National identity – Mac Nguyen
24 Mar 2021

How do the media contribute to maintaining a sense of national identity?

The media have a profound role in shaping what we perceive as our own society, in contrast to the rest of the world. Golding and Murdock define the media as “major institutions in the economic and political fabric of our societies” which “create and distribute many of the symbolic and cultural resources we require to make sense of the social world we inhabit” (Golding and Murdock, 1997:xiii). This is particularly significant for one aspect kept consistently differentiated throughout countries: national identity. National identity is not about a fixed ideal, a “monolithic icon, unchanging and unchangeable” (Ó Baoill, 2000) but rather a subjective concept based on construction and perception. The ways in which the media contribute to this construction is varied and casts itself over a range of different issues including regulation, globalisation and representation.

Price (1995) writes that “national identity… becomes… the often elegant collection of images that the government manufactures or encourages to keep itself in power”. An example to illustrate this is the heavy media regulation in the People’s Republic of China. Since China became a socialist republic state in 1949, “television, radio and newspapers… have been little more than a heavily censored government mouthpiece” (Griffiths, 2005). The government’s filtering of the content reaching citizens demonstrates how the media are employed to shape an idealised national identity. Challenges and resistance from citizens have been met with consequences; in fact, the Chinese government holds the most number of inmates incarcerated for journalistic offences than any other country in the world (Griffiths, 2005). Exploring sensitive political topics such as Tibet result in severe penalties, and since 2001, leaking ‘state secrets’ over the internet could incur the death penalty (Amnesty International, 2003). The rigorous regulation demonstrated in China is testament to how vital the media are in maintaining national cohesion and ultimately, identity.

Of course, in a broader context, new media is having this kind of impact on a global scale. Hall (2000) considers it as having a catalytic effect on globalisation, a “means of unifying groups that are geographically scattered or isolated”. The possibility of instantaneous connection between remote individuals around the world has vastly reconstructed the flow of culture. The significance of media originating abroad now pars, perhaps even surpasses, that of local and national media—Tomlinson (2003) saying that “cultural experience is in various ways ‘lifted out’ of its traditional ‘anchoring’ in particular localities”.

This has strong implications for national identity. In democratic societies where the population plays a greater part in the construction of national identity, as opposed to higher powers (such as China), it has become even more subject to the influence of other cultures. Under a positive light, this interdependent influence could translate to greater tolerance for cultural diversity, particularly in pluralistic societies. Price (1995) cqontends that national identity can be moulded around a pluralistic society as a unity device, rather than one of exclusion. He puts forth this notion in his pluralistic model, whereby national identity can be seen striving for “the provision… of true diversity and pluralism”. The media’s role is to “contribute the incentive and machinery for a more secure and enduring national identity… one that gives ethnic and religious and political minorities a sense that the system provides them with voice and recognition”.

In a more pessimistic sense, the decentralising of culture (that is, globalisation) can be perceived as a biased and uneven process that “does not draw equally on the world’s diverse cultural traditions” (Tomlinson, 2000). Given the influence of the media, compounded by the dexterity of new media, resourcefully disadvantaged nations become vulnerable to cultural imperialism. Powerful countries, the United States in particular, “[see] a sort of standardized version of their cultures exported worldwide” (Tomlinson, 2003) which is jeopardising the national identities of many nations. There is a one-way flow information which Giddens (1989) refers to as “media imperialism” where industrialised countries hold a “paramount position… in the production and diffusion of media”. The degree to which a nation is able to retain its independence is dictated by political, social and most significantly, economic factors. Tomlinson (2003) emphasises that “nation-states are… compromised by globalization to varying degrees” depending on their “capacity to maintain exclusivity of identity attachments, just as they are in their capacity independently to regulate national economies within a global market”.

This puts the developing world at particular risk. Third World nations are “especially vulnerable because they lack resources with which to maintain their own cultural independence” (Ó Baoill, 2000). In the Caribbean, television providers are locally owned yet 80 per cent of the programming is foreign, the vast majority coming from the US. In terms of foreign programming, this figure indicates the most penetrated in the world. (Brown, 1995:48) In Trinidad, a locally produced programme was introduced called Gayelle which explored many issues and topics of local interest. It reported on remote towns and villages and dealt with aspects generally ignored by mainstream programming, “[forcing] a reconsideration of national cultural identity by these ethnic groups” (Laird, 1991). It was a pivotal example of how “an independent producer was able to fill in a gap in television programming and impact on cultural identity” (Rabess, 1998). However, economic pressures were prioritised over the maintenance of culture and national identity, especially as “the global media conglomerates, particularly of the US… [were] able to dump media and cultural products on Third World countries such as the Caribbean at subsidized prices” (Rabess, 1998). Gayelle gradually received reduced funding until it was eventually taken off the air, despite being one of the three most popular shows in Trinidad. (Laird, 1991)

To illustrate this compromise of local production and national identity further, I will invoke the Republic of Ireland. Although the Third World nations demonstrate an extreme case where foreign programming might be seen a last resort due to struggling economies, Ireland experiences a similar dominance from the US despite being a First World country. Like with developing nations but not to as drastic an extent, Ireland is not economically capable of overcoming the American content penetrating its media; however, it is Western country, and so its values are already by and large part of the Westernised doctrine that constitutes the bulk of the media coming from the US.

Notwithstanding the similarities, Ireland is a still a separate nation with a unique but unprotected national identity. At the moment, Ireland is one of the biggest per capita consumers of overseas media, yet locally little is produced or recognised (Kerr and Flynn, 2003:105). This is not entirely voluntary; a lot of it is due to giant concentrated transnational corporations monopolising the market, inflating the entry barriers and limiting the available media content to what they produce and control (Kerr and Flynn, 2003:109). Kerr (2000) says that “policy makers must be actively encouraged to support the production of alternative cultural texts if new media are to remain a locally relevant and diverse media form”. Not only is this effective in maintaining local culture and identity but it also weakens the monopolistic grip of transnational conglomerates on the media.

The actual content of the media is another dimension which can delineate the methods and process whereby the media contribute to maintaining a sense of national identity. Much of the media’s content is a construction of meaning through images that serve as a mere interpretation of reality rather than a pure reflection (O’Shaughnessy, 2005:77). In this respect, a substantial component contributing to the construction of one’s national identity is context; that is, meaning created through the juxtaposition of oneself and others. The quintessential example to illustrate this is the media’s depiction of global conflict and chaos. Western media tend to perpetuate images of unrest with a select group of nations; Cleasby says that the portrayal of developing nations are limited to “the narrow agenda of conflicts and catastrophes” (Cleasby cited in Tomlinson, 2000:26). Tomlinson offers this reasoning as to why:

“Television news brings distant conflict into the intimate spaces of our living rooms, ‘exotic’ tastes become routinely mixed with domestic ones, assumptions we make about the health and security of our families now routinely factor in an awareness, however vague, of global contingencies such as environmental risk or stock-market stability.” (Tomlinson, 2003:273)

In order to maintain our sense of national identity, selective images are employed as a device to promote our own sense (or illusion) of civility and cohesion. The liberal manner in which Western media portray aspects of other cultures has been subject to controversy, a recent example being the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper. This event exacerbated the anti-Western sentiment already ingrained in the values of Islamic nations (incidentally, the subsequent widespread violence received extensive Western coverage). The Islamic world’s vehement opposition to the liberal-mindedness of the Western world, set off by a media publication, draws an almost black-and-white dichotomy of the vastly polarised identities exhibited by these groups of nations.

Hall (2000) writes that “the extent [to which] media texts serve to establish and maintain their audiences perceptions of their own national identities and of other culture… can affect the way international relationships develop”. Although the Danish cartoons caused evident friction between the two parties, the media’s impact was manifested in different ways. It caused the Islamic population to fervently defend an national (and religious) identity they obviously want maintained, the manner by which Western nations use as a context to construct their own contrasting identity. The media feeds itself into the notion of national identity, in this case by acting as agent to perpetuate cultural difference.

Through the various cases I have explored, I have illustrated clearly how the media is a substantive component in the construction and perpetuation of national identity. Understanding its influence proves why socialist governments, such as in China, have such a strong desire to regulate it. The emergence of the digital age and new media has made this move much more difficult, especially with the proliferation of decentralised and border-transcending media. This itself, tied to the concept of globalisation, has had strong implications for localised culture and identity as more and more media becomes imported. As with the Danish cartoon controversy, the media can also be driven to exemplify one’s own identity by perpetuating difference, at the expense of alienating others.


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