Media Freedom by richard barbrook

Hi-Tech Neo-Liberals

Despite their utopian conclusions, the prophecies of the futurologists were used by conservative parties to argue for the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies by the major industrialised countries. In the early-1980s, led by Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Great Britain, governments across the world privatised and deregulated their financial and industrial sectors. By abandoning interventionist policies and cutting welfare spending, politicians hoped to revitalise their economies through the rapid integration of their financial institutions and manufacturing corporations within the global marketplace. Crucially, these conservative governments believed that increased market competition would encourage the adoption of the new information technologies. Inspired by the futurologists, they thought that the crisis of Fordism would finally overcome through the emergence of the post-industrial society. Although the futurologists had predicted the imminent advent of direct democracy, neo-liberal governments used their prophecies to defend the creation of greater market competition. Because they limited profits and prevented the entry of new competitors, state regulations were condemned for discouraging companies from taking the risk of introducing new information technologies within their industries. Thus, by accepting the inevitability of the transition to a post-industrial society, conservative governments were able to justify the removal of all regulatory controls over private corporations. Ironically, both Reagan and Thatcher believed that the success of their neo-liberal economic policies was proved by the overexpansion of the service sector and the decline of manufacturing industries in their countries.

In order to win electoral support for the adoption of neo- liberal economic policies, conservative parties appealed to the individual self-interest of the better paid workers. With the advent of the consumer society, the living standards of most people had risen considerably. According to the neo-liberals, workers now had to be encouraged to become individual property owners. By extending the ownership of shares, small businesses and houses, conservative politicians hoped that most workers would no longer support collective solutions to their problems, such as state intervention or democracy in the workplace. Instead, these property-owning wage-earners would be more interested in expressing their individual autonomy, especially within their private lives. Reviving the principles of the bourgeois revolutions, neo-liberals urged that individual citizens should be given legal guarantees of their independence from state controls. While Socialists championed the public service state as the representative of the entire Nation-People, conservatives advocated individual rights for the protection of each citizen against the abuses of political power. Crucially, these rights weren't only being claimed by individual citizens. With the globalisation of production, corporations also needed guarantees against the arbitrary actions of national governments. As legal persons, joint-stock companies wanted the same juridical rights as individual citizens. Under the slogan of freedom, neo- liberals advocated the protection of the particular interests of private capital in the name of the universal rights of all citizens.

As a central part of their campaign for more market competition, the neo-liberals created a new definition of media freedom. Echoing the prophecies of the futurologists, they claimed that the application of their deregulation and privatisation policies within the electronic media would encourage the rapid construction of an interactive cable network. Once this grid was built, individuals would no longer be passive consumers, who simply watched programmes provided by public or private corporations. Instead, they would become active communicators, who expressed their own opinions over the network. Thus, individual citizens would use cameras, computers and other equipment to engage in two-way communications by producing their own electronic media. Reviving the traditions of the journalist- printers, the neo-liberals claimed that the political right of media freedom could once again be realised through the private ownership of the means of production. Crucially, in contrast with the New Left and the futurologists, these conservatives didn't believe that the creation of two-way communications over the cable network would lead to the formation of the electronic agora. Instead, they believed that the new information technologies should be used for the construction of an electronic marketplace. In their view, the most important technical advance on the cable network was encryption, which allowed the imposition of a direct price for the consumption of the electronic media for the first time. With the formation of prices, market competition between different electronic media producers could be created within the cable network. Instead of advertising or licence fees, access to the cable network could now be solely decided by market competition. Following the introduction of this technical solution to the social problem of price formation, neo-liberals claimed that state intervention within the electronic media had become obsolete.

By advocating the creation of an electronic marketplace, conservative governments were able to win the support of both individuals and commercial companies who wanted open access to the media. Back in 1927, the introduction of regulation for radio broadcasting in the USA had been originally justified by the shortage of frequencies on the airwaves. Using their influence over the federal government, the NBC and CBS corporations soon monopolised the airwaves. Although another network emerged, television broadcasting was also dominated by corporate interests. In response, the regulation of the airwaves was gradually tightened to enforce limited pluralism in political reporting, the scheduling of children's programmes and a few other public service commitments. By the early-1980s, state regulation of the American electronic media was being attacked by both radical groups in favour of more community broadcasting and commercial entrepreneurs calling for the end of expensive public service obligations. Seizing this opportunity, the Reagan government rapidly removed most of the controls over terrestrial and cable television broadcasting. According to the administration, the abolition of regulation would soon lead to the creation of the electronic marketplace, where everyone could take part in two-way communications over the interactive cable network. However, in the short-term, the principle beneficiaries of the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media were the large media companies. Despite the promises of a post- industrial society, economies of scale still favoured the industrialised media controlled by the Fordist corporations.

Although the new information technologies allowed new services to enter the market, easier access didn't abolish the influence of first copy costs within media production. Because the tastes of audiences weren't limited to a specific local community, the same media products were often popular among people from different cultures. For decades, the Hollywood cinema industry had successfully sold its films across the globe and American music companies had marketed their records in many different countries. With the opening up of previously monopolised electronic media to competition, it was now possible to market television broadcasting on an international scale for the first time. For example, wherever they lived, large numbers of teenagers would tune into MTV's top 40 hit format and many adults would watch CNN's 24 hour news service. Although language barriers prevented the emergence of a completely global television system, dubbed American series and telefilms still dominated the newly deregulated channels in many countries. By covering its costs across a worldwide audience, a multinational television producer could provide expensively-made programmes at a cheaper price than any local competitor.

By the early-1990s, deregulation and privatisation had led to the dominance of the global media markets by a handful of American, European and Japanese corporations. These organisations didn't just extend their control over different types of media, from newspapers through films to television production. At the same time, they also combined with the owners of distribution systems, such as cable television operators or telephone companies. Although these fusions fulfilled the predictions of convergence between different information technologies, the media multinationals weren't creating enough jobs to replace those lost in the traditional Fordist industries, which had been devastated by the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies. Because of the cheap costs of reproduction, there was an extraordinary disproportion between the small number of workers employed in the media and the large audiences for their output. Despite the promises of the neo-liberals, the overwhelming majority of individuals were still passive consumers, who could only choose between the radio and television channels of the media corporations. Crucially, the rhetoric of two-way communications had been turned into the reality of a greater choice of one-way flows of communications.

Although market competition had failed to provide much individual access to the electronic media, neo-liberals still believed that deregulation and privatisation would create freedom of communications within radio and television broadcasting. Criticising the public service model, they pointed out that individual citizens could only indirectly express their views over the airwaves by voting for representatives of political parties. In contrast, the neo-liberals claimed that market competition between commercial media corporations directly reflected the wishes of their audiences. Because they wanted to maximise their audiences, competing radio and television stations had to provide the types of programmes desired by listeners and viewers. Therefore, by selecting channels on their radio or television sets, individual citizens determined the content of the programmes within the electronic media. For example, more entertainment programmes were provided for viewers in commercial systems than under a public service monopoly. Crucially, the neo-liberals also claimed that the intense competition for audiences between channels created a diversity of political opinions over the airwaves. Thus, although they couldn't be active communicators, these conservative gurus believed that individuals had been empowered as channel zappers. In this version of the neo-liberal model, the individual citizens' political right of freedom of communications was equated with their economic rights as consumers of the electronic media.

By advocating a free market utopia, the neo-liberals successfully recuperated many of the demands of the New Left. On the one hand, they accepted the opposition of these revolutionaries to cultural puritanism and unaccountable bureaucracies. Thus both sides could oppose the imposition of moral censorship and the monopolisation of the media by the public service state. But, on the other hand, the neo-liberals rejected the demands for the self-management of social and economic institutions, including the electronic media. According to the New Left, individual freedom was only possible through the collective ownership of property by co-operatives, as in the community media. In contrast, for the neo-liberals, individual freedom was the absence of state regulations within the marketplace, as in open competition between different cable television stations. Combating the New Left, the neo-liberals also promised two-way communications and direct democracy for all individuals. Yet, while the electronic agora was supposed to end the alienation of political and economic power from popular control, the electronic marketplace only allowed individuals to realise their needs for information and entertainment through commodity exchange. Above all else, the neo-liberals carefully obscured the consequences of media deregulation and privatisation. Although individuals had the right to produce their own media, the electronic marketplace was dominated by the output of the large corporations. For most people, media freedom was restricted to the right to choose between competing radio and television stations. Instead of being active communicators, they were only channel zappers.


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