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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 11: The Political Economy of International Communications: Foundation for the Emerging Global Debate about Media Ownership and Regulation

30 Jan 2004

  • Authors: Dan Schiller, Robert W. McChesney


The paper begins with a discussion on the global media and then turns to communications. The conclusion contains 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.

It is widely held that the communication system is a cornerstone of modern societies. The communication system may serve to enhance democracy, or to deny it, or some combination of the two. It has also, asserts the paper, emerged as a central area for profit making in capitalist societies. 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. Hence, it is imperative, argue the authors, that citizens organize to create new communication policies in order to preserve and promote democracy.

The last two decades saw the emergence of the transnational corporate-commercial communication system with a new structural logic of its own. 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. The authors point out «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».

The authors assert that there are two overarching principles necessary for any reform platform: First, that debates on these topics be widespread, open and transparent—they must be democratized. They remind us that «If you’re not at the table, you’re not part of the deal». In other words: «if self-interested parties make decisions in relative secrecy, the resulting policies will serve the interests primarily of those who made them». They call on civil society to actively participate.

Second, the authors state that the principle of public as opposed to corporate-commercial control must be reaccredited, fortified and enlarged. They also remind us that 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 Service.

Order PPTBS 11 from UNRISD (USD12 for readers in industrialized countries and USD6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).