Media Ownership, Concentration, and Control

The Evolution of Debate

John D. H. Downing


The ownership and control debate in media research concerns very different issues from the classic microeconomics debate about corporate ownership and control (Mastrini and Becerra 2008, Sussman 2008). The thesis originally put forward by Berle and Means (1932) was that over the previous 50 years, the control of firms had come to lie with their executives rather than with their legally defined owners, namely their shareholders. However, their seemingly overwhelming data, from no less than 200 firms, turned out to be considerably flimsier than a first glance suggested, not least because of their failure to engage with the actual ascendancy of power blocs among shareholders, rather than aggregated figures. This particular question has considerable implications for assessing control over media, as we shall see.

One crucial issue in any such controversies is the definition of terms. In an essay published nearly three decades ago, Murdock (1982) strove to establish some clarity on this matter. He separated “economic” from “legal” ownership, that is, the power differential between being a member of an effective power bloc of share owners, as opposed to being one of a mass of petty shareholders. He further distinguished “allocative” from “operational” control, namely control over a corporation’s policy as distinct from control of its day-to-day implementation.

Media sociologists have mostly ...

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