Friday, July 01, 2005

Manufacturing Dissent- A Democratic Media System to replace the Propaganda Model?

Can James Curran’s ideas regarding a “democratic media system” can accommodate the inequality concerns identified in Herman/Chomsky’s Propaganda model?


According to the ideology of liberal democracy, the independent media functions as a “Fourth Estate”, a watchdog over the affairs of business, politics and society. Its funding by the free market is supposed to guarantee its independence from government- ideally, it is autonomous from the State, unlike the experience of mass media in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, where it was a mere vehicle for State Propaganda. However, the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands, coupled with an ideological bent in favour of the status quo, has led many critical thinkers to question the mass media’s impartiality and objectivity, instead seeing it as an actor on the side of privilege and inequality. Most prominent amongst these theorists in recent years have been Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, whose Propaganda Model provides a framework for evaluating the ideological function of mass media in late capitalism.

The Propaganda Model (PM) argues that the mass media face hidden forms of control- five main filters which suppress news items, limit their running time or slant their coverage. These filters are (1) Ownership (2) Advertising (3) Sources (4) Flak and (5) Anti- Communism (today probably better defined as Anti-terrorism). Chomsky/Herman also try to explain why dissident voices are marginalised in a media that is increasingly part of a global corporate structure, that it has an inbuilt bias to portray strikers as disruptors of the economy, or anti globalisation protestors as violent radicals.

1. Ownership

The early history of the print media in Britain was characterised by a proliferation of radical newspapers aimed at the working class. Growing on the back of the Chartist movement, papers such as the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Red Republican dwarfed the readership of pro establishment newspapers such as the Daily Mail or the Times. They provided an alternative world view to the dominant ideology, one that challenged the economic status quo so much that authorities made use of the libel laws and coercive “stamp duties” to drive the radical media down. Readers pooled their resources to resist these fines and taxes successfully- in the end, these papers were driven out of the marketplace by the rising capital costs of new printing technology. Today, publishing a national newspaper or running a TV channel requires significant capital unavailable to most.

The fact that media outlets are mostly privately controlled corporations gives their owners huge power over editorial decisions. Media barons such as Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi and Tony O Reilly control huge swathes of both national and international print and broadcast media, oftentimes wielding considerable political power- e.g. Murdoch backed Blair’s New Labour for election in his tabloids, whilst Silvio Berlusconi emerged from the political wilderness to become Italy’s Prime Minister by using his control of most of Italy’s TV channels and press.

The modern mass media in America and Europe are now huge businesses which are often owned by larger corporations. For example, American TV networks CBS and NBC are owned by Westinghouse and General Electric respectively. Herman and Chomsky point out, for instance, that: 'GE and Westinghouse are both huge, diversified multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons production and nuclear power.' GE has also “contributed to the funding of the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing think tank that supports intellectuals who will get the business message across” E. Herman and N. Chomsky, A Propaganda Model, Chapter 16, Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, Blackwell Publishing, 2002. (p288).

These organisations are thus far from neutral players in society, and as corporations would be in favour of free market ideology. Managers of media organisations are thus constrained by the profit orientation of their owners, and reportage critical of this ideology would tend to be side lined.
2. Advertising

The second filter of the propaganda model is advertising. Most modern newspapers (and TV stations) are funded by advertising, which gives the corporations who advertise with them considerable economic power over these outlets. Oftentimes the culture of these organisations is socially conservative. Businesses can threaten to withdraw advertising if the media constantly air criticisms and exposes over their labour practices or environmental records. “Working class and radical media also suffer from the political discrimination of advertisers- political discrimination is structured into advertising allocations by the stress on with money to buy. But many firms will always refuse to patronise ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging their interests”. Ibid., (p291)

3. Sourcing

The third of Herman and Chomsky's 5 filters relates to the sourcing of mass media news: 'The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.' Even large media groups such as RTE or BBC cannot afford to have reporters and cameras everywhere a story happens- they must concentrate their resources where significant news occurs. This leads many media outlets to rely on what are known as the “Primary Definers”- the press conferences of the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street, elected politicians, the Police, government scientists or ‘recognised experts’. Because these people are recognised or powerful, what they say is news- they “define the agenda”. Journalists, who constantly take the side of the nameless masses, be they strikers, anti war demonstrators or global justice activists can be readily accused of partisan bias, even though members of these groups can often have more relevant information than the Primary Definers. 4. Flak

The fourth filter is 'flak', which Herman and Chomsky define as ‘negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action'. (p298)

Chomsky sees these organisations as mostly right wing front organisations of groups such as the Petrochemical Agency, the ‘Intelligence Community’ or big business, whose constant, systematic and organised criticism of the “biased”, “left wing”, “liberal” media creates a perception that the media are going too far or are imbalanced, erring on the side of the radical left.5. Anti-Communism / Anti-Terrorism

Herman and Chomsky created the PM during the Cold War, but the political hostility of the West towards the former Soviet Bloc can today be seen in the ideological offensive waged through the “War on Terrorism”. In times of war, the media is expected to “back our boys”, to demonise the enemy as evil, irrational and inhumane.
The adage that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” can be seen in the semiotic shift in Afghanistan, where groups who were originally backed by the West as Anti-Soviet patriots and freedom loving Muhjahadeen, became evil Islamist murderers. Ideological hostility towards radical left movements is still part of the media’s vocabulary- witness the tabloid strategy of tension leading up to the Mayday 2004 protests in Dublin. Chomsky and Herman claim that the mass media attempt to constrict debate between “conservative and liberal wings”, with anything further to the left seen as irrational or “loony”.

It is difficult to synopsise an intricate model in the space of a thousand words, but these five filters provide for considerable inequalities in the mass media’s treatment of dissenting voices. To counter this propaganda model, James Curran proposes a social-democratic, third way- one that he calls a Democratic Media System.

The Democratic Media System

Curran sees the media as a major player in what Jurgen Habermas calls the public sphere, which Habermas describes as “a space where access to information affecting the public good is widely available... within this public sphere, people collectively determine through rational argument the way in which they wish to see society develop, and this in turn shapes government policy. The media facilitates this process by providing an arena of public debate and by reconstituting private citizens as a public body in the form of public opinion”.
Summarised in J. Curran, Media and Democracy: the Third Way, p233-4

However, for Curran, contemporary political society is no longer made up of autonomous individuals, which he sees as “an 18th century archaic idea of polity”.
Instead, individual citizens are represented by organisations such as political parties, civil society, NGOs and social movements etc. Societies core is formed by Government, the civil service, the judiciary, parliament, political parties, elections and party competition, which are regulated by various agencies. Outside this core are two groups- (a) Customers such as business associations and labour unions, and
(b) Suppliers such as voluntary associations, public interest groups, and the new social movements.

The Democratic media system (DMS) should enable these opposed or separate groups to express themselves effectively, and “aid a process of communal understanding and equitable compromise”. It needs a well developed specialist sector- an activist minority media assisting collective organisations to recruit support- and sees the representative role of media helping civil society to be effective. Above this he sees a general media sector- who in a “shared search for solutions”, facilitate democratic procedures.

The DMS has a pluralistic design, because, as Curran observes:
“In most societies, the media are linked to the hierarchy of power, and tend to promote social integration on its terms”. It is “Publicly accountable in multiple ways… its architecture is designed to create places for the incubation and communication of opposed viewpoints, and a common space for their mediation” p241.

Thus it can be seen to address some of the concerns of the Propaganda Model.

At the Core of the DMS lie general interest TV channels with a mass audience.
These are fed by four peripheral media sectors, some of which facilitate dissenting and minority views. The first two can be seen in most European countries with a state broadcasting regime. These are-
1. A Private sector which “relates to public as consumers, and acts as a restraint on over entrenchment of minority concerns to the exclusion of majority pleasures.”
2 A Professional Media: modelled on the values of public service broadcasting networks such as RTE or the BBC, which allows professional communicators operate with a minimum of government constraint.
In addition, he sees two other sectors-

3. A Social Market sector, where the state subsidises minority media to promote market diversity, media pluralism and choice. He points to the fact that many European countries have some form of anti-monopoly media legislation. This allows their TV channels to commission quotas for home-grown programming- for example, the support for films in France, or in the UK, Channel 4 commissioning programmes specifically for ethnic or subcultural minorities.

4. A Civic Media sector, which will provide channels of communication linked to organised groups and networks. Curran sees these primarily as activist organisations within civil society- they include political parties as well as new social movements, and he organises them in three tiers-

Propagandist links between civic organisations and the wider public, building support for partisan perspectives and sets of political objectives.
Subcultural networks. Gay/lesbian magazines, travellers multicultural and immigrant media, relating to a specific social constituency
Intra-organisational media e.g. trade union journals, student union publications which hold leadership accountable to their rank and file membership.

He sees two ways to reinvigorate civic media-
(a) Grants- “In Norway, the weekly journals of the political parties, immigrant groups and other organisations receive financial support amounting in 1995 to £2.6 million
(b) Bandwidth- an alternative is to assign “spectrum, technical facilities”
Civil society should exercise control over publicly owned bandwidth through lease and time share, radio and TV channels- this has been carried out in Cable TV networks in several US cities, where the resultant actors are largely ideological, religious or social organisations.

Addressing the concerns of the Propaganda Model

Curran essentially argues that with increased state funding, either through direct grants or through help with start up costs in the ‘Social Market’, society can increase media access, democracy and diversity. In addition, the demands for a Civic Media control of bandwidth is an idea that has arrived- the technology of Digital TV and Internet radio confounds previous government regulatory arguments that bandwidth was a “scarce resource”. These positions are supported by a wide range of civic and community groups in Ireland who are federated to the Community Media Network ( ), and there are active campaigns to realise some form of the DMS throughout Europe and beyond. (See the European Forum for Communication Rights at or )
However, a major criticism of the DMS is that it seems to believe in a holistic, ‘conflict resolution’ approach to ideological conflict, a methodology reminiscent of Tony Blair’s over-hyped ‘Third Way’. The strength of Harman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model is that it identifies an irresolvable tension between mass media and audience, one that is rooted in the nature of capitalism itself. Although the DMS may provide alternative channels to the mainstream, the mainstream will continue to act in a biased and ideological way, and will seek to hegemonise, ridicule or marginalise critical opinion.

Many media and egalitarian activists continue to build independent media- and editorial independence from state funding is very important if the State is not also a neutral arbiter. Radical newspapers such as Socialist Worker, the Voice and An Phoblacht have won themselves an audience and base by taking the side of the powerless. There is a danger in Chomsky’s model of seeing the media as a homogenous, right wing bloc- there are still many spaces where critical voices can be heard. Within the mainstream media, courageous journalists such as John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Eamonn Mc Cann and Paul Foot continue to win space, hearts and minds to an anti-capitalist, anti-war perspective. We must also remember that just because certain media push a right wing message, the audience can oftentimes decode this in a negotiated or oppositional way. The effects of the propaganda model, even without the mediation of a DMS, are not akin to a Hypodermic injection of ideology to the brain. An audience will resist messages it knows it is untrue if it has alternative sources of information e.g. the huge trade union strikes that toppled the first Berlusconi government- no matter how many TV stations he owned, his propaganda couldn’t change the fact that he wanted to half people’s pensions!

Finally, DMS or no, the internet has provided a horizontal networking communication tool unprecedented in history. Inspired by the anti capitalist movement, the global phenomena of finds its Irish _expression at, where activists instantly publish text articles, photographs, audio and video clips that can reach an international audience. The revolution may not be televised, but it will certainly be organised on the web!

James Curran, Media and Power, Routledge London
In particular Chapter 8, Media and Democracy: the Third Way, p233-4

E. Herman and N. Chomsky, A Propaganda Model :Chapter 16 in
Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Colin Sparks, Resistance: the Movement, the Media and the War

International Socialism 98 (Spring 2003), London, 2003.

Websites :,, .

Challenging the Corporate Media- The Press Barons Ball

The Press Barons BALL

VIDEO of the protest against the

MONDAY JUNE 9th- 12 noon: GR picketed the opening ceremony of the World Newspapers Congress at the RDS. That evening at 8pm, there was a loud and colourful demonstration outside the reception being held for the WNC at the Guinness Storehouse in James Street. Top hats, monocles and copies of the Scum abounded at the Press Barons Ball!

Joe Carolan, GR-
“Many people feel that the corporate media present a biased view of the world. Anti war activists feel that our side of the argument was marginalised in favour of the pro war pundits- many newspapers sided with Bush and Blair’s hollow arguments for war on Iraq- but where are the WMDs? The myth making power of corporate media was seen by many as pro war propaganda, with only a few principled journalists like John Pilger or Paul Foot cutting against the mainstream.”

“But it is not only wartime propaganda that we are protesting against- Print Media also re inforces many stereotypes and myths in daily life about the role of women, the status of refugees and asylum seekers, and the validity of workers taking strike action to defend jobs and services against privatisation. Corporate print media is not a free press- huge corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s News International, Tony O Reilly’s Independent Newspapers and Lord Conrad Black’s Express Group are part and parcel of an economic system that puts profit before people- indeed all three corporations have been involved in attacks on their own journalists and printers unions.”

“Trade unionists who have been vilified as dinosaurs and militants, asylum seekers and refugees who have been demonised as scroungers, women who feel that the media peddles sexist stereotypes of their bodies, will join anti capitalists who believe we need an alternative radical press, a true free press from the grassroots.”