Neoliberalism, New Media & The Political Discourse

With the rise of convergence and social media culture the influence of mainstream media outlets in political discourse is greater than ever before. The public can now engage in live media, whilst simultaneously commentating with their peers, in a way that can influence politics like never before. With the application of theories from Harvey (2005) and Phelan (2014) this essay will explore the development of these changes since the second world war and provide insight on how they have been shaped by neoliberalism. This will be achieved by exploring three key areas. The first will explore briefly the history and use of propaganda and how it has developed since the second world war to modern times. The second will look at the rise of convergence and increased scrutiny of media influence and will briefly analyse the influence of Rupert Murdoch in the modern political landscapes. The third and final aspect of this essay will be to look specifically at the influence of neoliberalism on the media and explain its unique relationship with the public.

Throughout this essay certain specific terminology will be referenced frequently and, unless otherwise stated and appropriately referenced, should be considered with the following definitions in mind. As neoliberalism is a broad term, for the purpose of this essay, will be defined by Harvey (2005, p. 2) as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes mankind is best served by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills, characterized by free trade, strong private property rights and the free market, within an institutional framework created and preserved by the state”. When considering then its application with specific reference to the media the first understanding should be of Phelan (2012, p. 116) who believes that “Neoliberalism is articulated as the general name for the capitalist present… mainstream journalism is neoliberal because it is produced within a corporate media infrastructure governed by the ideology and priorities of neoliberal capitalism”. While these two definitions will form the basis of the discussion other secondary references will also be included and further clarification provided when necessary.

Over the course of history politics and the media have shared the public sphere. The emergence of the fourth estate, the term coined by Henry Fielding in the 1750’s acknowledging the existence of journalists as a collective (Bainbridge, Goc & Tynan 2011, p. 40), has given the media legitimacy within the realm of political discourse. While initially only responsible for providing press coverage and a public record the utilisation of mass media to further political agendas has been prevalent since the Napoleonic Wars (Hanley 2005), however, propaganda as it has become known today was revolutionised by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels during the Second World War (Diggs-Brown 2011, p. 49). From 1940 onwards the National Socialist regime were able to influence the greater German public with strategically developed film and print media. This media was engineered in such a way to create feelings of jingoism, that would aid the growth of nationalism and strengthen the hold of the regime over the nation (Kallis 2005). Though not the first, the use of mass media to distribute political messages and influence the public in Nazi Germany was the most prolific of its time, so much so that many approaches developed by Goebbels and his party are still utilised today.

Since the end of the second world war the use of propaganda has, arguably, become less sinister however it’s use has also become more prevalent. Considering the legacy of the likes of Goebbels, the term still holds many negative connotations though does still appear in political discourse. In the modern political landscape propaganda is often referred to by more subtle terms, such as spin (Bainbridge, Goc & Tynan 2011), and where Goebbels intended to stir strong feelings of empowered nationalism it is now a means of encouraging constituents to exercise their democratic rights in a way which benefits the party. A contemporary example of this in recent Australian politics was the ‘Children Overboard’ incident, where the Howard government in a push for re-election with policies of tighter border security (Head 2004), alleged that asylum seekers had threatened to throw children out of a boat to secure rescue and entry into Australia (Arlington 2004). While the Howard government were aware at the time that these claims may not have been true (McGrath 2004) they proceeded with making them public to attempt to influence voters. Ultimately, despite the claims later being found to be false (Arlington 2004) the election campaign was a success and the Howard government would go on to serve two more terms. Whether this came about as a direct result of the campaigns propaganda can only be speculated, however, given the political climate at the time it can certainly be attributed.

Considering the implications of the historical development of propaganda and the fourth estate it is easy to see how media scrutiny has developed since the early nineteen hundreds. With the rise of convergence, defined by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (2012, p.5) as, “…the merging of the previously distinct platforms by which information is communicated”, and the dawn of the social media age media scrutiny of political discourse is at an all-time high (Plaisance 2013). The ability for the common person to provide individual commentary to the masses through social media has seen the reliability and integrity of mainstream media called into question like never before; particularly around issues of global politics. This outlet essentially allows any individual to become a member of the journalists fourth estate, even calling into question the legitimacy of this title, now being proposed as the “fifth estate” (Bainbridge et. al 2011, p. 46). How different things might have been even for the Howard government if the children overboard affair had occurred in the age of social media and was subject to round the clock scrutiny from both local and international audiences. On the other side of this discussion, despite this heavy scrutiny, the ability for mass media outlets to share stories quickly over multiple platforms means that information can still be spread quickly and their agendas can be supplied to more people than ever before. As technology advances further already there has been issues raised over the ability to mine data and use geolocation to tailor distribution of political materials to influence individuals (Cadwalladr 2017). Not only is this form of convergence ethically questionable but it gives even greater powers to media owners to dictate what is consumed.

Distribution of mainstream media, despite these recent challenges, has still seen unprecedented amounts of influence in the political sphere in recent times. While part of this can be attributed to the media as a means of mass communication the role of media ownership and control cannot be understated. The most notable example of a media controller with great political influence is Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. From his historical support of the Australian Liberal Party (McKnight 2013) to the election of Donald Trump (Rutenberg 2017), there are few political happenings, national or international, that do not have the interest of Murdoch. Globalisation has seen Murdoch become not only one of the richest men in the media industry, but also one of the most influential. By keeping close control over what his interests say and do, actions which were never clearer than in 2003 when he personally wrote his 175 editors and told them to support the US invasion of Iraq (Bainbridge et. al 2011, p. 42), Murdoch has been able to manipulate large parts of the global mediasphere to carry out his personal agenda. Murdoch’s ruthlessly capitalist approach to business is one of the best examples of neoliberalism in the media and cannot under any circumstances be understated.

Considering these initial points of discussion it can be determined then that neoliberalism impacts upon the media to influence the perception of national interest. When looking at Harvey’s approach (2005) the media is essentially acting as a host body to promote the neoliberal agenda of the state. Regardless of the contributor, that is to say whether coming from a Murdoch tabloid or an individuals social media account, at the core of all political debate is the wellbeing of the state. During the second world war Goebbels and the Nazi ministry for propaganda worked hard to achieve a totalitarian nationalist state where the public believed strongly in what they were told by their mass media campaigns (Diggs-Brown 2011). While objectively different in their approach to the distribution of propaganda on behalf of the state the Howard government felt that they were the party to guide Australia through hard times post September 11, 2001 and thus looked for re-election by any means necessary. Despite their substantially different political alignments and ultimate end goals both parties utilised the media channels at their disposal in an attempt to influence national interest in a way that they saw was necessary to maximise their control over the state. Whether or not these approaches were ethical raises an entirely different discussion, however, the success of both parties is undeniable when looking at their successes historically. Without influencing perceived national interest this success would not have been possible.

Similarly elements of the neoliberal impact on the perception of national interest can be seen in the concentration of media ownership and convergent shift towards new media. All media outlets, regardless of ownership, are built with the sole intention of working in the national interest (von Dohnanyi 2003). The problem then comes when individuals prioritise capitalist gains over the fundamental right to free press and sharing of relevant, unbiased information. As per Phelan’s (2012) definition, “mainstream journalism is neoliberal because it is produced within a corporate media infrastructure”. The very fact that the fourth estate, and media as a whole, has developed from a means by which the common person could be kept informed on notable events into a tradable commodity shows how neoliberalism has shaped the industry over the last hundred years. This transformation of the fourth estate from an open source to a tradable commodity has forever changed the media landscape and created a permanent perception of national interest which matches the media owners agenda. Without substantial changes to international systems of government, or significant deprivatization, this perception will not be able to change without the medias permission.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of neoliberalism that can be applied to the media in relation to political discourse is the tightrope that it constantly treads between relative and absolute gains. “Neoliberal institutionalism assumes states focus primarily on their own absolute gains and are indifferent to the gains of others” (Powell 1991, p. 1303). The question of ethics has been raised throughout this essay, as is often the case when discussing neoliberalism (Sugarman 2015), and for good reason when it comes to absolute gains. The ultimate end goal of the media is to succeed in promoting its message. Whether that is to show support for a cause, to discredit another or to sway the mind of the public and, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, impact on the perception of national interest mass media will always strive for an absolute gain. As seen in the analysis of both Goebbels and Howard, while vastly different political figures, the propaganda they chose to promote yielded absolute gains for both of their parties at the time while giving no consideration to any other consequences. Both parties did what they had to do to put themselves in a winning position, regardless of who else may have lost.

This would not always have been the case however; historically, going back to the original fourth estate, the absolute gains for the media would have also seen relative gains for the public as they operated in a time of objective journalism (Fox 2013) for the benefit of the public. Since the rise of globalisation has brought about convergence, and media has become a business, the absolute gains for the industry are now solely based on capitalist profits and little, if any, concern is given to the common man. An example of this, from the earlier case study, can be seen in Murdoch’s support of the Iraq invasion (Bainbridge et. al 2011). In this example, the absolute gains heralded for the individual, and his immediate political ties showed no thought or consideration for the wider public. Further evidence of this can be seen in the conflicts existence at the time of this essay being written some fourteen years later. Were a different approach taken to the management of politically sensitive media, as opposed to the neoliberal methodology of winning at all costs for the sake of the state and capitalist profit fair and objective journalism may once again return to forefront. Considering how new media has risen to prominence in the convergent mediasphere, and brought new scrutiny to mass media, this may eventually become a reality albeit one that will remain in the hands of the media elite.

Whether by definition of Harvey or Phelan, or any one of the other sources mentioned throughout, it can be seen how neoliberalism impacts the political aspects of the mediasphere. From the development of propaganda in the early twentieth century through to modern times, and the overriding agendas of concentrated media ownership, neoliberalism and the desire to use a public commodity for capitalist gains is evident throughout history. Although the recent challenges identified and discussed suggest that mass media can overcome the rise of the new media as society progresses and technology advances it is impossible to say whether or not this trend will continue. Considering the financial involvement and long term commitment to the industry, and the adaptability shown in recent times to embrace the shift towards new media, it is fair to assume that although outlets may change the need to spread information will continue long into the future.

 

 

References

 Arlington, K 2004, ‘Children overboard the most despicable of lies: Hawke’, TheAge.com.au, 24 August, viewed 11 June 2017, <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/24/1093246520431.html?from=storylhs&gt;

Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, Broken Concepts, ACMA.gov.au, viewed 11 June 2017,<http://www.acma.gov.au/~/media/Office%20of%20the%20Chair/Information/pdf/ACMA_BrokenConcepts_Final_29Aug1%20pdf.pdf&gt;

Bainbridge, J, Goc, N & Tynan, L 2011, Media & Journalism, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria.

Cadwalladr, C 2017, ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked’, The Guardian, 20 May, viewed 11 June 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy&gt;

Diggs-Brown, B 2011, Strategic Public Relations: An Audience-Focused Approach, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Boston, MA.

Fox, C 2013, ‘Public Reason, Objectivity, and Journalism in Liberal Democratic Societies’, Res Publica, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 257-273.

Hanley, W 2005, The Genesis of Napoleonic Propaganda. Columbia University Press, New York, NY.

Harvey, D 2005, Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Head, M 2004, ‘Australia: Howard’s 2001 election lies return to haunt him’, wsws.org, 25 August, viewed 11 June 2017, <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/08/howa-a25.html&gt;

Kallis, A 2005, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War, Palgrave Macmillan UK, Basingstoke.

McGrath, C 2004, ‘Mike Scrafton speaks live about children overboard affair’, The World Today, 16 August, viewed 11 June 2017, <http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1177463.htm&gt; 

McKnight, D 2013, ‘Murdoch and his influence on Australian political life’, The Conversation, 7 August, viewed 11 June 2017, < http://theconversation.com/murdoch-and-his-influence-on-australian-political-life-16752&gt; 

Phelan, S 2014, Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, Palgrave Macmillan UK, Basingstoke.

Plaisance, P 2013, Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice, 2nd edn, SAGE Publications, USA

Powell, R 1991, ‘Absolute and Relative Gains in International Relations Theory’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 4, pp. 1303-1320.

Rutenberg, J 2017, ‘When a Pillar of the Fourth Estate Rests on a Trump-Murdoch Axis’, New York Times, 12 February, viewed 11 June 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/12/business/media/rupert-murdoch-donald-trump-news-corporation.html?_r=0&gt;

Sugarman, J 2015, ‘Neoliberalism and Psychological Ethics’, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 103-116.

von Dohnanyi, J 2003, ‘The Impact of Media Concentration on Professional Journalism’, OSCE.org, viewed 11 June 2017, <http://www.osce.org/fom/13870?download=true&gt;

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Exploring the Participatory Culture

Media and its consumption has evolved down the years from a traditional broadcast culture to what has been dubbed in modern times as a participatory culture. Unlike the traditional broadcast culture of old – government or commercial organisation approved and/or distributed sources of media transmission, such as network radio and television shows – a participatory culture is. “…a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.” (Jenkins 2006, p. 5) This piece will look to explore participatory culture with respect to the progression of key media and communication technologies and by; identifying factors that gave rise to the introduction and diffusion of these innovations, as well as the impact that these technologies have had on society, and how this has influenced the cultural progression.

The explosion of media production and distribution in the 20th century catapulted society into the future in a way that could not have been predicted at the time (Randle 2001). With the invention and mainstream distribution of radio, the television and the mobile phone these three inventions, while all different in their nature, were able to create three very similar cultures by which they would come to be identified. The first major milestone in modern media came with the radio, a transmitting device which not only changed the way people were able to consume media, but also how they could communicate – particularly those in the armed forces (Sterling 2012). Military use would come to be seen as a recurring theme in the development of media technologies, at least in their infancy, as it was war again – this time the Cold War – that would spur the popularity and mainstream exposure of the television (The Paley Center for Media 2016).

Although chronologically both the Internet and computers were being developed around the same time as the television for the purpose of this essay they will be referred to as the last instalment in the trifecta of communication technologies that shaped the culture of media as they did not become part of the mainstream media culture until the internet was publicised in 1991 (Wright 2014). Another child born of the military the Internet, in its infancy at least, was used as a means of cross-country and international communications before it become the public domain world wide web of today (Leiner et al. 2016) All three of these technological creations were initially brought about and popularised amidst the fear and propaganda of war. While it may not have been the intention at the time to advance technology in the way that it would eventually the effectiveness of these inventions cannot be disputed as they have all stood the test of time.

The introduction and diffusions of these inventions, while impressive, can only tell part of the story. The inventions themselves would not have been half as successful as they were if they could not have drawn in the public, kept them captivated and constantly looking for new and exciting ways to use their devices for creative expression. This was the beginning of the era of broadcast culture. The societal impact of the radio was unparalleled by anything else of its time (Gugliotta 2007). News and current affairs, stories and radio plays and later music were all given a new medium of transmission and, thanks to the large number of radio trained military personnel who were out of work at the end of the war ham radio operators were able to give new life to the medium and utilise their skills (Sterling 2012, p. 224). Ironically, their independent broadcasts would be some of the earliest examples of participatory culture in the modern technological age.

This laid the foundations for the television to, much like its wireless predecessor, revolutionise media consumption and capture the imaginations of people the world over (Bignell 2012). The lasting effect that television would have on households can be summarised perfectly by a quote from Television journalist Andrew Anthony in his review of Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation (Moran 2013). “Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?” (Anthony 2013). Such was the profound influence of the television entire household areas were redesigned to make it the focus – an alteration the likes of which had likely not been seen since the introduction of a designated sleeping quarters. The next step in the natural progression of technological evolution then was the personal computer and with it the modern day smart devices, which have allowed a greater, constant connection to the virtual world around us.

Where as radio and television brought people together in physical groups, albeit as individuals experiencing the same thing together (Anthony 2013), the computer allowed groups of people to experience things simultaneously without having to leave their house – often from different states, territories and even countries. With this new level of connection and ability for social interaction came the rise of user created content and with it the notion of a participatory culture (Johnston 2016). Though the user generated content created online is no different to the independent content created by radio operators of the 1930’s the notion that it is easier to interact with and participate with makes it different from the traditional broadcast culture. The two cultures themselves have many similarities; most notably encouraging inclusion and participation amongst their subjects.

The main point of contention then becomes the ease at which modern media can be distributed online – to the point where anyone with an Internet connection now can become a content broadcaster without any real experience or training (Gates 1996). The logical reasoning behind this interpretation is that through the birth and evolution of convergence (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, p.5) where elements of traditional broadcast culture have been combined with new media the simplest way to categorise it within the mediasphere is by labelling it differently. Where participation then becomes the pinnacle of the mediums public interface it is only fitting that the new culture then be christened participatory.

Through critical analysis of the evolution of media consumption and broadcast culture it can be seen how society has moved from a traditional broadcast culture to the modern participatory culture. Irrespective of definitions the analysis discussion shows that while there are differences when looking at the influence of specific technological advancements there are also very strong similarities between the broadcast and participatory cultures. Both cultures encourage inclusion and, where possible, participation. The key point of difference is the ease at which media consumers can become media producers in the modern culture thanks largely in part to the ease at which media manufacturing technology can be accessed. This begs the question, had radio and television technology been more readily accessible in the 1950’s would the era of the participatory culture have begun sooner?

 

References

 Anthony, A 2013, ‘A history of television, the technology that seduced the world – and me’, 8 September, viewed 11 September 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/sep/07/history-television-seduced-the-world&gt;.

Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, ‘Broken Concepts’, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://www.acma.gov.au/~/media/Office%20of%20the%20Chair/Information/pdf/ACMA_BrokenConcepts_Final_29Aug1%20pdf.pdf&gt;

 Bignell, J 2012, An Introduction to Television Studies, Routledge, New York: NY.

 Gates, B 1996, ‘Content is King’, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://www.craigbailey.net/content-is-king-by-bill-gates/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CraigBaileysThoughts+%28Craig+Bailey%27s+thoughts%29&gt;

Gugliotta, G 2007, ‘How Radio Changed Everything’, May 31, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/tireless-wireless&gt;

Jenkins, H 2006, ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century’, viewed 11 September 2016, <https://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF&gt;

Johnston, L 2016, ‘Social News = Journalism Evolution?’, Digital Journalism, 20 April, Vol. 4, Issue 7, p. 899-909, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21670811.2016.1168709&gt;

Leiner, BM, Cerf, VG, Clark, DD, Kahn, RE, Kleinrock, L, Lynch, DC, Postel, J, Roberts LG & Wolff, S 2016, ‘Brief History of the Internet’, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://www.internetsociety.org/sites/default/files/Brief_History_of_the_Internet.pdf&gt;

Moran, J 2013, Armchair Nation, Profile Books, London United Kingdom.

The Paley Center for Media 2016, ‘Red Scare: The Cold War & Television’, viewed 11 September 2016, <https://www.paleycenter.org/education-class-red-scare-cold-war-television/&gt;

Randle, Q 2001, ‘A Historical Overview of the Effects of New Mass Media Introductions on Magazine Publishing During the 20th Century’, First Monday, 3 September, Vol. 6, Issue 9, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://firstmonday.org/article/view/885/794&gt;

Sterling, C 2012, ‘Radio Broadcasting’ in Simonson, Peck, Craig & Jackson (eds), The Handbook of Communication History, Taylor & Francis, New York: NY.

Wright, A 2014, Cataloging the World Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Politics & Civic Cultures

The evolution of politics through social media has been a rapid one ever since the rise to power of US President Barack Obama. Employing one of the top heads at Facebook as his social media strategist (Dutta & Fraser 2008) Obama was able to command a legion of young, impressionable voters to the polling booths and take over the world – more or less. Given how successful he was it almost seems unfair to use him as the benchmark as it will be very difficult for any other politicians to reach that level of success. That hasn’t stopped them from trying though and since Obama’s breakthrough campaign then every politician and his dog has tried his hand at getting out there and getting noticed. From the good;

Picture1
It is well documented how Barack Obama utilised Social Media to run a campaign the likes of which had never been seen before.

To the not so good.

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The #AskTony didn’t quite work out for the Ex-Australian PM – although I would love to know how he would deal with a horse sized duck…

As society moves forward and the integration of social media into every day tasks – like checking in at your local spot or taking an Insta photo of your smashed avocado – it would seem that for politicians to succeed in winning the votes of the younger generations they will need to embrace social media and use it to drive forward into the future. This does not however mean that social media will become the be all and end all of politics. As a society we have seen many innovations drastically change life as we know it and then either be phased out for newer, better models (a good example of this is the digital video revolution (VHS > DVD > BluRay) or just left by the wayside. There is every chance that in 2 or 3 election cycles time that social media as we know it will be a distant memory – can anybody say MySpace? – as we continue to live our exorbitant overindulged lifestyle of use it up and throw it away and move on to the next crazy fad.

Perhaps the only saving grace for the social media revolution is the age of the population that is consuming it. As the years race forward ‘older’ candidates will have been born in the 60’s and 70’s – assuming full terms are served – in only 3 elections time it will be 2025. To say that platforms like Facebook and Twitter will still be relevant at such a distance would be near on impossible to predict and it is for this reason that rather than prophesise about what may happen politicians, and people in general, should embrace the powerful soapbox that they have been afforded the opportunity to stand on and shout at the top of their lungs to get their message across.

References

 Dutta, S, & Fraser, M 2008, Barack Obama and the Facebook Election, US News and World Report, 3 December 2016, <http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2008/11/19/barack-obama-and-the-facebook-election&gt;.

Obama Facebook screenshot, n.d, [image], viewed 11 December 2016, < http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-23WX2Z7-DbQ/VUhDnZ6LkWI/AAAAAAAAAJk/Dix6eIXmyYY/s1600/barack-obama-facebook.png&gt;

Horse Sized Duck Tweet, 2015, [image], viewed 11 December 2016, <http://resources2.news.com.au/images/2012/06/12/1226393/417417938-abbott-twitter.jpg&gt;