State-sponsored news channels like Al-Jazeera and RT are contributing to widespread repercussions that go beyond that of the family lounge room. The question is, what are those repercussions? After all, it’s only a TV show, right?
When defending the growing budget of the State Department, United States Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton proclaimed that America is in the midst of “an information war, and we are losing that war”. She specifically singled out the predominantly state-funded cable news channels Al-Jazeera, RT (Russia Today) and CCTV (China Central Television) as competitors in this war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the masses. Within the last twenty-five years, countries that can be classified as ‘non-democratic’ have produced and disseminated cable news channels that can be broadcast across the entirety of the globe. These state-sponsored news channels are challenging traditional media organisations in breadth, prestige and influence. The implications of this steady rise in cable news channels materialising from non-democratic nation-states is both reflexive and consequential of a changing economical, political, technological and cultural environment.
The thing is that these new state-sponsored news channels provide a dynamic business model that challenges the long-established mode of business espoused by their rivals, stimulating dynamism and self-reflection. Furthermore, this new business model helps these state-sponsored news channels paradoxically confront entrenched authoritarian power structures whilst praising themselves and promoting their own agendas. Interestingly, this motivation is not limited to regional issues, and these state-sponsored news channels seem to relish challenging the perceived hegemony of Western media within a new ideological battlefront. These broadcasting channels are contributing to widespread repercussions that go beyond that of the family lounge room.
First though, let’s talk about what ‘non-democratic’ and ‘state-sponsored’ actually mean in this context. The defining qualities of state-sponsored cable news channels are varied but in this particular context, ‘state-sponsored’ will infer an active role by the state (both financially and non-financially). As the relative market-share and significance of state-sponsored cable news channels increases, there’s a simple way to assess the non-democratic qualities of nations-states, and I’ll try and apply them to state-sponsored news channels. The four key characteristics of non-democratic countries are as follows:
- Encapsulates a limited political system,
- Has a guiding ideology,
- Has ‘distinctive’ mentalities (i.e. particular ways of thinking and acting), and…
- A leader (or small group) that “exercises power within formally ill-defined limits”
The rise of state-sponsored cable news channels has produced a new broadcasting environment that is comparatively unrestricted in comparison to historical economic, political and social norms. In the West, cable news channels have specifically been created and refined by these constraints, whether they be political/altruistic (e.g. the charters that regulate standards at BBC and ABC News 24) or commercial (e.g. the profit-seeking nature of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC). Increasingly, non-democratic nations with commodified streams of income (i.e. Venezuela [TeleSUR], Russia [RT] and Qatar [Al-Jazeera] – oil; China [CCTV] – trade and large labour force) are no longer constrained by the whims of the market and ratings, creating an environment where the business model can focus on more long-term political, economic and ideological goals. Furthermore, their non-democratic nature dispels the need for an enforceable charter that regulates standards and demands balanced reporting. However, lack of regulatory accountability does not infer that profits and accolades do not play a part in the rise of these cable news channels, as obviously they must “have some financial success and wide popularity to keep going”. But without the constraints of charters, direct and continuous political meddling, (or concerns about profits for that matter) a new environment for reporting and broadcasting is created.
This new and unique business model allows these state-sponsored news channels’ to further hone in on their target audience and construct specific agendas. This new business model introduces a “new media environment [that] is teeming with a variety of outlets, players, stakeholders, and agendas”. This allows these state-sponsored news channels the ability to construct broad narratives via their ‘instructive’ nature. This allows state-sponsored news channels to implement broad movements such as Pan-nationalism and an emphasis on regionalism, or what famed media commentator Fareed Zakaria refers to as the ‘second stage’ of globalisation. In regards to the Middle East, traditional broadcast cable news channels had “forgotten that the global is increasingly the local”, leaving the Arab state-sponsored news channels to project a more homogenous ‘Arab voice’. This business model has been replicated all over the globe by non-democratic states, painting pioneers like Al Jazeera as “stand[ing] out like a huge rock a tepid media lagoon”. For example, Russia uses RT to reach ex-Soviet states, the Balkans and sympathetic Europeans and Americans; TeleSUR to reach Latin-America, and Al Arabiya to reach Sunni Muslims. The implication of this new business model unifies whole regions, languages, religions, cultures and movements, and dispels the traditional business model revolving around profits or the sanctity of a free press. When going back to the words of Hillary Clinton on this matter, she honestly thinks that traditional broadcasters are ‘losing the war’ – and also losing their grip on a once successful business model.
So in the process of challenging the historic hegemony that emanates from the West, these cable news channels are also sneakily testing entrenched and authoritative power structures in other parts of the world. In doing so, they have also transcended the limitations of cable news and brought the medium into the realm of ‘interactive television’. This in turn allows these particular cable networks to challenge stereotypes,encourage Pan-nationalism and regionalism –all whilst putting forth an amended version of their country and region to the rest of the world. Win-win! The unique qualities of cable television have enabled these news channels to circumnavigate rigid mass media restrictions to provide timely, instant and comprehensive coverage of news. Originally referred to as the ‘Al Jazeera Effect’ the concept has been broadened to incorporate the impact these new cable news channels have on governments losing their monopoly on information in an Internet-powered new media environment. Specifically in relation to the Middle East, the effects of these transitions in mass media have been attributed to changes in the politics of the region.
It is widely recognised that the rise of state-sponsored cable news channels was absolutely ‘crucial’ in the preceding events that culminated in the Arab Spring – a series of revolutions, revolts and uprisings that provoked widespread unrest and debate within the region. Social theorist Manuel Castells singled out the state-sponsored channels ofAl Jazeera and the Saudi-backed Al Hiwar for facilitating a “new system of mass communication built like a mix of interactive television, Internet, radio and mobile communication systems” in the midst of the Arab Spring. By challenging the old power structures and authoritarian regimes in various places around the world, these channels currently possess a power and influence unrivalled in modern mass media production.
This wave of state-sponsored cable news channels also allows non-democratic states to challenge what they perceive as Western, and in particular American hegemony and bias in global broadcast media. This in turn allows the non-democratic states backing these channels to re-frame contemporary events like the Iraq War by casting it “in terms of another example of Western imperialism and colonialism”. Traditional mass media in the non-Western world is perceived as “agencies of imperial powers, [and are] central nodes inter-connecting with national agencies of lesser powers subjugated through force, trade and ideology”. According to media commentator siblings Claudia and Oliver Boyd-Barrett this has left a ‘willfully neglected’ vacuum, within which state-backed news channels can challenge perceived bias and fight the ‘information war’ (Hillary Clinton’s terms) on more level terms with the West. In the battle for the narrative in the recent Ukrainian Crisis, Russia’s state-funded RT news channel was accused of attempting to make ‘the West look bad’. According to The Economist, they achieved this by employing many, “Western voices: far-left anti-globalists, far-right nationalists and disillusioned individuals” to enter the ideological debate and battle for the ‘moral high ground’ in the protracted conflict. The Boyd-Barrett siblings refer to these state-sponsored cable news channels as ‘counter-hegemonic’ and specifically note the example of TeleSUR. This is a collective channel backed by many South American nations that presents a ‘Latin-American perspective’ on current events, and hence provides an alternative to ‘US-controlled channels’ for a South American audience. The rise of these state-sponsored cable news channels seek to wrestle the narrative off those they perceive as a threat via ‘soft propaganda’, with the result being the most concerted challenge to Western media hegemony since colonial times. The consequence is a fractured and increasingly challenged narrative espoused by the traditional creators, distributors and facilitators of news in the Western world.
A variant to the threat state-sponsored cable news channels pose to Western hegemony is the challenge these channels also pose to foreign diplomacy, and one could argue – peace in general. Predominantly state-funded cable news channels are not new (e.g.BBC News), but the creation of news channels backed by various non-democratic states has arguably led to the evolution of a diplomatic discourse between countries that must now take into account both the ideological stance espoused by the state and their sponsored news channel. The inherent differences between democratic and non-democratic nations’ creates a conflicting dialogue that has increasingly led to instances of ‘uncertainty and misperception’. To avoid directly inflaming tensions, non-democratic states have been accused of letting the ‘virtual state’ (i.e. the state-sponsored news channels) report what The Economist refers to as ‘lies’, ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘false stories’. The general reaction to news broadcast on non-democratic sponsored news channels is increasingly characterised by conflict and violence. According to Cambridge University professor Seung-Whan Choi, the reaction of the democratic state illustrates their inability to decipher codified or correct information from the state-sponsored cable news channel. This means that the,
democratic state… does not trust the quality of closed media in the non-democratic state, [so] it is likely that the democratic state resists and defends itself with counter-threats and use of force.
For example, via RT the Russian state was able to reach a broadcasting audience of over 700m people worldwide, sending mixed messages to foreign powers which in turn further strains diplomatic dialogue. This was witnessed in the middle of the Ukrainian Crisis, where according to Timothy Garton Ash from The Guardian the Russian President Vladimir Putin “used television to impose his own narrative of a socially conservative, proud Russia threatened by fascists in Kiev, an expansionist NATO and a decadent EU”. Furthermore, state-sponsored cable news channels are increasingly being used to undermine state power and inflame tensions. The implication of the rise of state-sponsored cable news channels fosters a more confusing and volatile environment for both democratic and non-democratic nations alike to act within.
Let’s now go back to the words of Hillary Clinton. In that very same speech, she said that the rise of these non-democratic state-sponsored cable channels was “changing peoples’ minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective”. With Hillary Clinton looking likely to be the next POTUS, and the likelihood that she will be more hawkish on foreign policy than Obama, it will be interesting to see how these state-sponsored cable news channels will respond. With accusations that Russia was involved in the hacking of Democratic Party emails, the answer points to a new and possibly dangerous era of ‘information wars’ coming up in the near future. Someone get the popcorn and pass me the remote.