CITIZEN OR CONSUMER?

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IN TERMS OF POLITICAL COMMUNICATIONS, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A CITIZEN OR A CONSUMER?
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WIDER QUESTIONS ABOUT PUBLIC SERVICE AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE MEDIA, AGAINST THE IDEA OF THE FREE MARKET?

“… when asked for his opinion of European civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi reported to have replied only that he thought that ‘it would be a very good idea’”
(Spaces of Identity, p. 43)

THE CITIZEN – THE BRAVE STUDENT
Tienanmen Square – is that what it takes today to be a citizen? And what is even scarier, did those tanks stop because they were afraid of killing that one fantastically brave man, or did they rather stop because they were scared of the cameras that were filming the scene? Was it a victory of the human being, or a victory of the media?

THE CONSUMER – ANDY WARHOL

Branding, marketing, advertising, PR… what is ‘real’ and what is not? ‘Marketing men set mapping style communities based on shared tastes, and academics, reading these signs of the times, declared the arrival of the post-modern age in which appearance eclipsed substance and what you saw was all you got.’ The much celebrated Andy Warhol was a genius in that he was brave enough to grasp this substance and make fun of us all. As he famously said, ‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.’

¬ What does it take today to be a citizen? What does it take today to be respected whilst being a citizen?
In Western free-market economies, in order to be a citizen one has to perform some duties (paying taxes, voting, etc.) and one has legal rights (freedom of speech, thought, association, movement). This is the theory. The practice is to some extent different.
And what about being a consumer? Advertising creates needs for us, we buy our lifestyle, our identity (we could argue), we have Consumers’ Associations… ‘The consumer market offers an array of competing products, but is doesn’t confer the right to participate in deciding the rules that govern either market transactions or the distribution of wealth and income that allows people to enter the market in the first place. It provides choice at a price, but without empowerment.’ As Curran acutely proposes, ‘the influence of the consumer is reactive rather than proactive.’ Capitalism has formed us (or we have formed ourselves) into a consumer society: we are if we can buy. The right to buy is probably the only real inalienable right left, the one we are never ashamed to exercise. The most stressful moments of our life are those in which we feel our consumerist tendencies are frustrated by lack of finances. We are taught to make money since the day we are born, not to be critical since the day we are born.

¬ WE COST MORE IN PRIME-TIME… AND WE WILL PAY FOR IT!
With the developments of modern technology we are told that it is going to be easier for us to be informed, in order to pursue our rights as citizens more fully. This is probably true, yet (and this I see as a major obstacle to these discourses) we need the money ‘to purchase the appropriate machine (or hardware) as a condition of access.’ We buy a good we finance firms who then advertise with the money we have given them, in order for them to sell us more the TV station we watch we pay for, to then be sold as a ‘niche’ by it to the advertisers. ‘Audiences themselves are the primary commodity. The economics of commercial broadcasting revolves around the exchange of audiences for advertising revenue. The price that corporations pay for advertising spots on particular programs is determined by the size and social composition of the audience it attracts. And in prime-time, the premium prices are commanded by shows that can attract and hold the greatest number of viewers and provide a symbolic environment in tune with consumption.’ We are a paradoxical commodity: we pay to be consumed.

¬ How should the media system therefore be organized in order to give us adequate access to information? As Murdock says, ‘Neo-liberal theory tells us that ‘only free-markets guarantee diversity of expression and open debate. This is an enticing argument, but it takes no account of the history of public communications.’ The other side of the argument is brought forward by theorists like Fiske, who argues that the diversity of programs, commonly considered a ‘good thing’, is actually a diversity ‘that is deliberately constructed by television producers and schedulers in an attempt to segment the audience into the markets required by the advertisers which may or may not coincide with the subcultural formations constructed by the people.’
What we have been discussing so far, the interaction between advertisers and the media, can also be seen, adapting Fiske’s terms, as the interaction between the financial and the cultural economy.

¬ According to the liberal theory, as portrayed by Curran in his essay Rethinking Media and Democracy, the key democratic functions of the media are:
1. Watchdog (e.g. Watergate)
2. Agency of information and debate
3. Representing people to the authority
Curran demonstrates the ‘inadequacy of the liberal model which explains the media solely in terms of market theory.’ What seems to be needed is a system of ‘checks and balances’ (something the Framers held very dear): given that the media are huge profit-making businesses subject to a number of influences, ‘a strategy is needed that defends the media from both public and private power, and enables the media to serve the wider public through critical surveillance of all those in authority,’ and in order for a public sphere to effectively take place. Curran, in a way that I find very persuasive, calls for an understanding of the specificity of the different media systems, and proposes a theory constructed around a ‘well-developed, specialist media tier, serving differentiated audiences, which enables different social groups to debate issues of social identity, group interest, political strategy and normative understanding on their own terms.’

¬ Being a citizen to me also means having the right (and not be scared) to develop and individual identity, rather than simply a contrived, coerced, alleged national one. The daily struggle is not that of fighting against the loss of a national identity, rather that of fighting the ideology of conformism, of ‘Dallasification’.
Murdock, discussing the communist protests against capitalism, says that ‘commentators in the West were quick to proclaim a victory for capitalism. In the battle for hearts and minds, America’s vision of the future had apparently won a decisive victory. […] Dissenting voices pointed out that although the Communist dream had clearly failed, the problems of inequality and injustice within capitalism, which had produced it, remained unresolved. But their warnings were drowned out by the clamour of Western self-congratulation.’ Being provocative, I would suggest that we forget about ‘structures of feeling’ – we should instead talk about ‘structures of self-congratulation’.

¬ Murdock believes that a ‘restructuring of public broadcasting is central’: ‘It is already clear that a public communications system organised on commercial lines cannot guarantee the cultural resources for effective citizenship, and that more and more people are denied access to the information and analysis they need by the poverty produced by unemployment and massive economic dislocation. Here again, the restructuring of public broadcasting will be central.’
This point raises the question of the actual value of PSB. Is the BBC, for instance, keeping up with developments of political communications? Is the licence fee still justifiable? The BBC has obvious strong links with the government, while at the same time it is a capitalist enterprise that needs to generate profits. Since we all pay for it, it should (theoretically) be impartial. In an analysis of the condition of the BBC, Winston suggests that the real agenda in PSB be that ‘Britain made the great leap forward into the late 18th C and acquired a constitution which gave the citizenry rights, including the right to publish or broadcast.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY

o Curran, J. (1991) Mass Media & Society. London, Arnold.
o Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture. London, Methuen.
o Murdock, G. Citizens, Consumers and Public Culture in Skovmand, M. & Schroder, K. C. (1992) Media Cultures. London, Routledge.
o Winston, B. Public Service in the New Broadcasting Age in Hood, S. (1994) Behind the Screens. London, Lawrence & Wishart.

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