Viewers got no choice - Farooq Sulehria - Monday, April 18, 2011

Zirgham Afridi, in his piece “Viewers, speak up” (March 31), lamented that our TV screens were dominated by advertisements. He wants audiences and Pemra to act against this trend.

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton reproached the US networks for devoting too much time to advertisements. She thought Al Jazeera was getting popular in the US because the Qatari network does not irritate its audiences by a commercial break every ten minutes.

The product that TV networks sell is attention of audience; their primary market is the advertisers. The role of the West in Iraq has been widely criticised because only glimpses of the truth appear on Western networks – because burned and blasted bodies affect the sale of cars and toothpaste!

Media executives “worry that the flood of grisly images flowing into living rooms from Iraq and elsewhere will discourage advertiser,” as someone noted. A General Motors spokesperson explained that her company “would not advertise on a TV programme about atrocities in Iraq.” And in the words of an advertising executive: “You don’t want to run a humorous commercial next to horrific images and stories.”

The logic of the commercial model is that, in the case of the print media, a newspaper has to attract advertising in order to cover the costs of production and prevent its price skyrocketing beyond buyers’ reach. The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent – Britain’s most progressive broadsheets – depend on advertising for 75 percent or more of their total takes.

The mere threat of withdrawal of advertising can affect editorial content. In April 2005, General Motors pulled its advertising from The Los Angeles Times, after it called for the sacking of GM chief executive Rick Wagoner.

When a 2000 Time magazine series on environmental campaigners, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, failed to mention anti-car campaigners, Time’s international editor explained: “We don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes.”

Commercialisation is credited in standard academic narratives with the economic emancipation of the press from state control, given that, coming largely from advertising, newspaper profits enable newspapers to be free of dependence on state and party subsidies. In a study on the British press of the early 19th century, Dr Ivon Asquith notes: “Since sales were inadequate to cover the costs of producing a paper, it was the growing income from advertising which provided the material base for the change of attitude from subservience to independence ...The growth of advertising revenue was the most important single factor in enabling the press to emerge as the Fourth Estate of the realm.”

US media scholar Michael Schudson justifies commercialisation of mass media by saying commercial journalism sometimes best serves its democratic obligations in following the instinct of outdoing competitors, by being at the right place at the right time when a surprising revelation surfaces of an unanticipated event.

Schudson’s argument is contradicted by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieue who thinks that, in fact, newspapers’ competition for scoops, exclusives, big names, leads to “uniformity, censorship, and even conservatism.”

“One very simple example: the battle between the three French weekly magazines, Le Nouvel Observateur, L’Express and Le Point, results in their being indistinguishable. To a large extent this is because the competitive struggle between them, which leads them to an obsessive pursuit of difference, of priority and so on, tends not to differentiate them but to bring them together. They steal each other’s front page stories, editorials, and subjects... Another battle typical of what happens in the journalistic field is that the Le Nouvel Observateur and L’Express each in turn brought forward their publication by one day,” he points out.

Similarly, in his study of British media’s history, British scholar James Curran rejects the usual neo-liberal claims about competition and advertising. He says: “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in establishing the press as an instrument of social control, with lasting consequences for the development of modern British society.”

Curran notes that direct state censorship in Britain was never fully effective as the state lacked the sophisticated apparatus necessary to control the press. For instance, libel prosecutions, even when upheld, were often counter-productive. The circulation of The Republican, for example, increased by over 50 percent in 1819 when its editor was prosecuted. Also, it was not the commercial press that posed problems. The principal challenge came from the radical press, appealing by the 1830s to a large working-class audience, for which seditious libel prosecutions became a valuable source of promotion. The disillusioned Attorney General in 1832 concluded that “A libeller thirsted for nothing more than the valuable advertisement of a public trial in a court of justice.” Understandably, the number of libel prosecutions fell sharply. Whereas there were 167 prosecutions for seditious and blasphemous libel in the period 1817-24, there were only 16 during 1825-34. Hence, libel law, being counter-productive, was substantially modified in 1843. The government relied increasingly, instead, upon the so-called “taxes on knowledge” – a stamp duty on each copy of a press publication sold to the public, a duty on each advertisement placed in the press, and a tax on paper.

Even press taxes, sharply increased between 1780 and 1815, were rendered ineffectual by systematic evasion of the stamp duty by a highly organised radical press with well developed distribution networks. Workers would organise purchase of newspapers by pooling their resources or through their unions. Pressure was exerted on taverns to purchase radical papers through the threat of withdrawing custom.

Paradoxically, in the second half of the 19th century, despite the repeal of the advertisement duty in 1853 and the stamp duty in 1855, the radical British press was nearly eliminated owing to “commercialisation” of the popular press. “Newspapers concentrated upon the easy arousal of sensationalism rather than taxing political analysis in order to maximise sales: reports of crime, scandal and sport displaced attacks on capitalism as more saleable commodities,” notes Curran. Technology further silenced the radical press. Hoe printing presses, introduced in the 1860s and 1870s, were gradually replaced by rotary machines of increasing size and sophistication in the late Victorian and Edwardian England. “Craft” composing was revolutionised by Hattersley’s composing machine in the 1860s and 1890s. Meantime, numerous innovations were also made in graphic reproduction. These developments meant a sharp hike in fixed capital.

However, even more important was the effect of growing demand, because of the repeal of press taxes, on the running costs and cash flow requirements of newspaper publishing.

Once market forces, patronised by the state, had established their dictatorship over the media business, it became increasingly difficult to sustain even widely-distributed progressive newspapers. For instance, in Britain The Daily Citizen, launched in 1912, with a capital of only £ 30,000 subscribed mainly by trade unions reached a circulation of 250,000 at its peak within two years and was only 50,000 short of overhauling The Daily Express established in 1900. A more leftwing Daily Herald had a circulation, in 1914, of 250,000. But none of them survived. By the time it stopped publication, The Daily Herald was read by 4.7 million people, a number nearly twice as many as the readership of The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times put together.

The moral lesson of the story: corporate media cannot deceive its own logic. The audiences have to put up with it, or shut up. The only alternative is an alternative media.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


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