Media, politics and empowerment: in whose interests? H EA TH E R S Av I G NY
The stories we tell about the media often include in their narratives an assumption that the media are empowering for us, as audiences and as citizens. The ‘mass’ in mass media, we are told, has historically meant media for the masses. According to liberal theory, the development of the printed press was assumed to have been empowering for citizens and publics; it enabled them to have direct knowledge (news) of the behaviour of political and other elites who ruled their societies (this was later complemented by advances in radio and TV). In this view, empowerment was also possible indirectly through entertainment, via the educative function performed by the arts. In literature and theatre (and more recently film) authors of texts challenged and pushed the boundaries of the social norms of the day. The message that media are empowering of the people is something regularly asserted with the introduction of new media technologies, most recently this has been evidenced through the growth in ‘social’ media. The aim of this chapter is to challenge the idea that the media are empowering for the masses. Rather, it suggests that the way in which we understand empowerment is dependent on a set of pre-existing power relations which structure the environment within which social and political interaction takes place. As such some interests may be more empowered than others; gender and socioeconomic considerations provide the context in which empowerment may be understood. The argument in this chapter is that empowerment is not a neutral concept; it is a relational rather than absolute term. Empowerment involves experiences of power, these experiences of empowerment are situated and contextualised by a mediated political and social environment. This environment is also not neutral. Empowerment is thus structurally dependent upon an individuals’ or groups’ relationship with the political and mediated system within which those individuals or groups are situated. As a consequence, this chapter takes as its starting assumption that the bigger political questions about the form empowerment takes are also related to the structural conditions of that empowerment. This then also raises the question what do we know of our own and others’ opportunities for empowerment? The knowledge we have is ultimately dependent on the information we access and receive. Much of this information comes to us via some kind of media form (be that TV, Internet, book or newspaper). These media forms also reflect a set of ‘political’ interests (where the
definition of political is extended beyond that of formal institutions of the state, towards a more feminist definition which identifies politics as the exercise of power relationships). The media therefore provided us with a political context in which we, as citizens, as audiences, engage with and establish political meaning in the world around us. My argument here is that in order to establish the nature of that political meaning, we need to ask political questions: in whose interests is information constructed, presented and mediated? And who is empowered as a result of this construction? The North African uprisings provide perhaps a pertinent and timely example. It has become almost conventional wisdom in Western discourses that Facebook played a key role in facilitating the Arab Spring. What has been less prominently discussed in the public narratives which play out in the media, is the bigger political background within which these revolutions took place. As John Gray (2011) observes, what has received much public and media attention was the role of Western economic policies. He notes, for example, that the US response to the financial crisis in the United States involved the injection of liquidity into global markets by the Federal Reserve. One crucial outcome of which was to drive up living costs in poorer countries. In Tunisia, this in turn led to steep rises in food prices, which combined with high levels of unemployment, resulted in bread riots (Gray 2011). (One cannot help but think of the similarity here between the behaviour of Bernanke and others, and Marie Antoinette’s [oft misquoted] phrase/trigger ‘let them eat cake’.) So, if our public narratives focus on media technologies, rather than wider political or economic contexts, who is empowered? How far are audiences disempowered without coverage of the wider political and economic context within which these uprisings occurred? Through media narratives of the Arab uprisings Western audiences were given to believe that new media technology provided the site of empowerment for the revolutionaries. Is this to ‘Orientalise’ (cf. Said 1979) revolutionaries experiences’, framing them in Western technologically rational terms? Western media narratives of the Arab uprisings largely unquestioningly linked them to social media. The term ‘Facebook revolution’ was used unreflexively and became common parlance (see, for example, Naughton 2011). Yet this casual usage was dense with connotations. It suggested that the new media themselves were agents of empowerment in these revolutions, more than that, that they were the causal mechanism which triggered profound social and political systemic upheaval. However, this focus on new media as the driver of change performs perhaps a ‘double bind’ (Spivak 2012). On the one hand, it serves to reinforce the notion that media are powerful; media (including new media) have the profound capacity to act as agents of change. At the same time, it serves to obscure the wider power relations which shape our politics and society. The focus on new media as a mechanism of empowerment drew attention away from broader neoliberal and patriarchal interests. The narrative which accompanied the Arab uprisings was one of empowerment which was causally attributed to social media. On occasion we were reminded of the broader neoliberal agenda which drives our politics: Cameron’s visit to Egypt following the
overthrow of Mubarak was in the company of arms dealers (and even the Daily Mail was shocked by this blatant prioritising of Western economic interests) (Martin and Shipman 2011). However, this was a punctuated ‘moment’ in a wider narrative of ‘the media as agents of empowerment’. The argument underlying this chapter is that the extent to which ‘empowerment’ may occur is within the context of a set of pre-existing structures. While Morozov argues new media provide merely an illusion of social change (2011) so the traditional media do little to challenge existing socio-economic structures themselves: during Western coverage of the Arab Spring, not only did the neoliberal agenda go largely unchallenged, but so did the underlying patriarchal structures. For example, as Martinson (2011) observes, very little seems to have changed thus far to empower North African women. It is useful to think about the way in which the media cover events and issues, as this coverage, to a lesser or greater degree, impacts on audiences and also contains political meaning. While there is a wide debate within media studies around the extent to which audiences are passive or active in their media engagement, in these debates audiences are usually assumed to be the public or citizenry (Davis notes that elites use the media as an indirect and powerful mechanism to communicate with other elites; see Davis 2006, 2007). While acknowledging there is contestation around ‘media effects’, what underpins the debate is an assumption that whether audiences are ‘passive’ or ‘active’ there is a connection between media form and/or content and audience engagement. What is less conventionally discussed is the political meaning attached to that connection and engagement, and it is that political meaning which this chapter is focused upon. In the dominant narrative of the political role of the media, liberal theory (cf. Curran 2002), the political meaning of this engagement is often referred to as empowerment. To talk of audiences as empowered suggests a tripartite political linkage between media forms, the message that is disseminated and the audience’s reception of it. Politics is concerned with relationships of power, and if we want to offer a political analysis of media form, content and reception, then this necessarily involves an understanding of the power relationships at play in this interaction. It is these power relationships which this chapter will proceed to outline and discuss.