Ownership of the UK Magazine Industry
Magazine Ownership & Control in the UK
…the determining context for production is always the market. In seeking to maximise this market products must draw on the most widely legitimated core values while rejecting the dissenting voice or incompatible objection to a ruling truth. Golding, P and Murdock, G (1977)
Perhaps more than other social scientists and media critics those following a Marxist methodology have been continuously concerned to highlight the fact that the press and media in general are usually owned by small numbers amongst the rich elites. Naturally these elites argue the Marxists will be encouraging both explicitly and implicity through this ownership, cultural and social practices amongst the general population which serves to distract them from the real issues of power and control which underly any society.
There have been a number of contributions within Marxist thought to developing research and analysis of the mass media of which magazines form a small part. There are many strands of Marxist thought. Amongst those which have contributed to the debate are followers of Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Berltolt Brecht. A useful survey of these positions is available at an Aberystwyth University site. Whilst I would wish to add to or amend certain entries such as the one on Adorno it nevertheless provides a useful overview of this area of media theory.
Whilst the section Who Owns What provides an online tool for visitors to monitor ownership, the latter part of the posting doesn't seek to identify the precise units of magazine ownership which are concentrated in the hands of a few companies. This will be dealt with in another posting. Rather, the concern shifts to the synoptic level of whether it matters at all if media companies continue to get larger and to control a larger market share. In doing so it raids some key elements of a debate which took place on the Open Democracy site some time ago but in a week when Reuters appears to be a target for a takeover bid, when Microsft and Yahoo are contemplating closer ties and when Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is bidding for the Dow Jones the arguments are as pertinent now as they ever were.
Who Owns What?
Below I have borrowed the connections available online to an analysis for the International Federation of Journalists on European Media Ownership. If you go down to the table below you will be able to link through to their full table to identify who currently owns what in media terms.
As we have been using 'Loaded' as a case study of Lads' Mags earlier select 'L' and then find 'Loaded'. You will quickly find that it belongs to the comapnay called IPC. Select that and another screen will come up where you will find that IPC is now owned by Time-Warner, one of the giants of the media world and indeed the business world in general. You will be able to find comments by various journalists about the working conditions they have found in the past at the various IPC magazines.
European Media Ownership: Threats on the Landscape
Below is an introduction to a survey of who owns what in Europe by Granville Williams for the European Federation of Journalists This is followed by the interactive table:
This report concludes that there are major threats in Europe's media landscape. Some of the threats identified are political and private threats to public service broadcasting, power over global media in the hands of few, more and more media concentration, the threat to emerging markets in Eastern and Central Europe and regulation getting weaker as media power grows.
How Much does Ownership and Media Concentration Matter?
It's all very having fancy tools to identify ownership patterns but does it really matter and why? There has been a recent important debate on the pages of Open Democracy about how much it matters whether the is a tendency to media concentration. Some people even debate whether there is actually a tendency towards this concentration of ownership at all. Some argue that the market functions as a 'healthy market' and that weaker contenders are driven out as technologies and audiences change in a continually dynamic way.
At the top of the global media system is a tier of fewer than ten transnational giants – AOL Time Warner, Disney, Bertelsmann, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Viacom and News Corporation – that together own all the major film studios and music companies, most of the cable and satellite TV systems and stations, the US television networks, much of global book publishing and much, much, more. By 2001 nearly all of the first tier firms rank among the 300 largest corporations in the world, several among the top 50 or 100. As recently as 20 years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find a single media company among the 1,000 largest firms in the world.
By comparison McChesney was strongly challenged by Benjamin Compaine:
The notion of the rise of a handful of all-powerful transnational media giants is also vastly overstated. There is only one truly global media enterprise, Australia’s News Corporation. In the past decade Germany’s Bertelsmann has expanded beyond its European base to North America. And that’s it. The substantial global presence of all others is primarily the output of the same Hollywood studios that have distributed their films globally for decades. Nothing new there.
In 1986 there was a list of the fifty largest media companies and there is still a list of the top fifty. And the current fifty account for little more of the total of media pie today than in 1986.
There is a bit of a problem with Compaine's argument because as he admits elsewhere in his article the media market has grown massively. Writing this post a few years later it has grown significantly again as the likes of Google / Youtube, News International / Myspace battle it out on an increasingly global market. This is where he rightly notes new companies can spring out of nowhere. That is one of the dynamics of capitalism but at the same time there is always a tendency for concentration and consolidation as markets mature.
This weeks rumours of a tie up between Microsoft and Yahoo emphasise both tendencies. Microsoft is moving towards being the worlds largest company which is multimedia and the core competition is Google which is also buying up companies to gain market position. as has been pointed out elsewhere in this blog Apple too is positioning itself within the music and video downloading market aiming at the coming digital phone revolution. Apple like Microsoft is building its brand in the consumer media world. But is has no games as yet nor does it have a link with search engines which are now creating more advertising income than many TV stations. Whilst the media forms are highly dynamic the levers of control are shifting into a truly global dimension of an order which dwarfs Hollywood domination of movies. Expect some links between former computer companies and phone companies. The feel at the moment is 'you ain't seen nothing yet'!
Both McChesney and Compaigne make useful points. Hesmondhalgh tries to move the debate to different grounds firstly pointing out that both participants ignored the issue of content and the issues of popular culture. Furthermore he points out they ignored the issue of risk in media production. Not everything succeeds he points out:
A crucial factor, ignored both by the McChesney/Chomsky approach and by Compaine and his fellow market celebrants, is the pervasive risk and uncertainty within the media business. The failure rate in the media industries is considerably higher than in other sectors. Misses enormously outnumber hits. Nearly thirty thousand music albums are released in the US each year, of which fewer than two per cent sell more than fifty thousand copies.
However Hesmonhalgh doesn't take these figures any further. Presumably a considerable number of the albums manage to get their money back which is the first law of capitalism and risk. Others may be speculative or produced by individuals and independents for love rather than money. Large media comapnies manage risk very effectively it is only when the markets are turned upside down through new technologies and different audience behaviour that trouble brews. EMI's current troubles regarding slumping music sales are a prime example within this market. However there is no shortage of people wanting music. The key issue that flows from this is the issue of stardom and celebrity which drives the top end of the so-called 'popular cultural' market. As the very definition of celebrity by extension means lots of people within the specific field who are not celebrities then there must be a large market place which is strongly hierachised into a continuum running from massive success to to abject failure and bankruptcy. Without that how can one be a star?
Hesmondhalgh then moves the debate towards the issue of content:
But the crucial question for democracy is whether the output ultimately serves the interests of the owners and executives of the media companies – and those of their political allies. The answer is only a very qualified ‘yes’. There is sufficient autonomy for media workers to create products which do not always conform to the interests of the owners and executives of their companies. Cultural companies compete to outstrip each other in satisfying – and building – audience desires for the shocking, the profane and the rebellious. This may result in a deeply unserious and often trivial culture. But this is not the same thing as conformism, and serving the interests of big business. Indeed, much contemporary popular culture contains images which are fundamentally hostile to big business. Of course, no coherent programme bit of charity does no harm to the systemof democratic reform is outlined. But it would be absurd to expect such a programmatic politics from everyday media. (My emphasis).
This 'resistant' populism however, merely bears witness to an excellent level of ideological control. Providing business is making money from anti business consumers who have little genuine concerted political coherence then there is no danger, on the contrary it feeds the notion of democracy well. Rcok musicians haven't managed to solve World poverty because of systemic reasons as well as the fact that a bit of charity does no harm to the system. If anything the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is likely to contibute more to the amelioration of poverty in Africa than Bono. One thing is for certain, nobody can genuinely expect Murdoch to have in control of a company in his portfolio a born again socialist who wants to turn back the tide of capitalism. If a resistant journalist on a a single programme says something which disagrees with Murdoch then who actually cares?
Hesmondhalgh is certainly on the ball when he notes that this American debate misses out the importance of the concept and committment to public service broadcasting within Europe particularly noting Compaignes neo-liberal idealism:
His assumption that the market is responsible for any increased diversity is particularly misguided. In fact, the remarkable range of high-quality programming on many European television systems is the result of a commitment to public service broadcasting.
James Curran gets back to the issue of whether media concentration actually matters in relation to the health of democracy concluding that it is especially important on three main grounds with a fourth important comment attached:
...private concentration of symbolic power potentially distorts the democratic process. This point is underlined by the way in which Silvio Berlusconi was catapulted into the premiership of Italy without having any experience of democratic office.
Berlusconi would not be ruling Italy now if he did not dominate a massive media empire that enabled him to manufacture a political party....
The second reason for concern is that the power potentially at the disposal of media moguls tends to be exerted in a one-sided way. Of course, this power is qualified and constrained in many ways – by the power available to consumers and staff, the suppliers of news, regulators, rival producers, the wider cultural patterns of society. But it is simply naïve to imagine that it does not exist.
The third reason for concern is that the concentration of market power can stifle competition. A fundamental reason for the long-standing deficiencies of the British national press, for example, is that it has been controlled so long by an oligopoly. No new independent national newspaper has been launched, and has managed to stay independent, during the last seventy years.
This is giving rise to a one-sided protection of our freedoms: a state of constant alert against the abuse of state power over the media, reflected in the development of numerous safeguards, not matched by an equivalent vigilance and set of safeguards directed against the abuse of shareholder power over the media.
I find Curran's arguments entirely convincing, ownership does matter and therefore it matters that the concept of public service broadcasting is not only kept alive but extended as the BBC has been managing to do for the digital era despite frequent criticisms. Certainly any user of this blog will see how many BBC News items are referred to simply because there is good coverage. For this reason it is right to express concern now about the Broadcasting White paper of 2006 talking about the possibility of subscription services for the BBC is a potential weakening of the system.
This BBC story and interactive response from its audience is related more to TV and Radio nevertheless the general underlying issues of ownership and control of powerful media interests remains central.
Project for Excellence in Journalism: Magazine Ownership This deals primarily with the situation in the USA however the pan naional nature of magazine and cross-media ownership means that there is some relevance to the UK.
The Campaing for Press and Broadcasting Freedom: Response to the 2001 Media Consultation on change of ownership rules
Hesmondhalgh here argues that despite tendencies towards concentrated ownership there is a danger of forgetting that parts of the media face severe market risks and fail. Furthermore he argues that an overconcentration upon ownership fails to account for content and the possibility for media workers to produce content which challemges or subverts the overall intent of the large corporations.