"The Lords of the Global Village"
by Ben H. Bagdikian
(originally published in The Nation, June 12, 1989, pp. 805-20)
[Much has changed on the global scene since 1989. Newspapers and television chains have changed hands. Owners have died. But "The Lords of the Global Village" remains a classic in international communication. Here's an excerpt.]
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan promulgated the idea of a new "global village": a world knit together and transformed by television and other marvels of the electronic age.
His popular book, Understanding Media, predicted that an information network would envelop the planet, spreading democracy and leading to"a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity . . . a general cosmic consciousness."
The global village is growing. Glasnost in the SovietUnion, stirrings in Eastern Europe and demands for openness in China allrespond in real measure to images of freedom and dignity transmitted by the penetrating networks foreseen by McLuhan. But in recent years there have grown other networks designed to penetrate the world with messages far from the enlightenment and openness of "a general cosmic consciousnes."
A handful of mammoth private organizations have begun to dominate the world's mass media. Most of them confidently announce that by the1990s they -- five to ten corporate giants -- will control most of the world's important newspapers, magazines, books, broadcast stations, movies, recordingsand videocassettes.
Moreover, each of these planetary corporations plans togather under its control every step in the information process, from creation of "the product" to all the various means by which modern technology delivers mediamessages to the public.
"The product" is news, information, ideas, entertainmentand popular culture; the public is the whole world. The driving force for all this is simple: these closed corporate circuits are worth staggering sums.
In 1979 the largest media merger in history was theGannett newspaper chain's purchase of a billboard and television company for $362 million. Nine years later, Rupert Murdoch bought TV Guide and other magazinesfrom Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications for $ 3 billion. Only seven months later, the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc.created the world's largest media firm, worth $ 18 billion. On April 9, Gulf +Western (Simon & Schuster books and Paramount Pictures), once the country's mostdiversified conglomerate, announced that it was entering the global race byselling all its nonmedia industries in order to concentrate on the new gold mineof planetary media, and after nearly half a century was changing its name toParamount Communications Inc.
The men who run these empires are lords of the global village.
Some, like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell, are flamboyant figures known to much of the literate world. Some are so obscure that most Americans would be astonished to learn that much of what they read is published by a quiet figure from Giitersloh, West Germany. Others come and go in impersonal empires, in the gray anonymity that marks most large bureaucracies.
But whatever the style, this new media royalty is bent on capitalizing on global technological and political trends. New developments like fiber optics and satellites make it possible topublish and broadcast across the world's surface at ever greater speeds andlower costs. National boundaries grow increasingly meaningless: Already, theEncyclopedia Americana is published by the French, New American Library books by the British and the Encyclopaedia Britannica by Americans.
In many countries,particularly those in Western Europe, government broadcasting monopolies aregiving way to commercial operations with advertising increasingly aimed atmegamarkets that stretch across continents.
It is no accident that mediaconsolidation has paralleled a like trend among advertising agencies. The world's largest agency, Saatchi & Saatchi of London, has offices in eightycountries and buys 20 percent of the world's broadcast commercials, for clients like Procter & Gamble. Recently, the stock of the ad agency Ogilvy Group, one ofthe world's largest, rose 53 percent after a hostile takeover bid from the WPPGroup of London. With the deal complete, WPP would be the world's second largestagency, with billings of $ 13.5 billion and operations in fifty-three countries.
Combining the thrust of all these corporate forces produces economic power that dwarfs that of many nations. The newly wed Time Warner, for example, has a total value of $ 18 billion, more than the combined gross domestic products of Jordan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Albania, Laos, Liberia and Mali.
And the corporate battle to dominate the international market is gathering momentum with theapproach of 1992, the year when the twelve nations of the European Community arescheduled to meld into a single economic unit of 320 million consumers. Their estimated annual combined spending power will be one of the highest in theworld, especially the unprecedented television audience. [See William Fisher andMark Schapiro, "Four Titans Carve Up European TV," The Nation, January 9/16.]
The global media oligopoly is not visible to the eye of the consumer. Newsstands still display rows of newspapers and magazines in a dazzling variety of colors and subjects. Bookstores and libraries still offer miles of shelvesstocked with individual volumes. Throughout the world, broadcast and cablechannels continue to multiply, as do videocassettes and music recordings indozens of languages.
But if this bright kaleidoscope suddenly disappeared and was replaced by the corporate colophons of those who own this output, thecollage would go gray with the names of the few media multinationals that nowcommand the field.
This does not bode well for McLuhan's "universal understanding."
The lords of the global village have their own political agenda. All resist economic changes that do not support their own financial interests. Together, they exert a homogenizing power over ideas, culture and commerce that affects populations larger than any in history.
Neither Caesar nor Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt nor any Pope, has commanded as much power to shape the information on which so many people depend to make decisions about everything from whom to vote for to what to eat. As the world heads into the last decade of the twentieth century, five mediacorporations dominate the fight for the hundreds of millions of minds in theglobal village. The rankings of the giants change, sometimes week by week, as they compete to take over more smaller companies.