The Power of the Media
The media is considered one of the prime avenues of communication and information transference spanning numerous fields like entertainment, education, journalism, politics et cetera and, as such, it has been blamed extensively for disputing and diluting local cultures by providing foreign realities a local platform, thus presenting foreign norms and ideals as favourable.
Do the media have any power? Exactly what influence do the media exert over society? These are but some of the questions that one needs to ask when analysing the media and social change. In our attempts to best understand media influence and power over a people and their culture, primarily we need to have a look at the state. Allow me to explain.
Culture is the customary consensus of a people within a defined territory. In our analysis of foreign media and its domestic ramifications, we, therefore, have to look at foreign media as a force infiltrating the local sphere and coming into contact with the various, leading and/or already existing ideology/ies present therein. This interaction will inevitably lead to change, change brought about by one culture being more powerful and/or influential than the other. This change is the determining factor of cultural imperialism, cultural perseverance or state hegemony. The local state is thus exposed to alien influence once foreign media (a representative of the ideals of a foreign state) enters its defined territory. And due to globalisation as we will see, physical boundaries are no obstacle for the free flow of information.
Following the logic of Max Weber, the modern state aims to possess a monopoly over the legitimate right to exercise rule via the use of force within the state. Weber argued that the state had monopoly over the use of force, meaning it, and only it had the legitimate right to use force. This right to force it exercised through its various subsidiaries, the police within the state, and the army for external purposes.
Being the sovereign or supreme ruler, the state thus aims to cater for its people and facilitate the pursuance of cultural endeavours amongst others. In a good political system, the relationship between politics (government), populace, media and the state represents a synergy or a balance that allows for the performance of each factor. Therefore, the defining factors of the modern state are: sovereignty, territory and legitimacy.
In the words Held and McGrew: “The promotion of the concept of sovereignty was pivotal to the state’s development, as it lodged a special claim to the rightful exercise of political power over a circumscribed realm – an entitlement to exclusive rule over a bounded territory. Modern states thus enjoyed supreme jurisdiction over a demarcated territorial area, backed by a claim to a monopoly of coercive power, and enjoying legitimacy as a result of the loyalty or consent of its citizens. These innovations of the modern state marked out its defining character”.
The state thus enjoys power within its territory; and provides a conducive climate for the exertion of a zeitgeist. The zeitgeist is a ‘spirit’ of the era; encompassing all religious inclinations as well as the economic and political systems etc. The zeitgeist thus represents an amalgamation of social systems and realities that distinguish an era or people, it, therefore, determines the norm. State power is, therefore, a ‘commodity’ to be preserved, as explained by Kate Nash, “the nation state is the principal site of politics. State power is both the stake of politics and also the principle means by which economic power is exercised”.
This is why international wars tend to be fought, in attempts to preserve the state (along with its beliefs, ideals and ideologies) or to extend its domain. Look at the Cold War, a battle of political ideologies (communism and capitalism) or the crusades (religious conflicts), all fought to either spread or maintain one’s zeitgeist (intellectual fashion of the time). The state is, therefore, a pivotal factor in determining media power, for its positioning post foreign contact is what determines between subjectivity and objectivity.
Power in simple terms is the ability to make things happen as per your will, the ability to make people do what you want, whether willingly or not. The state has legitimate power within a nation’s territory because the population has mandated it that, thus allowing their own desires to be curbed by this institution in the hopes that it shall maintain order. In his renowned work ‘The Leviathan’ (1651), Hobbes argued that people will willingly give up some of their rights to a state in the hopes that the state will protect their other rights thus preventing a state of nature (chaos and war). For Castells, power “is the capacity to impose a given will/interest/value, regardless of consensus”. Similarly, Dahl defines power as “a realistic… relationship, such as A’s capacity for acting in such a manner as to control B’s responses”. Both these definitions assume that power is possessed by an entity, which then enforces it on another entity.
Alexander and Thompson expand this definition by referring to power as “the ability to mobilise the resources of society in order to attain a particular goal. Power is concentrated in and monopolised by the state, but individuals can have power as well”. Seeing that power is concentrated within a clearly demarcated territory, logic follows that each state power is limited within its territory. So one state (say Namibia) has no authority over another state (say Angola), so much so that when soldiers of one country travel into another, they have to give up their uniform at the border, for they cannot exercise any power whatsoever within a territory other than their own (exceptions made in special cases such as war, military aid, electoral supervisions etc).
When one state then attempts to extend its dominion or authority over another, it is seen as illegal and such an action can validate conflict (colonialism, etc). But as we will see, there is another form of spreading and extending one’s power on to foreign lands, extending one state’s influence over another and thus influencing its people while also undermining their state. Since this process does not require violence, many have claimed it to be a strategy that has been employed by superpower states once they desisted on colonising but nonetheless sought to remain imperialists.
This process is seen as the globalised media. Through the media, one country’s ideals can be presented in another. This strategy targets the cultural systems of a state by favourably presenting foreign cultures as a norm to be strived for and achieved. Local ‘third world’ girls can now be exposed to a foreign reality of how dating and maintaining romantic relationships with the opposite sex is a norm and a necessity. At the same time they can be exposed to a foreign reality that submitting oneself to marriage or motherhood is a choice whereas education a ‘need’.
These examples testify to how the media undercuts local cultures by presenting other possible alternatives not housed in the local culture, like the questioning of religion is a norm in the West, but many African nations see that as blasphemous and even criminal.
What most interests this paper is what many scholars have termed cultural politics, which too is a representation and exercise of power. This idea is best represented in Castells understanding of power as exercised through cultural codes.
“In this case power is not located in the minds but in inter-subjective structures of meaning within which events, experiences and people are framed and understood and legitimacy is gained”. In this scenario, power is then seen to exist within social interactions that determine the status quo or norm. Power is therefore seen to be exercised through culture, by a group shaping a culture that is then inflicted on or welcomed (considering the allure of the media/um) by its audience.
Castells argues, “Elites reproduce themselves through cultural codes embedded in social structures to create lifestyles, spaces and global symbolic communities which constitute an exclusive shared identity”. In such a setting, the idea of power must be extended beyond its traditional direct scope as defined above, of power of A over B. Here B is not aware of A’s complete power due to a false reality which B is unaware he helps to uphold. Elites thus reproduce themselves or guarantee their position by creating a plausibly sympathetic reality.
In order to gain support and approval, elites project an image or idea that leads to mass sympathy or understanding that justifies the actions of said elites; these projected ideas are accepted since they are laced with cultural notions that the masses are familiar and can sympathise with. Power must, therefore, be seen as embedded in the practises, which reproduced over time and space, constitute the material social structures of the information age.
The media espouses and is a collection of the cultural norms, ideals and values of an area, it is the values and ideals of a population being put on ‘loudspeaker’ and widely broadcasted in order to maintain or challenge the realities of the social sphere in which it exists. Since the media is a form of mass communication, some states actually make use of the media in transmitting desired information to its people thus maintaining their authority and power. But unlike the states rule, the media is not limited within a physically defined territory. Due to globalisation, the media is a free flow of information, so much so that physical distance is not a factor when talking of communication.
And as we have already seen, some nations dominate media networks so much so that the relationship of media is a one-way relationship from source to extensions, or as some (dependency theorists) have famously argued, from core top periphery. In such a relationship it is the core’s media that extends to other nations, and seldom the other way around. Serge Latouche validates this when he says: “One-way ‘cultural’ currents flooded from the countries of the centre over the entire planet: images, words, moral values, legal notions, political codes, criteria of competence flowed centres of creation into the third world through the media (newspapers, radio, television, films, books etc.). As early as the 1960’s, the news market was the virtual monopoly of four agencies: Associated Press, United Press (both USA), Reuter (Britain) and France-Press. 65 percent of ‘world’ news came from the USA, 30 to 40 percent of all television programmes were imported from the centre” (1996: 20).
This leads to the following reality, the media represents the extension of morals, values and ideals all over the world, thus the extension of a nation on to other nations. This type of extension of power was common during colonialism when it would be introduced after the use of power, in the attempts to subdue and conquer. Nowadays it is more subtle. ‘Trojan Horse’ or ‘Sheep in Wolves Clothing’ politics is an improvement from colonialism in the sense that foreign media is welcome and venerated by locals who feel like they are a part of the global interrelations since they are allowed a glimpse and participation of a foreign culture.
Foreign media thus comes to affect local state power by dislodging and undermining the local state, which as we have seen, serves the purpose of maintaining the zeitgeist. As Castells argues in ‘The Information Age’ series: the nation state has been displaced as the site of politics. Politics is changing in this respect as a result of globalisation. It is widely agreed that the nation state has been displaced as a result of processes of globalisation leading to the decline of state autonomy and the development of ‘Pluralised sovereignty’.
We, therefore, see how the media has and can wield its power in contemporary society. It is a form of extending one nations ideals and power onto another, a processes greatly facilitated by globalisation. Therefore strong local systems are necessary in ensuring autonomy. This way of thinking has come under slight critique and modifications from scholars who believe that the international relationship of media is not a simple and straightforward endeavour.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this way of thinking came under critique because of its notion of a one way flow of communication and information (core to periphery) from the West to the peripheries, and was challenged by the counter argument that global flows are multidirectional. Sreberny-Mohammadi (1996) points out that “the simple image of Western dominion obscures the complex and reciprocal nature of interaction between different and increasingly hybridized cultures over centuries” (Curran and Park, 2000: 5). Similarly, Giddens (1999) argues that a process of reverse colonisation is actually occurring whereby cultural elements from previously colonised nations are actually being transmitted and thus affecting the cultures of previously colonising nations.
We nonetheless see that the media possess a substantial amount of power that can undermine a state and its people. Globalisation is a process that is unlikely to come to an end, hence nations have to acknowledge the presence of their neighbours and not attempt to cease them. But what we do need to see more often is the involvement of the state in catering and bolstering local cultures.
This entails the provision of programmes that helps people in tune with their history and heritage, making avenues for the utilisation of native languages and practises. There are many traditional and modern features that will have to be disregarded in orchestrating this process. The key lies in knowing what to reference and restore whilst also knowing what to overlook. The revival and restoration of old ways, whether good or bad is not a better solution than the total eradication or weakening of local systems that accompanies the processes of globalisation and westernisation, especially since some features of traditional life were very oppressive and therefore deserve to go.
We therefore need to find paths leading to development and heterogeneity that can combine the best traditional values and technical advances with social justice.