Matt Smith

Yes, but is it education?

Privately owned media companies as promoters of education

The topic I’m interested in this month, because I saw people discussing these things on the forum, is the value of allowing privately owned media companies to front themselves as promoters of education. These are the facts as I see them. Obviously, if it is English language mass media, the more people who speak English the more people there are who are going to purchase their publications. Furthermore, and even more significantly in terms of the company’s interests, the more people there are who peruse their products, the more interest companies are going to generate from advertisers. We might even add that the people who follow Western patterns of consumerism attract the advertising of very affluent global industries like fashion and cosmetics – very clearly, this is a very lucrative source of revenue to pursue. And finally, what better way is there of broadcasting one’s message, or of shaping culture, than through an education system – I would say it’s quite plain why, exactly, an English language mass media company would invest considerable sums in creating for itself the image of being an educational entity.

It is this very fixation with profit, however, that might make us reluctant to agree with this particular representation (or should I say ‘sales pitch’?). The problems with it are, firstly, that the private mass media’s vulnerability to the law, as well as the motto ‘money first’, make the straightforwardness of facts about a lot of things it provides very dubious to say the least. Things that might otherwise be left rather more open to interpretation, in other words, in the capitalist media, are often not left open to much interpretation at all, or tend to somewhat constrict our viewpoint – this, on account of the fact that such companies we might expect are on the one hand ‘fiscally conscious’ of who they might offend, and on the other ‘fiscally conscious’ of who they might better seek to serve. Even more concerningly, perhaps, there are very good reasons why the introduction of advertising into the educational environment has been contested time and time again, and why it remains a no-no in many countries – I teach media, and you don’t have to go too far through even the most supposedly educational of materials to find advertising doing things like shaping concepts of beauty, or the value of class systems, or of how your money is going to be best spent, in very perfidious ways. I’m sorry to the English language mass media to so perfunctorily let the cat out of the bag – I’m sure you will agree, however, that these are very salient points, and that people need to consider them. (Let me put it another way, perhaps – could there really be any reason to argue that good school books, and good dedicated school materials, aren’t in the long run a lot better?)

People tend to, rather, associate the mass media with the idea of freedom of information, or more specifically think that it is the privately owned mass media that ‘blows the whistle’ on corporate and government misdeed, and that gives us ‘unbiased fact’ – there is still the idea abroad, actively promoted by the privately owned mass media and strung out since the days when an argument could definitely have been made that such mass media was not just a democratising, but indeed genuinely liberating agent…there is still this idea abroad that the ‘free press’ is this wonderful thing that aids a country’s transition to the wonderful state of Western democracy. Probably a better way to interpret English history would be this. The mass media came hand in hand with a revision of an existing social order. At first, it played a role that could be said (maybe at a stretch) to more so contest the existing social order than anything else. When it was realised the power this new technology-driven device conferred unto its owners and operators, people who also contested the existing social order (because they wanted to share the existing management’s proceeds) seized not just this opportunity, but also took advantage of the fact that there was general unrest abroad, and used these favourable conditions to further their agenda. It’s rather clichéd to say these days, in other words, that the privately owned mass media, unlike it so vehemently likes to tell us, is rather less of a liberating agent in Western countries, than it is a device for getting people to dance to the tune of political and corporate ambitions (I still think HG Wells and Howard Zinn mock believers in the ethos that a newspaper reader is ‘informed’ the best) – it’s one of the major puppet strings that, when we look beyond the bubble atmosphere of a flat earth, we suddenly see tugging on people’s behaviours (and oh wow, the earth’s round too!).

Maybe I could conclude here too by saying that I’m a little dubious about this notion that its OK for private enterprise to help itself while it is ‘helping’ other people, or for us to help ourselves while ‘helping’ other people in general (some spamming I see on the forum being a good example of that) – there would be conditions in which this were true, I guess, or when it would be good all round, but the problem is how often is it? Making it such, I would suggest, isn’t an ethic for worshippers at the profit altar – more so, it is a straw they clutch at, a disguise beneath which they masquerade, that lends some credibility to what otherwise, in any naturally evolving human community, is going to be seen as very questionable behaviour.

Whole nations get away with it but.


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