The Politics of Global Media Reform
Media, Culture & Society © 2004 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi), Vol. 26(5): 643–675
QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY, CANADA
CARLETON UNIVERSITY, CANADA
In contrast to much contemporary scholarship, which sees the consolidation of a global media system during the 1990s as a fundamentally new phenomenon, this article traces the rise of globalization and a global media system back to the period between the mid-19th century and the 1920s. It contributes to a growing body of research amongst communication scholars
such as Oliver Boyd-Barrett (1980) and Boyd-Barrett and Tehri Rantanen (1998), as well as in works from other disciplines (e.g. Hirst and Thompson, 1999; O’Rourke and Williamson, 2000) and broader works such as Kevin Phillips’s study of power and wealth in the US (2002).
The article makes three key points. First, globalization is not new and, furthermore, the earlier phase being considered here has been conceptualized in several different ways.
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The second key point of our research is that the long period between 1850 and the late 1920s that gave rise to the global media system can be divided into two stages. The first stage occurred between approximately 1880 and 1902, and was mainly restricted to demands within the British Empire for government ownership of cables, the main result being the laying of the Pacific Cable between Canada and Australasia in 1902 (Pike and Winseck, 1999; see also Boyce, 2000). However, the analysis in this article begins a few years prior to the First World War, when the press of the British Empire were becoming strident in their demands for major
reform in cable communications, and moves through several US-inspired international conferences held in Washington between 1920 and 1923. This period represents a second phase in a long-term movement pressing for changes in how the global media system of the time was owned, regulated and used, and which had three key features: critiques of cable cartels; calls for state ownership and regulation of cables; and efforts to secure cheaper cable rates.
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The third key point, related to the second, is that there was still a strong reform movement in Britain and the Dominions, held over from the earlier stage, and – as noted in the ‘utopian view’ – later extended to the US, calling for low cabling rates with the purpose of turning the cable and
telegraph into a means of mass communication. Lastly, radio became a much touted possible rival to cable, even though up until the late 1920s most analysts believed that it would develop mainly as a supplementary adjunct to cable. Hence the spate of cable-laying which followed closely upon the end of the First World War, although paradoxically the formation of the Radio Corporation of America in 1919 did have international competition with British cable interests as one of its major goals. As Lippmann remarked in Liberty and the News, all this meant that ‘the real censorship on the wires is the cost of transmission. This in itself is enough to limit any expensive competition or any significant independence’ (1995: 43). We shall return to Lippmann later in the article, but for now the key point is that it was such prescient observations that turned questions regarding the ownership and control of the cables, the costs of cabling, the adequacy of their technical facilities, their technological entrenchment, into the cornerstones of a far-reaching politics of global media.
The political economy of the cables
Cartels and monopolies
From the 1850s onwards, domestic telegraph systems had greatly extended their reach and become linked to a worldwide network of cable communications. Unlike domestic telegraphs which, with the exception of the US and Canada, were usually state owned, the cable network consisted predominantly of private companies interconnected in a complex series of monopolies and cartel arrangements; and here, British companies dominated, maintaining almost complete control over the manufacture and laying of cables and owning two-thirds of the world’s cables by 1900. Among these companies, the doyen was what Daniel Headrick (1991: 39) describes as ‘the greatest multinational company of the nineteenth century’, the Eastern and Associated Companies, presided over by John Pender and his son, John Denison Pender, which controlled some 46 percent of all cables prior to the First World War and still retained a commanding influence over government policies when amalgamated with Marconi radio interests in the late 1920s. In turn, these cable interests, both in Britain and elsewhere, supported the growth of global news agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press (AP), as well as the formation of international markets and, of course, the spread of imperialism. Some of these developments are well documented, others less so (notably Ahvenainen, 1981, 1996; Coates and Finn, 1979; Headrick, 1991; Hugill, 1999; Kennedy, 1971; Tribolet, 1929).
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In short, while numerous nominally independent cable companies existed, in reality many of them were elements of one large Eastern controlled unit, with either John Pender or his son, or their close associate, the Marquis of Tweeddale, on their boards (Headrick, 1991: 36). The Eastern companies controlled not just the running of the business through TC&M, but cable construction, laying and maintenance, and constantly sought exclusive landing rights, government contracts and preferential connections with domestic telegraph companies, as they spread across the globe. Furthermore, they protected themselves by creating pooling arrangements with other cable firms, and centrally through the creation of the Globe Telegraph and Trust Company (GT&T) in 1873 [ . . . ] With Pender at the helm of the Trust and several of its ‘member companies’, and most of the world’s major cable companies ultimately collected in the same premises in London – Electra House – or along a short block of Broad Street in New York – the geography and sociology of control over the worldwide network of cables was remarkably tight-knit (Headrick, 1991: 36).2
Global cable penetration from the 1870s onwards has been fairly well documented, but needs some brief outline here, not least because of links both to news flow and later rivalries between Britain and the US. (i) From Britain, the Eastern Telegraph Company ran a cable system through to India, and beyond India, another Pender company – the Eastern Extension and Australasia Telegraph Company – linked to Singapore and Hong Kong, with an extension to Japan, and tied in Australia and New Zealand to Asia and Europe in 1876. Prodded by the threat of new government-owned cables, Eastern laid a second cable to Australia, via South Africa in 1902. (ii) By 1889, all major cables serving the east and west coast of Africa were controlled by the ‘Eastern’ group. (iii) The trans-Atlantic route from Europe was served by up to 17 cables landing either in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, the majority of them being controlled either by Western Union or, after 1883, the Commercial Cable Company, which linked to the Postal Telegraph Company in the US; the rest, by 1910, included two
German-owned cables, and, as already mentioned, two British-owned cables and the British-dominated French cable. (iv) Moving southward, the Eastern group’s cables ultimately interconnected Halifax with Bermuda and Jamaica. In South America, the Eastern-owned Western Telegraph Company was granted a 30-year monopoly for service between Europe and Brazil in 1873, and subsequently extended its lines to Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Peru. In 1892–4, Brazil extended Eastern’s monopoly for an additional 20 years on the vital route between Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, effectively shutting out US cable firms from much of the eastern coast of South America until 1919 (Denny, 1930: ch. 14). However, French and German cable companies obtained Brazilian landing rights, the German cable being part of a concerted effort by Germany to link its imperial possessions and perceived spheres of interest prior to the First World War.
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Finally, on the trans-Pacific route from western North America, the stateowned imperial Pacific Cable completed the first electronic circumnavigation of the globe via Australia in 1902. However, it did not connect with Asia, and hence the main cable route to the Far East on the west–east axis continued to reside with the Eastern Extension in a complex pooling arrangement with a series of other cable companies, most notably the Danish Great Northern Telegraph Company and the Commercial Pacific Cable laid in 1902–3 from San Francisco to Hawaii, Guam and the newly acquired Philippines, and thence northwards.
The above pooling arrangement illustrated perfectly the Eastern Extension’s approach to controlling the expansion of cable networks and potential competition, all the while maintaining the illusion that the Commercial Pacific Cable was American controlled.
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