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West Africa; Review on Global Media Governance - A Beginner's Guide, by Seán Ó Siochrú and Bruce Girard with Amy Mahan

11 Dec 2002

  • Source
  • Title: Who Controls Global Media?
  • Author(S): Desmond Davies
  • Date: 18 Nov 2002
  • Publication: West Africa

The issue of regulating the media in the past and present has been a controversial one. Controversial in the sense that regulating the media would appear contrary to what democratic societies take for granted – freedom of speech and expression. But the advent of new technologies that the media sector has witnessed is presenting major problems for regulating the media.

For those who are concerned about the forces that are influencing global media today, the Geneva-based UN Research Institute for Social Development has co-published a book that looks at issues central to the debate of media governance at the global level: Global Media Governance – A Beginner’s Guide.

Given that media governance has to deal with regulation, the book tackles a number of crucial questions: why regulate the various media at all? What currently are the major forms of global regulation and how do they work? Who is involved in and who benefits from media regulatory and governance structures? And what are the trends?

Despite the intense arguments between politicians and media owners, there is no gainsaying that there is some need to regulate the media. Regulating the media is a means by which governments contrive to safeguard the state as an entity while at the same time offering protection to their citizens, ensuring, for example, that television programmes are produced in the interest of the public.

But what is the public interest and who decides what the public interest is? In this regard, one needs to ascertain whether it is the public or the demands in society that could be said to be the driving force behind the types of programmes that broadcasters air.

Evan as governments today grapple with the matter of how best to regulate the media – to make them more “responsible” – we should not forget that state control and censorship played a major part in the development of the media.

This has been all in the name of regulating the media. Such regulation, though, would depend on the sort of political system that obtains in a country. In a democracy, there is not normally direct state intervention in the editorial control of the media.

But today the media play a central role in everyday life. The influence of the media encompasses the political, social, economic and cultural aspects of society. It is this centrality of the media’s influence that is the linchpin of any regulation to govern their operations. Thus, the ever rising influence of the media over so many dimensions of life and society underscores the importance of finding answers to the questions raised in Global Media Governance.

Broadcasting, more than any other aspect of the communications media, has been the most regulated. But the public sphere is changing and public service broadcasting is beginning to adapt to change brought about by deregulation and privatisation. The rise of satellite and cable television has increased choices for the public. Added to this, as the authors point out, new technologies have also led to cross-border broadcasting.

This is where the problem lies. In the past, governments have used the communications media as key instruments of nation building. Now, with the media in the control of multinational corporations, the situation has changed drastically. For these corporations according to the authors, their “national allegiance, if any, is subsumed under corporate exigencies. Satellite television and the Internet know no boundaries; even local radio stations are deemed worthy of control and are swallowed up by major media conglomerates.”

On the telecommunications front, they note: “Likewise, most countries have shed all claims to their telecommunications sector as a matter of strategic sovereignty. One by one, national telecommunications networks, especially in less industrialised countries are moving to multi-national ownership, their growth and spread motivated by narrow commercial goals.”

There is no doubt that, even in a free society, regulating the media is important. Regulation is needed within the ambit of a country’s legal system and at the global level in order to protect the state and society as a whole. In this regard, it is essential that those involved in formulating media policy at the global level are fully aware of the struggle for media control and which actors shape the future of global communication and how they do it.

Global Media Governance has done well to tackle a range of issues that are involved in regulating media globally. These are the processes of media convergence, increased commercialisation and international competition and deregulation.

by Desmond Davies

Posted with the permission of West Africa (Issue 4352, 18th-24th November 2002).