Critiquing Power and Contesting Meaning

Natalie Fenton, Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London.

We are, yet again, at a moment in the history of higher education in England when the arts, humanities and social sciences have been forced into a position of self-defence. With a vicious policy decree that all non-science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects suffer the wholesale removal of public subsidy for teaching while tripling the tuition fee up to £9,000 per year, all arts, humanities and social sciences are being told to privatise or die.  The clear message is that if a subject is not perceived to be of direct economic utility, not prepared to be business-friendly or industry-relevant then it’s a luxury we can do without.  The only point of any higher education is to provide cogs in a machine (otherwise known as students) for industry and economic benefit.  Media education, for once, is not alone. But it gives the question – ‘what is the point of media education?’ – heightened political significance.

Yet even in the midst of this stark political reality I still find myself deeply annoyed and desperately perplexed with regards the very silliness that demands the question be put at all. We may just as well ask why study culture? Why be concerned with a critical analysis of communication?  Why do we seek to understand information processes and institutions? Or even, why study society? Why, because ‘the media’ are key to all these things and many more through the production and circulation of social meaning. The process of making sense of the world and taking meaning from the things that surround us is a fundamental part of life. The media, in all its forms, impinge on the ways we interpret and evaluate the world, what social and political issues are prioritized and why and how we interpret them. Such concerns reflect directly on the democratic process and our role as functioning citizens – should we go to war or not? Should we tighten immigration laws or not?  Should we shrink the welfare state or not? Should universities charge (higher) tuition fees or not?

The reason we bother with media education is because of the multitude of ways in which the media play a part in our lives. Many scholars claim that the media in one form or another change people; change the way we relate to each other as people, the ways we perceive ourselves, the world around us and our place in it. Others claim that the media change society and social processes;  the way governments govern; the way we elect our political representatives, the way social policy is construed, set and implemented; the way the legal system operates and  democracy functions (or flounders). Others look to the media’s role in economics; the dominance of market values, the rise of the cultural industries and commodification of culture. Still others focus on culture and creativity; the media as a means of storytelling, expression and aesthetic pleasure that build forms of narrative and symbolic presence in our lives that impact on our felt experience of and involvement in our culture(s).

The assumption is of course that if we can better understand the role of media in our lives then we will be better placed to understand ourselves, society, politics etc.; and if we understand more then we will be better placed to change, intervene and participate in the things that shape our lives and the institutional structures that surround us. The bottom line then is that the point of media education is to critique power and the power of meaning making including contesting the meaning making of others; to understand and then to play an active part in how our social world is framed, organised, monitored and regulated.

Let’s take one, albeit large, example:  We are in the grips of neo-liberalism – a political system that is as much to do with institutional transformation as it is about understanding our sense of self and civic identities. This new grand narrative—the way we think of our world—has sought to abandon the social for the economic. It presumes an integrated system of global capitalism, economic growth, and productivity rather than class struggles and social progress. One pressing point of media studies is to expose the fact that neo-liberal democracy has failed in critical ways.

Media studies have revealed a world (at least in the global north) that bears the scars of a thoroughly managed and mediated neo-liberal democracy. Media logic appears to be inextricably interwoven with market diktat. Put simply, if you want more people to know about something then you have to promote it. Contemporary systems of publicity operate via the media that are managed on the whole by markets and function largely at the behest of commercial interests. As the media-market combine takes hold, the notion of democracy itself becomes marketised. Exercising democracy becomes no more than exercising choice and the range we have to choose from is restricted by market principles. For example, within liberal democracies power is gained by winning elections. Winning elections requires persuasion, which means engaging in impression management on behalf of elite political actors. All news outlets are content hungry and news sources need to feed journalists relentlessly if they are to gain coverage. Journalists, desperate for news fodder with more space than ever before to fill and less time to do it, routinely access and privilege elite definitions of reality and are claimed to serve ruling hegemonic interests, legitimize social inequality and thwart participatory democracy. Neoliberalism has spilled over into politics, bled into the media, and engulfed democracy. Some people of course, hedge fund managers, investors, financiers and the like have benefited beyond their wildest dreams. But as public policy issues evolve ever more rigidly around corporate profit the notion of the public good disintegrates and democracy fails. One critical point of media education is to get to grips with what this means and expose the lie that there is no alternative.

Another point is to consider dominant mediated discourses against material realities to reveal the contradictions therein. As neo-liberal democracy has failed so economic inequalities have increased. As inequality has increased so social mobility has fallen. As discourses of equality have risen in volume and intensity (consider the culture of much reality TV that espouses anyone, regardless of economic, social and cultural capital can be a star), so they have become less and less tangible. In the UK, since 1979, the proportion of national income of the bottom 30 per cent of the population has dropped from 17 per cent to 11 per cent; while income of the top 10 per cent has risen from little over 20 per cent to nearly 30 per cent (Levitas, 2008). In 2010 the richest 10% of the population were 100 times wealthier than the poorest 10% (National Equality panel, 2010).

But where there are discernible structures of governance so there are always contradictions and ruptures – attempts to subvert and disrupt patterns of dominance and potential for critical forms of intervention; always the possibility for change. It has been argued that spaces for political engagement and/or participation have expanded in a digital mediascape. Often these spaces may allow for no more than ‘clickable’ participation on short term and rapidly shifting issues that do not tend towards long standing commitments or deeply held loyalties, but a following that is fleeting and momentary. This sort of issue drift whereby individuals or groups can shift focus from one issue to another or one website to another raises the question of whether civil society has a memory that can retain a progressive collective political identity? Or, is there an emergent political being that resides in multiple belongings (people with overlapping memberships linked by polycentric networks); and flexible identities (characterised by inclusiveness and a positive emphasis on diversity and cross-fertilisation) that can organise fluidly and rapidly and emerge as a force to be reckoned with. A digital media that facilitates political mobilisation and is, as yet, barely appreciated?

Of course we could just ignore all of these factors, accept that this is just the way the world is and there is little point in studying it. This would, no doubt, make all those who wield power and seek to quash dissent very happy. Though already corporatized on many levels, universities are still public institutions and their arts, humanities and social science departments are some of the last places where we can challenge the principle that our lives can and should be ordered primarily by economic utility. Media studies opens up the production and circulation of social meaning to critique; allows us to trace its history, theorize its power, calculate its destructiveness and then seek to express our own concerns in art, film, journalism and poetry. Perhaps we should not be surprised that these areas are most under attack. Media and communication studies encompass the politics, the problems and the prospects of our time. Interrogating what these are should be one of our key educational priorities. If we value higher education and learning for the public good and in the public interest, if we value higher education as a route to social justice, if we value higher education as a means to increase understanding then we must value media studies.


Levitas, R. (2008) Whatever happened to class politics? (accessed July 2008)


This entry was posted in Natalie Fenton and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Roy Stafford says:

    This is certainly what I think of as the rationale for media education. If we don’t stand by the political currency of what we do it will be devalued to the point where it becomes worthless. Taken with the list offered by David Hesmondhalgh, Natalie’s statement is the bedrock.

  2. SHODAN says:

    Very good article. Doesn’t succumb to hyperbole.

    Turning blind conformity into critical engagement is the purpose of the academic, and this is what media studies does best.

  3. Cary Bazalgette says:

    Great to see that the political agenda for media education (not just Studies, please!) is still alive and kicking – at least in some entries!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *