least limited public-service features. Telecommunication monopolies were generally under the direct control of state ministries of postal services and telecommunications, and these unitary national networks co-ordinated international traffic flows using standard rate-sharing formulae.

All of this began to change rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s as a transnational corporate-commercial communication system began to be crafted and a new structural logic put in place. The conventional explanation of globalized communication centres on technology: that radical improvements in communication technology make global media flows and global business operations feasible and that, in general, this is all to the good. However, this is a misleading account. Underlying the new communication technology has been a political force—the shift to neoliberal orthodoxy—which relaxed or eliminated barriers to commercial exploitation of media, foreign investment in the communication system and concentrated media ownership. There is nothing inherent in the technology that required neoliberalism; new digital communications could have been used, for example, to simply enhance public service provision had a society elected to do so.

Two overarching principles are central to any reform platform. First, it is imperative that the debates on these topics be widespread, open and transparent: they must be democratized. If there is a lesson to be learned from history it is this: if self-interested parties make decisions in relative secrecy, the resulting policies will serve the interests primarily of those who made them. As the old saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re not part of the deal”. Our job, as scholars, as citizens, as democrats, is to knock down the door and draw some more chairs up to the table. And when we sit at that table, we have to come educated with the most accurate understanding of what is taking place, and of what outcomes are possible.

Second, the principle of public as opposed to corporate-commercial control must be reaccredited, fortified and enlarged. There are several proposals that have been made to re-enforce and democratize the media and telecommunication sectors. Although there are significant differences in these proposals as one moves from one nation to another, they all gravitate around a handful of ideas and principles. While it is necessary to strengthen the sector’s independence of corporate and commercial control, at the same time it is highly desirable to have a significant part of the sector insulated from direct control by the state.

Robert W. McChesney and Dan Schiller are Professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they both hold joint appointments in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8216
    From: UNRISD