Empires Of The Senseless
April 5, 2001 / New Internationalist
By the end of the first day of the historic street protests against the World Trade Organization – meeting to decide the future of the global economy as the millennium turned – almost every newspaper dispensing box in Seattle had been graffitied with a single word: Lies.
Leafing through the newspaper reports the next morning, it wasn’t hard to see why.
The editorial pages brimmed with the apoplectic outpourings of the planet’s leading opinion-formers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times called the anti-globalization protesters, ‘a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix’. Andrew Marr writing in liberal British broadsheet The Observer described their demands as ‘the Communist Manifesto rewritten by Christopher Robin’. The Wall Street Journal joined in to jeer the ‘global village idiots… bringing their bibs and bottles to [Washington] this week’ when the movement targeted the World Bank in April 2000.
The media have not been ‘pro-globalization’ so much as an integral part of the process. For most journalists neoliberalism is not an economic ideology whose fundamental assumptions can be challenged, but simply ‘reality’. Though they are occasionally willing to cover isolated problems of market economies and corporate rule, they greet systemic critiques of the global power structure with derision and incomprehension. For as a wise person once said: ‘The first to discover water was unlikely to have been a fish.’
When CEOs, heads of state and other luminaries met in Davos, Switzerland this January for the ‘summit of business summits’ the presence of the corporate media moguls came as no surprise. But also nibbling hors d’oeuvres with the architects of globalization were a group of specially chosen ‘Media Leaders’ – about 200 editors, producers and commentators from around the world, who not only took part in the meetings but also attended special closed sessions. Among them Bill Emmot of The Economist, Will Hutton of The Observer, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Alan Yentob of the BBC.
Meanwhile volunteer journalists with the Davos Independent Media Centre were camped in the snow outside providing alternative reporting on the anti-globalizers’ counter summit. Many were harassed by armed Swiss police, others had their equipment confiscated. Clearly, if you’re the wrong kind of media reporting on the wrong kind of meeting, you’re not a journalist. You’re a criminal.
There’s no business like showbusiness
When we think of the rapacious corporations of industrial capitalism we tend to picture big oil companies opening up wells and driving indigenous peoples from their lands, giant fruit multinationals controlling vast, pesticide-filled plantations, steelworks, mines, roads across pristine wilderness.
But the globalizing conquistadores of the 21st century are the media giants of cultural capitalism – Disney, AOL Time Warner, Sony, Bertelsmann, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi Universal. According to Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson of the indigenous Zapatista rebels of Mexico, the global media ‘present a virtual world, created in the image of what the globalization process requires’.1
In a recent CNN discussion Gerry Levin, Chief Executive of AOL Time Warner, announced that global media would become the dominant industry of this century, more powerful than governments. US citizens now spend more money on entertainment than on clothing or healthcare – and the pattern is being mirrored around the developed world. Michael J Wolf, Davos schmoozer and adviser to the media moguls says: ‘Entertainment – not autos, not steel, not financial services – is fast becoming the driving wheel of the new world economy.’ Forget the military-industrial complex – this is the media-entertainment complex.
The planet is encircled by an ever-expanding web of wires and cables and the paths of orbiting satellites, while new wealth is being made from words, ideas, knowledge, songs, stories, data, culture. The media corporations, too, are an extractive industry. As Jeremy Rifkind says, they are ‘mining local cultural resources in every part of the world and repackaging them as cultural commodities and entertainment’.2
But information and culture are not just tradable commodities to be bought and sold in the global market-place. Freedom of information is fundamental to democracy. Culture is the sum of the stories we tell about ourselves, stories that inform who we are and how we describe the world.
The true meaning of globalization is not so much about Indian yogis checking their share prices via their high-speed modems, or whether nomadic herders in the Gobi desert ‘should’ watch Baywatch. Rather, it is about the undebated imposition of the organizing logic, the ‘anti-culture’, of the marketplace into every corner of our lives, onto every culture on earth.
The Latin root of the word ‘culture’ means cultivating the land; ‘broadcast’ was once an agricultural term meaning ‘to scatter seed’. Just as agribusinesses corner the seed business by breaking the natural reproductive cycle to create genetically modified Terminator seeds – which have to be bought rather than resown year-on-year – in every country media corporations help to break our relationships to our communities, educators, collective cultures, experiences. They turn us into isolated consumers – and then sell our stories back to us.
The media-entertainment complex
When US media critic Ben Bagdikian started tracking media ownership in 1982 there were 50 firms dominating the market. Now there are fewer than ten – the six biggest global media companies are profiled on the facts page. While each country’s media scene still varies enormously, the creation of a single global commercial media model is the ultimate aim of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
And globalization means that regional media – from Mexico to India to Aotearoa/New Zealand – are following the same pattern of merging, converging, trying to compete with – and getting swallowed by – the big boys. Indian public-service channel Doordarshan has already sold Australian media mogul Kerry Packer a chunk of primetime TV. As a result of privatization over the past decade 99 per cent of Hungary’s 3,000 media outlets are largely controlled by Western business.
While, self-evidently, tyrannical state control over the media is a profound assault on democracy and human rights in countries around the world, when a handful of corporations dominates the world’s information this is called having a ‘free press’. In the lingua franca of globaloney, freedom means the freedom to do business and because, by and large, they manage to entertain us, and because this is not a monolithic system of control, the profound lack of democracy at its heart goes unexamined. As Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano says: ‘Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.’ He describes this as ‘the dictatorship of the single word and the single image, much more devastating than that of the single party’.4 We are creating a world in which a small and shrinking commercial monopoly gets to tell all the stories while the rest of us get to watch and listen.
If we are witnessing the creation of a single global empire under one market logic, the world-spanning communications networks are its Roman roads – channels both of the ruling ideology and traded goods.
The fibre-optic cables threading into your homes bring you telephones but also Internet connections and cable TV. Liberalization of telecommunications in 1997 delivered up control of these Roman roads in nearly every country to global companies – who in this digitial age are increasingly the result of inter-breeding between telecoms, media, and computer software transnationals. But as Noam Chomksy points out: ‘Concentration of communications in any hands (particularly foreign hands) raises some rather serious questions about meaningful democracy.’5 And if you control both the content and the ‘pipe’ you can always price the competition out of the market. In an interview with the Village Voice independent media advocate Anthony Riddle recalls the comment of a Russian man discussing control of the Soviet media: ‘All the wires ran through a switch on one man’s desk. He could pull the switch at any time.’
‘What’s up, Scoob?’
Today you can get news on your phone, listen to your newspaper correspondent on the internet and watch television through a computer – and all from the same company. So AOL Time Warner with its range of ‘in-house brands’ could give you news via CNN and Time Magazine; its customer tracking could remember that Madonna album you downloaded last month and post a ‘reminder’ for a concert on to your personal online calendar; while your medical records and bank balance are held by its partner companies. And you thought they just showed Scooby Doo reruns.
The databases that hold millions of detailed consumer profiles are a major corporate asset. According to Fortune magazine (another AOL Time Warner title): ‘Once captive, [customers] eyeballs will then be resold to advertisers and commerce partners.’
In this entertainment economy, the definition of a ‘media company’ is increasingly hazy – some have speculated that AOL Time Warner could buy WalMart next; internationally, Vivendi runs Universal Studio theme parks as well as water companies privatized by the World Bank; Disney has entered the real-estate market as privatized towns with corporate governments catch on in America. Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation loses more sleep over Microsoft than over his traditional media competitors, while Nike sees itself in greater competition with Disney than Reebok.6
This is saturation capitalism, where almost every aspect of our lives is ‘mediated’ by commerce.
New world information order
The deepest irony of all this is that, as the economy globalizes, we actually find out less and less about one another from the media. Increasing commercial pressure and cost-cutting means that coverage of international news in the West has dropped by an average of 50 per cent in the last ten years. On a single British channel, ITV, it has dropped by 80 per cent since the onset of satellite competition.
In contrast, viewers in the South are subject to a constant stream of cheap Western television formats that undercut local production and creativity.
And where imagery leads, trade follows – among the first foreign industries to enter India after the liberalization of the economy were transnational media and advertising corporations targeting wealthy élites.
Concerns over the torrential flow of information from North to South are hardly new. In 1980 the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published Many Voices, One World, a study calling for a ‘new world information order’ and the creation of an independent international news agency operating out of the South. In a move that laid bare the raw power politics of global communications, US and Britain – under Reagan and Thatcher – called this an attack on ‘free speech’ and pulled out of UNESCO completely. The proposal was quietly shelved.
Today, the exuberant technicolour extravaganza that is Bollywood actually churns out seven times more films than the US. But despite Bollywood’s output, it does not have the economic might of Hollywood, which makes 85 per cent of films watched anywhere in the world. Partly as a result of this imbalance, film and publishing industries in most developing countries are actually in decline. Ninety-five per cent of Latin American films are produced in the US, and Africa – which makes 42 films a year – imports an even higher percentage.
The end of geography
Media consultant Michael J Wolf describes how in the ‘underscreened, undermalled, still-waiting-for-cable world – in China, India, the Islamic nations… new ventures are starting on an almost hourly basis… So the entertainment economy is settling in new territories around the world.’
Sure enough, a little way past the avenue of Arabian palm trees, and just across from the Hard Rock Cafe (motto: ‘In Rock We Trust’), a 500-acre ‘Media City’ is rising out of the desert in Dubai. In this multimedia free-trade zone international corporations are setting up regional offices, 100-per-cent tax-free. In India, meanwhile, the local personnel of call centres servicing Western consumers are being trained to speak with American accents. Callers need never know they are talking to someone in the suburbs of Delhi rather than Dallas.
This globalized world under a single market economy is incorporating every culture and every place within its ever-expanding frontiers. This is not the ‘new world information order’ UNESCO dreamed of, but a universalizing of the old world information order as it delinks from its own geographical and cultural roots.
In this context, regulating the media in order to nourish a diversity of viewpoints and cultures – goals of public-service broadcasting – is becoming an anachronism. Instead, as Gerry Levin of AOL Time Warner points out: ‘We’re going to need to have corporations redefined as instruments of public service.’ Media companies are currently lobbying the World Trade Organization for a trade agreement that would spell the death of media regulation and public-service broadcasting – including the BBC. This is currently under negotiation, but according to leaked WTO documents ‘Ensuring pluralism and a media system based on free and democratic principles’ has already been ruled out as a legitimate government objective.7
Meanwhile the US trade department has tucked in its napkin, held aloft its knife and fork, and drawn up a menu to take to the WTO. Australia’s limits to foreign ownership of media could be the starter dish, followed by Europe’s subsidized film industry. Dessert might be Sweden’s ban on advertising to children and Canada’s requirement that a proportion of its media be made locally.
The industry argument is that media pluralism, special needs and cultural diversity will be served by digital technology and the new multichannels. The market will serve all the needs of society – all those who can pay, that is.
The media guerrillas
Fortunately, culture and media are among the most contentious of issues at the WTO. If the arguments escalate, this could create an opening to voice our defiance against the worlds both Orwell and Huxley described – for we can rely neither on states nor markets to serve our communication needs.
Already in different places around the world people are organizing: to tell their own stories, expose lies and obfuscation, break up the monopolies. For we are more than just target markets for advertisers and eyeballs for the cheapest television they can get us, exhausted after a hard day’s work, to watch.
Media activism is on the rise, and is not just confined to culture jammers in the North. When Filipino President Estrada’s cronies bought up newspapers to stem criticism of his rule, citizens helped to topple him by posting evidence of his corruption anonymously on the Guerrilla Information Network website.
And as corporations globalize, resistance goes transnational. Media activists are creating international networks, from Indymedia (see Indymedia) to the MediaChannel, which networks media-watch groups and communications NGOs from the US to Africa. Just as activists protesting corporate power have targeted agribusinesses over GM, more and more people are not just creating alternative channels but targeting the mainstream media itself. Brazilian activists demonstrated outside the headquarters of their country’s media conglomerates against their poor coverage of social issues. In India the National Alliance of People’s Movements called for accurate reporting on how globalization harms the poor everywhere – North as well as the South; while in the US protesters have demanded that the Federal Communications Committee ‘free the airwaves’ for community broadcasting. French group MediaLibre piled a wall of television sets in front of France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication in the name of public-interest media free from corporate and government influence; in Montevideo activists burned cardboard televisions as the agent of ‘consumer culture’. Media reform has also become a political campaign issue in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the US. Anti-trust laws such as those used to order the break-up of Microsoft are political tools that must be defended and strengthened with popular support.
Just as in the 1960s political consciousness began to be raised about the degradation of the natural environment, there is a nascent movement working to protect the diversity of our cultural and information environment. The challenges of globalization seem to have given even the much-chastened UNESCO a reason to sit up and take notice. It states that: ‘Over hundreds of millions of years, nature developed an astonishing variety of life forms which are tightly interwoven; the survival of all are necessary to ensure the continued existence of natural ecosystems. Similarly, “cultural ecosystems”, made up of a rich and complex mosaic of cultures, more or less powerful, need diversity to preserve and pass on their valuable heritage to future generations.’8
We need to reclaim our stories, reweave the web of cultural diversity and create channels of information in order to understand the globalization process. We need to do this in order collectively to imagine and articulate alternative futures for ourselves.