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Dominant Ideologies and Media Power the Case of Northern Ireland

Dominant Ideologies and Media Power the Case of Northern Ireland

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Miller, David (1997) 'Dominant Ideologies and Media Power: The Case of Northern Ireland' in Mary Kelly and Barbara O'Connor (eds.) Media Audiences in Ireland: Power and Cultural Identity, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, September, p126-145 ISBN 1 900621 096.
Miller, David (1997) 'Dominant Ideologies and Media Power: The Case of Northern Ireland' in Mary Kelly and Barbara O'Connor (eds.) Media Audiences in Ireland: Power and Cultural Identity, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, September, p126-145 ISBN 1 900621 096.

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6
DominantIdeologiesandMediaPower:TheCaseofNorthernIreland
DavidMiller
Therepresentationofpoliticalcontroversyisitselfregularlyamatterofpoliticalcontroversy.Thissuggeststhattheparametersofpublicdebateareofteninformedbyassumptionsaboutthepowerofthemediatoshapepublicopinionandpoliticaldecisionmaking.Yettheinvestigationandspecificationofmediapowerhasslippedalmostentirelyofftheresearchagendaofsociologyandespe~ciallyofmediaandculturalstudies.Thischapterexaminesthehighlyinfluentialcritiqueinsociologyofthe'DominantIdeologyThesis'(Abercrombie
et
al.,
1980;1986;1990).Thiswasanattackonthosetheorieswhichemphasisedmeroleofideologyinthereproductionofclassinequalityandinparticularinwin-ningconsentforthedominantorder(Hall
etal.,
1978;Hall,1977).Althoughthischapteracceptsmanyofthecriticismsofthedominantideologythesis,itwillalsobearguedthatthecritiqueanditstheorisingoftherelationshipbetweenthematerialandtheideologicalisseriouslyadriftfromcontemporaryempiricalevidence.Theargument.willbeillustratedbyreference
to
empiricalresearchonresponsestomediacoverageoftheNorthernIrelandconflict.Thereisastrongcaseforexaminingtheseargumentsinrelation
to
theNorthernIrelandconflict,becauseheretherehavebeenlongrunningandconsistentattemptstowinpopularconsentandtopolicethemediabythestate.Theextenttowhichsuchattemptsaresuccessfuloughttoilluminatedebatesabouttheimportanceofideologyinthereproductionofcontemporarypowerrelations.Briefly,thecritiqueofthedominantideologythesischallengedtheMarxistargumentthatthestabilityofcapitalismcouldbeexplainedbyreference
to
theexistenceofadominantideologywhichhadtheconsequenceofincor-poratingtheworkingclassintothecapitalistsystem,whetherbyleadingthemto
DominantIdeologiesandMediaPower127
acceptfalsebeliefs,byobscuringtherealcharacterofeconomicexploitationincapitalism;-orbyblockingthedevelopmentofoppositionalideas(Hill,1990:2).Theauthorscontestedthisonbothempiricalandtheoreticalgroundsarguingthatideologydoeshavesignificanteffectsbuttheseareprimarilyonthedominantratherthansubordinateclass.Whathasbeenimportantforthestabilityofcapitalismisthecoherenceofthedominantclassitself,andideologyhasplayedamajorroleinsecuringthis.TheMarxistpositionwascriticisedforitsfailure
to
analysetheapparatusormechanismsby"whichdominantbeliefsweretransmittedandhowsuchbeliefswerereceivedbysubordinates;andforitsassumptionthatthehumansubjectwasanideologicaldupe,incapableofindependentthoughtandrationalaction(Hill,1990:2)Thecritiqueofthedominantideologythesisappliesespecially
to
structuralistMarxism(andtostructuralfunctionalism)andapparentlylesssotothemoresophisticatedGrarnscianinfluencedtheorisinginmediaandculturalstudies.Nevertheless,asAbercrombiehasargued,thereisnofundamentalbreakbetweensomeGramscianwritingonhegemony(e.g.Bennett,MercerandWoollacott,1986)andthecruderversionsofthethesis.Inbothitisnotclearwhatmechanisms
will
normallyproduceahegemonicoutcomeourofthemelangeofsocialforces;tohaveaprinciplethatguaranteedsuchanout-comewouldreproducethecrudestfeaturesofadominantideologythesis(Abercrombie,1990:202;seealsoMcGuigan,1992).Theconclusionofthecritiquewasthatthereisnonecessaryrelationshipbetweencultureandeconomics:'Inlatecapitalism...theculturalbecomesincreasinglyindependentfromtherequirementsofcapitalismasaneconomicsystem'(Turner,1990:252)andthatthestabilityofcapitalismwasbestexplainedbyreferencetowhatMarxcalledthe'dullcompulsionoftheeconomic'.Thepositionadvancedinthischapteristhatthedominantideologythesisdoesindeedoverplaytheintegrativefunctionofideology,butequally,itisseriouslyunderplayedbyAbercrombie,HillandTurner.Whetheritisanecessaryrequirementforthereproductionofcapitalismornot,powerfulorganisationsandinstitutionsdoinfactengageininformationmanagement(secrecy,censorshipandpropaganda)inordertopursuetheirinterestsandlegitimatetheiractions.Furthermorethepursuitofsuchstrategiesdomakeidentifiabledifferences
to
thedistributionofpowerandresourcesinsociety.Abercrombie
etal.
rightlycriticisetheoristsofdominantideologyandinparticularHall(1988)forconcentratingon'contentanalysisoftheideologicalmessagewithoutanyinformedinvestigationofhowthismessageisreceived,andthusfallintothetrapofuncriticallyattributingeffects
to
ideologies'(Hill,1990:21).ElsewhereAbercrombie(19901;1996)emphasisesthataproperexaminationofthemedianeedstoexaminethe'threemoments',bywhichhemeansmediacontentandreception,butalsotheprocessofmediaproduction.
 
128MediaAudiencesinIreland
(Suchapositionwasofcourse,asAbercrombiestates,advocatedbyHall,intheearly1970s).However,thisneglectstwofurther'moments'whichneedto
be
examined.Thesearefirstthemomentof'promotion'andsecondthat
of
'outcomes'.Thatis,thereisaneedtoexaminefirstpromotionalstrategiesofgovernmentdepartments,businessinterestsandpressuresandinterestgroupsandtheirinteractionwithmediainstitutions,andsecond,theextent
to
whichmediacoverageorpublicopinionaretranslatedintopublicactionandtheextenttowhichopinionoractionimpactondecisionmakingandoutcomesinsociety.Extendingthenumberofmomentstoincludepromotionandoutcomesandacknowledgingthatthereisnonecessarydeterminaterelationshipbetweeneach,clearlymakesthedemonstrationofideologicaleffectsevenharderthanissuggestedbyAbercrombie.However,italsohastheeffectofenablingus
(0
seethemechanismsbywhichmediacontentis(orisnot)relatedtothepromo-tionalstrategiesofdominant(andsubordinate)groups.Thekeymechanismmissingfromthedominantideologythesisisofcoursehumanagencywhichoperateswithinthecontextofalreadyexistingstructuresandremakesthem.Thisopensupthequestionofoutcomes.Thatis,whataretheconsequencesforhumanactionanddecisionmakingofparticularbeliefsandideologiesandhowdoesthisaffectthedistributionofpowerinsociety?Bothofthesemomentshavebeengivenlessthanfullattentioninrecentmediaandculturalstudies.Evenifgreaterattentionisgiven
to
thegenesisofpropagandaandpublicrelationsmessagesontheonehandandtotheimpactsofpublicbeliefandide-ologyontheother,wearestillleftwithempiricalquestionsaboutthepreciselinksbetweeneachofthefivemoments-promotion,production,definition,receptionandoutcomes-onspecificoccasionsoverdifferentissues.Thenextsectionsdealinturnwitheachoftheseastheyapply
to
NorthernIreland,withamuchheavieremphasisonthemomentofreceptionsinceithasbeentheareawheretherehasbeenthemostdoubtanduncertaintyoverthelastdecadeandahalf.
MomentsinMediaProductionandReception
TheMomentofPromotion
SinceAbercrombieandcolleaguesdonotexaminethelinkbetweensocialinsti-tutionsandculturalproduction,averyimportantpartoftheprocessismissingfromthecritiqueofthedominantideologythesis.Evenifsomesociologiststhinkthatthereisnolinkbetweenstatepowerandmattersideological,itisclearthatgovernmentsarenotsosanguine;hencethelargesumswhicharespenteachyearonmanagingthemediaandpublicopinion(Cockerell
etal.,
1984;Franklin,1994;Miller,1994b).InthecaseofNorthernIreland,official
DominantIdeologiesandMediaPower129
bodiesha~einreeentyearsmarkedlyincreasedtheirpromotionalexpenditure.By1992-93officialfiguresshowaspendofmorethan£22mperannumbytheNIO,IndustrialDevelopmentBoard
and
TouristBoardalone(notincludingtheArmyandRUC)(Miller,1994b:292).However,theabilityoftheBritishstatetoconstructandimposeprimarydefinitionsoftheconflictinNorthernIrelandissubjecttoanumberoflimitations,suchasinternalrivalriesanddivisionsaswellascontradictionsin
PR
strategies.Ontheonehand,terrorismisportrayedasamajorthreattodemocracywhichmustbecounteredbyextraordinarymeans,andontheother,NorthernIreland
is
marketedasapeacefulandattractiveinwardinvestmentandtouristdestination.TheNorthernIreland'you'llneverknow,unlessyougo'astheTouristBoardadvertisingcampaignhasit(seeMiller1993a).Furthermore,officialdefinitionsnecessarilycompete(orareengagedinstruggle)withalternativeandoppositionaldefinitionsformediaspaceandarenotalwayssuccessful.Finallytheofficialapproachisalsolikelytorunintoproblemsifitchangesdramaticallyasitappearedtodointhepeaceprocesswithchanged
official
orientationstowardsSinnFein
(see
MillerandMcLaughlin,1996).
TheMomentofProduction
Evenwithoutsuchproblems,officialsourcesarenotablealwaystosetmediaagendasin
all
thewaystheywouldlike(Miller,1993a;1993b;1994b).Thisrelatesinpart
to
thefactthatmediaandstateagendasdonotalwaysconverge.Newsvaluesdonoteasilyaccommodatethe'goodnews'imageofNorthernIreland.However,officialsourceshavetendedtodominatethegoodnewswhichdoesappear.Itisalsotruethatasignificantpublicserviceethosremainsinbroadcastingandtheideologyofthe'fourthestate'remainsinpartsofthepressalthoughthereareclearlimitstothepracticeofawatchdogrole(Murdock,1991;Murphy,1991).Mostimportantly,however,thereportingof'security'mattersandtheframeworksofunderstandingutilisedbythemainstreamBri;ishmediahavetended
to
taketheircuefromofficialsources(Miller,1994b).
TheMomentofDefmition
ForAbercrombie'Itisdifficulttoseetextualideologyintelevisionasawholeletalonepopularcultureasawhole.Themodernculturalexperienceisofapluralizationoftexts'
(1990:
212).2However,thisisnotthecaseinrelationtocoverageofNorthernIreland.OfficialdefinitionsdotendtodominatemediaaccountsoftheNorthernIrelandconflict.Thelanguageof'terrorism'and'securityforces'isalmostuniversalandtheBritishstateisveryrarelyseenas
 
130ivlediaAudiencesinIreland
anythingotherthananeutralarbiterintheconflictonBritishtelevision.However,theextent
to
whichofficialaccountsdominatedependsalsoonmanersofgenreandformataswellasonwhereandwhenthematerialispublished(Miller,1994b;Schlesinger
etal.,1983).
SofarIhavearguedthatthefirstthreemomentsdoonoccasionshowastrongcausalrelationshipeachtendingtoreinforcetheotherinfavourofofficialdefinitions,especiallyinsecuritymatters.Ihavealsoarguedthatthereisnonecessarylinkbetweeneachofthemoments.Eachrequiresactiveideo-logicallabouronthepartofamyriadofpoliticians,decisionmakers,promotionalandmediaprofessionals..However,thenextmoment,thatofaudiencereception,istheonewheretherehasbeenthegreatestdoubtanduncertaintyinmediaandculturalstudiesand
to
alesserextentinsociology.BelowIreviewtheempiricalevidencefrommyownaudienceresearchandfromtheotheravailableevidence.FirstofallitisworthreviewingtheargumentsputforwardbyAbercrombieinhiscritiqueofthedominant
ideology
thesis.
TheMomentofReception
The'mostimportant'problemofthedominantideologythesisisthatthe'audienceispresentedasrelativelyuncreativeinitsresponsestoanideologicaltext'(Abercombie,1990:201)andthataudiencesabsorb'theideologicalcontentoftelevision,film,orpopularmusicwithoutreflection'(1990:216).However,asAbercrombienotes'inmostoftheliteratureaudiencepassivityhasbeendiscardedinfavourofaudienceactivity'(1990:216).Hegoeson
to
highlightthreeaspectsofactivity:choice,differentiationandcreativity.Bychoicehemeansthatviewersdonotusuallywatchallepisodesofapar-ticularseries,maybeinattentiveduringprogrammesandthatmanypeopleendupnotwatchingtheprogrammestheyprefer'largelybecauseofcompromiseswithinthefamily'(1990:217).Viewinghabitsareseenassomewhatchaoticandiftheyhaveeffectsthesemustbevariedandcontradictory.AccordingtoAbercrombiethis'mustsuggestanincoherentideologicaleffect'(1990:2l7).However,thisisonlythecaseifitisacceptedthatthereareadiverserangeofmeaningsequallyavailableacrosstelevisiononNorthernIreland.Furthermorethisignoresthefactthatthetelevisionprogrammeswhichgainthelargestaudiencesalsotendtobethemostclosedaroundofficialperspectives.Bydifferentiation,Abercrombiemeansthatpeoplewatchandrespond
to
televisionindifferentwaysand
by
creativitythataudiencesgivetheirownmeaningstowhattheywatch.Bothofthesepointsarethefamiliarterritoryofthetheoristsofthe'activeaudience'andIwillconsiderthemtogether.Akeyproblemfortheoriesoftheactiveaudienceisthewayinwhichtheconceptof'meaning'isused.Thisconfusioncanbetracedbackatleastasfarasthe
DominantIdeologiesandMediaPower131
'encoding/decoding'modeladvancedbyStuartHall(Hall,1980)amongstothers(seeHarris,1992).Receptionisconceivedtobeaprocesswhereaudi-encesmake'readings'ofprogrammes.Crudely,audiencesarethoughtto'read'messageseitherinaccordancewiththedominantcode,tonegotiatetheirmean-ingortodecodethemoppositionally.Theproblemisthatthisblurstogetherunderstandingandresponse(e.g.agreement/disagreement,interest/disinterestetc.).Theconceptmakesitdifficult
to
accountforapersonwhomightunder-standtheinformationorideologyinaprogrammes,butdisbelieveordisagreewithit.ThevastmajorityofpeopleinmyownresearchreadordecodedmediacoverageofviolenceinNorthernIrelandinasimilarway.Therealquestionis,didtheyagreeordisagreewiththemediadefinitionoftheviolenceandthustowhatextentweretheyinfluencedbythemedia.Muchcurrentworkontheaudiencestartswithassumptionsaboutmediapowerwhichactivelypreventtheinvestigationofinfluence.Indeed,eventhetheorisationofinfluencehasbecome'awkward'andithasslippedalmostentirelyofftheresearchagenda(Corner,1995).Ifwerestorequestionsaboutbeliefs,sourcesofbeliefandmediainfluence,thenaudienceresearchwouldlooksomewhatdifferent.Inwhatfollows,IwanttotaketheexamplesoftwoseparatepiecesofresearchconductedbymyselfonmediacoverageofNorthernIreland.Thefirst,whichtakestheSASkillingsinGibraltarinMarch1988asitsfocus,examinestheimpactofmisinformationonBritishpublicbelief.ThesecondlooksmorebroadlyatperceptionsofviolenceinNorthernIreland.Inbothitwillbearguedthatthemediacanbeshowntoinfluencebeliefsandideasabouttheconflict.Ofcourse,suchinfluenceisnotdirectnorisitguaranteedbymediacontent.Peopledoactivelyevaluate,interpretandrespondtomediacoverage.Therecognitionthatsuchprocessesintervenebetweenmediatextsand'effects'doesnotmeanhowever,assomehaveconcluded,thatthemediahavenoinfluenceorpower.
AudienceReception:MethodandSample
Theresearchreportedhereexaminedtheprocessesbywhichpeoplecometo'makeuptheirminds'abouttheconflictinIreland.
It
seekstoestablishwhatpeople'know'andthen
to
tracethesourcesofthisknowledgeandbelief.IaskedgroupsofpeopletowritetheirownnewsbulletinsusingphotographicstillstakenfromprevioustelevisionnewsprogrammescoveringtheNorthernIrelandconflict.Thiswastoinvestigatewhethertheycouldrecallandreproducenewsprogrammes.Thebulletinswerethencomparedwithwhatthegroupsactuallybelievedtobetrueandthereasonsfortheiracceptanceorrejectionofthetelevisionmessage.ThesequestionswereexaminedbytheadministrationofasmallnumberofquestionswhicheachoftheparticipantsansweredinwritingandthenaperiodofgTOUpdiscussion.
J

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