Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

The Australian media

Philip Bell

Review of B. Bonney and H. Wilson, Australia's Commercial Media

It is startling to find freedom of the press subsumed under freedom of doing business .... The first freedom of the press consists its not being a business. —Marx

Any book on Australian media which is as comprehensive and sophisticated as Bonney and Wilson's is to be welcomed. Media studies in this country have had to rely too heavily for too long on American or British research, in a field which, precisely because of its ideological-cultural importance, cries out for the detail that anchors general theoretical paradigms to the local context. Not that Bonney/Wilson see the Australian media as isolated economically or ideologically from Anglo-American industrial structures. On the contrary, the principal strength of the book is its detailed analysis of the political economy of Australia's commercial media. Australian press, radio and television are predominantly commercial institutions, propelled by blatantly economic motives within an historically rather impotent system of public 'regulation and control', a system which appears even less adequate as international capital becomes increasingly powerful in the cultural (and related hardware) production of 'Second World' countries like Australia.

Australia's Commercial Media (ACM) seeks, as no comparable book has, to relate 'factual and theoretical questions' and 'to give equal weight to the analysis of media texts and to their general economic, political, technological and ideological determinants' (vii): an ambitious undertaking that is, by and large, achieved. ACM outlines very clearly the limitations of a narrow empiricist claim to theoretical neutrality, but it is careful not to repudiate empirical work—indeed it is crammed with data which support the political economy analysis that subtends its detailed textual analysis of advertisements, women's magazines, and news. ACM falls into three parts: a methodological orientation; four chapters on the economics and regulation of Australian media in relation to world capitalism and local determinations, including a very comprehensive study of the Australian advertising industry; and three chapters analysing the 'cultural products' of the media—advertising as a system for 'manufacturing difference', the Woman's Weekly as an ideological time-capsule, and news as commodity.

Because ACM will undoubtedly find its (quite justified) place in any serious tertiary-level course of media studies in Australia, I want to discuss it principally as a text-book and to ask how well it makes available theoretically precise and comprehensive ways of thinking about both the media industries and their cultural products. Whether one agrees with the particular conclusions which the book reaches


seems less important than whether a reader could build on the foundations provided to come to her/his own understanding of mass mediated culture. Ideally, a text-book ought to provide the means by which to engage with the literature on the media, their 'content' and their institutional location and history.

Bonney and Wilson begin strongly by clearing the conceptual ground of the debris of empiricist 'communication models' (source—message—receiver), emphasising that 'effects' and 'uses and gratifications' research is theoretically naive, atomistic, and conservative. Communication cannot be seen simply as a linear process between decontextualized 'sources' and 'receivers'. On the contrary '[they] place in the foreground the context of production, distribution and consumption of media texts in this society, at this time arguing that it is intrinsic to the study of those texts—why they are as they are, their ideological contexts and their part in shaping consciousness of and about the world' (28). Preliminary to this approach they define concepts such as 'ideology' (which is exemplified by a precise and lucid discussion of 'individualism'), 'modes of ad dress, discourses' and 'code'. Media discourses are argued to be constitutive of social knowledge, not merely reflections or distortions of an independent empirical reality.

Perhaps the critique of the Lasswellian paradigm could have been more detailed and might have referred to Gitlin's (1978) rigorous rejection of what he sees as the dominant social-science media studies paradigm. Students reading ACM may be uncertain just what is under attack, so brief are the descriptions of 'effects' and 'uses and gratifications' research. However, the initial chapter does set out clearly the epistemological issues at the root of current media/culture debates. Moreover, it avoids excessive jargon and cites apposite examples.

Chapters 2-5 present the detailed political economy of the Australian commercial media, prefaced by a clear explication of relevant Marxist concepts: mode of production, capitalism (cf. industrialisation), commodity, surplus value, class, the State, although these are not given as mere dictionary entries in a do-it-yourself Marxist deconstruction kit. The concepts are put to work very subtly in constructing the recent history of Australian media (for example, Bonney s work on the way Packer's cricket circus commoditized an expanded audience-market for televisable sport). The relationships between the ABC, the State and capital are cunningly analysed in the chapter which locates Australian media within the grid of international economic forces. A particularly good analysis of inter national communications locates Australia's 'Second World' status:

The very structure of the news gathering process, quite apart from the actual content of news reports, mobilises consent for First World representations of reality. It guarantees reproduction of the ideologies which maintain First World hegemony over the Second and Third Worlds (49).

This unqualified conclusion is later modified as the authors caution against dismissing capitalist cultural production as monolithic cultural imperialism (59). But it is curious that only a rather weak claim is made about the 'barely concealed contradictions' that can be read in internationally marketed commodities. Indeed their discussion of the limited progressiveness of some American TV genres featuring female heroes (E.G. Bionic Woman, Charlie's Angels) seems most unconvincing and is a peculiar qualification on which to end a general consideration of the international economic context of Australian media. If Bionic Woman represents the chink in hegemony's armour, then 'First World representations of reality' are unlikely to crumble around their own internal incoherence.

The narrower focus of the next three chapters renders them less problematical. They provide historical contextualization of the ownership, regulation and control, as well as the industrial/technological dimensions of the Australian media. Then follows an excellent chapter on the Australian advertising industry (based substantially on original research). In the course of these largely descriptive accounts, Bonney and Wilson manage to expose the limitations of a range of 'common sense' beliefs (ie. ideologies?) about the 'freedom' of the press and media pluralism, while showing the complex interdependence of media and non-media capitalist enterprises via advertising. These sections are comprehensive and convincing, thoroughly grounded in the evidence provided by the media and advertising industries themselves (recalling Humphrey McQueen's recommendation that the way to understand the media is through their own trade journals such as B & T). The Advertising Industry chapter ends by anticipating the need for textual analysis, because '(the) marketing of products by means of advertising involves the construction of audiences as particular kinds of consumers' (161), a claim which is expanded in the following chapter with an Althusserian attack (following Judith Williamson) on advertising as a semiotic system constructing particular subjectivities.

Media studies is somewhat schizoid in attempting to theorise the relationship(s) between the economic/material 'base' and the ideological/cultural 'superstructure'. [1] While not wishing to reduce the latter to the former (eg. as unproblematical reflection) most theorists reject the complete autonomy of the 'content' of the media industries. So the problem posed by ACM after its analysis of the political economy of the media is to specify precisely how advertisements, women's magazines and news are related to the base on which they must (in some way) rest. Having acknowledged the possibility of 'contradictory' readings of apparently hegemonic texts, and having claimed nevertheless that advertising 'constructs audiences as particular kinds of consumers,' Bonney and Wilson are content to trade on this (at least ambiguous) formulation in their final three chapters. So despite the earlier assertion that

Media production, distribution and consumption have to be


studied not as acts of communication or the transmission of messages, but as commercial transactions (24) they retreat to the less exclusive position that meaning is dependent on contexts of production, distribution and consumption. So they attempt to avoid reducing the ideological to the economic. But perhaps predictably, they are often rather vague about relationships between the two 'levels'. In particular, although general ideological significance seems to be directly traceable to its commercial base specific inflections of class, gender and nationalistic connotations admit of much less direct analysis.

Granted that advertising 'represent(s) monopoly capitalism as providing abundance for all' (185), and accepting that advertisements need to position their subjects by particular modes of address, it follows that advertisements are the most unambiguously ideological texts that the commercial media circulate. Thus, Bonney and Wilson seem justified in concluding (cf. Althusser):

. . . advertisements do not merely address messages to already fully and finally formed subjects. What they do, rather, is draw subjects into the text, recruit them, by constructing subject positions for them to occupy. In so doing, they not only take account of the (often contradictory) ideologies by which subjects are already formed and recruited, but they also contribute to the on going formation of subjects. While advertisements often give recognition to the contradictory strands in the consciousnesses of the subjects they address, they inevitably seek not to activate these contradictions but to embrace them within an over-riding coherent unity. This is how ideologies work in general. The recruitment and formation of subjects is determined by an ideology's v capacity or failure to provide a unified and coherent conception of social/cultural reality and the subject's place in it—to provide in the social/cultural sphere what spatial relations provide in the physical (181).

And given the explicitly commercial nature of advertising, there seems little to quarrel with in the conclusion that

Capitalist society is represented as being composed of autonomous individuals freely interacting and freely choosing from among the bountiful varieties of commodities available (193)

Indeed the book provides a theoretically sophisticated analysis of advertisements which makes such a conclusion impossible to dispute. But the two further examples of media content which the book considers are more problematical. There is something rather arbitrary about the study of women's magazines and the packaging of femininity which immediately follows the analyses of advertisements, notwithstanding the rationale provided:

Because the media are so pervasive a part of daily routines, their representations can seem natural and eternal. In this chapter we want to introduce a historical perspective on one media area, women's magazines, in order to emphasise that cultural representations are artifacts, produced under specific historic conditions and subject to change. Women's economic role under capitalism differs in different historical periods, according to whether they are required in the paid work force, and if so, doing what Jobs, or whether domestic labour and consumption form the basis of their work. Women can also, of course, be addressed in specific ways in order to enlist their support for political movements. We examine the changing representations of women in the Australian Women's Weekly in the 1940s and '50s, periods very different from each other and from the 1980s, both economically and politically. We then look briefly at the history of women's magazines generally since 19~0, when the formerly homogenous women's magazine market began to segment in an attempt to ad dress different groups of women seen to have different interests and patterns of consumption. We also try to assess the impact of this introduction of new and different publications on traditional magazines such as the legendary and successful Women s Weekly launched in 1933 by the Packer organisation (Australian Consolidated Press), and the longest surviving Australian Women's magazine to date (221).

This chapter seems not to advance conceptually on the previous six, and is content to offer a relatively untheorized reading of women s magazine covers, advertisements, and texts. Admittedly these yield plenty of blatant examples for the keen ideology-spotter. So, for example, the discussion of an advertisement for viyella from the Weekly (an advertisement which incidentally is incorrectly numbered in the text) tells us that

the final illustration, photo 57, draws together the ideology of the family and that of glamour and privilege being available to all, two pervasive cultural strands that permeate the Women's Weekly in the 1950s. The advertisement for 'Viyella' pictures a woman who looks remarkably like the queen with her two young children similar in age to the queen 's. The woman has been sewing but has been interrupted by her children, her loyal and loving subjects, who spontaneously bring her a posy of flowers and a crown of daisies. She is shown as young, radiant and a perfect mother to her sweet children. The ad says that there are great celebrations' with 'every home a palace and every mother a queen'. The satisfactions of motherhood, it implies, are just as fulfilling as the queen 's privileges, and not very different really, for riches are symbolic only. Whereas women in the 1940s had been exhorted to a variety of 'unfeminine' tasks in the support of the war, the Women's Weekly in the 1950s took an active role in fostering and reproducing the dominant ideology of the period, naturalising femininity, the family and imperialism (247).

As evidence that 'cultural representations are artifacts, produced under specific historical conditions', this example (and the whole Women's Weekly study) is convincing enough. But there remains


the problem of the degree to which the imperialist and patriarchal construction of 'femininity' which the chapter illustrates derives from the commercial location of the women's magazine or from other discursive locations. (For example, might not the 'dominant ideologies of the period' be equally active in non-commercial media educational-religious discourses, etc.?) By citing this very complex example in the context of a conceptual framework developed for analysing advertisements, under the title 'Australia's Commercial Media', Bonney and Wilson implicitly invite a facile reduction of the Weekly's 'ideologies' to narrowly economic determinations or to an otherwise conspiratorial cause. The latter alternative seems tempting when the Weekly is described as 'function(ing) strongly as a propaganda organ':

The Australian Women's Weekly played a massive role in mobilising women's support for Australia's role in the Second World War. The imperialist war between European powers involved Australia from the start; empire ties meant that Australia declared war as soon as Britain did and military forces were sent to remote parts and to an unknown fate. Later, Australia was more directly affected by the fighting in the Pacific between America and Japan. Throughout every stage of the war the Women's Weekly functioned strongly as a propaganda organ, reassuring women that fighting was necessary and right, that the allies would win that they could contribute to the effort in a variety of ways: by working, being patient and loving, by enlisting, or simply by be ing beautiful. Some indication of the success of the magazine's campaign is the rise in its circulation from over 400,000 in 1940 to over 600,000 in 1945, according to its covers.

Women are potentially strong opponents of war: military action is traditionally a sphere for the proving of male strength and courage. For women, war often means the loss of breadwinners, lovers or relatives and severe crises in personal and family life. Women's commitment to Australia's involvement, particularly in the early stages of the war, had to be actively sought. The Women's Weekly, no doubt in concert with other organs producing and reproducing popular culture, showed heroic and confident representations of war which closed off any questioning and caution that might be expected of women (222—my emphases).

The 'enormous influence' attributed to the Women's Weekly is hardly supported by comparative (between media) evidence or by 'external' evidence other than the magazine's readership, although the general thesis that such magazines are ideological in profound and complex ways seems incontestable. The degree to which such ideology can be seen as expressive of the interests of political, economic or otherwise patriotic/patriarchal forces, however, is quite unclear. Certainly the Women's Weekly's army recruiting advertisements are echoed in its cosmetics advertisements, but the consistency of the magazine's patriotism is all too easily attributed to some conspiracy between Government and commerce to 'mobilise' consent. Why does a popular women's magazine explicitly amplify historically specific (if complex) ideologies? Is the profit motive an adequate explanation? Given the persistence of monarchistic values in Australian women's magazines into the eighties (despite massive re-organizations of the economics of the industry) how adequate is the narrowly functionalist orientation of Bonney and Wilson's chapter? [2]

There was a vast upsurge of monarchism in the 1950s, in the Women's Weekly and elsewhere. Britain's economy had been wrecked by the Second World War, but the ascension of the new monarch in 1953 was taken up by the media as heralding a new Elizabethan age of revival, stability and imperial strength after a period of turmoil and disaster. At the level of culture and ideology Australians were British subjects; Britain was popularly referred to as 'home' and was the source of much to do with education and high culture. Empire loyalty and imperialist ideology survived long after the British economy had collapsed and American imperialism appropriated Australia's resources. Monarchism u-as also mobilized in support of the anti-communist forces in the Cold War; former colonies were seen to be in danger of succumbing. Royal tours and other monarchist rituals could serve as a focus tor the celebration of what had to be protected, displacing incipient anti-imperialism in the colonies (242).

As this quotation suggests, this chapter seems inconsistent with the conceptual assumptions of the book's first chapter, and is rather vague about just which interests these ideologies served. This illustrates a general problem with the value of ACM as a text-book. Except for the preliminary chapter which introduces the concepts necessary for its political economy analysis and the Althusserian semiotic concepts employed in the advertising chapter, ACM is not methodologically self-conscious. It therefore rules out possible com parisons between its approach and less directly economically determinist theorisations of the 'culture industry'.

The final chapter examines 'Marketing the News', a title which promises to locate news as a commodity within its Australian commercial context: The professional ideology of news gathering, selection, organisation and presentation is inextricably bound up with a number of more general, mainly commercial, determinants (28).

But the absence of any comparison between commercial and other news services (eg. ABC, SBS) precludes any confidence that the general news-producing determinants identified will be in any precise sense commercial'. Given the very strong similarities between ABC news (especially on television) and its commercial competitors, any explanation of how news conceptualises reality which focuses on 'mainly commercial' determinants is likely to be, at best, partial. Indeed, 'Marketing the News' itself seems to acknowledge this by moving quickly into a conventional discussion of news values and


professional ideologies to account for the 'uniformity and standardisation' of the news. Of course, these news values and practices indeed the very nature of professional journalism itself, have arisen within the complex commercial conditions of the media industries But these industries have a history (in terms of the changing role of the State in relation to capital, in changing concepts of public/private, hence political/social life). The determinants of news are surely more fundamentally political-economic than 'commercial' a point which might help explain the homogeneity of commercial and non-commercial news.

Bonney and Wilson seem to acknowledge this by citing an important example of the changing relationships between formal politics and the media. They advance the argument that news is increasingly mediated by the 'public relations' industry (acting on behalf of public, political as well as private, economic agents). Citing the ex ample of the way the Wran Government 'managed' the media representation of the 1982 NSW electricity 'crisis', they conclude that

. . . that representation is due to the prominence of the public relations industry in shaping news coverage. It is due, in particular to the skilfulness of the Wran public relations machine. It is a striking fact that throughout the whole coverage the Electricity Commission remains very much in the background. The same is true of the various industries which rely heavily on electricity, though they did figure in the coverage when faced with cuts. What this illustrates is that, as a result of the increasingly prominent role of media releases in news production, those persons or organizations which need to be visible (notably politicians) can achieve visibility by pumping media releases into the system. Equally, those persons and organizations whose activities often benefit from being invisible and not, therefore, subject to scrutiny (notably corporations, bureaucracies and various authorities, not to mention organised crime) can often achieve invisibility simply by not putting out media releases. This, of course, is an over-simplification. Not all news is based on media releases, and investigative journalism is not entirely a thing of the past. But the role of the media release and the publicity machine should not be underestimated. It accounts, at least in part, for the excessive prominence in news, and the relative freedom from criticism, of 'elite' persons (mainly male), particularly politicians (312).

This example seems to lead to questions about the nature of news in contemporary (late capitalist) societies which are much more critical than the question of 'commercial determinants' suggests. Unfortunately, Bonney and Wilson do not follow up the possible implications of their example for theorising the way the State, its bureaucratic agencies, formal political parties, etc., have assumed a peculiar relation to publicly circulated 'knowledge'. The Wran Government case study suggests the need for a different historical sociological analysis from the one offered. Why, at this time, have 'public relations', whether on behalf of capital or the State, assumed such significance? Why do 'State' media (eg. ABC, BBC) produce news which is virtually indistinguishable from the commercially manufactured bulletins? Why has marketing the professional mediation and commoditization of social knowledge assumed its current form?

The final chapter of ACM is content to canvass the best-known literature on news values (eg. Galtung and Ruge), but fails to develop many of what I would see as the most important implications of its own examples. Thus it fails to open up the news to the imaginative scrutiny of its readers. Perhaps, as a text book, ACM might have reflected more on its own methodology within the context of particular chapters and provided some comparative outlines of alter native approaches to the media context that it analyses. Otherwise, individual chapters can be read as closing off theoretical avenues and, given the 'commercial' emphasis, may be somewhat reductionist or circular. Admittedly, circular analyses are difficult to avoid in this area, but Bonney and Wilson do seem to invite such problems in passages like the following:

The concreteness of individuals and their actions—the ease with which they can be described, their ability to be quoted, photographed and interviewed—obviously fits news reporting practices more readily than the economy, the class structure, gradual social change and so on, and the dominance of individualist ideology ensures the marketability of news about individuals. Individuals and their actions are seen as accessible, intelligible and familiar in contrast to the obscurity and abstractness of structures and processes. Thus although markets for commodities are not, in general, simply given but depend upon careful cultivation, there are powerful factors, existing independently of the media which promote the production and marketing of news about individuals. The upshot is that news reproduces and fosters the representation of reality which its marketing strategy draws upon. It reproduces a conception of the world according to which all that happens is brought about by individual effort and where what individuals can do is determined by their level of enterprise, not their place in a social structure (316).

Clearly the concept of 'ideology' is called upon to do a lot of theoretical work here, especially as the commercial structure of Australian media industries, not the sociology of Australia generally, is the base to which media meanings are related. I see room for considerable argument on the adequacy of this approach. The ideological complexities of the three domains analysed by Bonney and Wilson seem to raise historical questions of a kind which they only hint at. As a result the characterisation of the industry-culture relationships are sometimes vague, at others rather circular. Can


commercial 'determinants' be studied without explicitly considering contemporary non-commercial media? Is news such a direct function of commercially necessary individualist ideology? Is not 'individualism' but one central tenet of a complex set of assumptions which the media currently make about the political/social worlds?

ACM both raises these sorts of particular questions and invites some hard thinking about the fruitfulness of political economy and ideological-semiotic approaches to media theory. Perhaps, being a text-book, ACM might have presented its particular analyses in a less conclusive, closed way, raising questions of method, not merely showing the value of its own. But these criticisms cannot detract from the book's timely achievement. With the publication of ACM Australian media study at last has a relevant, comprehensive and theoretically serious book which challenges its readers to think through the principal issues in the field.


1. Raymond Williams teases out some of the problems that Marx's base-superstructure metaphor generates in his essay 'Culture' in D. McLellan (Ed.) Marx: The First 100 Years (Fontana, 1983).

2. Jock Young discusses the 'left functionalism' of much 1970s media studies in 'Beyond the Consensual Paradigm' in S. Cohen and J. Young (eds.), The Manufacture of News (2nd Edition Constable, 1981). The 'consensual paradigm' postulates '. . . a rational voluntaristic notion of human action, a notion of society held together by a mystification directly functional to the ruling class, and the coercive nature of reality hidden beneath the surface of consensual appearances' (394).

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