The Political Economy of International Communications

McChesney and Schiller, in “The Political Economy of International Communications”, largely argue about the changing political and economical atmosphere globally and how that has affected the production of media. They dispel the myth that the role of state should (and has) be minimised, by asserting that it has been the state that has, historically, taken initiative to encourage media use. In India, the Prasar Bharti Act of 1990[1] sought to grant autonomy to Prasar Bharti (comprising of Doordarshan Television Network and All India Radio) which had previously been under governmental control. The purpose and function of the agency was determined by the Government of India before this act which came into enactment only in 1997. Moreover, the SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) of 1975 was started by the Department of Atomic Energy of Government of India along with NASA[2].

It can, thus, be rightly concluded that there is a government influence in the sustenance of media. However, it is increasingly important to understand what influences the state in favouring policies. While media technologies could have been used to better public services, there was hardly any economic or political impulse to this. In fact, the state has always encouraged the use of media for commercial purposes, especially since liberalism has become the norm of even developing nations. The authors write specifically about inter-border relations between media corporations, but this can be understood as being within the nation as well. As Fred Fejes mentions in “Media Imperialism”, dependency theory is not just relevant between nations, but also within a nation where there is a core and a periphery (and the interests of the urban ruling class aligns with the transnational corporations). Larger companies devouring medium companies is a phenomenon that occurs frequently for purposes of expansion and debt restructuring, just as Reliance Communications Pvt. Ltd acquired MTNL and more recently, Aircel[3]. This directly correlates to the idea that overinflating a corporation’s value in spite of its rising debt is a common practice, and is solved by giving control to a larger corporation. This has marked the rise of neoliberalism in India as well.

According to the authors, there are larger political dependencies that drive the nature of relations between nations and their policies on media corporations and their operations. Corporations want to expand quickly, supra-nationally, or they may not survive. The authors also bring notice to the fact that even though the Internet was thought of to be more democratic than other technologies of media, it has not been able to liberate us as of yet. McChesney’s work “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” delves into these details further.

The anti-competitive practices that corporations adopt are clear with the advent of Reliance Jio[4], where short term profits are sacrificed for long term monopoly over the telecommunications market. Moreover, the authors write about corporations, “overbilling of calling-card users, illegally transferring long-distance accounts to new carriers, charging telephone users for services they did not order”. These are issues that are most commonly complained about in India according to the National Consumer Helpline[5]. The particularities of these numbers are also noteworthy – the corporations in question, the industry in which most number of such issues are reported, and the common complaints. While there are flaws in using the Consumer helpline as a source for authentic data, it does illustrate the unethical policies that corporations might use, especially with the theoretical base that the authors create for us.

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As Baran & Davis trace in “The Rise of Media Industries and Mass Society Theory”, that while the direct effect of the content of media on audiences may be debatable and require more inquiry, questioning the profit-making intentions of the media industry is a much more urgent issue. However, making a tangential argument to what Adorno stresses in “Culture Industry Reconsidered” about how high culture is losing its authenticity and aura due to mass culture (while also writing about the profit-making intentions of media producers), the authors of this particular essay addresses the idea that populist content (mass culture) may be progressive in the traditional sense, but remains politically conservative so as to not challenge the existing power structures in society.

Dynamics of Cultural Policy Making: The US Film Industry in India

Manjunath Pendakur traces the history of policy making in India in specific regards to the US film industry. He makes direct correlations between how the state aided the MPEAA (Motion Picture Export Association of America) in hegemonizing the growing market for films in India, by forming cartels (which would otherwise be illegal within a country), imposing trade embargo and generating demand. It is also important to note that Jack Joseph Valenti, who was the president of MPEAA for almost 40 years, was a pro-copyright lobbyist for almost as long a time.

In spite of colonies like India gaining independence after the World War 2, there have been clear instances where countries from the core (in particular, US) have sought to imperialise the periphery by taking advantage of a market in India, while not generating a market in their own nation. This directly aids what Fred Fejes claims should be a way to look at media institutions; combining media imperialism and dependency theory that explains “undevelopment” of the media in previous colonies. The formation of a cartel helped corporations like Twentieth-century Fox, Paramount, Orion and others to claim prices for the distribution of films that suited their interests until 1971, although the formation of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) in 1975 did regulate it (since the distribution was under the control of NFDC). However, the treaty of 1975 failed to bring into account that the interest-free loans given to government sponsored agencies were still repatriated. Moreover, the usage of political influence (trade embargo or the intervention of the embassies) was justified by Valenti as trying to evade the anti-competitive nature of certain states, while also forming cartels to dispense US films.

India’s demand to have Indian films also imported to the US was mostly ignored. Moreover, the traditional stance that Karanth committee was also concerned about was the content of the films that US exported. As Adorno emphasises in “Culture Industry Reconsidered” that instead of intellectually stimulating media, mass culture engages the audiences to standardized products, these films were cheap thrillers/horror, action and full of sex and violence, and not culturally relevant to India. Even though Baran & Davis point out in their analysis of mass society theory that this theoretical framework of direct influence on audiences lost support more recently, this does not change the fact that US was not willing to reciprocate with Indian films, most likely for commercial reasons, while manufacturing crass content for Indian audiences to generate demand.

A push for profit participation was thwarted significantly in 1983 (which was a very important criteria for subsequent treaties), and more recent advent of US television shows and films are a testament to this change towards the hegemony of the West. India has moved towards the core of the periphery in the recent times, and therefore, also makes for an imperialist influence to her neighbouring countries. The advent of channels like Zee TV and Sony with Indian television shows has been significant, and Pakistan’s former Information minister Javed Jabbar has expressed concerns about it (Sonwalkar 2001). Sonwalkar also notes that Nawaz Sharif, when he was in the opposition against the government of Benezir Bhutto in 1996, often pressed audiences to watch Zee TV instead of PTV (a Pakistani Channel).

  1. PIB: Focus”, 10 Aug, 2017, http://pib.nic.in/focus/fomore/prasar.html. Press Information Bureau. Web.
  2. Evaluation Report on Satellite Instructional Television Experiment”, 10 Aug, 2017,  http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/cmpdmpeo/volume2/erosi.pdf. Programme Evaluation Organisation, Planning Commission of India. Web.
  3. Reliance Communications to Finalise 3 Deals.” The Economic Times, The Economic Times, 14 Feb. 2017, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/reliance-communications-to-finalise-3-deals-including-merger-with-aircel-by-mid-2017/articleshow/57135115.cms.
  4. Srivas, Anuj. “Reliance Jio: The Good, Bad and Ugly of Ambani’s Digital Empire.” The Wire, 2 Sept. 2016, https://thewire.in/63301/the-good-bad-and-ugly-of-mukesh-ambanis-proposed-digital-empire/.
  5. McChesney, Robert Waterman, and Dan Schiller. The political economy of international communications: Foundations for the emerging global debate about media ownership and regulation. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2003.
  6. Sonwalkar, Prasun. “India: Makings of little cultural/media imperialism?.” Gazette (Leiden, Netherlands) 63.6 (2001): 505-519.
  7. Pendakur, Manjunath. “Dynamics of cultural policy making: the US film industry in India.” Journal of communication 35.4 (1985): 52-72.
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