“What role do the media play in the politics of cultural difference and representation?”
The role of the media in defining the cultural identities of nations is paramount. The media are the key constituent in the drive towards globalisation. The term globalisation itself is nebulous. Essentially, it deals with the gradual merging of nations around the globe. Chanda defines it as “the exponential growth in the exchange of goods, ideas, institutions and people that …is part of a long-term historical trend” (2003). But despite the ideal of globalisation being one to render borders between nations redundant, there is an equally powerful trend in the media countering this where geographical and political boundaries, and the differences that exist on either side of these boundaries, become the emphasis. As Robertson puts it “[globalisation] refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (quoted, Tomlinson 2000:26).
Globalisation is strongly and heavily influenced by the media. To compound the effect, the convergence of media we are witnessing, in which one form of media (essentially new media) is becoming a platform that can allow communication between previously unrelated, unconnected media. Computers, for example, through the emergence of the World Wide Web, can stream audio and video, host images and communicate through voice chat (Flew, 2002:18). Through convergence and the national border-transcending capabilities of the World Wide Web, the media tightly wound itself around national identity and culture, and use the border transcendence to export this culture.
Each nation’s media uniquely reflect the dominant culture and values of that nation, and the degree to which these values can be imposed on other nations depends on the political, social and most importantly, economic influence of that particular nation. According to Hirst and Thompson, “income and wealth are extremely unequal… 14 percent of the world’s population accounted for 80 percent of the investment flows in 1992 [and] for 70 percent of the world’s trade” (quoted, Pieterse 2004:13). This disproportion is linked to the massive dominance of a country such as the United States in global media. Many of the smaller, ‘Third World’ nations do not have access to this technology, and “prompts the idea that the ‘Third World’ is excluded from globalisation”. This exclusion is worsened as globalisation progresses; the rapid growth of technology in developed nations brings closer the richer economies while “the gap between these and the least developed countries has been widening.” (Pieterse, 2004:14)
In this respect, globalisation can be seen as a biased and uneven process. Banerjee offers two perspectives on globalisation: “the cultural imperialism perspective that emphasise domination and hegemony” or “the cultural globalisation approach, which underlines cultural change, interconnection and diversity” (2002:519). The latter can perhaps be seen as more of an ideal perspective rather than a realistic one. Pertinent to Banerjee’s proposal of cultural imperialism, it is evident that wealthier nations find it easier to achieve ubiquity in global media. Tomlinson says “globalised culture is the installation, world-wide, of one particular culture born out of one particular privileged historical experience” (2000:23). Due to the United States being the world’s sole remaining superpower, its economic, political and social influence remain vastly unparalleled, and likewise, its media industry exports so much of the nation’s cultural values and beliefs that the specific term Americanisation is more apt in describing the predominately one-way influx of the nation’s cultural imperialism.
Many Western nations are more adaptable to a lot of culture exported by the US; so much so that their collective role in exporting Western values can be referred to as Westernisation. However, smaller, less wealthy nations, particularly in the Third World, are under the threat of marginalisation. Tomlinson iterates that globalisation “does not draw equally on the world’s diverse cultural traditions” and that this poses a threat to “the fragile and vulnerable cultures of peripheral, ‘Third World’ nations” (2000:23). The media play a critical role in highlighting and constructing, almost to the point of near fabrication, these ‘differences’ which, most of the time, poorly reflect or skew the true identity of the portrayed nation. The content of the images delivered to Western consumers are “often highly selective and restrict ones”. An example from Cleasby would be that “it has long been observed … the picture of developing nations portrayed on Western televisions tends to be restricted to ‘the narrow agenda of conflicts and catastrophes’” (quoted, Tomlinson 2000:26).
The difference in the ways which a variety of media from different nations report and portray certain events is testament to the way in which a nation views itself with respect to others. The strongest theorisation of this notion is that of “us” and “them”. As Harindranath explains, through the example of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speech, the US viewpoint “engenders the politics of ‘you are with us or with the terrorists’ dichotomy”, while on the other side, there is “a projection of ‘evil West’ as Islam’s ‘Other’, used to justify the unjustifiable acts of terror” (2006:27). Another example is the Schappelle Corby trial in Indonesia. The destructive impact of illicit drugs on society was given little regard in the context of the trial, as the media gave a dramatically unbalanced weighing of both sides. From the Australian perspective, the media constructs an image, a “notion of ‘difference’ in terms of the Indonesian justice system, represented as somehow lacking in comparison to the Australian legal system”. The portrayal of Corby as “white” and “Australian” and perhaps even a personification of “Australian values” made the comparative backdrop seem like “an allegedly corrupt and backward Indonesian populace” (Harindranath, 2006:28-29). Through these representations of a cruel, barbaric and even primitive legal system, the media’ s coverage of the trial perpetuates the idea that lesser developed countries are being marginalised.
Several months after the Corby verdict was announced, Australian Van Nguyen was sentenced to death in Singapore for smuggling nearly 400 grams of heroin—worth roughly $A1,000,000 in street value, enough for 26,000 ‘hits’ (Koh, 2005), and more than 25 times the amount which mandates the death penalty in Singapore (UNODC, 1995). Comparing the severity of the punishment with the class of the relevant drugs in each situation, the cases can be seen as somewhat analogous. Yet Singapore—a capitalist democratic, First World country—was portrayed just as antagonistically, with one press example citing Attorney-General Philip Ruddock describing it as ‘barbaric’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 2005). This is evidence to support the fact that the media’s role is not just in reporting news and events, but also constructing the meaning of events in order to reflect the desired, but not necessarily realistic, representation of certain nations. Despite the differences in Indonesia and Singapore economically and politically, both nations were cast aside as “others” in the context of Australia being “us”, proving the immateriality of a nation’s actual developmental stage with regards to its media representation.
Rather than being reflective, the media forms categories and discourses of certain events to construct what they mean or how they ought to be interpreted. Montgomery states, with respect to 9/11, that “unlike earlier terrorist attacks that had been referred to as acts of criminality or ‘mass murder’, in this instance news discourse coalesced to report the event as ‘an act of war’” (quoted, Harindranath 2005:27). In other words, an event which could have easily been seen as a simple act of terrorism, albeit on a far greater scale, has been applied to the discourse of war, a much greater and more dramatic concept, all due to the constructionist role of the media.
Another way in which cultural difference is portrayed by the media is through marketing. The exploitation of cultural difference, referred to by Morley and Robins as “the commodification of local cultural production” (quoted, Harindranath 2005:43), still highlights the notion of difference, but instead uses it to capitalise. In an example such as Bali, notwithstanding its infamous cases of drug smuggling (Corby, the Bali Nine), its tourism sector is still the province’s largest economic contributor (UNDP, date unknown). As a tourist destination, it is portrayed under a positive, exotic, escapist light rather than a place of corruption and injustice. Nevertheless, cultural differences still permeate the representations put forth by the media to its consumers, whether it be for informative purposes, or in this case, consumerism.
The media has the role of catering for the dominant beliefs of its national consumers—notions of “us” inevitably leading to the formation of “them”, even when it exacerbates conflict. The irony is that within nations perpetuating this media, such as the United States, there is tremendous diversity–race, religion, class, gender—that is largely embraced and boundaries which citizens are encouraged to “join hands across”, yet the seemingly equally arbitrary boundary of a nation creates such fraught difficulty in offering the same kind of transcendence and unity (Nussbaum quoted, Harindranath 2006:29). The media nurture this separatist attitude by emphasising national boundaries, rather than eliminating them, through ideas such as the aforementioned “us” and “them”. In sum, the cultural differences in many of the images depicted are vastly constructed by the media for the sake of placating national consumers; the contrast providing a sense of cultural preservation.
Flew, T. (2002) New Media: An Introduction. Oxford, Melbourne.
Tomlinson, J (2000) ‘Globalised culture: the triumph of the West?’ in Skelton, T and Allen T (eds.) Culture and Global Change. London: Routledge. pp 22-29.
Pieterse, J N (2004) ‘Globalisation: consensus and controversies’, from Globalization and Culture. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield. pp 7-21
Harindranath, R (2006) ‘The cultural politics of difference’, from Perspectives on Global Cultures. Maidenhead and New York: Open University Press. pp. 27-46.
Banerjee, I (2002) ‘The locals strike back?: media globalization and localization in the new Asian television landscape’, Gazette 64:6, December 2002, pp. 517-535
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The Sydney Morning Herald (2005) “Mother only allowed to hold hands” The Sydney Morning Herald Online December 1 <http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/barbaric-to-hang-him-ruddock/2005/12/01/1133311133346.html> (accessed March 2007)
Chanda, N. (2002) “Coming Together: Globalization means reconnecting the human community” YaleGlobal Online <http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/about/essay.jsp> (accessed March 2007)
UNDP Crisis Prevention and Recovery Programme (date unknown) “Bali Crisis and Recovery Programme” United Nations Development Programme <http://www.undp.or.id/programme/conflict/bali_crisis.asp> (accessed March 2007)