Investigative Journalist Gemma O’Doherty on ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ in the Age of Media Concentration

Award winning investigative journalist Gemma O’Doherty will give the keynote address at the ‘Journalism in Times of Crisis’ conference in the University of Limerick on Thursday 7th of April.

Gemma is one of Ireland’s best known investigative journalists and has broken numerous stories exposing powerful forces in Irish society such as the cover up of the murder of Fr. Niall Molloy, which led to the reopening of the case and subsequent state review. She is now investigating the disappearance of Mary Boyle in Donegal in 1977.

GemmaODoherty_largeO’Doherty has not been afraid to scrutinize powerful forces in Irish society and this courageous stance led to her dismissal from the Irish Independent while investigating corruption in the Gardai. O’Doherty attempted to interview Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan about the quashing of his penalty points; this was part of a widespread scandal involving preferential treatment by Gardai for elite sections of society.  O’Doherty was then labeled a ‘rogue reporter’ by her employers at the Irish Independent and dismissed. She had worked for the Irish Independent for over 16 years and had won numerous awards including campaigning journalist of the year. She has since been vindicated by Callinan’s resignation and the revelation that her own boss Stephen Rae also had penalty points quashed. Rae was also a former editor of Garda Review. While her case was well reported in the international press, most noticeably in the Guardian, her colleagues in the Irish press did not extensively cover it apart from the satirical journal The Phoenix. Gemma subsequently won an unfair dismissal case against INM and the newspaper was forced to apologise for remarks against her.

FRmolloyIn her keynote address Gemma will discuss how media concentration is impacting on the working lives of journalists, especially those trying to expose corruption and the various crises in policing, housing and the health service. She will discuss her own experience and discuss how many journalists working in this environment have been tamed and that this has been so detrimental to the public interest. Gemma will also speak about what she believes to be a cosy cartel between the mainstream press, power and police in Ireland and how the truth about stories of huge public importance is often hidden because of these connections.

She however remains optimistic that good journalists will prevail in finding new ways to communicate with the public bypassing the mainstream media if necessary

Commemorations, 1916 and the Press: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Top picture the Irish Independent complaining of disruptions to the 1916 commemorations by striking Tram drivers. Below the Irish Independent calls for the further execution of  1916 leaders and against clemency  (May 10 1916); Below the Irish Times calling for same. Finally  the Herald denouncing Tram workers in 1913.

As pointed out by Dave Gibney of Mandate

1916 would not have happened without a tram strike in 1913. The Irish Citizens Army (ICA) were founded on the back of that strike. The Irish Volunteers were not going to fight against the British Empire until they heard James Connolly and the ICA (a trade union army) were going to do so without them. To now complain about not being able to attend the 1916 State Commemorations because of a tram strike exposes a serious lack of understanding about 1916…


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Irish Independent May 10 1916 calling for further executions of the 1916 leaders.


Irish Times supporting executions on May 10 1916


The Herald opposing the 1913 tram stike in very similar language to today



Journalism in Times of Crisis – University of Limerick April 7 2016

Journalism Times Crisis - Option 1


As the world continues to face the upheavals of war, migration and economic crises, it is pertinent to discuss the role of journalism and the media as a whole in the structures of contemporary society. Such a discussion is given added urgency at a time when the media continues to concentrate into privately owned monopolies with worsening conditions for media workers, more stringent editorial controls and a retreat from so-called ‘fourth estate’ ideologies into market driven strategies.

Likewise journalism as a profession is threatened by falling circulation figures, cuts in funding and the advent of click-bait pseudo journalism, churnalism and an ever greater reliance on public relations subsidies. Distribution too has been disrupted by the algorithms of Facebook and news-aggregators, that some argue is narrowing rather than widening readers perspectives.

Journalism’s independence from social and political forces has again come into question as seen with the cosy relationship between journalism and the financial and property sectors; while recently both newspapers and broadcasters are increasingly coming under accusations of bias in their reportage of social and political events.

This conference will bring together journalists, media workers and media theorists to discuss the role of journalism in the 21st century, conditions for journalists in the contemporary newsroom and prospects for the future of the media industry.

twitter: #crisisjournalism



09:45 Opening Address plus main keynote:

Location: Millstream Common room

Gemma O’Doherty, Investigative Journalist: ‘Media Concentration and Power’

Features Writer Gemma O'Doherty. Pic Frank Mc Grath

10:45AM coffee break

11:00 Panel Discussion
Location: Millstream Common room

Media Concentration and Power Chair: Bryan Dobson. Speakers Seamus Dooley (NUJ), Henry Silke (UL), more speakers to be added.

12:30 pm Lunch

1:30 Pm – 3-00 pm Parallel Sessions 1&2

3:00 – 3:15 Coffee

3:15 – 4:45 Parallel Sessions 3,4&5

5:00 – 6:00 Panel Discussion/ Debate
Location: Millstream Common Room

Talking about Water: Is the Media Biased? Chair: Mary Dundon. Speakers: Eoin Devereux, Paul Murphy TD, more speakers to be added

8:00 pm social event
Location: Millstream Common Room

Parallel Sessions

1: Journalism and the Economic Crisis
Julien Mercille (UCD)
Henry Silke UL (UL)
Fergal Quinn UL (UL)
Ciara Graham (IT Tallaght)
Aileen Marron (UL)

2: Journalism and Politics
Mary Dundon (UL)
Harry Browne (DIT)
Tom Clonan, (DIT)
Mark Cullinan (UCC)

3: Representation in times of Crisis
Gavan Titley (NUIM)
Angela Nagle (DCU)
Martin Power, Amanda Haynes (UL)
Kate Butler (Sunday Times)

4: Disruptions in Journalism
Eugenia Siapera (DCU)
Kathryn Hayes (UL)
John O Sullivan DCU
Tom Felle (UL)
Helena Sheehan (DCU)

5: New Journalism and the Radical Press (Panel Discussion)
Chair: Seamus Farrell (DCU)
James Redmond (Rabble)
Ronan Burtenshaw – (Village Magazine)
Dara McHugh (Look Left)
Dave Lordan – (Bogman’s Cannoon)
Lois Kapila (Dublin Inquirer)
Dara Quigley – (degreeofuncertainty)

The Press, Market Ideologies and the Irish Housing Crisis

Henry Silke, of this parish, wrote a short paper for the newly founded Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths University, London. The paper looks at the links between the media and the property industries and looks at the coverage of housing and property in the run up to the 2007 general election:

The time period was chosen for two reasons. Firstly the drop in house prices first began in the second quarter of 2007 and secondly because this coincided with the general election that year which was held on the 24th of May. This election was probably the last major opportunity for debate in the ‘public sphere’ on the property bubble before the crash, and certainly it was the last opportunity for people to vote before the crash.

The report looks at where the Irish Independent and the Irish Times sourced their information on housing; sourcing is an important issue in media as journalists depend on sources for information which is then further mediated to the public, often as fact. The results are stark: 

 In the coverage of property in the Irish Times and Irish Independent a key finding was the dominance of elite sources connected with the property and finance industries as compared to ordinary sources such as home buyers and renters. In fact, out of 800 articles, only one reflected critically the views of tenants. This is especially the case in the property and business sections. The greatest total single overall source on the issue of housing is comprised of estate agents, accounting for some 28% of total sources and 29% of sources by frequency. This high skewing of estate agent sources is due to the large number of advertorial articles in the property sections but nonetheless the lack of critique within the property sections even from a consumer perspective (never mind a public interest, business or societal perspective), still leaves much to be desired.

In the news sections official sources, especially politicians are most prevalent with 69% of total sources. This can be broken down to 29% government parties’ representatives and manifestos; 34% opposition parties representatives and manifestos and 6% local government and government agency sources. 17% of articles also included sources from the finance and property industries…


…the parties with pro-market polices make up the vast majority of sources in the papers although it may be argued this reflected party political support at the time. When compared, the Irish Independent and Irish Times have a roughly similar ratio of party political representation. Economically right wing political sources make up the majority with approximately 65% of representatives being openly free market parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats). If we include Labour who had a 2007 policy of subsidising the market by offering large grants to be used to buy private housing (the number would go up to approximately 77%). Representatives of parties that call for non-market solutions to housing make up just under 9% of sources (Sinn Fein, The Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance), while the Green Party, which called for stricter market regulation, come in at 10.5%.

The most striking figure is that of what we term use value sources, that is sources such as renters and home buyers who are interested in the property solely for its use, i.e. to live or work in it. Use value sources make up only 2% of total sources and appearing in only 2% of all articles. This compares to ‘exchange value’ sources (from the property and finance industries) making up 43% of total sources and appearing in 44% of all articles.

A key observation from this research is that statements from sources in private industry are generally reported as fact with little or no critique. There is an absence of critical engagement with the claims advanced by such manifestly partisan sources and the consequent lack of any independent or investigative journalism orientated to a wider public interest. This overly skewed sourcing could be described as a manifest ‘capturing’ of the press by property and finance sources and may help to explain the downplaying of the oncoming crisis, and the lack of critique of the massive inflation of the cost of housing as will be discussed below.

The report goes on to discuss some of the treatment and framing of the housing by the Irish Times and Irish Independent:

The key trends included an overall market-orientated frame: that is that housing was primarily looked at from the point of view of the market rather than society. Elements of this included the privileging of exchange value over use value, non-critical reporting of markets and market sources, and a ‘fragmented imagination’ – that is the artificial division of events. For example, while corruption on housing issues such as rezoning was heavily covered in the news sections on the political side, the industrial side of the corruption was completely ignored and corruption itself was not covered in business or property sections of the papers. The role of the state, following clear neo-liberal norms, is seen positively, as existing to serve the market, to return it to stability; or negatively as a malign force causing instability in the markets.

The report goes on the discuss the lack of critical engagement in the newspapers with issues such as house prices and the property markets:

The residential property supplement in both newspapers displayed an uncritical, aspirational and advertorial discourse when reporting individual properties. At times, advertorial type articles also find their way into the business and news sections. Not one article questioned whether an individual property may be overpriced, the minimum expected of even a consumerist publication. Overall in the newspapers, including the news sections, the key issue is of the market and ‘market stability’ rather than either consumer or social good. In the news sections there is an acknowledgement of a need for a second tier housing supply for those who cannot afford to purchase on the open market. But the third tier of private rental accommodation (beyond one article) remains invisible. In the property and commercial sections the rental property market is framed from the perspective of landlords and investors. Even second tier housing is framed on a market basis from the point of view of private companies or developers involved in the supply of public housing. In Op-Ed articles, market stability is the major issue again trumping the crisis of affordability or the social need for housing. The only questioning of rental prices is from the point of view of business focusing on the danger of wage demand inflation arising from higher rents.

On the role of the state:

The discussion around state policy played into the neoliberal trope of state ‘interference’ distorting a functioning market. Material issues such as overproduction and price inflation are ignored and assumptions of market self-regulation (without state interference) appear implied. This is an important finding as it reflects the neo-classical viewpoint that markets work and are self-regulating and that crisis came not from markets themselves but from behavioural, psychological and political interferences that cause irrational exuberance, crashes and crises. Again, given the non-critical sourcing of both papers from orthodox neoclassical economists and the lack of any evidence of independent fact checking or investigation, this is probably not surprising.

The report concludes:

There is ample evidence from the research to state that the role of newspapers when covering the property industry was not one of objective reporters or ‘watchdogs’ reporting on the issue of housing from the point of public interest. Rather, the newspapers’ key role was as advertisers for the industry, facilitating exchanges of uncritical information between industry players, and as an ideological apparatus. This apparatus acted to normalise the hyperinflation of housing, celebrate high property prices, downplay alternatives and, crucially, acted to play down the contradictions in the Irish system that were heading towards a crash.


The newspapers did not act in accordance with the overall public interest in mind but rather narrow sectional and economistic interests. There were some exceptions to this, in particular in some opinion pieces. However, the main trends and frames point to a ‘captured press’; that is a press in the service of a narrow class-based interest. This does not represent an accusation of a ‘conspiracy’, as stated by Geraldine Kennedy (2015) in her evidence to the banking inquiry. Rather, this is evidence of key structural, institutional and ideological biases that were apparent in the analysis of the content. A key element to this process was the framing of housing not as a social need but as a commodity whose chief role was to create wealth rather than supply housing. This allowed for the celebration of the hyperinflation of housing and rental costs. The market-orientated framing also included the neo-classical and idealistic belief in market self-regulation, either denying or playing down the possibility of a crash. The lack of critique may well have helped to both build and prolong the bubble itself. That is not to say the media caused the crisis. There were long term material and political structural issues at its core. However, the newspapers did play the role of facilitator, supplying ideological and political cover to an economic elite who profiteered greatly from the hyperinflation of housing and the sale of financial products. This assisted in laying the grounds for the housing crash, the economic crisis and the subsequent financial bailout, alongside the severe austerity policies that then followed.

And finally:

There is little evidence that this framing of housing as a commodity rather than a social need has changed as most discourse continues to be around ‘fixing the market’ rather than thinking outside of it

The full paper can be found here.

Economics, Media and Crisis – Interview with Julien Mercille

Julien Mercille has recently published his book on the media treatment of the Irish economic crisis (a short review can be found here). His research has exposed much of the biases in the coverage of economics and political policy in the  Irish media sphere including the overarching neo-liberal ideology that has acted to support elite classes throughout the crisis. Julien has kindly agreed to answer some brief questions on his research for critical media review.


Can you briefly explain the nature of your research?

I seek to understand the role of the media in Ireland and elsewhere in covering current affairs, in particular, the ongoing economic crisis. Specifically, I study the nature of media coverage and the reasons why certain topics get covered and others not, and why certain ideas are prominent and others less so. There are many ways that have been used to understand the media, but in my opinion, political economy is the most important one.

What were your key findings?

I found that during the economic crisis, the ideas and viewpoints presented by the media closely reflected those of economic and political elites. This is because of the corporate nature of the Irish media (and mainstream media in general). The media are entities owned by corporate interests and so the viewpoints they present reflect those interests. There are always exceptions, of course, but by and large that’s an accurate description of the coverage we have seen over the last few years, during the housing bubble, bank guarantee, EU-IMF bailout, austerity, etc.

 Has Irish journalism failed in its so called ‘watchdog’ role?

Yes it has, for reasons seen above. There is of course a lot of criticism of government policy in the Irish media, but this criticism is overwhelmingly minor or tactical, in that it doesn’t often challenge the main principles of policy. For example, the media has been overwhelmingly in favour of austerity, and the debate in the national media became how best to implement it, as opposed to saying what should have been said, that it does not work to revive economies in a downturn.

Where do you place the Irish media system in terms of structure, do you see it as a point of democratic communication between politics, business and citizens (however imperfect), as an ideological apparatus, that is serving the interests of its owners and their wider class interests, or something else?

The media serves the interests of its owners and the corporate class of which they are part. They serve an ideological function in presenting government policy and interests in a positive light. All along the economic crisis, the media consistently endorsed and supported virtually all government policies (the major ones, at least), confining debate to details and losing sight of the big picture.

book cover

Do you think the severe concentration of media ownership in Ireland plays a role in this?

Yes, to some extent. A lot of the media is owned by Independent News and Media, for example. But an issue that’s probably more important to me is the nature of media entities. As of now, they’re all corporate or state-owned with significant commercial interests (RTE), so even if you had more of those, it would be better, but not that much. What’s missing is a diverse media in the sense of more alternative, strong media outlets. That would provide significantly more diverse coverage, alternative viewpoints, etc.

What about RTE, has the public media been any better at covering the crisis?

No, it’s the same thing. It’s owned by the government, so it’s no surprise that it reflects government views. For example, during the housing bubble years, RTE’s Prime Time show, the leading current affairs programme, ran about 700 shows. Only 1% of its shows addressed the housing bubble, let along criticizing it.

Do you see any room or agency for progressives working in the Irish media sphere?

Yes, there are many actually, but there number will be limited as long as the structure of the media landscape remains as it is. Vincent Browne, Gene Kerrigan, Colette Browne, Fintan O’Toole and others give good progressive viewpoints.

 If the media is so heavily biased towards neo-liberal economic policy can it play any progressive role in Irish society and democracy?

It plays a role as it is now, but it could play a much more meaningful role if it was restructured along the lines mentioned above, i.e. by encouraging alternative media outlets that reflect to a greater extent the interests of the population as a whole.

Do new online media channels offer any hope for you?

I don’t think online media improves or worsens the potential for better news, it’s just another medium. There are a lot of good websites and blogs obviously, but there are also a lot of mainstream news websites that actually dominate the internet.

What is your advice to political activists in terms of relating to the media?

On one hand I’d say try to present your message in a way that’s “respectable” so as not to worsen an already difficult situation in reaching out to the media and getting covered. On the other hand I’d say that it’s not good to change your message and actions too much just so that the media will be more likely to give you coverage, it’s better to do what you think is best for whatever project you have, and not think too much about “convincing” the media to give you coverage, otherwise it can often lead to hitting walls and waste of time and going in the wrong direction. So a balance has to be struck and that depends on context and the specific case at hand.

What’s next for Julien Mercille?

I’m now writing a book on the Irish economy post-crash, which should be out in mid-2015. It will pick up some of the themes found in the media book but focus on political economy and power in Ireland. It will conceptualize Ireland as a neoliberal state and will show that for a variety of topics, such as the health care system, natural resources, welfare, taxation, austerity, etc.

Media, Markets and Crisis – Towards a Crisis Theory of Communication

The mass media, advertising and ICT play an increasingly important role in both market systems and capitalist crises. This role directly impinges on the dissemination of information to market actors as well as the reflexive and dialectical nature of the processes by which actors respond to market information. Further, the media serve as an ideological apparatus, resource or arena which acts to naturalise the market through what this research describes as a market orientated framing mechanism (Preston and Silke 2011).


Thompson (2003) contends that communication is an integral and reflexive part of the contemporary market system. As he puts it, there is a complex relationship between the producers and distributors of economic information, and those who use that information to make decisions about investment and trade. Many recent studies point to the convergence of flows of information such as those on 24 hour news channels, business channels and internet blogs and sites with market activity itself. For Hope, (2010) information broadcast on such media by bankers, stockbrokers and traders themselves tends to be self-serving and inevitably leads to ‘a real time feedback loop that proliferates then contributes to the growth and collapse of speculative bubbles’ (Ibid p. 665). Finally, we must note how the mass media also play a pervasive and important role in the commodification process through advertising and indeed comprises a part of the circulation of capital itself (Garnham 1979, Fuchs 2009). This research reflects the Marxist concept of base and superstructure, beyond a perceived notion of economic determinism, but rather as a dialectical relationship between various superstructures, in this case the state and the media, and the economic base including the various aspects of class power inherent within.

Since the onset of the ‘great recession’ there have been key debates around various aspects of crisis theory, most notably around the areas of the rate of profit (Brenner 2009, Kliman 2012), under-consumption/overproduction (Clarke 1990) and fiancialisation (Duménil and Lévy 2004). This research maintains that communications and the media are a key though non-deterministic element of the contemporary market system and proposes a move towards a crisis theory of communications.This paper explores theoretical aspects of the evolving role of the media with respect to deep and prolonged financial and economic crises, especially the ‘Great Western’ crisis since 2008.

As empirical reference point and by way of case study, the paper considers three key moments in the Irish economic crisis and their treatment by sections of the mainstream press media: The Irish property market in the run up to the 2007 general election on the cusp of the Irish crash, the blanket bank guarantee of 2008, where the state effectively guaranteed the debts of the entire Irish banking system in its totality, and finally the introduction of the National Asset Management Agency, a state sponsored bad bank aimed at cleaning up the (then) private banking industry. The paper uses these examples to consider the role of the media and its relationship to both the markets and political policy.

A crisis theory of communications, looking at dialectical relationships between economic structures, trends and crises and media content.

Henry Silke 2014

This is an abstract for a paper to be presented at ECREA 2014, Lisbon Portugal


Brenner, R.  2009.  “What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America: The origins of the Current Crisis,”  Prologue to the Spanish Translation of Economics of Global Turbulence, Akal.    IN: Economics of Global Turbulence.  Madrid: Akal,

Clarke, S. 1990. The marxist theory of overaccumulation and crisis. Science & Society, 54(4), pp.442-467.

Duménil, G. and Lévy, D. 2004. Capital resurgent: roots of the neoliberal revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fuchs, C. 2009a. Grounding critical communication studies. Journal of Communication Inquiry,

Fuchs, C. 2009b. Some theoretical foundations of critical media studies: Reflections on karl marx and the media. International Journal of Communication, 3pp.369-402.

Garnham, N. 1979. Contributions to a political economy of mass communication. Media, Culture & Society, 1(2), pp.122-146.

Hope, W. 2010. Time, communication and financial collapse. International Journal of Communication, (4), pp.649-669.

Kliman, A. 2012. The failure of capitalist production: underlying causes of the Great Recession. London: Pluto Press.

Preston, P. and Silke, H. 2011. Market ‘realities’: De-coding neoliberal ideology and media discourses. Australian Journal of Communications,

Thompson, P.A. 2003. Making the world go round? communication, information and global trajectories of finance capital. Southern Review, 36(3),

Notes on Ideology, Power, the Media and the Irish Crisis:

An introduction to the study of ideological power structures and their relevance in the Irish economic crisis (Notes from a presentation to the Dublin Left Forum 10/05/2014)


Since the onset of the crisis that the Irish state thus far has not had to resort to coercion in any serious manner; a co-opted trade union movement alongside a generally homogeneous mainstream  polity has meant that all austerity measures, including direct cuts to pay, conditions and the social wage have been successfully introduced. While the Fianna Fail party was almost wiped out in the 2011 election, the Irish system of ‘two and a half parties’ has meant Fianna Fail’s twin party centre right party Fine Gael, backed up by the Irish Labour Party has been able to continue the austerity project without missing a beat.  While there have been many defensive protests on single issues such as individual hospital closures and the regressive household tax, some partially successful, the elite have been able to successfully implement a universal austerity programme of cuts and attacks to pay, conditions and the social wage.  It is the belief of this author that ideological processes expressed mainly but not exclusively through the media has had an important role in this process. The aim of this paper is to introduce the various concepts of ideology and their role in both economic and political power structures;  to apply those concepts to the media sphere and finally to apply the concepts to the role of ideology and specifically to mediated issues of economics and political policy in the Irish crisis.


Power, Ideology and Ideologies

The concept of ideology and its relationship with power can be a difficult and abstract idea however it is an important issue in when thinking about politics and political power. In his seminal 1974 work ‘power, a radical view’, Stephen Lukes challenged methods of measuring power in the pluralistic and political science traditions. Briefly the pluralistic tradition effectively rejects the notion of an overall class rule seeing power divided up (albeit unequally) by various social groups with various elements of power.  Their method of measuring this power was by the empirical study of successful or unsuccessful attempts at passing legislation. Lukes termed this the 1st Dimension of power, and while it does illuminate one aspect of power it was far from complete and in many ways represents power already won. The method was rejected as being overly simplistic and behaviourist and later researchers became more concerned about how agendas and debates were set in the first place and how issues were successfully introduced to the legislature (this Lukes termed the second dimension of power). This too was rejected by Lukes as being incomplete as it assumed that all social groups were aware of the various intricacies of power and that social groups were assumed to be aware of where their interests lay, moreover the concept remained wedded to the study of behaviour only.  Lukes maintained that to understand power structures fully one needs to consider the third dimension, that of ideology. He maintained that the ultimate form of power is not force an individual or group into a position or to do something, but rather to make them unaware of the issue or even support it. In contemporary politics we might consider this in light of media representation of reality or the imagination of the possible, the question is not ‘if’ cuts on wages or services should happen, but rather on how the books ‘must’ be balanced by cuts to restore so called ‘competitiveness’. The study of ideology itself long preceded Lukes French philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy coined the term in his work Eléments d’idéologie (1817–1818) and since its inception the concept has been a controversial and often misunderstood subject, and in many cases seen as a pejorative term, that is  as a ‘blinkered’ set of views, rather than a scientific study of power and power relations. The current recession and the embedding of neo-liberal policy, even after the crash, has again underlined the need to understand the concept of ideology and its practice in political and social power.

Ideology: Some Definitions

The popular definition of ideology is that of a political ‘world view’ of ideological political practitioners or parties; such as socialists, anarchists, communists or sometimes liberals and conservatives. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines ideology as: ‘A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy’. However, as we shall see, the ideological processes are far more complex, insidious and powerful than simple notions of political or economic self-identification. In fact ideological structures form the basis for various forms of power, including the reproduction of class domination. While the paper acknowledges that there are numerous forms of ideological power structures (for example, race, gender and national chauvinist) due to lack of space and time, this paper will be primarily focusing on issues of class and economics and economic and class power. The paper, drawing from Eagleton, Marx, Althusser, Miliband and Foucault offers nine key definitions for various forms of ideological structures and power:

  1. Ideology can be defined as ‘a set of ideas by which men [sic] posit, explain and justify ends and means of organised social action, and specifically political action, irrespective of whether such action aims to preserve, amend, uproot or rebuild a given social order’ (Seliger 1976 p. 11) .
  2. Ideology is the ‘general material process of production of ideas, values and beliefs in social life’ (Eagleton 1991 p. 28, 29).
  3. Ideology can be defined as the ideas and beliefs (whether true or false) which symbolises the conditions and life experiences of a specific socially significant group or class (ibid).
  4. Ideology is ‘the promotion and legitimation’ of the interests of specific socially significant group or class in the face of opposing interests (ibid).
  5. Ideology is the false or deceptive beliefs arising not from the interests of the ruling group but arising from the material structure of society as a whole (ibid).
  6. Ideology is closely related to the broad problematic of modern western Marxism, namely the attempt to understand how relations of domination and subordination are reproduced with only minimal resort to direct coercion (Purvis and Hunt 1993 p. 474).
  7. Ideology is the process of rule by consensus in the first instance, backed up by coercian when necessary (Gramsci 1974).
  8. Ideology acts as the mechanism for the internalisation of law where men and women can work without the need for constant coercive supervision, as the laws of society are internalised as their own (Althusser 1971)
  9. Ideology can also be seen in the micro power relationships between actors in various positions of power (Miliband 1969/Foucault).

Marx and Ideologies

Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels

Classical Marxism does not see a separation of the material aspects of society and the idealistic aspects of society; moreover it sees the ideas of society coming directly from the material base (Jakubowski 1976 p. 27).   For Marx and Engels ideas have no independent history but are products of specific historical conditions (Eagleton 1991 p. 121).  While Marx does not deny individual human agency but he maintains it is present within real and determined structures which is inherited from historical circumstance.

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx and Engels 1852/1999).

However as will be discussed below ideology cannot simply be reduced to economics and history, as ideology in politics and culture can itself affect the material and economic processes.

Eagleton (1991 p. 83) describes four major definitions of ideology offered by Marx:

  1. Ideology is illusionary or socially disconnected beliefs which are seen as the grounds of history
  2. Ideology represents the interests of the dominant classes
  3. Ideology can ‘encompass all of the conceptual forms in which the class struggle as a whole is fought out’
  4. Ideology is the ‘actual social relations between human beings are governed by the apparently autonomous interactions of the commodities they produce’

In the first definition ideology represents the illusionary or socially disconnected beliefs which are disconnected from material reality.  This illusionary and idealistic view of the world can be best seen in religion. This form of ideology acts to distract men and women from their actual social conditions (including the social determinants of their ideas) and help sustain the oppressive class relations of an epoch.  An example of this may be seen in the feudal ‘divine right’ of the aristocracy to rule.

In opposition to the idealistic view of ideology Marx, turning Hegelian dialectical philosophy on its head, posited that philosophical ideas originate not in an autonomous idealistic manner but in the material conditions of life. In the Marxist paradigm the legal and political structures present, for example, after the American and French revolutions were necessities of the new capitalist mode of production rather than stand-alone metaphysical ideas. As the economic structures changed the old feudalistic political and legal structures could not accommodate them and the philosophies of the enlightenment then followed.  In Marx’s words, ‘the changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure’ (Marx  2010) . Marx keeps the dialectical structure of Hegelian philosophy but ‘turns it on its head’ in that it is the material conditions that precedes the idea or ideology. The ‘immense superstructure’ which Marx cites includes entirety of legal, political and social forces including in the contemporary sense religion, education and the mass media. To put it crudely it is the change in mode of production which leads to political change rather than political change which leads to changes in production.

The second Marxist definition of ideology is that it represents the material interests of the dominant social class, and which are useful in promoting its rule. The class which has the material means of production at its disposal generally has the means of mental production at its disposal. And those without means of mental production are subjected to it as he famously put it: ‘the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, grasped as ideas’ (Marx and Engels 1845/1970 p. 64). Marx posited that one of the major divisions of labour in a given society is that of material and mental labour (ibid p. 65). While the active members of a class do not have the time to form ideologies, this task is left to intellectuals who form the ideologies that are passed as natural or universal in a given epoch. Much of the framework of the modern mass media could arguably be put in this for example the mainstream mass media rarely, if ever, supports workers in conflict but often supports their employers, or at least opposes the ‘vested interests’ of the workers.

The third definition is that ideology can ‘encompass all of the conceptual forms in which the class struggle as a whole is fought out, which would presumably include the valid consciousness of politically revolutionary forces’. In other words that ideology is a site of struggle. This form was developed further by Gramsci’s (1971/2003) theory of hegemony, which we will discuss later.

The fourth definition is tied up in the commodity market itself where the actual social relations between human beings are governed by the apparently autonomous interactions of the commodities they produce.  For Marx (1976) the commodity fetish disguises the real social nature of society.  In the contemporary world of the media we can think of expressions of how the market reacts to certain government policies. And whether the market ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ certain policies.  The ‘market’ is often expressed as a semi-deity entirely unconnected to the actual world of men and by definition unreformable.  This process also acts to hide the class and political nature of government policy.  For example the ‘market’ will almost always react badly to any redistribution of wealth across society because the market is in fact the investment class (for want of a better word).   While at the same time ‘the market’ generally reacts well to cuts in public spending which  acts either to protect or expand the profit base of the capitalist class. In this sense the capitalist class is entirely international in thought.   Political and economic terms such as the ‘consumer market’ and ‘labour market’, separate the issue of the working class and its spending power from the politics of pay cuts and rises.

Material Ideology: Base and Superstructure

Marx unifies the public (political) and private spheres of society into a totality of base and superstructure.  For Marx the economic relations of the mode of production are the base of society while everything else rests upon. It is the economic structure that is the foundation on which the legal, political and intellectual superstructure rests (Marx  2010). For Marx ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life’ (ibid).  Therefore the ideology or ‘common sense’ in a society is derived from its economic base.  In simple terms this makes the material economic base the most important factor in political relations which is represented in class conflict.  In fact for Marx and Engels ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (Marx and Engels 1848/1998). However, while Marx maintained that the economic base is at the root of society it does not follow that society is completely economically determined. The superstructure affects the base as much as the base affects the superstructure.  Engels in his letter to Bloch was at pains to point this out:

‘According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results… …  exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form… …We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one… …Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction’ (Engels  2010).

The point is to consider not that the political state is economically determined or that the economic structure is politically determined. But that both are two sides to a single process, one having an effect on the other. For example it could be argued that Irish economic, historical and social relations led to the adoption of quite extreme neo-liberal policies, and those polices in turn had a widespread affect on the economy itself. As Franz Jakubowski puts it:

‘The superstructure depends on its economic foundations.  But it is necessary to emphasise the fact that the superstructure operates retroactively on its base.  The retroactive superstructual influence in no less important than the influence of the base itself.  The historical process can only be explained by observing the interaction of the two.  They do not affect each other mechanically or as externally independent factors; they are inseparable moments of a unity’ (Jakubowski 1976 p. 57).

Jakubowski (ibid p. 40) divides the superstructure into two.  Above the economic base and forces of production lie the legal and political order above which lies a superstructure of ideology.  In terms of the current economic recession the implementation of Marxist theory is clear.  That is that the effects of the recession on the material base of society will be felt in civil society, this in turn will affect the economic base and so on.  The widely used concept of consumer confidence is an empirical expression of this phenomenon.  For Stuart Hall (1986b p. 43) Marxist materialism should be considered in terms of determination of the economic in the first instance, rather than economic determination in the last instance.  In other words while the economic structures may begin a social, political and economic process, it does not show exactly where that process will lead.

Ideology and the Reproduction of Power: The Materialist View of Individual Consciousness

Ideology is at once a collective and individual concept while we think at as individuals our ideas are still part of the structures of everyday life.  Much as human language cannot exist without other humans to converse with our very thoughts are socially constructed.   For Marx ‘man is a social animal in the most literal sense: he is not only a social animal, but an animal that can individualise himself only within society’ (Marx 1970 p. 125). For Marxists human beings therefore have a socially constructed epistemology rather than an individual one. For example, the developmental psychologist Vygotsky describes how children develop complex thought alongside the development of language, rather than develop complex thought and then language. For Vygotsky ‘the true direction of thinking is not from the individual to the socialised but from the socialised to the individual’ (2007).  Therefore it is the individual’s relationship to other individuals that is the most important aspect in human thought.  In fact ‘society’ itself for Marx is the ‘sum of interrelations’ of the individual.  It is this class structure for Marx which is at the base of individual thought.   As the mode of production is at the base of a collective society it therefore it follows that the mode of production will colour the collective though which in turn colours the individual thought.

‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’ (Marx  2010).

Therefore individual ideas while having agency are developed from within the economic and social structures already existing in society. Here Marx sees the cultural structures of society as something which at once is determined by the nature of society (Marx and Engels 1845/1970 p. 47) and at the same time supports the very structures of the society (ibid p. 57).  As he put it the mode of production leads to the mode of life of the individual (ibid p. 42).

However as Jakubowski (1976 p. 59) points out that the social being does not simply mean economic relations. While economic relations ‘are the foundations of social life and prevail in the last instance’ it is social being as a whole that have to be taken into account.  This includes the ideological traditions including religion and previously established political or philosophical ideas and prejudices. For Larrain (1979 p. 14) this process begs the question of whether ideology is a primarily subjective and psychological character or is it subjected to the objective factors.  Is an individual’s thought process a matter of their subjective person or class or a matter of the material structures (economics) of society?

Louis Althusser: The Reproduction and Internalisation of Domination.

Louis Althusser is opposed to class reductionism in ideology that is the notion that there is a guarantee that the ideological position of a social class will always correspond to its position in social production (Hall 1985 p. 97). Ideology for Althusser is one of three regions of social formation (the other two regions being the economic and political). Therefore for Althusser ideology can be connected closer to either the economic sphere or the political sphere and may in fact be contradictory.

 One of Althusser’s major interests was with the consideration of the reproduction of domination (Purvis and Hunt 1993 p. 487). In other words the purpose of ideology is to reproduce the social relations of production, in effect class structures.  The social relations of production are reproduced in the superstructure in institutions like the family and the church and require cultural institutions that are not directly linked to production such as the media, trade unions and political parties (Hall 1985 p.98, Schmid 1981 p. 60).

A second concern for Althusser is the role of ideology in domination. For Althusser ideology acts as the mechanism for the internalisation of law where men and women can work without the need for constant coercive supervision, as the laws of society are internalised as their own (Eagleton 1991 p. 146). This works ‘in the vast majority of cases, with the exception of the “bad subjects” who on occasion provoke the intervention of one of the detachments of the (repressive) state apparatus’ (Althusser 1971 p. 181). Althusser sees the education system, the family, the church and the media as ‘ideological state apparatus’ which on the one hand act to socialise subjects into the social system and on the other hand are sites of class struggle.

The Repressive State Apparatus

The Repressive State Apparatus

For Eagleton (1991 p. 148) Althusser marks a break from classical Marxist theory which viewed Ideology as a distortion or false reflection between people and the structures of capitalist society; instead ideology for Althusser is a mechanism for the very production of human subjects. In this light David Harvey (1990 p. 123) reflecting Althusser and Gramsci, defines ideology as the historical disciplining of the labour force to capital accumulation which is renewed with every generation:

‘The socialisation of the worker to conditions of capitalist production entails the social product of physical and mental powers on a very broad basis.  Education, persuasion, the mobilisation of certain social sentiments (the work ethic, company loyalty, national or local pride) and psychological propensities (the search for identity through work, individual initiative, or social solidarity) all play a role and are plainly mixed in with the formation of dominant ideologies cultivated by the mass media, religious and educational institutions, the various arms of the state apparatus, and asserted by simple articulation of their experience on the part of those who do the work.’

Eagleton (1991 p. 148) and Hall (1986a p. 32, 1985 p. 99) critique Althusser for overemphasising the functionalist domination in such structures which does not allow for counter hegemonic ideological forces. It may be argued that he does not emphasise the dialectical nature of some of the cultural institutions. For example education while teaching students dominant values and the skills to work, in the same process, also arms students with potentially liberating skills such as reading and writing.  Althusser however does bring a useful functionalist and psychological side to Marxist theory. On the one hand ideology gives capitalist society the social norms which allow it to function and to preserve the domination of the ruling classes while at the same time being a site of class struggle itself.  Ralph Miliband (1969 p. 164) terms this process one of ‘political socialisation’ where the values, norms, cognitions and symbols are learned and internalised. The fact that the capitalist and class social norms are internalised means ideology acts to allow rule by consensus rather than direct domination.  For Marxists theorists this self-domination is a major concern reflected by the fact that a disunited working class constantly supports political and social groups arguably more representative of the ruling strata in society. This leads to one of the more controversial areas of ideological theory, that of ‘false consciousness’.


Antonio Gramsci and the theory of Hegemony

GramsciAntonio Gramsci was a leading Marxist theorist and was a founding member and leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) before his imprisonment in 1929 (Ginsborg 1990 p. 42, Hoare and Smith 1971/2003 p. xvii). Gramsci’s most important work was written while he was incarcerated, collectively known as the Quaderni del Carcere (Prison Notebooks), written between 1929 and 1935, (Gramsci 1971/2003). After witnessing decades of class struggle, strikes, and insurrections and finally the rise of Fascism Gramsci attempted to consider the problem of the Italian and Western European revolution and develop a future strategy.

Gramsci reconfigured the theory of the state to re-introduce the concept of civil society.  After the failure of the western European and specifically Italian revolution Gramsci concluded that at least in the West the ideological and hegemonic apparatus of ‘civil society’ played a more powerful role in the sustentation of the state than  dominant Marxist theory allowed.  As he famously put it even when the economic and coercive apparatus of the state is shaken a ‘sturdy structure’ of capitalist civil society is revealed. In comparing the Russian with the western European revolutions Gramsci commented that:

‘In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed.  The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks’ (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 238).

Gramsci therefore returned to early Marxist philosophy in unifying the sphere of the civil society and the political society in his conception of the state. In this theory he maintained that power and the state resides on two major super-structural levels: The first he termed civil society; which include institutions such as the church, schools, media and culture in general;  the second he termed the political society or the state; which include institutions such as the police, army, government and judicial system.  Gramsci therefore investigated the state in its inclusive sense (political society + civil society) and showed how state power in capitalist societies rested on ‘hegemony armed by coercion’ (Jessop 2001). That is society is ruled by consent backed up by the state which holds coercive power to enforce discipline on groups who refuse to consent (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 12).  Therefore the ruling class had a multi-faceted system of power with an underlying hegemony in popular culture (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 12, Germino 1986 p. 26).

Put simply, in the West the ruling class through its hegemonic system ruled by consensus as well as coercion.  Therefore to challenge the state effectively the issue of consensus would have to be considered.   A major part of the hegemonic edifice is what is termed as ‘common sense’.  For Gramsci (1971/2003) common sense is ‘the traditional popular conception of the world.’  This process can be seen in conformity of subservient groups to the overall ideology of the dominant group, and sees the consciousness of the subaltern groups divided into their own corporate interests (Howson and Smith 2008 p. 4).

While Marx and Engels (1845/1970) wrote about a new hegemonic ideology coming in a revolutionary period, Gramsci described hegemony as a constant battle between differing sections of society struggling for dominance (Traube 1996 p. 132). The dominant class therefore incorporates its interests into the state and exercises its power to maintain these interests by keeping the subaltern social groups divided and passive within civil society (Howson and Smith 2008 p. 5). Therefore while the state in the final analysis may represent the interests of the dominant groups, class struggle is a constant feature of civil society, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example Stuart Hall and others maintained that the ideology of Thatcherism was fought within civil society long before Thatcher won state power itself.  David Harvey (1990) maintains it represented the end rather than the beginning of the economic processes inherent in Thatcherism.  By 1985 it is argued Thatcher had established a new ‘common sense’ in favour of neo-liberalism and an authoritarian state articulated through ‘popular’ demands for the restoration of social order against crime and delinquency and the ‘selfish’ and partial interests of trade unions. This new ‘common sense’ according to Hall was based on traditional aspects of British popular culture (Davidson 2008 pp. 72-27, Purvis and Hunt 1993 p. 496).  The collapse of the hegemony of Keynesian social democracy and the birth of the hegemony of what would later be termed neo-liberalism led to a proliferation of research on politics and culture using the Gramscian framework of civil and political society (see Johnson 2007 p. 98). 

Civil Society and the State

The two super structural layers of the state correspond to civil society and to the direct or command domination of the state and judicial government. The consent given by the majority to the dominant group is caused by the historical prestige and confidence that the dominant group enjoys because of its position in relation to production. The second structure of society, the state, holds coercive power which enforces discipline on groups who refuse to consent. This apparatus is however, ‘constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed’ (Gramsci 1971/2003).  This is described by Howson and Smith (2008) as the process of consensus and coercion.  The contemporary conception of war time ‘embedded journalism’ might be considered a very real incarnation of this concept of ideology and force supporting one another. The state, therefore, equals political society plus civil society, or as Gramsci put it ‘hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’ (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 263, Matsuda and Ohara 2008 p. 57). The state therefore is not primarily the ‘armed bodies of men’ but the entire edifice used to justify and maintain the rule of the minority class:

‘The state is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’(Gramsci and Gerratana 1975 Q15 S10).

Civil society itself is a very complex structure and is resistant to the ‘catastrophic “incursions” of the immediate economic element’ (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 235).  In other words the problems of recessions and depressions from the economic base can be defended in civil society without the need for state coercion. Therefore while concurring with the general Marxist thesis of economic base and superstructure Gramsci maintained that the civil part of the superstructure acts as a deep defence of capitalist domination. And even when the economic and political base falters civil society acts as a buttress. Therefore for Gramsci it is not only the policeman or soldier who underlines the authority of the state but also the intellectual in civil society represented in traditional sense by the priest or the teacher and in an organic sense by the entrepreneur or technician.  In the view of this project the media and its journalists are another important section of this intellectual force.

consensus with the armour of coercion

consensus with the armour of coercion

Perry Anderson maintains that Gramsci is mistaken in saying that hegemony exists in ‘civil society’ alone rather than with the state, because the political form of the state and its ‘illusion of democratic self rule’ (Eagleton 1991 p. 112) is in itself a vital organ for hegemonic power. Eagleton (1991 p. 113) also argues the supposed neutrality of the bourgeois state is in itself part of the hegemonic process.   Anderson (1976), describes the parliamentary system as ‘the hub of the ideological apparatus of capitalism’ and he maintains that the civil institutions such as education, the media churches and political parties play a critical but complementary role. However for Howson and Smith (2008 p. 5) ‘the vast resources that must be mobilised in civil society – such as the media, education, the family, religion, law communities, and markets – to ensure that the political economy can be maintained’ means that the focus of the state cannot be defined to political society alone.

The ‘War of Position’ and the Hegemony of the Proletariat

Because of the hegemonic nature of capitalism in the West Gramsci maintained that Communists would have to develop a different strategy to the Russian Bolsheviks. Gramsci maintained that in the west a “war of movement” (direct assault on the state) was doomed to failure.  A “war of position” within civil society would need to be completed before any direct assault could be successful.  He maintained that Lenin had originally come to this conclusion but did not have time to expand the formula (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 237, 238).

El Lissitzky; Red Wedge, 1919

El Lissitzky; Red Wedge, 1919

Gramsci maintained that the subordinate classes would need to create their own “organic intellectuals” to challenge capitalist hegemony, escape from defensive corporatism and advance toward a new workers hegemony (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 16). Gramsci saw the political party as a method of developing workers into intellectuals, and fighting the war of position (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 16, Ginsborg 1990 p. 45, Landy 1986 p. 53).  In this sense the role of the political party would have to develop beyond simple economic and political struggle and into all aspects of society. Gramsci underlined the necessity of taking widening political struggle from the economic and political sphere and into all areas of ‘civil society’.

In the prison notebooks Gramsci widens the process further describing how the passage from one social order to another is a slow sustainable qualitative social transformation characterized by the ‘war of position’ and a continuous dialectic between political and social society (Matsuda and Ohara 2008 p. 55). For Richard Howson (2008 p. 27) Gramsci’s theory of the ‘war of position’ moved the role of the workers party from being one of an ‘elite, centralised, and authoritarian vanguard’ existing externally to the proletarian mass, to being an organic ‘leader’ of the wider working class.  For Miliband a serious revolutionary party has to be the kind of hegemonic party that Gramsci spoke of.  It must be capable of creating a unity not only of political and economic aims, but an intellectual and moral unity, posing all the issues which arise, not on the corporative level, but on the universal level.  The creation of such a party for Miliband is only possible in conditions of free discussion and internal democracy and of flexible and responsive structures (Miliband 1969 p. 245).

Ideology and Micro Power

Ralph Miliband (1969 p. 163) maintains that hegemony is not something which happens as a mere superstructural derivative of economic and social conditions rather hegemony is in the main the result of a permanent and persuasive effort conducted through multiple agencies and deliberate.  He maintains that hegemony exists not only in the world of macro-politics but also in the world of micro-politics where members of the dominant classes by virtue of their various positions, for example as employers, can act to dissuade their subordinates from voicing radical viewpoints.  For Eagleton (1991 p. 113) hegemony is not just a successful form of ideology, but may be discriminated into its various ‘ideological, cultural, political and economic aspects.’ In the economic sphere, for example, outright ideology or coercion is not always necessary. Under capitalism it is the ‘dull compulsion of the economic’ (the need to survive) that keeps workers in work and subservient rather than any overt sense of national or religious duty.

Foucault is interested in the operation of power as a force throughout society rather than centred on the state (Finlayson 2006 p. 167). Foucault was a critic of a priori state theory and favoured a bottom up approach to the study of social power (Jessop 2007 pp. 34, 36). State and government activities for Foucault are not self-contained but derive from ‘a whole series of power networks that invest the body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology and so forth’ (Foucault 1980 p. 122). Foucault grounded his theory of power and control in the modern society in social norms and institutions rather than sovereign authority (Jessop 2007).  He called for a ‘political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor around the problems of law and prohibition’ (Foucault 1980, Collier 2009 p. 79).  Instead of sovereign power, power in contemporary society does not flow form a central point but ‘circulates through the capillaries of collective life’ (Collier 2009 p. 81). Something which Foucault termed the ‘micro-physics’ of disciplinary power relations which he explored in his work Discipline and Punish.(Foucault 1977)In later work he included a ‘macro level’ of power relations at a society level, he calls this technology of power the ‘biopolitics’ of the human race (Collier 2009 p. 83).  This power is applied through regulatory rather than disciplinary logic and includes issues such as health care, urban planning and the management of disease.  Foucault says that the two forms of power are distinct but dovetail into one another (Foucault et al. 2003 p. 242).

‘To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and the technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population’ (Foucault et al. 2003 p. 253).

Foucault argues that the idea of government offers a ‘strategic codification’ of power relations and provides a bridge between the micro and the macro (Jessop 2007 p. 39).  He argued that “the state is nothing more than the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities” (Foucault et al. 2004 p. 79, Jessop 2007 p. 36).  For Foucault the contemporary state has ‘no essence, is not universal, is not an autonomous source of power’ instead it is an ‘emergent and changeable effect of incessant transactions, multiple governmentalities and perpetual stabilisation.  Therefore the modern state can be seen as a set of practices and strategies rather than a universal, fixed and unchanging phenomenon (Jessop 2007 p. 37).

Eagleton (1991 p. 8) maintains that if the Foucault’s concept of discourse power comes to cover every social action it ceases to hold any strength.  He concurs that Nietzsche and Foucault were correct to point out power is indeed everywhere but maintains they are found wanting in distinguishing between more and less central instances of it.  For Eagleton there are some issues which are more important than others of which he maintains to be self evident.   Stuart Hall (1985 p. 93) critiques that Foucault in his concentration on the ‘dispersed microphysics of power’ effectively ignores issues of state power.

A conceptual model of Ideology and Power

A conceptual model of ideological power structures

Figure 1: A conceptual model of ideological power structures

Figure 1 is a conceptual model of ideological power structures drawing from Marx, Gramsci, Althusser,  Miliband and Foucault.  The model shows the relationship, as discussed, between the base and superstructure and the division of superstructure into civil and political society (or the broader state). This is further developed into the concept of ideological state apparatuses and coercive state apparatuses as discussed by Althusser. Drawing from Miliband and Foucault’s observations of the ideological micro powers in class relations, for example between workers and employers in private enterprises, I have included a concept of ideological coercive power sphere that falls between ideological and coercive power. Class relations means in most cases employers have an unofficial coercive power over their employees as well as considerable ideological power. The ideological coercive sphere is however a site of struggle as workers will resist coercion and will not necessarily take on board the ideological assumptions of the employer. They may in fact offer oppositional ideologies to them, whether in a class conscious fashion or not.  The ideological coercive sphere linked to the economic sphere and issues such as the ability of the employer to compensate workers, workers ability to move between employers and extract wages, and therefore is vulnerable to capitalist crisis.

Figure 2. A conceptual model of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic power structures

Figure 2. shows a conceptual model of counter hegemony and power mirroring the model of ideology and power. This model considers the relationship between counter hegemonic ideological and coercive apparatuses and the economic and class relations.  Here for example sub-altern groups may enter into the struggles within civil society via ideological apparatuses such as alternative media and cultural institutions, or enter into struggles within political society via political organisations. The relationship between base and superstructure is more difficult as counter hegemonic organisations cannot depend on the surplus created in capitalist production. Therefore counter-hegemonic institutions must be either self-financing, or depend on subsidies from sources such as memberships or money raised from waged workers. Other options may be funding from a larger co-operative movement, or the co-option of state funding. Class conscious institutions such as media institutions, cultural institutions and educational institutions may challenge capitalist ideological norms and in turn effect class relations. This can also take place in the ideological coercive sphere via trade unions and in the political sphere with political organisations.

Media and Crisis – Base and Superstructure

A factor that has become apparent in communications and media research is the connection between issues of political economy in the wider economy and the literature on research in institutional issues in the field of journalism. One of the clear issues inherent in the literature is that crisis rather than being an unusual or infrequent event is an inherent condition of capitalist production and class relations (Marx 1967). What is interesting in terms of the political economy of the media is how the general trends of capitalist crisis seem to be replicated in the media industry (Schiller 1999) and this in turn has a direct effect on media practice and indeed may even impede critique of the overall economic system itself. This reflects Marxist theory on the dialectical connections between economic structures and class relations and the various superstructures of society (including the media) that go beyond simple issues of private ownership; and may act to explain why differing models of media ownership are being affected by similar institutional issues.

As discussed in the literature capitalism is beset by tendencies of crisis such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Kliman 2012) and a tendency to overproduce (Clarke 1990b); inherent within this is a drive to innovate and a general tendency towards monopolisation (Shaikh 1978); likewise as seen in studies of the political economy of communications, the media too is beset by a squeeze on advertising revenue (and profits); tendencies towards overproduction, in terms of the number of competing media channels and content (Siapera 2013 p. 21), and a tendency towards monopolisation (Corcoran 2007, Davis 2007). There is a contradiction inherent in this process in that while we see growing number of media channels, especially online  ownership (of the more popular media channels) is concentrating in giant global media companies and as pointed out by Siapera (2013) the distribution of online content including news is being increasingly concentrated on major online platforms such as Facebook and Google.

reality tvIn television, for example, this has resulted in hundreds of low quality television channels showing repeats of the same shows and a proliferation of cheap to produce genres such as reality television, talent shows and cookery programs, with more quality television being produced on elite subscription services such as the Home Box Office network. While a recent study for the Rueters institute of journalism found that in the USA some 36% of news is accessed via social media (Newman 2012 in Siapera 2013). This commodification circuit is also challenged by the ability of users to download, upload and exchange digital products online for free, despite various attempts to close down the ‘digital commons’. Some have argued that the battle over audiences has also led to a ‘dumbing down’ of news itself and the development of a superficial and ideologically laden ‘infortainment’ television news service (McManus 1994).

The above processes in turn via technical innovation and a squeeze on the workforce has led to a generalised deterioration of working conditions for journalists and a lessening of resources for journalistic investigation (Preston 2009). While there has been much innovation in terms of technology some have argued that this has partly led to a deskilling (Braverman 1975) of journalism itself; with some of the basic skills such as fact checking falling by the wayside while many contemporary desk bound journalists are simply regurgitating both wire and online news stories (Davies 2009, Preston 2009, Simon  2011)  The process of the finacialisation of news organisations, that is news organisations taken over by larger (often heavily indebted) more overtly finance orientated organisations has also lead to a paring back of funding for news gathering and in worst case scenarios an asset stripping of resources. It is important not to be overly deterministic towards the role of technology and especially the internet in the process of financialisation and monopolisation of the media sphere, rather this process is a long term secular trend typical of capitalist industry.   In his testimony to the US Senate, David Simon, pointed out that key changes in the news industry long preceded the online revolution:

‘In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary – something so strong that it might have charged for its product online – they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme’.

Much as neo-liberal ideology has become an apparent discursive superstructure in the ideological sphere, neo-liberal work practices are commonplace within the media and journalistic field. This represents a relationship between base and superstructure that is far more insidious than simple private ownership and reaches into every aspect of journalistic work practices and content. Moreover a precarious news production workforce is much less likely to publicly critique his or her workplace or the system it is based upon. As discussed above the economic and relations of production base and the various superstructures (including the state and the media) have a dialectical relationship with one another, which may in fact act to reinforce one another as the media through ownership, institutional practice and overarching ideologies tends to act to defend or at least defer critique the economic system it is based on.

Miliband on the Media and Ideology

Ralph Miliband (ibid p. 197) argues that the notion of freedom of expression and opportunity of expression in contemporary society are both superficial and misleading.  In other words while dissident views may be tolerated, freedom of expression depends on the economic and political context of society. While dissident thoughts may be held they may not be easily broadcast. On the whole for Miliband, the free expression of ideas and opinions are in the main the free expression of ideas and opinions which are helpful to the prevailing system of power and privilege.  While there is a widespread pluralism within the press, that pluralism is very much set within the prevailing agenda (ibid p. 200).

For Miliband (1969 p. 190) business itself is one of the most powerful interest groups of civil society.  It makes itself felt in civil society through financial support of political parties, influence on the mass media and through business promotional groups. Moreover Miliband (1969 p. 194) maintains that general advertising as well as promoting individual products also underlines a business hegemony, selling a ‘way of life’ as much as individual goods. For Miliband (1969 p. 165) the process of ‘political socialisation’ or the ‘engineering of consent’ in capitalist society is largely an unofficial private enterprise rather than an overt enterprise of the political state.  This he argues helps to hide the nature of the socialisation.  In other word in our highly mediated society the hegemony of the dominant classes is being sold at every turn without the need of overt state ideology.

tvsMedia impartiality for Miliband is easy to achieve in countries such as Ireland when there is a clear ideological consensus between the major parties, but more difficult in societies with mass radical political parties.  In this case impartiality is quickly forgotten.  In the case where there is a broad consensus impartiality is given within the political agenda.  But there will be a widespread bias for any thoughts coming from outside that agenda. For example Miliband maintains the press is a ‘deeply committed’ anti trade union force, which will almost always take an anti-union stance in economic conflict.  In other words (in the case of Ireland) while the press may represent pluralism between the major political parties, who effectively represent similar interests and polices, in a state of conflict the press will invariably come out for the establishment.

Miliband (ibid p. 202) maintains that this act of ideological legitimation and indoctrination is also formed within the overtly non-political entertainment section of media. Moreover for Miliband (ibid p. 205) the private ownership of ‘the means of mental production’ means a state of de-facto censorship exists, a ‘private’ censorship based more on a general framework than direct control and one that albeit offers much more room for dissent compared to totalitarian state censorship, but one that will still insist on the correct attitude to conflicts between capital and labour and political issues outside the consensus.  Miliband also maintains that the power of advertisers, generally capitalist, acts as another form of influence on ideology on the media.  The media may also feel some pressure from government and political sources, though as the politicians themselves are dependent on the media and as the idea of an independent (from political influence) media has been established the media has some autonomy here. Rather than overt censorship the issue of self-censorship for professional advancement reasons has more resonance. This process became quite clear in the process of ‘self-censorship’ during the Northern Irish conflict (see Rolston and Miller 1996) Moreover  Miliband maintains that the majority of ‘cultural workers’ as he puts it will not ‘rock the boat’ as such or go against the ideological framework because their own ideological and political framework does not normally come up against these limitations. The leash on these workers for Miliband is sufficiently long enough as to allow enough freedom of movement and not to feel the strain (Miliband 1969 p. 211).  In conclusion Miliband maintains:

‘There is nothing particularly surprising about the character and role of the mass media in advanced capitalist society.  Given the economic and political context in which they function, they cannot fail to be, predominantly, agencies for the dissemination of ideas and values which affirm rather than challenge existing patterns of power and privilege, and thus can be weapons in the arsenal of class domination. The notion that they can, for the most part be anything else is either a delusion or a mystification.  They can, and sometimes do, play a ‘dysfunctional’ role; and the fact that they are allowed to do so is not lightly to be dismissed.  But that quite emphatically, is not and indeed cannot, in the given context, be there main role.  They are intended to fulfil a conservative function; and do so’ (Miliband 1969 p. 211).

Implications of Ideological Power: the case of Ireland


The role of the Irish state in the crisis has been very significant. The two major pro-active policies introduced since the 2007/2008 crisis have been the banking guarantee and the establishment of the National Asset Management Agency, both highly risky and expensive policies which serve to protect and bail out the private banking system.  Other sections of society have on the other hand faced negative policies such as cuts in pay, working conditions, social services,  the introduction of a local property tax, the privatisation of waste and the rolling out of water charges. Through these various cuts and working class tax rises (both direct and indirect) living standards across the board have fallen quite significantly. In short while bailing out the banks and financial industry the state (under two governments and including four political parties) has stood over a policy of severe austerity predicated on driving down wages and living standards discursively justified on the grounds of competitiveness, that is a policy of deflation based not on currency devaluation but rather on direct cuts to pay, conditions and the social wage.

The policies of austerity have acted to reinforce some of the tendencies of the crisis especially that of under consumption in the domestic economy. This process does seem to point towards the banking and financial industries to having a close relationship with the state. The consideration of such policy initiatives seem to resonate very well with the concept of the state being ‘captured’ by finance capitalism.

If anything the Irish crisis has seen the strengthening of some of the key trends of neo-liberalism; trends such as individualisation, atomisation of communities, deregulation, privatisation, managerialism, and workfare.  This has been met with a generally feeble, disunited (corporatised) and ineffective resistance, up to this point. This process also seems to include an embedding of aspects of what could be termed a neo-liberal ideology of anti-collectivism, alongside the unapologetic and aggressive stance of the Irish elite in demanding both pay restraint and austerity for the general population in the name of ‘competitiveness’ while continuing to enjoy some of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world, again justified by the ‘common sense’ of competitiveness and reified market demands. In Gramscian terms a united and hegemonic financial and business elite have seen numerous polices enacted in their short and long term interests while the working classes have been on a defensive and sectoral footing. Interestingly in terms of corporatism and partnership agreements post crisis both employers and the state (as employer) seem to have taken a much harsher stance.

The media too, have played an important role in this process. Empirical research by this author on the treatment of the Irish Times and Irish Independent of various aspects of the financial crisis (including coverage of the housing market, the blanket bank guarantee and the National Asset Management Agency) supports the Gramscian thesis of civil society acting as a bulwark against what he termed the ‘catastrophic “incursions” of the immediate economic element’ (Gramsci 1971/2003 p. 235). Here we can see one element of civil society, the press, acting in support of the existing system, or at best not questioning its various structural problems or inequities. This is apparent both before and after the crash itself.  In the research on the treatment of housing in the run up to the 2007 elections we can see both newspapers acting in a discursive defense of the property market, a market in which both newspapers had a vested interest. We see an overall playing down of a property crash privileging the frame of ‘slowdown’ or ‘soft landing’ (with few exceptions). This defensiveness also included a frame of a reflexive nature that called on commentators and politicians not to ‘talk down’ the economy. In other words not only were the newspapers failing in their normative ‘watchdog role’, they also overtly called on others not to call into question the market. Here the newspapers played a ‘loyal-facilitator’ role in relationship to elite classes. In the empirical research around the banking guarantee the newspapers were seen to don the ‘Green Jersey’ in substantial support for the policy (69% of articles in the first three weeks of the guarantee generally positive and only 13% were negative). This in fact mirrored quite closely the parliamentary party political support with all parties (except the Labour Party) and four out of five independents supporting the move. This may be incidental but could be another signal of the closeness between the media and the state. This closeness was also seen in the political sourcing of the two newspapers where over 80% of party political sources were pro-guarantee and nearly half of the party political sources (48%) came from the main government coalition party Fianna Fail. Overall 46% of all articles included at least one pro-guarantee political source compared with only 14% of all articles containing a political source opposed to the guarantee. Civil society outside of business and academia only represented a paltry 2% of all sources, while business and financial sources accounted for 23% of all sources. While the banking guarantee may have been framed as a business issue, the reality was and is that it was a societal wide and very much a class issue.

The treatment of NAMA was a little more complex with at least some oppositional voices being heard here with a 46% positive treatment of NAMA compared to a 19% negative treatment (this is in the coverage of NAMA in the month of April 2009), however, it should be noted that much of the oppositional coverage was on technical grounds, with the proposal by a number of academic economists that a very limited nationalisation would be cheaper than the ‘bad bank’ strategy. However it must be noted that this nationalisation was simply a method of cleaning up the banks rather than any form of economic development, and the banks would be re-privatised as quickly as possible.

Overall the two newspapers acted generally in defense of neo-liberal market ideology and government policy towards the crisis, that of the removal of stamp duty, the blanket bank guarantee and NAMA, this equates to a ‘captured’ press which failed in its watchdog role and generally acts in service to power.

The implications of this research are also important for wider society, as discussed above the role of the print media in providing an ideological cover to the property bubble and economic crisis has been clear, as has the uncritical treatment of the class led policies in solving the crisis. The newspapers via their close connection with key economic actors and their dependence on advertising acted as a cheerleader for  housing inflation and acted as defenders of the economic policies and power structures that led to the housing bubble.

The implication of a class biased media sphere is clear in terms of both politics and economics.  In economics the print media have proved rather than being an objective reporter of economics to be an uncritical conduit of elite economic agenda, and indeed being a key part of the commodity chain that ended in severe economic crisis. In terms of politics and particularly class politics, the entire framing of housing as a commodity acted to mystify class issues, something that has especially come home to roost as hundreds of thousands of people find themselves in a precarious situation of being unable to afford over-inflated mortgages in negative equity homes, with no solution outside of market norms being envisaged. This of course was not the case for the elites whose debts were dealt with early on in the crisis. The coverage also underlined the lack of coverage of forces outside of political and economic power bases as even mass organisations such as trade unions received little coverage (on issues not directly involving unions), while non-mainstream and extra-parliamentary political forces also get little or no treatment, this process also adds to the homogeneous and non-critical nature of the newspaper coverage.

Towards an Alternative Media Sphere?

The emphasis for those interested in working class and sub-altern politics the absolute need for popular critical media outlets not dependent on elite advertising or patronage; and the need for popular media outlets that can re-imagine and re-frame issues in terms of broader working class and subaltern interests; and a media that can challenge the ‘common sense’ narratives around the superiority of private markets over the public good. Some interesting projects are currently underway such as the crowd sourced ‘Rabble’ magazine, and the Workers’ Party sponsored ‘Look Left’  magazine, as well as a number of good quality blogs such as ‘Irish Left Review’ (which includes an annual journal), ‘Cedar Lounge Revolution’ and ‘Notes on the Front’, however, the above are primarily voluntary organisations and all writing and most work is unpaid. None of the above cover professional newsbeats or are regular enough to be compete against the mainstream print media outlets. The community radio sector is doing reasonably well however the closing down of Dublin City Television in 2014 was a blow to community broadcasting.   The problem of funding  alternative media institutions is one that continues to be the major problem in their realization; one possible solution may lie in state policy such as the Scandinavian funding models (Benson and Powers 2011) that subsidise funding to ‘secondary’ non-commercial newspapers however thus far no such policy has been proposed by any political group in Ireland

Henry Silke 10/05/2014


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Manufacturing Consent – Media Panel at the Anarchist Book Fair 2014

DABFRabble300wAudio from the Media panel on Manufacturing Consent at DABF 2014

Just how good are the mass media at keeping the rabble in line? This panel from the 2014 Dublin Anarchist Bookfair explores the media’s complicity with the rich and powerful and what we can do about it.

Julien Mercille, lecturer at University College Dublin, talked about Irish media coverage of the housing bubble and economic crisis in Ireland since 2008.

Henry Silke, curator of the Critical Media Review blog, discussed the structural aspects to news production and the ideological aspects of the media response to the crisis.

Mark Malone, long-time participant in anarchist/radical projects and co-producer with The Live Register media collective, looked at what, if any, recent changes in communication tech offers media activism in support of social struggles


Inside Bias – class representation in the Irish Times

blind_spot2A piece on the Irish Times new podcast series ‘Inside Politics’ on renting and property gives some revealing insights on continued class biases in the newspaper. The section included three guests, a TD from the Labour Party, a speaker from the Residential Landlord’s association and a representative from Mortgage Brokers Ireland (who is also  a landlord). Who’s missing from the picture? You guessed it a tenant.  The framing of rent reforms as unnecessary, counterproductive and politically impossible quickly follows:

Media, Crisis and The Making Of Common Sense – The Live Register

The Live Register hosted a podcast discussion on the Media, Crisis and the making of common sense between Henry Silke of this parish and Julian Mercille of UCD.

From the Live Register:

Why is the vast majority of Irish media dominated with an undoubting and uncritical attitude towards a single theory of the ‘crisis’? What role does it play in legitimising, rather than challenging, the structural causes of growing inequality? And what does this mean for radical interpretations of democracy, public space and the remaking of common sense?

In this Live Register podcast, we’re joined by Julien Mercille and Henry Silke, two academics who have been carrying out separate research relating to the Irish media.

Julien Marcille lectures at the School of Geography in UCD and has recently published research on how the Irish mainstream media have covered the Irish “crisis” from a pro-austerity position over the last five years. Henry Silke is a postgraduate researcher at the School of Communications DCU, who has been examining the political role of the Irish press during the crisis.

We used their research to frame a wider discussion of the real role of mainstream media in Ireland today, exploring how market ideology is central to how mainstream media frames public discourse, very much at odds to the perception of mainstream media holding truth to power.