All entries for May 2007

May 28, 2007

The Leopard in Historical Context, (1963): Luchino Visconti

The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti

Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned

The Leopard Poster 1963


Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:  

It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we  no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)

Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly. 

Introduction: The representation of history 

This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background  history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.

Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.

My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed  highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined. 

Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of  The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.

By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This  does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it. 

The Battle of Palermo

Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo

Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.

Historical Background to The  Leopard

Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.

Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.

After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.

Historical Perspectives

There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.

The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.

The Liberals

They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.

The Radicals

Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.

Mainstream Marxists

Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.

Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).

Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)

Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.

Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).


Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.

This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.

The Leopard

The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.

Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.

Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.

The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film. 

Arrival at Donnafugata

Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.

The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.

In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.

Angelica and Tancredi together in the old part of the palace

Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key  part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in  having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene. 

To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.

It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of Sicily’s inbred aristocrats would not be happy or financially fruitful. The other aristocratic families would not think of Tancredi as a ‘good catch’ as he has little inheritance as it was squandered by his father.

Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.

Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.

A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.

Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento

The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.

It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).

However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.

It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.

The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.

Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.

The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from Sicily which was still a Papal State outside of Italy. The Garibaldi’s attack was entirely without government approval for they didn’t want France to become involved. Garibaldi was wounded and the few remaining troops were scattered. The officers in the ball sequence discuss the forthcoming execution of several soldiers who had deserted the regular army to join Garibaldi. In the closing shots we hear the volley and don Calogero says that there is a good army in control, the stage is clear for the steady rise of the new class.

This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of Sicily he put down several peasant uprisings when land reforms didn’t happen. He was very clear that he didn’t want social revolution just national unification. Here Bacon (p 82) for example is mistaken in his historical account where he argues that it was the minister Cavour who turned Garibaldi’s ‘republican victories into royalist conquests’. Furthermore Bacon conflates two separate moments with a considerable gap between them into one. He links Tancredi’s appearance in a new Royal uniform in Donnafugata (1860 winter) with the battle of Aspromante which was nearly two years later.

Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.

Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica the daughter of the rising bourgeois Don Calogero.

Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.


Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.

Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly  revolutions  of both a progressive and a  regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):

Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children.  (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).

This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.


Link to  Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!

Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.

For other internal links see:

The Cinematographers of Neorealism and Beyond

Luchino Visconti

Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned

May 27, 2007

Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Neorealist Case study : Umberto D, 1951.  Directed by Vittorio de Sica

Vittoriol de Sica

Vittorio de Sica 

Carlo Battista and Flick

Carlo Battista who takes the lead role as the pensioner in Umberto D. The use of Battista fitted the neorealist ethic of using non-professional actors where possible. In his normal life he was a philosophy professor. 


Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), is a pensioner living in Rome with his fox terrier Flick. As an ex-civil servant he finds the value of his tiny state pension being eroded by inflation as he desperately tries to manage to pay the rent on his one room with shared facilities.

The landlady is intent on getting rid of him as she is an aspiring petit-bourgeois who is consorting with a local cinema owner. Interestingly the cinema as an institution is worked into the film in a form of quiet critique of the Hollywood domination of Italian cinema. Hollywood is selling dreams of stars, set against the increasing levels of poverty amongst those least able to defend themselves. By comparison Italian cinema is struggling to represent things as they really are for large proportions of the population. 

Umberto attempts to raise money to keep his room by selling his prized possessions. Unlike some pensioners he is initially unwilling to start begging on the streets which would symbolise the destruction of his dignity. Eventually when this is the only possibility left to him he manages it extremely badly. As the film progresses thoughts of suicide gradually take over. The only thing which is stopping him is the problem of Flick the dog. Before he can consider suicide he must therefore find Flick a good home.

What is especially unusual about the way Umberto D is filmed is the way in which the spectator is distanced from Umberto. He has an air of self obsession which makes it hard to immediately sympathise with him as a character. Although the maid Maria has serious problems of her own he is generally unaware of these problems because he is so bound up in his own. Arguably this distancing has the effect of enabling the audience to read the film as something which is a structural problem in Italian society, not just a tale of an unfortunate individual. It is also a tale about the increasing lack of communication between people in Italian society.

Maria the Maid

The maid Maria (Maria pia Casilio)

Changing Cultural Policy

Coming in the early 1950s when a Christian Democratic government had managed to push the more left-wing elements of society into opposition since 1948, de Sica is effectively cinematically marking the end of the social solidarity of the immediate post-war period which was also a key raison d’etre for the neorealist movement.

It is the expendibility of older people which the film seeks to emphasise in its opening shots as a protest march of pensioners is broken up by the police because they haven’t been given a license to protest. The film produced with de Sica’s own money was a box office disaster according to Bondanella (2001).

The changing political scenario led to Giulio Andreotti the Undersecretary of Entertainment brought Italy into disrepute by bringing into the open problems of Italian society. Instead Andreotti proposed that Italian films should be embracing a more optimistic and constructive attitude promoting the best of Italy.


It is possible to read into Umberto D (de Sica 1952) a sense of the moment of neorealism coming to its end. Millicent Marcus suggests it is both a celebration of that moment and a lamentation of its death. There is a dialectic of generational compositions which in the opening film of neorealism - commonly accepted as Rome Open City - there is a parade of boys marching on Rome to reclaim the future. By comparison Umberto D opens with coverage of a march by pensioners trying to improve their plight for they have been left in poverty in post-war Italy. The film bears witness to the failure of social change to happen. Rather than being a society welded together around notions of social solidarity Umberto D can be read as being about a society at war with itself.

It is worth noting at this point Paul Ginsborg’s analysis of Italy which notes that the post fascist purification process Epurazione was largely a failure. The judiciary had remained largely untouched and even by 1960 62 out of 64 prefects (the government representatives in the provinces), had previously been fascist functionaries. The response of the authorities to the marchers seems to hark back to an authoritarianism based upon legalistic niceties rather than morals as the march is broken up because they didn’t ask permission to march.

Rather than solidarity the representation of old men marginalised to a soup kitchen - perhaps all tyrannised by an aspirant nouveau landlady in the same way as Umberto is - shows a lack of intra-generational solidarity between the old men when they are blamed for not getting a permit to march. In the meantime the nouveau landlady class has forgotten about the war like many of the cinema-going publics.

In some sense the film can be seen as a surrender by de Sica to the isolation of the human condition and the impossibility of true social solidarity. The public reception of the film itself was negative and the film made a loss. This in itself contributed to the difficulty of raising finance to fund further neorealist productions. However Marcus suggests that it wasn’t just external changes which contributed to the failure of the film in the box-office but the nature of the text itself.

Zavattini the Scriptwriter

Zavattini who wrote the script for Umberto D. Many see this film as his purest script within the neorealist tradition. 

Umberto D can be seen as having moved further towards Zavattini’s purer versions of neorealism in which a film was to be as devoid as possible of dramatic superstructure. Instead it should aim to dignify human existence by idealising any given moment of a human being’s quotidian existence by showing how striking that moment actually is. De Sica set out to make a film that was uncompromising. With Zavattini once again collaborating with him on the script they deliberately chose a subject that would have little immediate audience appeal. In Umberto D the old man is represented as closed and hostile to the outside world in ways specifically designed not to gain sympathy from the audience.

Umberto D 9

The film nevertheless stitches together moments taken from the quotidian to give a shape to Umberto’s experience of reality. Added to this there is a clear chronicling of the events in Maria’s life as she ends up pregnant and deserted, alongside the landlady who has an imminent marriage as she aims to clamber up the social scales. The film however de-dramatises events such as Maria’s announcement of her pregnancy (imagine East Enders doing it like that!!).

The film also features a pair of middle-class lovers who get to use Umberto’s room for their adulterous sex. They are portrayed in an almost un-melodramatic way as Marcus humorously notes: ‘It is as if a scene from another film found its way by mistake into Umberto D, serving in its incongruity, as a foil for de Sica’s resolutely un-dramatic storytelling mode.’ (Marcus: 1986: p 105).

Not only does the ethic of solidarity begin to break down during the film but the stylistic mode of neorealism itself undergoes a change. The zoom down to the street indicating the subjective desire of Umberto at that moment to finish it all, the shot of the fierce bulldog at the kennels presenting a subjective perspective (perhaps for ‘flick’ the dog) on the rest home as a mirror image of the snapping landlady moves us away from the more neutral cinematic practices central to classic neorealism. Marcus extends this analysis noting that there are a number of different perspectives developed about Umberto during the course of the film. At times he appears in a humorous light at other times pathetic whilst receiving critical treatment at other times.

Umberto D 3

Umberto unsuccessfully attempts to beg using Flick to hold out his hat as a begging bowl. 

Many of the shots combine with the mise-en-scene to interiorise the characters. The way Umberto is shot in his room is not done in a voyeuristic way. Instead the shot pulls the spectator into the mindset of the character. A similar process is taking place in Maria’s personal space in the kitchen. On one occasion she sees a cat wandering across roofs acting as a visual synecdoche for her own feelings of potential homelessness.

As a character Umberto is a self absorbed old man. At the kennels he has no sympathy for another dog owner who cannot afford to get his dog out and who knows the dog will be put down. Neither has Umberto any recognition that Maria has been abandoned. In the film poverty combines with pride resulting in that self absorption. Rather than helping to forge solidarity poverty is represented as dividing people. Marcus challenges what she saw as a consensus critical perspective that the film does offer hope in the end when Umberto plays with the dog, rather she likens it to a hysterical moment of forgetting the constraints of a grinding quotidian. She argues that the replacement of the human reconciliation between father and son at the end of Bicycle Thieves is negated by substituting with a dog who is precisely non human.

Marcus ends by suggesting that it is in the visual style of the film rather than its personal / political implications that a corrective is offered against the processes of atomisation and solitude within the modernising social order. Marcus also compares the didacticism of Rossellini’s screenplay for Rome: Open City with Umberto D. She argues that Umberto D must be viewed properly before any message can be deciphered. This is evidence that the neorealist moment of Rome: Open City is past. By comparison she suggests that Umberto D opens the door to the style about to be pioneered by Fellini and Antonioni and that narrative has been shifted to form as an agent of social change: ‘By making the form the new repository of neorealist meaning, de Sica and Zavattini put an end to the classical neorealism of content, and rendered possible instead Fellini’s, Antonioni’s and Visconti’s application of its stylistic precepts to subjects hitherto excluded from serious post-war cinematic treatment.

May 20, 2007

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Ossessione Poster


Immediately after the war Italy was deluged with Hollywood films which controlled between two thirds to three quarters of the Italian market 1945-1950. The importance for a strong relationship with the US government in the post-war stabilisation phase ensured that Hollywood wasn’t challenged by calls for protectionism or other measures to curb the flow. Eventually in 1951 an agreement was signed which capped the level of Hollywood imports to 225 per annum. The same period saw the flowering of  an Italian film movement called neorealism. This movement has become an important part of film history although it was based upon a relatively small number of films. The influence of these films has been out of all proportion to both the numbers of them made and their impact at the box-office at the time, for it was the Hollywood films which were pulling in the audiences. It was powerful aesthetic approach allied to a loose politically left position movement in Italy which has influenced film styles there for decades afterwards but it had a profound influences on other national cinemas particularly in Europe. It influenced French New Wave practitioners such as Godard and Truffaut and it also influenced the makers of the British new wave based upon social realism such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.

Sitney (1995) has identified Italy as having two intensely productive periods when its cinema earned the respect of the world. He has named these periods as ones of ‘Vital Crises’ after the description of these by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first period is identified as that of neorealism which is commonly understood as being a movement of the 1940s and is associated primarily with notions of Resistance and solidarity. The second period is associated with reflections upon the Italian ‘Economic Miracle’ which took place in the late 1950s until 1963. Sitney suggests that by 1964 this central vitality was beginning to wane. For Pasolini neorealism was a contradictory phenomenon: It is useless to delude oneself about it: neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic and enthusiastic at the beginning...’ (Pasolini cited Sitney 1995: p 1).

Contemporary films in other coutries 

The Italian contribution to cinema as a whole needs to be set against the best of the American and European films of the time. US films of the time includedspellbound, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lady from Shanghai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. In the rest of Europe Britain made films from Powell and Pressburger such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But these were based upon a studio inspired professionalism as were films by Bresson and Cocteau The Ladies of Bois du Boulogne and Beauty and the Beast respectively. In France Clement’s Battle of the Railroad bears a direct stylistic comparison as well as one by content but nevertheless the Italian contribution to original cinema:

lies in their stylistic organisation of elements of apparent rawness, their emotional intensity and their focus on current political and social problems. Sitney (1995: p 6)

The Political Background to Postwar Italy

Political background to postwar Italy

Throughout the late 1940s the possibility of revolutionary change from the Communists was perceived of as a constant threat by the incumbents of the Italian government and their backers in the US and GB. The Parri government of late 1945 had seen the Prime Minister also serve as Interior Minister. This was a strong indicator of the primary concerns of the government of the time. Parri was followed by the Christian Democrat leader De Gasperi in December 1945. Initially De Gasperi had a Socialist Interior minister who had suppressed Communist inspired revolts, however De Gasperi took over the job himself in his second government of July 1946 - Jan 1947. In May 1947 De Gasperi was able to form the first Italian postwar government without any participation of the far Left. The post of Interior Minister then went to the Sicilian Mario Scelba through the next 6 cabinets until 1953.

The coalition governments based upon the Christian Democrats as the largest party meant working with a range of right-wing parties including Liberals, Monarchists, and Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man) who were anti-centrist and largely composed of southern ex-Fascists.

Scelba organised a special anti-riot police force armed with sub machine-guns. They were used to good effect during the election campaign of 1948 when left inspired demonstrations were frequently broken up with demonstrators occasionally killed. It was at this time that the Uomo Qualunque movement dissolved itself and the MSI a nationally based neo-Fascist party was formed.

The 1946 elections had seen the socialist and communist parties gain nearly 40% of the vote. For the 1948 election they had decided to pool their resources in a popular front. However the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 lost them support as did a split in the Socialist Party itself. Spiritual threats from the Vatican and rather more materially based ones from the United States served to weaken the communist party's electoral base still further.

Sicily was a case study in its own right. The US had incorporated the use of gangster links through the Mafia to facilitate the invasion putting Mafiosa in political power. Ironically this undid the efforts of the Mussolini government to control and eradicate the Mafia. The Mafiosa tended towards separatism. This was overcome by De Gasperi by offering considerable concessions to them in terms of autonomy. When it was clear coming up to elections that the left still had the majority the Mafia supported the De Gasperi government but at a price of ensuring that anti-Mafia activities were minimised.

The Christian democrats maintained power throughout the 1950s. This had largely alienated the intellectual and artistic forces which had been so prominent during Italy’s immediate postwar period. In parallel the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was also losing the moral standing and respect which they had earned during the Resistance. Elio Vittorini broke with the PCI in 1947 and in 1949 Pier Paolo Pasolini was expelled for his homosexuality. Cultural Stalinism was exercising its grip. Eventually the revelations from Khruschev at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956 lost it a lot of support. This was followed by the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. Following that the great writer Italo Calvino left the party in 1957.

The Christian Democrats didn’t benefit from this breakdown in the left. Its habitual use of excessive force to suppress strikes and demonstrations was alienating its own supporters. In 1953 the CD still led by De Gasperi tried to push through what became known as ‘The Swindle Law’. It was designed to allow a simple majority vote at an election to be translated into a two thirds majority at the National Assembly. It was eventually defeated by the slimmest of majorities - a minuscule 0.15%. It was the disturbingly fast growth of the neo-Fascists which helped to defeat this proposal. The CD managed to control Parliament until 1957 without the support of the neo-Fascists. But the price of this was what Ginsborg has described as ‘Immobilism’. This featured on the one hand, steady economic growth as postwar recovery through the Marshall plan came to fruition. On the other hand the ‘Byzantine’ system of public agencies controlled everything from transport and natural resources to culture and sport. This became a fundamental feature of the period. At the same time there was much evidence of scandal and corruption at the highest levels of the CD elites.

The cinema at this time was also a centre of scandal and gossip. In 1950 the pregnancy and subsequent marriage of Ingrid Bergman to Rossellini ‘attracted more attention than any of his films’ suggests Sitney. Cinecitta became an extension of Hollywood with its lower cost labour attracting producers to make extravagant spectaculars like Ben Hur.

The steady economic growth of the mid and early 1950s meant that Italy’s GDP was growing at a rate of 5.5% p.a. From 1959-1963 the years of the ‘economic miracle’ this leapt to a growth rate averaging 6.3 % seeing a doubling of industrial production.

Literary Origins of the Term Neorealism  

The term was coined by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930 to describe the style which arose in reaction to elegiac introversion of the contemporary Italian letters. By comparison it offered a dramatic representation of a tormented human condition including the conventions of bourgeois life and the emptiness and boredom of existence. Some of Italy’s most illustrious pre and post war writers were associated with this movement including Alberto Moravia, Elio Vitorini, Cesar Pavese, and Vasco Pratolini .

Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted:

‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar, cited Bondanella, 2002, p 34.)

What is Neorealism in Cinema?

The moment of ‘neorealism’ is consider by most critics as a very important moment in the development of cinema. Bondanella (2002 p 31) notes that neorealism is a confusing term and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (2003 pp27-28) notes that to characterise neorealism is very difficult. He argues that critics have settled upon five key characteristics of the films which belonged to the moment of what is described as the neorealist movement.

Nowell-Smith emphasises that few films ‘satisfied all these conditions together’. In summing up the key aspects of neorealism Nowell-Smith locates the resistance movement as the key focus of neo-realism. The conditions are:

  • A realist treatment of the story

  • A popular setting

  • Social content

  • Historical actuality

  • Political commitment

Anna Magnani about to be shot down

Henry Bacon (1998) also highlights that an essential aspect of neorealism was its anti-facist stance in which this new aesthetic movement and the new multi-party postwar government of Italy were linked. Bacon (1998 p 26) cites Alberto Lattuada a leading scriptwriter of the time:

The actor's costumes were those of the man on the street. Actresses became women again, for a moment. It was a poor but strong cinema, with many things to say in a hurry and in a loud voice without hypocrisy, in a brief vacation from censorship; and it was an unprejudiced cinema, personal and not industrial, a cinema full of real faith in the language of film, as a means of education and social progress.

Millicent Marcus prefers to go beyond technical considerations and sees neorealism as primarily a moral movement of the moment which finds a genuine consensus amongst the artists of the period.

However, if we go beyond technical considerations to the ethical impetus behind neorealism , we are apt to discover far more of a consensus among artists of the period and to find ample reason for grouping them together as upholders of a certain school , tendency, or style, broadly construed’. Indeed for many critics, neorealism is first and foremost a moral statement , “una nuova poesia morale” whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity - one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the ”others” , be they persons or things, with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails. (Marcus, Millicent, 1986: p23)

Marcus notes the neorealism has had vast cultural and ideological reverberations which:

may explain the seemingly disproportionate impact of a movement that lasted only seven years, generated only twenty-one films, failed at the box office, and fell short of its didactic and aesthetic aspirations. (Marcus:1986 :p xvi).

The films which can be described as neorealist have frequently been categorised as a ‘film movement’. The critic Andre Bazin has claimed that the development of the use of deep-focus photography in neorealism allowed a greater democracy for the eye by being closer to ‘reality’. Bazin associated an ontology or ‘beingness’ with the combination of the long take and the use of deep focus. Whilst as early as Visconti’s Ossessione this cinematic technique had come into use there is little evidence of a concerted attempt by the directors to do this. The exception is the scriptwriter Zavattini who wrote several statements espousing realism with its associated use of non-professional actors. Bondanella argues that too much has been made of the relationship to Italian social problems minimising the importance of the artifice that directors had added to the films.

Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted ‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar cited Bondanella 2002, p 44).

Bondanella argues that neorealism wasn’t strictly a movement although the emphasis has been that the films deal with real problems, with believable characters found in everyday life:

However the great neorealist directors never forgot that the world they projected upon the silver screen was one produced by cinematic conventions rather than an ontological experience, and they were never so naive as to deny that the demands of an artistic medium such as film might be just as pressing as those from the world around Them. (My  emphasis; Bondanella, 2002, p 34).

Here one can note the  dramatic treatment of  the  Nazis  trying to catch an anti-fascist in the block of flats in Roma  citta aperta.  The intercutting between Nazi troops rushing up the stairs and the priest  hiding the anti-fascist  was using film language to heighten the drama. similarly in this film the overly Germanis mise en scene of the Gestapo cell block and the representation of the Gestapo officer as gay with his subordinate a vampish lesbian was the start of an association of Nazism with sexual perversion which Rossellini also explored in Germany Year Zero with a key character an unreconstructed Nazi pedophilic teacher. 

It is useful to note that the number of films which can be defined as neorealist produced 1945-1953 was about 10% of the total number of films produced which equates to about 90 out of the 822 produced overall. The critical and historical discourses have focused upon these as the key films aesthetically of the period however they were not that important in the context of the industrial system as a whole. The films were not great box office hits at the time despite becoming described as masterpieces now. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City achieved first place in the box office 1945-1946, after that even the most popular of the neorealist films slipped down the box office lists as the wartime concerns receded. By 1949 de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves could only achieve 11th place in the annual box-office returns. The films were often praised by critics abroad; this helped to create a small but financially useful internationalo market for these directors.

The Shift Towards Neorealism

Ossessione 1

The Italian neorealist movement is effectively bracketed by two films made by Visconti, Ossessione made in 1942 loosely based upon James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Ring’s Twice. This film transposed an American popular crime novel into an Italian setting with an aesthetic influenced by French Poetic Realism.  Visconti had worked with Renoir during his great poetic realist period of the interwar years and had gained some of Renoir's political outlook from this period. However, Nowell-Smith (2003 p 13) notes that the stylistic debt to Renoir was confined to this one film.

Visconti follows Renoir in a naturalistic way when he establishes the relationship of the character to the landscape. Where Renoir’s naturalism was influenced by Maupassant and Zola, Visconti’s was influenced by Giovanni Verga the Sicilian writer of the late 19th century who wrote in a style called Verismo which was a form of naturalism and a part of Italian regional literature. The beginning of the end of the neorealist movement is marked by La Terra Trema (1948).

La Terra Trema 1

Nowell-Smith argues that despite the many claims to associate Ossessione with neo-realism it was marked by realism without the 'neo', rather the film can be seen as a precursor of what was to come for it was missing the essential political elements although the style was present. In a similar vein La Terra Trema is marked by going beyond the central aspects of neo-realism. De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is usually seen as the film which marks the end of this current. Nowell-Smith emphasises that:

The real heart of the neo-realist movement was the resistance film and the often agonisingly direct contact it re-established between the spectator and recent events, and the decline of this movement can be traced to the moment when this genre lost its immediacy and became at best reflective, at worst sentimental’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003: 29).

Visconti had belonged to an artistic resistance movement that had started to emerge in the early 1940s, although he was on the margins. At that time it seemed vital to go beyond the conformist cinema of Mussolini’s period and there was a growing shift towards the verismo aesthetic of Verga. However at this stage Ossessione was made directly under the government of Mussolini during 1942. The film was subject to the censors when it came out in 1943, although later in this year the invasion of Sicily by the Allies had happened and the Allies were beginning to control parts of the Italian mainland by the end of the year. It was the changing political circumstances which both allowed and demanded a different aesthetic and neo-realism is normally regarded as happening between 1943 -1950.

Ossessione 4

Ossessione is marked off from most of Visconti’s other films by having a lack of historical and political perspectives which also distinguishes it from most of the neo-realist films as well. However, with the script being written by four politically committed film critics and writers including both Visconti and de Santis, all of whom were based in the journal Cinema, it would be unwise to write it off as an entirely apolitical film. Whilst Cain’s novel appears to have provided the inspiration the story-line, the visual coding of the film and the more realist aesthetic can be interpreted as signs of cultural resistance at a time when Italy was still under full control of Mussolini during its making.

Perhaps, it is possible to read Ossessione as an allegory of the way in which Italy had become seduced by fascism. The crash at the end of the film could be seen to be the disaster that Italy was heading for at the time. Look carefully at the way in which Giovanna changes from a light flowery summery frock into a morbid black dress after making love with Gino the tramp for the first time. This is a powerful visual statement after a moment of high passion, that can be read as highly symbolical given the moment of the film’s production and its release. Note too the association of Gino and the husband frequently described as ‘boorish’, yet he is an affable and generous man and bonds with Gino the tramp when he realises that they have served in the same part of the military together, and were even trained by the same drill sergeant. Perhaps this can be seen as harking back to the national solidarity of the Risorgimento, as reworked into Mussolini’s notion of the ‘national popular’ .

Neorealism Proper

Origianl Poster Roma citta aperta

For Marcus (1986), Morandini (1997) and Bondanella (2002) the neo-realist movement proper starts with Rossellini’s Roma, citta aperta (Rome Open City, (1945).  Here the city can be seen as a synecdoche (a part that equals the whole) for the whole of the Italian nation. The film examines the consequences of the Nazi occupation of the city after Italy has declared itself as being on the side of the Allies after the arrest of Mussolini.  Of the neorealist core films two more  are by Rossellini Paisa (1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero,1947). These three are sometimes known as his war trilogy. to these films can be added to three by de Sica: Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Umberto D (1952). Morandini also includes Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and Bellissima, 1951) as core films of the movement.

Bicycle Thieves 1

De Sica and the early Rossellini films although not strongly politically motivated like the work of De Santis still were attuned to the specifically politically sharpened moment of their making:

In Rossellini’s case his interest in the immediate realistic representation of actions and events attached itself to a situation that was one hundred per cent political, in which political action was immediate to an exceptional degree’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003:27)

Bondanella argues that the conditions of production under which Rossellini worked during the making of Roma citta aperta helped to create many of the myths surrounding neorealism. There was little studio work, the film stock was bought on the black market , often in short strips. The development of the film was done without the use of rushes and the post-synchronisation of the sound were all contributory factors to the myth-making of neorealism.

Roma citta aperta in its style was far more than just naturalistic including a range of styles moods through the use of documentary to the ‘most blatant melodrama’ comments Bondanella:

Beneath the surface of the work, which often seems to possess the texture of a documentary and frequently seems closer to a newsreel than to a fictional narrative there is a profoundly tragicomic vision of life which juxtaposes melodramatic moments or instances of comic relief and dark humour with the most tragic of human experience which reconstructs the reality of a moment in Italian history. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 38-39).

By comparison Paisa is closer to the conventions of a newsreel style documentary whilst going beyond the straightforward depiction of events. It is organised around several episodes going through the Allied invasion of Italy. It starts with the landings in Sicily, then moving to episodes in Naples and Rome, the struggle between the partisans and the Fascists for Florence, a visit of American chaplains to a monastery in the Apennines and finishing with the capture of a group of partisans and allied advisers in the Po valley.

Paisa 1

The name Paisa was a colloquial form of the word paesano meaning countryman, kinsman, neighbour or even friend. It was typically used as a form of greeting between the American GI’s and the local Italians. For Rossellini the deeper meanings become a route for exploring the Italo-American relationships in which ‘...linguistic barriers ...give way in the face of moral commitment.’ Suggests Bondanella in which the self-sacrifice of an American for his partisan comrades demonstrates a love of fellow man which links with Rossellini’s Christian humanism. Interestingly the episodes set in Florence and on the Po have an anti-British sentiment within them.

Germany Year Zero Poster

Germany Year Zero (1946) is dedicated to Rossellini’s young son who died in that year. It is based on the story of a young boy Edmund in his early teens. Edmund ultimately murders his sick father and eventually commits suicide. The film shows the breakdown in morality announced in a voice-over at the start of the film.

Bondanella argues that comparison of these three seminal works of neorealism by Rossellini  with the work of De Sica shows that:

it becomes abundantly clear that thee was no single or aesthetic programmatic approach to society in their works. (Bondanella, 2002 p 54)

Neorealism can be understood in both cinema and literature as a reaction against the classical and rhetorical stance of the arts of the Fascist period. In La Terra Trema Visconti chose as a model not only Verga but also the realism of the American 1930s. The naturalism and verismo fundamental to Ossessione are absent from La Terra Trema beyond the use of Verga for the initial story. Visconti’s had by then become influenced by Flaherty and Eisenstein. A fuller account of this film is present in a separate posting on this blog. Suffice it to say here the film is frequently understood as the last film made which can be attributed to the neorealist movement and moment. 

The Shift Away from Neorealism

Neorealism, never a film movement based upon a manifesto of strict conventions, began to decisively shift away from its aesthetic roots through films by De Sica and Rossellini which incorporated a realm of fantasy and imagination rather than a naturalistically based ‘reality’. De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1950) for example sees an escape from poverty symbolised by flying over Milan cathedral on a broomstick.

Other filmmakers like Visconti and Lizzani chose to explore the historical legacy of Italy and as such began to engage with the historical processes which brought about the fascist state through adaptations of literary texts. Visconti’s Senso (1954) is a film which is exploring history through a Gramscian inflected lens going beyond a reportage of events during the Risorgimento (the Italian movement for national liberation and unity of the 19th century) to explore the ideological differences and the outcomes of these in the form of fascism.

Visconti uses the format of operatic melodrama to explore this using the lives of individuals to intersect with what he envisioned as the motor of history. The use of Verdi in the opening scene was used to great effect to connect with the artist who in Italy best exemplifies notions of Italian patriotism and nationalism. Here Bazin’s critique of the film suggested that viewers were forced to engage more with their intellect rather than their emotions. Bondanella suggests that this disjunction was achieved through the creation of a sumptuous and meticulously researched mise en scene which lends ‘...the film a certain sterile splendour...  (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 98).

The original release of Senso was very controversial, for Visconti had made it with the intention of drawing parallels between the failure of the Risorgimento and the antifascist resistance. The film was released at the Venice film festival whereupon the Ministry of Defence forced an important cut on the original:

...which confused Visconti’s original comparison of the Risorgimento and the Resistance, thus weakening much of the film’s political impact upon its public’. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, p 99.)

As far as neorealism as a style was concerned the film was a combination of spectacle, melodrama and critical realism and represented a distinct shift away from the idealist version espoused by Zavattini.


Zavattini: Major scriptwriter within the neorealist framework often thought of as a purist as far as neorealism is concerned.

There are some interesting issues concerned with the film in terms of the general development of Italian cinema as an institution. It was the first colour film made by an Italian director, and marked a shift towards a level of dependence upon American financing. An American star Farley Granger was imposed upon Visconti - he had originally wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando. Despite these attempts to make an international package the film failed to attract large overseas audiences. This seems largely due to their ignorance of the Risorgimento.

One important underlying issue is revealed by this. Lack of wider historical knowledge especially amongst American audiences vitiates against the success of even more expensively and well made films in the American marketplace. Some level of de-historicisation and a greater focus on the romance and melodrama might well be necessary to impress a genre constructed audience.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the shift away from neorealism came with the production of Love in the City (1953) made by Zavattini in conjunction with several other directors each doing an episode. Whilst Zavattini was the defender of the neorealist faith, trying to promote the film as something close to cinematic journalism, the contributions from Antonioni and Fellini pointed towards the move into highly abstract psychological representations of love affairs through the suicides of several women from Antonioni. Fellini’s contribution was based on a story-line about a client who wished a marriage bureau to advertise for wife willing to marry a werewolf.

Rossellini often regarded as the core neorealist, along with the younger Fellini and Antonioni, were moving away rapidly from the neorealist ‘mode of production’ based upon using ordinary people instead of actors. They were shifting to stories with more psychologically complex characters which required professional actors.

Voyage to Italy 1

George Sander and Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini's post neorealist Voyage to Italy

Rossellini was now having a public affair with Ingrid Bergman and made a range of films that were largely vehicles for her such as Stromboli (1949), Europea ’51 (1952) and Voyage in Italy (1953). The content tended to revolve around aspects of contemporary marriage, emotional alienation and despair. Whilst they were failures at the box office they were lauded by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema. Rossellini commented that has changed, the war is over, the cities have been reconstructed. What we needed was a cinema of Reconstruction. (Rossellini cited Bondanella 2002 p 105)

The Cahiers critics considered Voyage in Italy to be one of the twelve best films of all time up to that date. In the recently re-released BFI version on DVD Laura Mulvey who provides a commentary says it is her favourite film. It tells the story of an English couple who visit Italy needing to dispose of an inherited property. It becomes a play on the stuffiness of the middle class English and the deep rooted passions of Italy which are quite literally in the case of a couple in Pompeii embedded in the soil. Alexander makes a visit to Capri renowned for the sexual exploits of Caligua and Tiberius where he fails to seduce an attractive woman he meets. It was a site later visited by Godard in Le Mepris, - perhaps a homage to Rossellini. Eventually the couple become reconciled meeting up at a religious festival. Bondanella suggests that the way the Anglo-Saxon speaking press treated Rossellini’s affair might have been a reason for this denunciation of English morality. The film itself received little critical attention outside of France.

Fellini had been closely involved with writing several scripts for Rossellini including Rome, Open City and Paisan. He also wrote scripts for Lattuada, Without Pity, and Mill on the Po. Fellini became co-director with Lattuada on Lights of Variety (1950). The film explored the seedy underside of the entertainment world, examining the charlatans and the opportunists. The leading female roles were played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, and Lattuada’s wife Carla Del Poggio. A complete break with any form of naturalism occurs when Checcho the leading impresario who has been trying to seduce Liliana (Del Poggio), has been had an argument with Liliana in which a reconciliation takes places. Checcho leaves the building in the early hours of the morning and walks up some steps to the sound of applause for in his imagination at least he has achieved his aims of making a successful variety show which will star Liliana and be toured in the biggest cities. It is this which will in his desire at least seal a truly loving relationship with Liliana. The laughter turns into the sound of a passing tram bringing the viewer at least back into reality.

The film is the start of one of Fellini’s major concerns of examining the reality behind performance and entertainment in Lights of Variety, celebrity the media and the growth of ‘infotainment’ in La dolce vita, and in 8 1/2 a reflection on filmmaking itself. A theme that was to be continued in the 1980s in Intervista (1987)

Case Studies

Umberto D, 1952: Directed Vittorio de Sica

A case study of Roma citta aperta will be added to this blog in due course. A link will be provided.


For a small reference piece on the importance of specific Cinematographers of Neorealism 

You may also find it useful to access the Italian directors hub on this site  


All the references can be found in the Bibliograpy of Italian Cinema on this blog.  

Suggested Core Reading for Neorealism

General approaches

Bondanella, Peter. 2002 3rd Edition. Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present . Continuum. Probably your first port of call. Chapters 2 & 3 are useful reviews of the period.

Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press. Not only does this deal with neorealist films directly with very good chapters on Rome Open City, Bicycle Thief and Umberto D the rest of the book traces the powerful influence upon Italian cinema into the 1980s. There is also a useful discussion about realism as a set of ever changing artistic conventions. It is a very good in depth book.

Musico, Giuliana. 2004. Paisa / Paisan. In Bertellini, The Cinema of Italy . 2004. Wallflower Press is a useful article on Rossellini’s film.

Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema pp 83 - 114 places neorealism in the context of popular cinema as a whole.

Landy, Marcia. 2000. Italian Film. CUP has an interesting chapter which follows the theme of Landscape and Neorealism, Before and After. This is an engagement with a cinematic geography and is best left until you have more familiarity with the field.

Shiel, Mark 2006: Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City.  Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback

Sitney, P. Adams. 1995. Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. University of Texas Press. This provides useful chapters on Visconti, Rossellini de Sica and Zavattini.

Director Studies

Critical reviews of specific directors and their neorealist films include:

Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge University Press. This has sections on Ossessione, La Terra Trema. Bellissima.

Core films to view:

Roma, citta aperta : Rossellini

Paisa: Rossellini

Germany Year Zero: Rossellini

Bicycle Thieves: De Sica

Sciuscia (Shoeshine): De Sica

Miracolo a Milano: De Sica

Umberto D : De Sica

La Terra Trema: Visconti

Neorealist precursors

Ossessione : Visconti

I bambini ci guardano: De Sica

May 18, 2007

Media Studies Education: Is the field Academically Downgraded?

How Far is it the Case that Media Studies is Downgraded as an Academic Subject?


It is always important for fields of study to be engaging in a self-critical evaluation of what is happening and where the field is going. The common scornful treatment of Media Studies on a continual basis makes it seem like a Cinderella subject. Is this justifiable and if so to what extent? It is no good hiding one's head in the sand and responding that it is just cultural elitism which brings forth this criticism. The issues are whether Media Studies as it is currently engaged with at A level is giving the students the intellectual and content grounding necessary for their development?

Below I have begun to review the history of the castigation of media studies as a 'soft subject' which has been going on for several years. It is noticeable that there is a conflation of Media Studies as a subject area with educational panics as a whole.  That it is very easy to do this is not helped by the fact that media studies chooses much of its content from the world of populist content.

English courses study The Colour Purple in which content raising isssues of race, identity, rights etc combines with narrative structures and use of language to make a heady and challenging mix for the A level student in a cross-cultural way. By comparison media students can be stuck with looking at a couple of articles on Posh & Beck.

The Colour Purple

I would certainly argue that the culture of 'celebrity' linked to consumption in 'late capitalism' is a very important subject. Whilst the likes of Theodor Adorno managed to do remarkable treatments of populist culture this requires a very high degree of sophistication. It is arguable whether AS students have enough of a world view and a historical view, leave alone a sophisticated enough analysis of ideology and discourse to make this a useful exercise particularly as the GCSE curriculum is so de-historicised.


Adorno, above, wrote The Stars Down to Earth, and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, edited with an excellent introduction by Stephen Crook (Routledge).

Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 424-30 comments (coincidently rather topically) for example:

Scientology boosts self-esteem largely by giving semi-educated, degreeless persons impressive certificates to hang on their walls, and Adorno is right that there’s a similar syndrome at work with most New Age esoterica, including astrology. (In literary theory, there are no certificates, of course — you just have to learn the jargon.)

One question for media studies to address is what should be studied at what age. The question also arises what is collusion with tools of ideology and what holds sufficient gravitas to provide a deeper levels of analysis? It is I suspect a tension which will of necessity be a part of media studies permanently, the issue then is one of balance. Here I differentiate between popular and populist see Abd Al Malik below. I fear that in recent years one has elided into the other.

French Popular Rapper: Abd Al Malik

As the BBC reports below media also has a task of examining wider cultural phenomenon. Here 'sub-cultures' can be extremely important for they often challenge the status quo in a directly socio-political way. These concerns should be the meat and drink of media studies, as they allow the deeper mechanisms of society to rise to the surface and be discussed.   

Abd Al Malik 1

French rapper of Congolese origin whose background and music embodies the spirit of the festival.

Abd Al Malik at Musiques Metisses

His latest album Gibraltar has already won four awards, including the prestigious Victoire de la Musique. It's an original mix of hip-hop, slam poetry and French philosophy. He sees Gibraltar as the symbolic meeting point of Africa and Europe. "The reason I called it Gibraltar was to use music to try and link our different cultures and people together."

Media Research a High Added Value Unit

I have been vaguely aware that OCR is planning to drop its Critical Research Unit in the forthcoming shake-out and reconfiguration of A2s. This is not only sad - it was my favourite unit - but potentially a step which can lead to a further downgrading of Media Studies in the eyes of highly aspiring students and those Universities which value higher level thinking and theoretical skills. For me the Critical Research Unit has been the saving grace of the OCR specification. It is something which can be used to hang academic credibility on. Research is what makes universities tick and increasingly research plays an important part in the economy of the newtworked society. More and more people are becoming involved in research based occupations. Media research combines the development of intellectual skills by dealing with both methods and methodologies, it also develops practical research skills and provides valuable experience and most importantly of all these are generic skills applicable to a wide range of subject areas, not just media. If one wishes to go down the instrumentalism path and make a vocationalist case then I rather think that there are more people conducting research than there are people being paid a proper income for making videos.

For an A level Student to be able to talk convincingly and enthusiastically about their developing research and research skills on their UCAS form is an important attribute. It is something which neither Cambridge University, Kings College London nor business people apparently sceptical about media can argue with.

For me  a more serious look at what the new specifications offer is a job for the next few weeks as the road shows and the marketing campaigns get under way. What I am certain of is that I shall be looking for the specification which challenges students with the quality of the content that can be worked into the units.  

Should We Focus on Different Content?

I would far rather media studies focus on the essential backgrounds of media history, politics and policy and the best of aesthetics rather than become stuck in the gutter of 'Celebrity' and 'Lifestyle'. Where it does conduct textual analysis let it be on texts which are a little more canonical, or if contemporary, have more content weight in them in the sense that they carry with them a huge cultural weight.

Baghdad 1

As my media students are confused about the difference between Afghanistan and Iraq and there is a British military presence in both, more encouragement to deal with serious News and News programmes might convince the Cambridge Universities of this world that media really does punch above rather than below its weight!

_Kes_ poster. Loach sixties social realism

Arguably to fail to teach about canons is something of a dereliction of cultural duty. Of course what exactly is canonical is another area of necessary tension within the subject area. What might be considered canonical within media studies, that we would expect students to know about? Should it be British social realism or Australian soaps? Where do recent representations of social history such as Vera Drake come in? My concern is that as concepts of 'class' in our 'post-idological society' have temporarily evaporated, that issues of social justice  - which includes issues of representation- have weakened within media studies.

Only the most hidebound of postmodern populists would really seriously argue that Shakespeare or Goethe is of the same cultural value as a bad graphic novel. In reality the cultural populism embedded in media studies seems more of a rationale for the promotion of cultural and creative industries than anything else, and as such can be accused of instrumentalism.  Whether a shift in attitude away from this would win over the insitutions such as Cambridge that have been sceptical about media studies reamains to be seen, however, it would satisfy many others who consider that the academic content of the subject is weak. 

Another concern is, why doesn't media studies attract those students who are studying European languages? The specifications are often extremely weak and tokenistic when it comes to dealing with the rest of Europe.  Despite doubts about the capabilities of students to sit through films with subtitles I have found that many students can become very interested if the content is appropriate. For 'Women and Film' I usually show Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4Ever. This is a tough film but student's appreciate being treated like adults occasionally. As well as realism, and the condition of women, it gives the opportunity to discuss the political economy of 'Shock Therapy' devised and developed by this year's Reith lecturer Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs may have changed his position but at the time the programme was designed to destroy the Soviet System of social justice in the name of Neo-liberalism. The old, the weak and the poor are still suffering the fall out. This film can also easily be linked to a theme under the Contemporary British Cinema Unit on Globalisation & Diaspora (Last Resort, Dirty Pretty Things, Ghosts). Trust them, the students will respond! 

Media Cast as a "Soft subject" 

Currently Cambridge University has clearly come out against recognising Media as a 'proper A level'. This is often taken as an act of elitism and dismissed out of hand.  More worrying is the attitude of King's College in London Film Studies Department which is examined more closely below. It is encouraging that Oxford University has finally taken a more sensible line as the Independent reported in August 2006:

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It proclaims the ambition to "break down the barriers of incomprehension and mistrust", which have defined relations between journalism and academia.

However journalism isn't Media Studies, journalists work within in the media but media is bigger than that and this article does tend to conflate the two.  A quick look at the web site of the Institute also shows that this is a seriously heavyweight research institute whic targets issues of international politics and the economy. In other words it focuses upon the big issues of life, not soap operas and the culture of celebity, lifestyle journalism and other populist fare. It is not as the Independent article seems to imply a nod in the direction of Media Studies. 

Even Film Studies Courses Take a Sceptical View of the Value of A Level Media 

At King's College London Department of Film Studies it is noticeable that on their current list of preferred A levels Media is excluded. This is especially worrying because they set themselves up as a theoretical department. It is not a department which can in anyway be described as elitist in the sense in which one might be tempted -mistakenly in my opinion - to write off Cambridge. Recent professorial recruitment includes Richard Dyer (favourite films here)  and Ginette Vincendeau (favourite films here) who have written a lot about various aspects of popular cinema and whose thinking A level media teachers and lecturers will be familiar with.

Entry Requirements

A/AS-levels: 3 A levels & 1 AS level (ABB/pass)

Compulsory subjects: A-level English (Literature or Language).
Preferred other subjects: Film Studies, History, History of Art, Modern Languages, Classics.

When I discovered this list of preferred A levels on their departmental website I emailed the department and got back a very polite response from Ginette Vincendeau explaining that whilst they were prepared to consider students with a media A level a large proportion of these students wanted to go and make films which wasn't a part of what King's College was offering. King's has recently strengthened its department, obviously  to be in a position to get a higher research rating and appeal to more aspirant students.

On my reading of the situation the fact that they accept History as a preferred A level over Media is a very clear message to Media studies across the board. The academic content on offer isn't up to speed!  Given that the OCR Media syllabus has a lot of opportunity to cover film studies this is a worrying development.

Raising Student Aspirations and Confidence in Media Studies 

I for one want my students to be able to aspire to the most well regarded Universities and it would appear that Media Studies is regarded as a weak subject by many of  these same Universities. Students rapidly get to hear of this; certainly in my previous post, which involved History teaching alongside some media, many of my tutor group would apologise and ask whether Media studies is considered by Universities as a 'legitimate' subject. This is a small amount of anecdotal evidence of course, but nevertheless it points up the danger that Media Studies is in continuous danger of appealing to those erroneously classified as "Less able". The whole principle of 'mixed ability' is that the creation of an aspirant cultural milieu will create a 'highest common factor' effect. Currently there is seemingly a danger of a 'lowest common denominator' effect. If my students can discuss the representation  globalisation and diaspora in contemporary British cinema at an interview then I shall feel I've done a good job in term's of readying them for the rigours of undergraduate life in hard to get to universities.

Grasping the Nettle 

Failure to grasp this nettle of content and deal with it will deem Media Studies to being permanently seen as a second rate A level when in fact it should be seen as a premium A level. This is because it should be proud of its interdisciplinarity. There is no doubt in my mind that it can be this, but I think it will require a different approach to be taken within the new specifications. Hopefully these issues will be being taken on board by the exam boards as a whole. Furthermore the QCA should be having a more important role because if Media is not being taken seriously at the highest levels of Academia we need to know why. As plenty of Oxbridge graduates enter the media industries in one way or another and the role of media in all sorts of spheres can hardly be denied, it is high time this 'second-rateness' was sorted out. Having an exam system where some subject areas are more equal than others is fundamently unsatisfactory. Here the Guardian report on business leaders attitudes in 2005: leaders were warning that universities need to encourage students to take "hard" subjects such as maths and foreign languages. There were currently shortfalls in the workforce because so many pupils now chose "soft" subjects, such as psychology and media, they said.

Universities themselves appear to believe this according to the Times in 2006:

Leading universities are warning teenagers that they will not gain admission if they study “soft” A levels in the sixth form.

The universities are insisting that pupils take traditional subjects if they want to be considered for degree courses. Those applying with A levels in subjects such as media studies or health and social care would rule themselves out.

The Daily Telgraph reports on the Cambridge attitude in 2006:

Cambridge University says students should study those subjects if they want to be a "realistic applicant" for its courses.

It has listed a string of A-levels on its website that it considers "less effective" preparation for entry.

The list includes subjects such as media studies, health and social care, performing arts, accounting and business studies.

The BBC also gave a similar report

There is a history of this problem as the NUT website of 2003 shows. 

Media Studies and Moral Panics in Education

Media Studies is often used as the prime example of a general decline in educational standards. The BBC has a useful page written by John Ellis analysing the press coverage of Media Studies and exposing the myths of this coverage:  

Why is Media Studies so handy as a self-evident sign of the decline in standards?

Mainly because the media are exactly that: self-evident. Entertainment, journalism, the internet appear to have no mystery about them because we use them every day.

But when you try to make a film, write an article or design an effective website, you begin to see how much skill is involved, both in making the stuff and equally in understanding how we understand it. Media Studies aim to reveal those skills underlying what we take for granted.

Unfortunately the subject examines journalism as a medium, and that makes journalists uncomfortable.

For in depth analysis discussing the construction of these panics in educational standards also see the research article from BERA.

Being Proactive on the Content

The emphasis on populist content apparent in the specification arguably can lull Media teachers into becoming complacent about the content knowledge and non-media specific analytical skills levels of their students. This tendency to pick the populist aspects of media largely eschewing the historical and political importance of media is clearly a concern of many people outside of the field. We can content ourselves with the thought that actually our students are very competent at reading intertextual references between soap operas / celebrity stories whilst ignoring the issue of who actually cares? But is this the situation we actually want?

Interestingly most of my students hate textual analysis options such as 'Celebrity and Newspapers' and 'Lifestyle magazines'. Over time I have gained a sense that if confronted with serious content students will take it seriously; certainly watching Ghosts and The Road to Guantanamo recently seemed to affect many students. Several were disappointed when I had to leave Ghosts unfinished as we only had time to do extracts in the British cinema half unit.


I shall be interested to hear other views and of people's other experiences on this issue of content. As far as I'm concerned we have a duty linked into concepts of global citizenship to provide more challenging content where possible, otherwise we leave ourselves open to accusations of collusion with populist taste manufactured by the middle classes for consumption by the lower orders. We also have a duty to raise current issues about media within the media, whether it is to do with Alan Johnson in Gaza or the worrying developments of Thompson taking over Reuters threatening the underlying news values:

Reuters’ editorial principles of integrity, independence and freedom from bias are world renowned. Those principles are guaranteed by the structure of the business - which prohibits any individual from owning 15 per cent or more of the company. That prohibition is being waved for the Thomson family, which will end up owning 53 per cent of the enlarged business.

With things changing so rapidly in the world of media as well as the world in general it seems to be important for media exams to be able to be bang up to date. Perhaps we should incorporate an exam where students go on the internet and research important media stories and write them up in a given period of time.  This would improve many skills and be a fun exam as well which is inherently dynamic. Let's use the media to examine the media and examine that research and reporting set of skills. there are lots of possibilities.

Always Historicise

It is ironical that the OCR history specification has had an option to do history of the media when this option isn't a core part of the media studies specification. As the influential critic Frederic Jameson has argued, it is always important to historicise yet this is ignored in the current OCR specification. 

Currently many student's concept of history is so bad that the begining of the Iraq war seems like ancient history. Their knowledge about events in the world is so weak that a few days ago one A2 student after seeing an extract of The Road to Guantanamo and being horrified by the inhumane and unjust treatment  of the detainees spontaneously burst out "Can't the police stop it!"  This is a sad crie de coeur from somebody about to enter into a university or HE course somewhere. Her lack of understanding of the world is at least partially our responsibility. Being involved in the world of Media should be as much a social science involving, policy, history and social research as it is a part of English which is the current default setting.

The Road to Guantanamo

There are of course possibilities to work in important issues to particular units, but it is something which must be worked at and joined up thinking isn't encouraged by the current specification. More attention to the wider issues which media is inevitably embroiled in should be one of our objectives as media teachers.  

Conclusion:Developing Dynamic Content

Of course it takes time and a lot of energy to develop contemporary resources but a task of Media Studies is to be responding to the changing world. By definition the content we deal with is more dynamic than most other subjects. Added to this technologies and delivery platforms and regulatory systems are subject to change. We can't all be experts in everything. For small media teams this puts extra strain on.  

Lecturing and teaching in the media field can be made much easier by sharing our resources and ideas in a networked way. Hopefully as we all get more familiar with the blogsphere we should be able to have nationally networked freely available continuously updated resources by working in parallel across the net. Hopefully those of you who visit this blog will use the resources and develop your own. Developing links and feeds is a media project in its own right and one which we can all contribute to and help establish our interdisciplinary subject area as one which has its finger on the pulse of change.  


Independent "What is the Point"

Guardian on business leaders attitudes in 2005 

Times on Media Studies 2006

BERA report on the construction of political and media panics over education

May 06, 2007

Magazines and Print Publishing


Return to Lifestyle Magazines Hub

Below I have reprinted a short article from a recent Finnish survey on the International Federation of the Periodical Press which gives a reasonably upbeat future for many magazines arguing that those who use the internet are likely to read magazines and vice versa. The article argues that from the perspective of the advertiser it is worth using both media forms.  with further research on this site is is apparent that unsurprisingly there has been great concern amongst magazine publishers about the effects of the internet and the development of associated electronic media. The results from the various surveys are upbeat showing that provided publishers adapt they can exert a valuable influnece on internet development. Whilst these findings are hardly cast iron guarantees of the future  they show that in the current period magazine publishing is still alive and kicking.

Finnish Survey: Magazines and internet have natural affinity

Magazines and the internet have a natural affinity which makes them complementary, but their diverse characteristics also mean that they are not alternatives. Consequently it is valuable to use both media for marketing communications. This is the conclusion of a survey in Finland commissioned by the Finnish Periodical Publishers Association.

The Connection 2005 report is based on the Finnish Intermedia Study 2004, conducted by TNS Gallup Oy. It found that people who read magazines are more likely than non-readers to also use the internet. Conversely, internet users are more likely than non-users to read magazines.

This is particularly marked among people who are involved in specialist interests such as cars and hobbies. For example, readers of car magazines are a third more likely to use the internet daily than is the population as a whole. They also tend to spend longer on the internet.

When the study examined motives for using magazines and the internet, the strongest types of motive for both media were to obtain information and to be entertained. Ten motives were listed, and the six most important ones for both media were:

  • Information and ideas for hobbies
  • To learn new things
  • Background information on new things and phenomena
  • To spend some time
  • To enhance your all-round education
  • Ideas for spending free time

When people have a particular interest, it is natural for them to turn to both magazines and the internet for more about that interest. The specialisation of magazines is matched by the specialisation of the internet. In other words, both are excellent for targeting (from an advertiser’s point of view). Moreover both require active input from users – screening what is available, selecting what to pay attention to, and in effect becoming their own editors.

The profile of people who use both the internet and magazines is that they tend to be young, slightly more male than female, educated better than average, and in ‘upper white collar’ occupations or still studying.


TNS Gallup Oy interviewed 1351 Finnish-speaking people aged 12-69 years. A daily diary was used which recorded exposure to 36 media subgroups. The diaries were spread evenly across a four-week period.

Despite this rather upbeat finding present on the webpages was a link to ABC Electronic which has developed a range of services for auditing websites to provide potential advertisers with information. Below an earlier report complied by the Henley Centre argues that magazines by evolving have an important role to play in the age of the internet

FIPP‘s research consultant Guy Consterdine, gives his assessment of the findings

  • There is a eightened importance of a medium‘s ability to create involvement and ‘engagement‘ rather than merely attract attention. Gaining attention is no longer enough - and magazines are superb at inducing engagement.
  • Consumers are changing too, and keen magazine readers are more aspirational, sociable and interested in using technology than heavy users of other media. Technology and magazines go together as a neat pair
  • The new role for magazines is to act as a bridge to interactivity.
  • This must be closely linked-in to magazines‘ long-established roles, which The Henley Centre classifies into two categories:
  • Accessing personal networks of trust, and providing a source of guidance and status.
  • Their analysis focused particularly on core magazine readers - enthusiasts who can‘t resist buying magazines. It was felt this vanguard group would best show the future opportunities and trends for the industry
  • People are now more ambitious about what they can discover for themselves. If they want to know something, they expect to be able to find it out, and more or less instantly. They feel more in control of information than previously. It‘s less of a mass-media world than it was, and more of a personalised-media world. This means more involvement and engagement
  • The internet user is even more in control of the medium than the magazine or newspaper reader. Whereas the reader can only react to what is printed in the publication, the internet surfer can choose any topic at all and will expect to find something on it
  • The internet is such a wide open, bottomless, uncharted and invisible world that the editing function which magazines can provide - reviewing a topic and suggesting avenues for further exploration - is a very valuable one. Magazines‘ own websites can be a useful part of such referrals, but in most cases they won‘t be the main online sources
  • Core magazine readers are techno-savvy (see table). For example, they are more than twice as likely as the population as a whole to have their own website homepage. And they are twice as likely to take part in online discussion/chat groups
  • People need trusted influences to guide them through the mass of information. Magazines‘ traditional position as trusted sources is invaluable here. Magazines are companions which are consumed in ‘me‘ time, making a private personal experience
  • They pass on recommendations of things to do or buy, including websites and other sources to look at. Their suggestions can have the power of word-of-mouth recommendations
  • The Henley Centre reported that this rubs off onto the advertising. Endorsements by trusted magazines can help create trust in a brand. Advertisers benefit from magazines‘ environment of word-of-mouth referrals.

The Henley Centre concluded that magazines have a head start in responding to the rapidly evolving post-mass-media world. Provided publishers give readers good reasons to engage with their magazines, and know how to harness that engagement, the medium has a great long-term future.

Magazine ads spark net searches

According to a study by the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) and BIGresearch, almost 50 per cent of consumers said they were most motivated to begin an online search after viewing a magazine ad.

47.2% said it was a magazine ad that sparked a search, while 42.8% cited television ads and 42.3% said newspaper ads. Respondents were allowed to select more than one medium.

Shoppers continue to use the web as a resource before determining which items to buy and where. According to the survey, 92.5% of adults said they regularly or occasionally research products online before buying them in a store.

The study surveyed more than 15,000 consumers

Fipp of course is very concerned about the Weaknesses and opportunities which can either enhance traditional magazine publishing or bring about its demise. Below is an example of a recent online survey requesting members to report on the success and development of their online presences in relation to their standard magazines:

Be part of FIPP's magazine website survey

Do you publish a successful consumer magazine website? Is the website attacting new audience or advertisers, making you money, building a community, developing your brands, creating successful online products – or proving successful in any other vital respect?

If so, tell us as part of FIPPs ‘Routes To Success For Consumer Magazine Websites’ survey. FIPP is updating the series, previoulsy published in 2003 and 2005. The objective is to examine good practice online among successful websites operated by consumer magazine publishers around the world, and to study trends.

The websites we are looking to include are those which the publisher considers to be successful. Success can be defined in whatever terms the publisher chooses to define it.

If you feel that you have such a website, we would be most grateful if you would participate in the survey by spending a few minutes completing our online questionnaire HERE

Fipp is developing a lot of careful research into magazine markets and their relationship to the growing intermedia world. Below extracts of the FIPP annual research forum held in Amsterdam in February 2007 highlights these issues:

Magazine researchers are responding to the increasingly complex media world by creating new studies of how people are using media today, and by demonstrating the continuing value of magazine advertising – included in a mix with the web and television.

Forty-five research professionals from magazine publishing companies in 14 countries gathered for two days to discuss ongoing research studies and issues. Five of the major issues discussed were:

  • The increase in a media mix – especially among young people
  • The need for more studies of how marketing campaigns benefit from using magazines in combination with the internet (and other media)
  • The arrival of multimedia mega-databases for planning marketing campaigns across many platforms, including digital media
  • Using the internet as a data collection method and showing how magazines and websites can complement each other in offering improved functionality to consumers
  • New methods for tracking how readers' eye movements reveal how they consume magazine ads
Emap the UKs second largest magazine publisher came out with the following report in
October of 2006:

Internet no threat to print media

Time spent reading magazines and newspapers has remained stable over the past two years despite the growing use of the Internet, concludes a recent European survey from Jupiter Research.

Based on interviews with 5,000 people in the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, the report finds the average European in these countries spends three hours a week reading magazines and newspapers, the same as two years ago.

This is despite time spent online doubling from two hours to an average four hours per week.

Broadband makes a huge difference to internet activity, with those who have it spending seven hours a week online, compared with two hours by those with dial-up internet access.

European web usage remains much lower than in the USA, with Americans spending 14 hours online, the same amount of time as watching TV.

Jupiter research director Mark Mulligan believes, reassuringly, that there are more market opportunities for ‘old media’ companies than ever, but says that the successful organisations will be the ones who can offer rich media content such as video and podcasts as well as more traditional content.


Multi-platform media brands work harder than single-platform media: Emap's 'Engagement Squared' study

Media brands which extend onto several platforms – such as magazines, online, mobiles, radio and so on – work even harder for the advertiser than brands which are only on one platform.

Emap Advertising conducted a study in the UK called Engagement Squared. It was based on interviewing over 3,000 consumers about their multi-platform media consumption and their response to advertising campaigns. This was supplemented by parallel qualitative research.

Key findings

Consumers who use a media brand on more than one platform spend more time with that brand, and have a deeper connection with it, than consumers who only experience the brand on a single platform. For example Kerrang, which began life as a magazine only, now spans many platforms. Among Kerrang users who only use one platform (e.g. read only the magazine) 52% agreed it is a ‘cool’ brand, whereas 72% of those who interact with Kerrang on more than one platform agreed it was ‘cool’.

Similarly among FHM consumers, 66% of those who only read the magazine thought it was ‘funny’, compared with 74% of those who read the magazine and visit the website. 76% of magazine-only readers thought the brand is ‘sexy’, compared with 87% of those using both magazine and website.

Advertising and Magazines

Advertising and Magazines

Return to Lifestyle Magazines Hub

Advertising and Circulation

As has been noted elsewhere one of the main sources of income for a magazine is through its advertising. Advertisers will pay advertising rates based upon the size and nature of the readership and sales of a magazine. Most magazines belong to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) system of assessing the circulation of magazines. The ABC are an independent not-for profit organisation for the publishing industry. The BBC who are now a big producer of magazines produced this press report in August 2004 reviewing how well their magazines were doing set against the rest on figures provided by the ABC.

ABC explanation of their funding:

The whole concept and structure of ABC is based upon objectivity and integrity. As a tripartite association, ABC is funded by dues and service fees paid by the three groups it serves: advertisers, advertising agencies, and publishers.

BBC Magazines

As you would expect from a publicly accountable body information about the BBC magazines is easy to research. Below is a clear statement of how the BBC magazine arm is placed in the organisation as a whole. The extract also emphasises that the magazines are totally ring-fenced from the licence fee. This means they must survive on thier own merits as fully commercial publications. Naturally they have the advantage of a global brand but also play a role in extending that brand thus making an ovrall contribution to the licence payers as a whole.  

BBC Magazines is a division of BBC Worldwide Ltd, the commercial consumer arm of the BBC. It is the UK's third largest consumer magazines publisher, with a portfolio of over 35 regular titles for adults, teenagers and children, and also owns Origin Publishing, which publishes a further range of contract titles and specialist consumer magazines.

BBC Worldwide does not use licence fee income for its activities and re-invests in public service programming. In 2003/2004 BBC Worldwide returned £141 million to the BBC.

Circulation Management

Circulation  management is extremly important to the life and success of a magazine. Any serious decline in a magazine's circulation will lead to a decline in advertising revenue. This combination can quickly lead to a spiral of decline. Magazines managers will have a range of marketing tools at thier disposal to try and turnaround any flagging figures but firstly they need to know what their problems are and how they have arisen. If there is a general downturn in magazine circulation as a whole because of national economic decline for example then a magazine can benchmark its expectations against the competition in a falling market. There are several comapnies in existence which provide specialist services to magazines such as Mediatel and the Circulation Management Magazine.  

Mediatel Reports on ABC circulation figures 

Mediatel is a company which does number crunching for advertisers and media production companies. As soon as the raw data on circulation is released from ABC the infromation is produced for subscribers. This information is particualrly important for media buyers who are the people who reserve space for advertisements in magazines. If you go to the Mediatel figures on Men's Lifestyle magazines for example you will see that there has been a huge drop in circulation from 2005 - 2006 for the magazine 'Loaded' of nearly 25%. It is these figures rather than the direct content which concerns advertisers and which will dictate how much they are prepared to pay for advertising space.  This graph giving the February sales figures is revealing of a downward trend in this market place.

Circulation Management Magazine 

Although aimed at the American market-place this magazine was investigating an important conundrum which has emerged in the magazine market place which applies equally to the UK industry and also to Europe.  

Baird Davis in Circ Levels Remain Precariously High in Second Half 2006
Monday, April 30, 2007 poses a fundamental issue: 

In this article we’ll address the conundrum of how consumer magazine publishers are sustaining lofty circ levels in the face of stiff Internet competition and an apparent decline in magazine readership. We’ll explore the market trends that influence publisher’s high circ level behavior and conclude by taking an in-depth look at the mysterious alternative circulation sources (described in paragraph 6 of ABC Publisher’s Statements) that publishers are deploying  to help sustain elevated circ levels. (My emphasis).

Circulators have been exceedingly creative in adjusting to an ever more advertising-centric environment, one resistant to lowering circ levels.

In the article Davis explores the methods which are used to verify circulation figures. Obviously this is an important issue which is fundamental for those buying advertising space to be certain of. With more and more advertising being attracted to the internet it appears as though anomolies are beginning to creep into the system.  

As one enthusiastic blogger John Fine has noted in his US based blog posting "Circulation Bummer's List":

Magazines sell ads based on rate base. Rate base is circulation you guarantee to advertisers. If you miss rate base, your advertisers sort of have carte blanche to make your life miserable--demand cash or free ads; hammer you for future discounts because your circ is weak, etc.

How Far is a Magazinejust a Vehicle for Advertising?

Now we have established the importance of circulation to magazines it seems clear that advertisers have a powerful relationship to magazines it is clear that there is a direct relationship between advertising and profits however it is important to distinguish between different types of magazine before one jumps to an overhasty conclusion that all magazines are just there to provide adverts to willing consumer victims.

One useful way of beginning to assess a magazine is to analyse its target market. It seems clear that generically  GQ is a men's lifestyle magazine which seems to be targeted at a more aspirant type of man in terms of thier clothing and how they spend their leasure time. The fact that its circulation is little over 120,000 out of a population of over 60 million tells us it is only reaching a very narrow target audience. Advertisers obviously pay attention to this.

GQ a Lifestyle Magazine Case Study 

In GQ there is a noticeable lack of car adverts aimed at 'boy-racers' for example which one might have expected. In fact there are very few car adverts at all although there is a regular motoring column.  Car advertising buyers clearly recognise that this isn't a sensible place to sell their products and concentrate on Car magazines or magazines in more upmarket newspares which clearly reach the advertisers target audience. Having analysed GQ advertising for the run up to two Xmases in a row it can quickly be seen that they run a special watches section which attracts watchmaking advertisers. Many of these watches advertised are several thousand pounds such as Breitlings and unlikely to be in the financial reach of most of the readership. As the adverts are the same as ones which appear in magazines such as the Financial Times monthly 'How to Spend It' colour supplement there is a clear discrepancy. The reality is that buying space in the Financial Times will be very expensive whilst in GQ it will be realtively cheap. for these advertisers it allows fantasies about high status items such as Swiss watches to enter into the lives of aspirants. 

A useful exercise is to count up the pages devoted to advertising in GQ. We quickly find that in a typical issue over 50% of the magazine is made up of direct advertising. This is before we get to such things as advertorials in which the magazine has made a special deal with say a clothes company like Diesel to run an advertising shoot which will only be featured in GQ. This is mutually beneficial to both companies and reinforces the notion that some magazines seem to be clearly constructed as a vehicle for adverts. when one adds into the equation the fact that many pages are little more than a set of images of consumer items set out as a sort of 'swatch' we rapidly reach the conclusion that this 'lifestyle magazine at least is merely a vehicle for advertising. This is quickly confirmed when flicking though what passes for editorial content. Almost all the GQs I looked at with my students were often  well over 70% advertising. Conceived of as a sort of catalogue is money on the cover price well spent? The ABC 2004 Sectors breakdown of magazine sales placed the Men's lifestyle sales sector at 5:

  • Top 30 dominated by Women’s magazines - 10 different sectors
  • Women’s interests rank 1, 2, 4 and 9 in top 10
  • TV listings still high – ranking 3
  • Men’s magazines rank at 5

Classical Music Magazines

Let us take a radically different marketplace such as the world of classical music.  It is noticeable that the Mediatel page analysing music magazines includes no classical, jazz, folk or World music magazines at all. This tells us that they are trying to attract advertisers making products and services such as concerts for a youth market. This market is perceived as having high disposable income and willing to spend it easily without much concern for 'value for money'. These are magazines which can be analysed separately. The ABC 2004 figures for the sector "Music Rock" showed this was the 14th best selling sector.

The classical music market is rather different. The consumers are more likely to be middle-class and are likely to have a very discerning core of people who are able to play instruments themselves and will have familiarity with the what is usually  called the classical canon, in other words those pieces of music generslly deemed to be the most important ones historically.

The classical music magazine market is comprised of a growing number of magazines. In the 1980s the only magazine regularly serving this market was Gramophone which was started in the 1920s and was aimed at providing an interface between the growing market of recorded music and potential consumers providing serious reviews and comparisons of recorded music by recognised experts  within the specialist fields of the genre. During the 1990s the market started to grow. Interestingly the 1990 Broadcasting Act laid the basis for this expansion. The BBC was forced to become more competitive and enterprising so it established BBC Music Magazine which primarily deals with classical music with a little jazz and world music. The Broadcasting Act also opened the doors to commerce and Classic FM started broadcasting. Aimed at a target audience less familiar with classical music and played less challenging music from the repertoire they too brought out a magazine to complement their broadcasting and to help build thier brand. 

BBC Music Magazine 

The 2001 sales figures for the magazine showed it to be the World's top selling classical music magazine as it celebrated its 10th anniversary:

BBC Music Magazine is the world's best-selling monthly classical music magazine, with a monthly circulation of 78,707 (ABC: Jan to Dec 2001) and is published by BBC Magazines - a division of BBC Worldwide Ltd, the main commercial arm of the BBC. BBC Worldwide does not use licence fee income for its activities and re-invests in public service programming. In 2001/2002 BBC Worldwide returned £106 million to the BBC.

The sales circulation figures are lower than GQs for example. Looking through the May 2007 edition I found 37.5 pages of direct advertising out of 133 pages including back and front covers.  clearly this is a magazine for a specialist interest market which probably remains at a fairly constant level. It is unlikely that this target audience would put up with magazines largely devoid of editorial content comprising mainly of adverts. This compares with the Male lifestyle market which appears to be very volatile.

In the table below you can see the average monthly figures for the music magazine sector as a whole.  Of course the actual readership of these magazines is likely to be much wider however it gives an idea of the size of the relative markets as a whole. These figures can be compared with the women' magazines sections with the women's weekly magazines market being huge by comparison. 

Music Magazine Market Sales July - Dec 2004


Q – 162,574 – up 0.6% 
Uncut – 114,034 – up 2.6% 
Mojo – 111,815 – up 7.1% 
The Fly – 107,943 – up 1.3% 
NME – 70,017 – down 3.5% 
Kerrang! – 61,844 – down 10.7% 
BBC Music – 56,096 – down 8.1% 
Classic FM – 43,077 – up 5.5% 
Gramophone – 42,791 – down 4.5% 
Classic Rock – 42,030 – up 4.2%

Womens' Magazines Overall 

  • Top 30 dominated by Women’s magazines - 10 different sectors
  • Women’s interests rank 1, 2, 4 and 9 in top 10

Women's monthly magazine Sales July - Dec 2004 

Debenham’s Desire – 973,116 – n/a 
Glamour – 620,391 – up 6.5% 
Cosmopolitan – 478,394 – up 3.9% 
Yours – 438,872 – up 8.7% 
Good Housekeeping – 435,076 – up 4.7% 
Marie Claire – 384,502 – up 6.6% 
Woman & Home – 332,646 – up 12.6% 
Company – 332.603 – up 0.6% 
Candis – 321,050 – up 4.7% 
Prima – 317,308 – down 3.9% 
New Woman – 280,448 – down 3.5% 
More – 274,635 – up 5.8% 
Red – 210,027 – up 6.8% 
Vogue – 206,834 – up 0.8% 
Elle – 202,074 – up 0.4% 
Real – 197,031 – down 4.2% 
Instyle UK – 191,001 – up 2% 
She – 180,160 – down 5.2% 
B – 166,145 – up 0.3% 
Eve – 160,210 – up 12.5% 
Family Circle – 140,305 – down 13.5%

Women's Weeklies 

During this period it was the top sector for magazines  it was the TOP Sector by circulation

- Women’s weeklies - 8,601,393 (average net circ / distribution per issue)

Take A Break – 1,222,774 – down 0.4% 
Chat – 636,310 – up 5.2% 
Now – 619,186 – up 4.6% 
That’s Life – 601,806 – up 0.7% 
Heat – 552,215 – down 2.6% 
Ok! – 529,492 – down 7.3% 
Woman – 527,764 – down 6.7% 
Closer – 504,350 – up 31% 
Woman’s Own – 449,688 – down 6.1% 
Woman’s Weekly – 447,696 – down 1.2% 
Bella – 428,028 – down 0.3% 
Best – 411,060 – down 2.2% 
New! – 396,079 – up 18% 
Hello! – 382,391 – up 9.1% 
Peoples Friend – 372,743 – down 1%

One can see from these figures that the women's magazine market was very variegated in the last six months of 2004 with a wide range of both monthly and weekly magazines on offer. The target markets for these magazines are fairly specific with age and class being the key factors in deciding the target market.  the fact that the women's weekly was the top selling sector may be explained by the fact that women still tend to be more responsible for domestic affairs and shopping. Many of these magazines provide tips and tricks for hosehold and child management and are conveniently and temptingly placed in supermarkets near checkouts.  

Reviewing the various sectors  it is easy to see that gender plays a huge part in the division of sales. As well as all the magazines specifically targeted at women the separate Health and Beauty section is primarily aimed at women. Magazines like 'Hair' for example have a few pages aimed at men. 

Health & Beauty

Boots Health and Beauty – 1,766,893 – down 2% 
Healthy – 280,075 – up 31.8% 
Slimming World – 261,426 – up 2.8% 
Weight Watchers – 243,010 – up 10.1% 
Top Sante Healthy & Beauty – 141,191 – up 8.5% 
Hair – 131,735 – down 16.4% 
Zest – 110,764 – up 5.4% 
Toni & Guy Magazine – 90,000 – n/a 
Slimming – 64,587 – down 5.3% 
Hair Ideas – 53,900 – n/a


The full range of sectors can't be covered here however it should be clear that the magazine sector is primarily driven by advertising. Age, class / status / communities of interest / lifestyle / consumer products magazines (computers / motors) dominate this sector comprise the main range of magazines. Interestingly the figures don't show anything about political or economical magazines sush as the New Statesman or the Economist.  The Economist is covered in a separate section about news magazines. As it has a clear global market without different editions this makes it different to many of the other magazinse such as Vogwhich will come out in a wide range of country editions which makes it more difficult to assess the size and influence of the magazines as a whole.  

May 05, 2007

Ownership of the UK Magazine Industry

Magazine Ownership & Control in the UK

Return to Lifestyle Magazines Hub

NUJ Slogan

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.

Media ownership, by title

Who owns your local paper or your favourite magazine? What else does that company own, and who controls it? Look it up here.

The Optician is filed under Optician, Die Zeit is filed under Zeit, and the Evening Posts should be under Nottingham, Reading, South Wales (Swansea), etc.

Click in the left-hand column to see titles in that range of the alphabet. Colours code for sectors.

Click: to see titles from...
0 - a .net UK (mags)
Bromley KM Extra UK (regional)
- b - 96.4 BRMB UK (bcast)
Oswestry - Border Counties Advertizer UK (regional)
- c - 95.8 Capital FM radio UK (bcast)
Montgomeryshire / Radnor / N Brecknock - County Times UK (regional)
- d - Dagblad de Limburger NL (regional)
Dziennik Wschodni PL (regional)
- e - E UK (mags)
Eyestyle UK (mags)
- f - (Unison) Focus UK (mags)
Fylde Extra UK (regional)
- g - Gabler Verlag DE (books) / / .cn / .fr etc US (online)
- h - Hachette Collections FR (books)
Jakt NO (mags)
i - j ibau DE (books)
JydskeVestkysten DK (regional)
k - l Kabel 1 DE (bcast)
Lytham St Annes + Fylde Express UK (regional)
- m - 102.7 Mercury Surrey and Sussex UK (bcast) UK (online)
- n - N24 DE (bcast)
NY1 News, New York, NY US (bcast)
- o - Oadby + Wigston Mail UK (regional)
Oyen - AB - Echo CA (regional)
p - q P.M. DE (mags)
Quo PT (mags)
- r - Réseaux + Télécoms FR (mags)
Rzeczpospolita PL (news)
- s - S + W Wales Trader UK (mags)
Színes TV Müsor HR (mags)
- t - T3 UK (mags)
Tyrone Times UK (regional)
u - v Ucluelet BC - The Westerly News CA (regional)
Vysokyj Zamok / Lviv UA (regional)
- w - Manufacturing Management - Demographic Data UK (other)
Wyvern radio UK (bcast)
x - z XFade UK (mags)
Zurban FR (mags)

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.

In Open Democracy the debate was opened by Robert W. McChesney who pointed out the tendency for media companies to be growing more important in the world of global capitalism by value.

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

James Curran on Global Media Concentration

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.

The Magazine Industry

The Magazine Industry 

Link to Lifstyle Magazines hub page

The following posts are written in relation to specific course requirements which examine issues and debates which circulate around the magazine industry. It is important first of all to define ones terms and then it is important to consider a brief history of the development of the magazine as a printed generic form which is different to newspapers, books and journals. This unit is examining the commercial consumer sector of the market however it is important to place this within the context of the overall magazine market therefore we will firstly look at the typology or different types of magazines with different types of market that exist at present. 

Introduction to the Typology of Magazines

As a description a magazine developed as a printed publication and then broadcast containing articles, stories, interviews activities by various people. Here we are focusing on the print media however with the growth of the internet most commercial consumer magazines have developed a web presence. This will need to be subjected to separate analysis on a case by case study as it is too early in the development of the web to come to hard and fast conclusions about form or even whether  online magazines have the potential to more or less replace print magazines.

The Magazine Mainstream 

Generically it is useful to split up the magazine market into three main areas. There are subscription only magazines which can be trade and business magazines which are not sold in the shops or newsagents. These are deservedly parodied on a regular basis in the TV 'quiz programme' "Have I Got News for You". To this type of magazine can be added magazines which are primarily aimed at subscribing members of organisations. For example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is Britain's largest pressure group with a membership approaching 1 million. They produce a quarterly magazine which is only sent to members. As sometimes whole 'families' are members the print run isn't 1 million but it is significantly more than a monthly 'lifestyle magazine' such as GQ which only has a run of about 125,000. These type of magazines have in the first instance very specialist target markets whilst in the case of voluntary organisations and pressure groups such as the RSPB ideological identiy is the key factor which unites the readership across class, gender, national, ethnic and age distinctions. As such they aim at a universal target market seeking to inform and develop their specific intersts.

The other core sector of magazine production is commercial consumer production in which the primary aim of the magazine is usually to make as much money as possible. Income is gained through a combination of the cover price and advertising with advertising usually bearing the brunt of of the costs of production and contributing to the profitability of the magazine. As avery approximate rule of thumb we can say that the more expensive the magazine the smaller the real audience (those buying the magazine) / target audience and the lower the advertising revenues. 

Another type of magazine which clearly falls into the commercial sector but which doesn't have a direct cover price is the newspaper magazine supplement. This trend emerged during the 1960s with  the reduction in costs of cloour printing and the development of a larger consumer marketplace. It first occurred in the more upmarket Sunday newspapers such as the Sunday Times and then The Observer. This tendency has grown since then and most weekend newspapers now have some form of colour 'supplement'. while this has increased the cover price the main costs are covered by advertising and they helped increase the circulation and profitability of the newspapers. 

The 'Alternative' Magazine Market 

There are occasional exceptions to the typology above in terms of magazine production. Occasionally enthusiasts may come together to produce a magazine which comes from their specific interests and isn't really about making money as they can only exist  through the labour power of enthusiastic supporters and volunteers. Examples of this type of magazine would be the Fanzines of the early punk-rock period and also the football fanzines which sprang up in the same period of the late 1970s early 1980s. As such both were mainly expressions of a vibrant emergent youth culture. These magazines rarely lasted for more than a few issues, and frequently the most dynamic people behind them went on to be successful journalists and critics within the mainstream media organisations. The classic example of the latter are Tony Parsons and Julie Birchill who also produced a book on Punk versus Rock called Boy Looked at Johnny . The late 1970s through to the mid 1980s had a younger culture of people into thier mid thirties who politically and culturally were generally anti-establishment, often anti-capitalist but espoused a politics of identity rather than class. this lead to the growth of a range of magazines in the margins some of which made it into the mainstream if only for a short time. Here a marker of making it into the mainstream can be seen as managing to be nationally distributed through newsagents such as W. H. Smiths.  Magazines such as the weekly Gay Times based upon sexuality but in most otherways was establishment in terms of its attitudes to commerce and politics was the most successful of these. Spare Rib initially a broadbased feminist magazine managed to make it into W. H. Smiths but the increasing facionalism within the editorial board meant that they lost much of their readership and audience and the magazine disappeared. It was a magazine which had an uneasy relationship with its advertisers as on the whole it was against what it saw as patriarchal businesses and really wanted adverts from women only organisations. This tended to make even more dependent than usual upon its readership.

There were also other more class based socialist and radical magazines which emerged at this time such as New Socialist, New Times and The Leveller. These never made it into the mainstream and being dependent more upon readership than advertising for their income stream also disappeared as debts mounted. 

Commercial Consumer Magazines 

For the purposes of discussing issues and debates  the focus of these postings is upon the straight commercial sector of the magazine market which is:

  • Dependent upon creating developing and maintaining specific target markets
  • Relies primarily upon over the counter sales and advertising for its main income streams

As with any area of media production we can look at the organisations and ownership of the media and we can look at their target market and audiences, the kind of content that is used to win develop and maintain audiences and the underlying idological stances which inevitably accompany content of any kind whether it is acknowledged in a clear fashion as is usual with political magazines such as The Specagstator (Concervative) or the New Statesman (Labour) or whther there are deeper idological forces at play within consumption such as the growth of the 'Lad's Mag' which many would argue are a result of a reaction to a crisis of masculinity brought about by the progress made by feminism from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s in terms of women's rights and equality at work and in terms of a legal system better equipped to defend women against sexual harrassment.

The Lad's Mags Gender Construction and Media Issues

Below a discussion of a hot debate stimulated by the Ofsted report which saw Lads' Mags as serving a useful social function. In the Box below you can see how Sky News chose to report it.

Sky News Report

'Lads mags' are a valuable source of information for teenage boys learningabout sex, according to the education watchdog.

Loaded Cover

A study from Ofsted claimed that teenagers were turning to weekly publications such as Zoo and Nuts to learn about the facts of life to fill the void left by parents, who are often failing to give sufficient support.

There is a current hot debate circulating around the issue of lads mags relating to whether they cover sex and relationships in a serious way at a suitable level for their target audiences. Interestingly the governmental educational inspection body in the UK Ofsted has recently endosed the 'Lads' Mags' as being a useful media vehicle for enabling teenage males to deepen and broaden their undestunding in the realm of sex education. Many professionals within the educational and health professions were of course horrified by the naivety displayed in this endorsement. Social Psychologist and lecturer in research methodologies Dr. Petra Boynton has been keen to highlight the issues in her blog. I have extracted the reactions of two of the unsurprisingly macho reactions of the editors of two of these magazines that Dr. Boynton has followed extracted from Press Gazette:

Loaded magazine’s editor Martin Daubney was quoted as saying “It’s not our job to educate people on the perils of sexually transmitted diseases, the perils of young pregnancies or the perils of Aids. That’s the job of government or parents or health authorities. Men’s mags have never set out and said ‘you must wear a condom, and don’t forget about Aids’. Men’s magazines if anything are the opposite of that — we’re the good time. If you mention to people about gonorrhoea and syphilis it ruins the fun. It’s lights on at the end of the party.”

Also within the feature Derek Harbinson editor of Maxim stated “We have to get things through as entertainment — you can’t sit and lecture people. There’s nothing very sexy about a feature about chlamydia — that’s not our job as an entertainment magazine. Our job is to give people social ammunition to go out and live better lives.”

Doubtless the born again 'postmodernist' strand of media lecturer committed to defending rampant populism at all costs would argue that this is of course postmodern irony. This leaves us as critics with a range of ways of reading the comments by Loaded and Maxim editors. Are the comments:

  1. By male morons for male morons
  2. By smartasses for male morons (in order to keep up the chosen image for thier target audience)
  3. By smartasses for smartasses who are well versed in the tenets of postmodern irony and can defend their enjoyment of the statement s by quoting a wide range of postmodern thinkers who espouse the position that society is 'post-idological'.

Answers on a poscard to Ofsted please :-)

Petra Boynton then continues by analysing the situation. from the media organisations perspective she places her finger firmly on a core question which I have emphasied below. Do the advertisers care whether the magazines want to be associated with endorsing unsafe sex?

As well as their job being about entertainment it’s also about making money. I don’t know whether advertisers would want to be associated with a magazine that’s endorsing unsafe sex for young men. Moreover, print media is in trouble and these magazines are fighting to stay afloat. The whole time they show contempt for their readers and an old school view of sex coverage the whole time their readers will go elsewhere for the information they need.

My answer to Petra Boynton's question is that it is unlikely that the advertisers are in the slightest bit intersted in the content provided it doesnt threaten the financial security of their client's sales. They would argue that as advertisers it is not their job to control the content of a magazine. Provided there is an audience prepared to read whatever drivel is in the magazine and who may be persuaded that buying a particular brand of aftershave, deoderant, etc. is going to give them a better opportunity to have sex the magazine will be prepared to advertise. Magazine sales and readership are the issues. What would be rather more of a concern for the advertisers is a range of popular articles by social psychologist about the fact that aftershaves boy-racer cars etc REDUCE their chances of getting female attention.  No advertiser is going to like their products being trashed in the magazine they are effectively subsidising! 

As you can see we have rapidly opened up two cans of worms regarding media issues and debates;

  • The underlying ideology of media content
  • The issue of where power and control of magazines actually lies.  

As a social psychologist with an interst in the underlying human issues Petra Boynton sensibly continues her argument in relatin to the issue of the underlying content. In her next paragraph she tackles head on the underlying issue of the idological construction of masculinity which is the common discourse within the genre of Lads' Mags: 

These editors just don’t get sex. They think to make it interesting it all has to be about performance, products and risk. Rather than it being about finding out what you like, learning what a partner likes and enjoying a sexual experience together – with the option to ask for help when things don’t work out.

What makes this issue especially intersting is the role of part of what the philosopher of ideology louis Althusser described as the Ideologicsal State Apparatus (ISA). Althusser here was describing the role of state institutions such as the educational ones in transmitting a specific ideology. As is described in the quotation below Ofsted was misguidedly underpinning the anti-feminist ideology of the 'Lads' Mags'.  Of course part of being 'Laddish' is a pretended rejection of authority which might undermine their swaggering. Here Dr. Boynton is arguably a little naive when it comes to analysing ideological positions. Had the editors NOT vehemently denied the rational approach espoused by her then the ideological rationale of 'Laddishness' itself set up against a feminist reasoning as a deliberate restatement of a lost form masculinity then the audience would have rapidly melted away.  What 'true lad' wants to have their masculinity authenticated by Ofsted for heaven's sake :-).    

Ofsted started this by stuffing up a report and naively believing because men’s magazines happened to exist they were a source of information for lads. We all knew that was a load of nonsense but I don’t think any of us expected that it would be lad’s mags themselves who came out and admitted what we knew – that Ofsted were wrong – and that men’s magazines take pride in not giving good sex information to young men.

How do audiences read texts? How can we tell? 

This leaves us with the tricky question of what the readership of these magazines actually does believe. The now commonly accepted view amongst media analysts who deal with the reception side of media (how audiences read media products) is that those who constitute any given audience are far more diverse in their life experience social, cultural and educational background than can be expected from the direct content. This means that inevitably the contents and overall stance of a magazine is negotiated by individuals in the audience. Some readers will understand the 'Loaded' position as a bit of laddish bravado. It would be seen as 'girlie' to deal with things such as sexually transmitted diseases but in reality they would have picked up the information elsewhere. Isn't sex education after all part of the school curriculum? This is important because it relieves the magazines of social responsibility which is offloaded onto the state. This of course leaves us with the reader who is especially moronic, who has wagged all the sex education lessons and neither knows nor cares about sexually transmitted disease.

Here we can pause to remind ourselves that underlying the concept of transmitted communications there are:

  • Preferred readings (there could be levels of complexity here): In the case of Loaded young men are looking for 'fun' and on the surface espousing forms of naughtiness in carefully adjusted ways of behaving a little bit socially irresponsibly
  • Negotiated readings: This is where the target audience will read a media text from thier own life positioning and have a more complex understanding of the surface preferred reading of the text
  • Resistant reading: Here Petra Boynton is resisting the preferred reading and wanting a more socially responsible magazine in an overt way which is more closely modelled on the construction of women's magazines. she is resisting the construction of masculinity as socially irresponsible and self-obssessed which is the dominant discourse of 'Lads' Mags'  
  • Aberrant Readings: This is the sort of male reader of these magazines who is so stupid that he doesn't recognise the whole stance of 'Laddishness' as being a bit 'tongue in cheek' ans becomes constructed as a serious machismo likely to genuinely transgress in life by spreading around sexual transmitted disease, being abusive to women, getting into fights.  

In the first instance the attitude of the 'Loaded' editor could be seen as not actually being genuinely socially transgressive in the sense he is not really encouraging his readership to have unprotected sex. Presumably he is intelligent enough to recognise that it would be a social disaster if alll his readership got aids. If he didn't have that level of intelligence then the magazine would be unlikely to survive or he would be sacked. True transgression of social mores it can be argued is therefore something else. These magazines unpleasant and stupid as they seem to most people with a modicum of social responsibility are in reality are tools  doing nothing to threaten the stability of the social system whatsoever. So says our classic postmodernist media analyst at least.

This kind of attitude denies the workings of ideology - in this case with regsrd to gender relations - it even denies the construction of the concept of a dominant discourse through which the social, economic, political, cultural and bodily gains of feminism are gradually recuperated by men. It is exactly when people don't recognise the existance of ideology that ideology is at it strongest. Arguably it is within 'Lad's Mags' that the narcissism and corresponding weakening of social responsibility in terms of personal behaviour which can be strongly linked to the growth of the mass consumption and 'lifestyle' are represented in their most acute form within the 'Laddish' culture. As argued below the Ofsted report which briefly mentions their role is sadly uninformed about the social realities. 

The Ofsted Report and inaccurate assessment of Men's Mags

As a councillor and psychologist Petra Boynton correctly raises a number of pertinent issues regarding these magazines with a a persuasive analysis of how these male discourses go well beyond the 'it's just a joke' kind of position which feminists have had to deal with since the 1960s and show how pressure form men on women can be demeaning and positively harmful whilst at the same time reconstructing women as merely objects of men's pleasure: 

What is worrying about the Ofsted report is the assumption that because lad’s magazines exist they automatically offer an opportunity for advice giving to young men. Evidence and experience of sex educators working in the media suggests this is completely untrue. Having lads magazines available has done little to increase young men’s knowledge of sexual health issues – but has led to an increase in incorrect sex information being given – in particular encouraging sexually coercive behaviour. Although Ofsted praised problem pages, where they exist in lad’s magazines they’re not written by qualified staff and often give young men inaccurate messages about sex.


To summarise the above we can see through the brief case study of 'Lads' Mags' that we quickly get into areas of the issues and debates which the unit is examining. Ownership / Advertising /Content / Audience are the key areas around which the debates emerge. At the wider level of society the ownership it will be argued reflects the power and wealth relations within the wider society and the content is geared to not challenging the mores of our current societal modes of living. This raises the question of whther the currently unfashionable ideology critique of the magazine industry as a whole needs to be resurrected in the light of a general refusal of the industry which is narrowly controlled to take on board the serious issues facing the World today.  

May 04, 2007

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others,2006: Dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A brief report and range of web links on this recently released film in the UK which was hugely successful in Germany and won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Stasi Surveillance Operative Wiesel

This film about the practices of the Stasi, the communist East German secret police, won a "Lola" award for best film as well as in six other categories.

The recent release of The Lives of Others has prompted some interesting reviews on BBC News 24 and a very interesting article by Anna Funder the author of Stasiland (2003) in the May 07  edition of Sight & Sound the British Film institute monthly magazine. 

Sight and Sound cover

The purpose of this current posting is just to flag up the film and its importance not only to those interested in Central and Eastern European affairs but also in the possibilities of subversion and change. Funder's article explores the possibilities of whther Donnersmarck's film in allowing for the possibilities of change and redemption is overoptimistic.

In the film a Stasi officer Wiesler who is assigned to surveillance of a playright eventual starts to cover up the indiscretions of the playright. The surveillance is instituted by a jealous bureaucrat who wants the woman back from the playright. In reality the whole situation becomes one of human agents manipulating and  resisting systems of power.

The Lovers in Lives of Others

Inevitably there are comparisons with the Holocaust and the role of Schindler. Donnersmarck has apparently claimed that Schindler was partially an inspiration for the film. in an atmosphere where the memories of the hated Stasi are still strong and where many ex-Stasi members according to funder are openly defending their position and aggressively demonstrating against memorial institutions and those investigating the role of the Stasi. in the sight and sound article Funder notes the increasing 'belligerence' of these people and comments about their response on the launch of her book in Leipzig:

... a phalanx of ex-Stasi or Party members placed themselves in the front row, glaring at me during the proceedings, muttering aggressively and taking furious notes. At question time I expected a discussion, but they sidled out  before they could be engaged in debate. (Funder, Sight & Sound May 07 p 19).

Funder notes that the film has gained critics in Germany because they point out that Schindler wasn't part of the Nazi machine as such, he was a private citizen with a business which was forced to use slave labour. There was no Schindler in the real Stasi they say precisely because the Stasi was a state machine with all its members entirely ideologically controlled without a crack. 

At a theoretical level one can be reminded of Foucault's ruminations on power in which the possibility for the reversal of the flow of power is always available. At the theoretical level it allows for the possibility of human agency and the whole debate falls into the classic tension between structure and agency within society. amongst all the thousands of Stasi over the years it is hard to believe that some were not willing to turn a blind eye against infractions for one reason or another whther through greed or a spark of humanity connecting with another person.

Here I'm reminded of an extract from a piece by Primo Levi a survivor of the camps which was part of a literature course I was on many years ago. In the extract a concentration camp guard eyes met those of his intended Jewish victim and in a brief flash of humanity a strange connectivity between the two people the guard neglected his 'duty' and failed to kill the victim. It is a story which which underpins and exonerates the position that Donnersmarck has taken in the film. Perhaps in the course of time we will find out what little acts of mercy slipped through the system.

The film raises all those questions about citizens caught up in an authoritarian strong state regime. Please note I'm avoiding the term totalitarian here for it espouses a certain political philosophical position emanating from people such as Hannah Arendt which is questionable.  Indeed the extent of collaboration and collusion, the possibilities of 'internal exile' where individuals withdraw as much as possible from the activities of the state in which they find themselves as unwilling members are all questions which arise from the film. 

In the UK at least the film gives us the opportunity to raise the issue of whether there are too many security cameras  watching UK citizens. Ironically I suspect that there are either not enough or they are targeted in the wrong places and they are used in a class based sense to protect that which is already well protected which is expensive property in city centres and other places. They aren't generally on motorways stopping the managerial classes speeding around at 120mph. Neither are they protecting the working classes from the lumpen elements within their midst in the housing estates often swarming with badly behaved teenagers who have no idea what to do with themselves and with little respect for themselves or anybody else. Whilst the film has resonances in Britain because of the actual and perceived social issues of public disorder and systems of control it seems more appropriate to keep this issue separate from The Lives of Others

Director von Donnersmarck

After its opening in the UK Lives of Other's was hitting the top spot in the ratings according to Time Out of April 25 2007 on the three day ratings chart. This makes a change from people gormlessly queing for cotton 'free' shopping bags (Sainsburys by Anya Hindmarsh, or 'Kate Moss' clothing presumably designed by others in reality. Ideology is at its strongest when people don't recognise it!)

1 1 The Lives of Others 20 £125,246


Lives of Others

Sight and Sound May 2007 review of Lives of Others

Feature and discussion with Donnersmarck in Time Out 

Guardian Blog on Lives of Others 

From Politics Central review of Lives of Others

Oscar best foreign film nomination report 1

Oscar best foregn film nomination report 2 

Guardian report on Warsaw best European film awards won by Lives of Others


Extract from the Guardian of Funder's book Stasiland

Granta Stasiland page 

Guardian review of Stasiland 

Interview with Anna Funder in World Press Review 

Talk and Q & A between Funder RMIT journalism students at the Fifth Estate

Funder wins BBC 4 Johnson prize

May 03, 2007

Yahoo's Mobile Move

Yahoo's Mobile Move


Ever since the start of the British Broadcasting A2 unit and the AS New Media Technologies unit I have been encouraging you to think about what the main trends in digitisation are going to be. I have repeatedly noted that the future of mobiles is going to be increasingly important. As evidence of this I have noted the rise of reception technology in the form of the yet to be released (at time of writing) iPhone. In the UK this can be seen as an early example of what, by 2012 will be common practice as prices drop. That is mobile handheld devices downloading video services which are streamed as well as other internet services.

To provide large numbers of consumers with streamed video services it will be necessary to have massive bandwidth capabilities. This of course is being provided by the great analogue switch-off in the UK which will have been completed by 2012 if all goes to plan. The government white paper of 2006 made it clear that 'innovative' mobile services was what the freed up spectrum would be used for amongst other things.

So we can see the various bits of infrastructure coming together now which will both on the institutional side and the customer side of the equation. What now remains is the development of suitable content.

The recent story outlined below about Yahoo the internet search engine is one of the building blocks towards developing a wide range of content which is designed specifically for handheld device useage.  

Yahoo's special mobile search service

Welcome to the new faces of Britain's advertising industry - Google and Yahoo (BBC link below)

Yahoo is deperately trying to become the number one search engine and in this game innovative services and advertising are key. Advertising is what is required and what drives these companies. It is no wonder that TV is beginning to lose out. It is worth looking first at the amount of business generated by Google to see what Yahoo who don't publish separate UK figures are up against.

Last quarter, Google broke out its UK sales figures for the first time.

In just three months, it hauled in revenues of $578m (£289m).

Quadruple that for a rough annual figure, and you get some $2.3bn (£1.15bn) - a number which outstrips the total revenue for TV station Channel 4 during 2006 of £937m. (my emphasis; BBC link below)

Yahoo's cutting edge approach

Yahoo has a cutting edge approach which is designed to position itself into the rapidly growing possibilities offered by the handheld device market. To be able to place advertising you must first of all be offering a service which is wanted and used by the audience. Yahoo's answer to this is:

"We can monitor user behaviour - anonymising it of course - and then match advertising to it," says Glen Drury. "We're going to try to make it so relevant you won't see it as advertising."

On the basis of this information they can deliver adverts designed to appeal to the user. in other words it is an intelligent and dynamic service.

But the new frontier is mobile search; and here Yahoo hopes to stage a fightback.

This week the company launched its Onesearch product in Europe, claiming it would revolutionise mobile search. The plan is first to attract a big audience on mobiles, then sell them to


above Yahoo shows how its mobile search screen looks. Below the accompanying blurb: 

Get better results – not just web links

Finally mobile search that works! Yahoo! oneSearch is now available for internet-enabled phones. oneSearch delivers results in a new, breakthrough format that redefines search for mobile phones. It’s all about getting instant answers with just one click - no need to sift through a bunch of links to find exactly what you’re looking for.

oneSearch results are easy to read, scroll through, and expand when you want more information - like more images to view - with a single click. You don’t have to “feel lucky” to be lucky every time with oneSearch!
(Yahoo website). 

The core approach of the service is that Yahoo oneSearch sifts out the feeble links which often come up on a typical Google search making it quick and easy for a user on the move to access what they need.

Below the advertising targeted towards the premium paying users of Internet enabled mobiles.

Yahoo Onesearch Phones


Overall it is clear the all the necessary pieces of a radically different internet for mobile users is developing. In the UK it probably won't be fully in place until 2012 but you can imagine how the Olympic games will be used as a marketing vehicle for this. Of course the other intersting thing is where will Rupert Murdoch's New international be in the new media landscape. Murdoch's empire is driven by the advertising revenues drawn by the popularity of its content. Perhaps we are going to have  MyMobileSpace - watch this space :-)   


Battle for mobile online advertising between Yahoo and Google 

Google launches new mobiles search service

May 2007

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