Although many mass media texts and channels are more overtly political than others, it can be argued that all media is intrinsically political. Each media creator, text and channel chooses a form and method for the tone and representation of its content, and thus defines its political significance; even a renouncing of political position makes clear the creator’s political stance: that they deem politics irrelevant or inappropriate in the given context. With this in mind, the increase of mass media’s reach around the globe has profound implications for the influence of ideas and ideologies that affect our global governance in real terms. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate over whether we shape the media, or whether the media shapes us, rages on – and it is interesting in this context to note the dynamics between media that concerns politics as its primary topic, and media that contains implicit political ideas.
Alongside the developments in technology that have allowed mass media to be almost instantly and globally accessible, has been a commoditisation of the vast majority of mass media (i.e. media outlets are run as a business; texts and channels are bought by an owner and sold to a consumer), the implications of which on the political economy of the media are many and significant with regards to the dissemination of political ideas, and the integrity of mass media to function as a tool in favour of the majority. News’ valued objectivity is compromised and a lack of accountability arises when an individual (or small groups of individuals) hold so much power over the communication of ideas throughout the global village. Certain political ideas are favoured, and some are suppressed, depending on the political ideologies of the owners of mass media outlets – not only in news, but in entertainment.
Interestingly, as the global reach of mass media has increased, political engagement and awareness has not necessarily been impacted positively. Of late, there have been record lows of voter turnout, a general distrust of the integrity of politicians and the democratic process, and a cynicism around the integrity of political media reporting itself. This has gone hand in hand with huge cuts to the journalism industry and public arts funding bodies that have rendered investigative journalism and media almost non-existent in the mass market, and an increase in 24 hour news media and information on demand that has left fewer workers with far more work than previously.
Arguably the most significant debates around political news media of late have been the ethical implications of ownership of vast numbers of news outlets by media conglomerates, and the challenge to them by grassroots organizations and social media. On one hand, the news landscape is dominated by corporate news organizations, and on the other many believe sites such as Twitter propose a significant challenge via alternative means (for many, Twitter’s user-generated front end obscures its corporate status.) With the introduction of 24-hour news channels that bring a constant stream of global political news to television and computer screens, and the rise in popularity of the Internet as a news aggregation tool, there is also a dominance of competing information and competition to be the first to break political stories. There is a contradiction in the depth and intensity of these non-stop media feeds, in that while the speed and coverage with which citizens are introduced to political information technically increases, an intensity of competition and insecurity is created that prevents lucidity of information, and attention to a full spectrum of occurrences. Alistair Campbell argued that during his tenure in Blair’s cabinet, this directly increased the perceived need for political spin within the government, for which he was responsible, since the demand for political information from journalists became incessant. As a result of the new political news climate, Campbell and his team would have to go into overdrive, further obscuring any organic insight into Britain’s political workings.
The ethical arguments concern the relationships between politicians and media barons, the financial framework of news corporations, and the culture of journalistic methods. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns hundreds of news outlets on all continents, ranging from television news channels to magazines to newspapers. The global political influence of what is communicated by his outlets, then, is huge. Murdoch publicly maintains that he dictates no editorial line in his papers, yet he is long reported to have had private business meetings with numerous political leaders, and all but one of his newspapers maintained a pro-war line before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Murdoch is the most well known example of this media monopolisation, but he is simply one example of the people who have created these ethical issues in the contemporary landscape of media ownership.
Long commoditised, entertainment media has always had a myopic but inextricable relationship with political content. Mass entertainment media could be said to exist on a spectrum of political engagement, ranging from biting satire at one end to fantastical escapism at the other. Again, it must be noted that all stories, representations, and methods of creation contain political values even, and especially when, they efface overt political discussion or engagement.
Mass entertainment media on television, in film, in print and now online most traditionally concerns the individual narrative at its core, with a backdrop of spectacle, comedy, romance, violence, or all of the above, to increase its impact. It has also traditionally been, and continues to be, seen as an escape from ‘reality’ and thus a rejection of engagement in favour of respite, though the moralistic values of self-governance and choice ethics of many individual narratives in fact impart some powerful political messages on unsuspecting audiences. (Indeed, were mass entertainment media not so instructive and meaningful, there may be less mass consumption of it.)
Documentaries are perhaps the most overt, and recently massively popular, form of politically engaged and campaigning media. Since Michael Moore’s overtly political Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and his previous film Bowling for Columbine (2002) won critical acclaim and wide distribution, political documentaries have been climbing for the same heights of box office success as features. Bowling for Columbine and Alex Gibney’s Inside Job (2010), concerning America’s fatal relationship to gun ownership and the individual perpetrators of the economic crisis of 2008 respectively, were both awarded the Best Documentary Oscar, and grossed millions of dollars. Neither shyed away from confrontation, and while lacking an explicit call to arms for specific political action, they certainly made their values towards these political disasters clear. Backed by large companies in the mainstream film industry, both received global distribution and engaged audiences en masse.
Some of these films have affected real political change – since the exhibition of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a feature documentary about the violent behaviour of captured orcas at theme parks such as SeaWorld, stocks in SeaWorld have dropped dramatically and animal-rights campaigners have heavily promoted and employed the film as a tool in their fight for change in the industry. This has been dubbed ‘the Blackfish effect.’
That said, many of these documentaries specifically refrain from laying down an explicit political objective or trajectory that they would like to see post-theatre (in fact, Blackfish did not call explicitly, only implicitly, for the closure of or withdrawal of funds from SeaWorld by investors.) Many campaigning films that do designate explicit political objectives highlight the individual choices of the consumer as a way to affect change (see The End of the Line (2009). In this way, many documentaries can be seen as manifestations of the liberal political contexts from which they come, commoditizing their political messages in the same way that they themselves are bought and sold to survive in the industry, rather than arguing for fundamental or radical political change to the crises or abuses with which they are concerned.
However, due to the rise of the internet, standardised and portable media equipment, and advanced user-centred technology, many grassroots media organizations have thrived in the climate of peer-to-peer connection that have been afforded them. In particular, film collectives and co-ops can organize to produce various screen media, then distribute and exhibit them through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo at little to no cost. The labour issues involved are still difficult to navigate since film production is highly time-intensive and funding is sparse, so many radical filmmakers who cannot find a voice or recognition within the industry have pursued creative ventures outside of regular paid work (as has been the artists’ tradition).
Similarly, the rise of blogging platforms and self-publishing networks, not to mention social media, has allowed for independent journalism by all, and thus mass media can be brought to the masses by the masses. The drawback of this, of course, is that the tools and means of media creation are now so accessible that the volume of mass media content that is available is dense, nebulous and unregulated; being heard amongst the cacophony is increasingly difficult. The surfacing of quality journalism and filmmaking is in constant rotation and whether it will ever become financially sustainable for individual creators is yet to be seen. However, the aesthetic of online media has changed alongside developments, so that a rougher aesthetic will be accepted where it wouldn’t in mainstream mass media industries, if its content touches on a popular or relavant topic, or has a particularly appealing style.
Currently, the Internet and the new media associated with it (such as social media networks, user-generated media, creative development tools, online software subscription, media on demand, etc.) is changing at such a rapid rate, it defies definition. What is true at the time of writing is unlikely to remain timely. What is certain is that the future of media, political mass media, and the politics of, and within, the mass media is potentially radically transformative for society. There is vast opportunity in this new technology and culture of media for increased transparency of information, political behaviour, and political organisation, especially in the context of investigative political journalism around the world. Corporations who currently own and control the mass media, who have an interest in disallowing political upheaval and social change, however, also have an opportunity to colonise cyberspace in the same way they have done the traditional mass media industries.
The vastness of the current sphere of both traditional vertically-integrated and burgeoning horizontally-integrated mass media perhaps dilutes its political implications. The nebulous nature of human societies across the global village prevents one accessible and agreeable message from touching everyone, even before it is impacted by the dominance of huge media corporations and their relationships to political and financial elites. If we can engage with new media aggressively and purposefully, rather than passively, we might well see a new politics emerge, and soon.