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Mass Media Studies and the Question of Ideology

Mass Media Studies and the
Question of Ideology
Martin Barker

On the face of it, radical understanding of the mass media
has to count as one of the great success stories of the
post-’60s political and academic culture. Without
attempting anything like a historical survey, it is
unquestionably the case that whole new fields and new
enterprises of investigation have been developed; and even more importantly – the concerns of most of those who
have developed the fields have been at least broadly
‘oppositional’, in the sense that they have wanted to
investigate the media from the perspective of power
relations. This doesn’t mean they have been necessarily
socialist, but they have been ‘critical’ in a general sense.

And that has meant a close concern with questions of
ideology.

To list but a few of the developments, we have seen:

(1) the growth of critical studies of news, led obviously
by the work of the Glasgow University Media Group
(GUMG);
(2) intense investigation into and argument about the
presentation of women in our culture, growing out of the
rebirth of the women’s movement;
(3) the same intense activity over the regeneration and
transmission of racist ideas;
(4) surgical probings of a host of forms of popular
culture – soap operas, light entertainment, women’s and
girls’ magazines, etc.;
(5) delvings into media hardly thought about before, but
now regarded as having real importance, for example
photography.

All these investigations have powered, and been
powered by, parallel theoretical developments: film
theory, semiology, narrative analysis, reader theory,
‘pleasure’ theory, post-structuralist deconstructionism all of them, as I say, motivated to a considerable extent
by the desire to unpack ideology. Each of them, in other
words, has had the fairly self-conscious intent of helping
us to grasp the ways media ‘texts’ may have power to
reproduce their messages within their audience; and that
includes us. I mention ‘us’, especially, because if media
studies are very much a Child of 1968, one of the ways in
which they are so is in their peculiarly self-conscious
attitudes.

With great fear of caricature, I would summarise some
of these attitudes as follows: after ’68, a kind of cultural
politics grew up which tended to incorporate, first
cultural suspicion; second cultural guilt; and third
assertion of the authenticity of resistances. First, media
studies developed within an atmosphere of looking around,
and worrying what if anything could be considered ‘safe’.

I confess that I find the nadir of this within the gross
suspicions of so many forms of pleasure that grew out of
‘pleasure theory’. Were not, the implication was, our
enjoyings of almost everything marked by
domination/subordination?

The consequence of this was, as I have called it,
cultural guilt: a feeling that we ourselves are tainted,
and a tendency to probe inside for signs of sexism, racism,
etc., to the point even that failure to admit to so doing
was itself a mark of being both tainted and unreformed.

And thirdly, there has been the tendency to look on
forms of cultural resistance by those whom we judge
oppressed or exploited, as largely beyond criticism. Who
are we, the tainted ones, to comment on their forms of
resistance? These three tendencies I feel have been very
much the mark of post-’68 cultural politicS; but often
their power has been not to make people agree, but to be
experienced as a pressure, to have to distance oneself
from them. I may not agree with these three, but I feel
the need to explain why and how I disagree. That, to me,
is as great a sign of their reality as would be their
general agreement.

In themselves these positions are neither obviously good
nor bad. But I want to try to show through this article
that in fact they have been associated with • other views
which are decidedly problematic. And in particular I
want toshow that they are coupled with certain views
about the nature of ideology which I want to call into
question.

What is a theory of ideology in relation to the media?

It is a theory about how ideas, images, attitudes or other
contents of the media are both able to reside within media
‘texts’, and are able to reproduce themselves in us. It is,
in other words, a theory about the power of the media to
affect us. Of course there will then be important
arguments about the nature of the influence: is it the
relatively superficial capacity to insert particular
beliefs (‘Guinness is good for you!’); is it a tendency to
create preferred structures of concepts for understanding
the world; or is it the wholesale construction of
personality, ‘subjectivity’, that is involved? These are
particular arguments within the domain. But ~ theory of
ideology that relates itself to the media must make
theoretical commitments on how the processes are thought
-to take place. Therefore any such theory requires us to
answer certain questions, even if we do so only implicitly.

(1) What is it about human beings that makes them prone to
being influenced by certain kinds of message from the
media, and in what aspect of their minds are they
affected? (2) What forms of communication, or what
relations of communication are judged capable of having
that power? (3) What ‘mechanisms’ are there which work
to enable the messages to be transmitted, powerfully?

The first clearly requires an epistemological answer.

It wi11 raise issues about how humans learn, the conditions
under which they can be influenced, and so on. The second
must lead to methods for investigating the media, in order
to disentangle the significant from the insignificant. It
wi11 indicate how we should track down the significant

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messages within the media that may be transferred to an
audience. The third is more problematic. It introduces
what I would call ‘bridge-concepts’, that is, ways of
conceiving how messages within the text are actually
transferred, how it is that our minds are made vulnerable
to them. And I want immediately to note the odd fact
that, although (as I shall show) media theorists and
investigators have regularly made assumptions about this,
it is the least acknowledged or recognised aspect of the
whole.

In this article I want to illustrate what I see as the
troublesome answers media analysts have given to these
three questions, by discussing three examples. These are:

the work of the Glasgow University Media Groupj Angela
McRobbie’s important study of Jackiej and Stuart Hall et
aI’s work on the creation of the ‘mugger’ [1]. I freely
acknowledge the dangers of selecting three disparate
studies in this way, but I think that nonetheless some
general lessons can be learnt from looking closely at
these. If there are other studies to which my strictures
don’t apply, bully for them. But I’d like the chance to
look and see.

To examples, then: first, the Glasgow group. I don’t
share the recent tendency to devalue their achievements.

It is some kind of measure of their importance that they
have provoked such intense dislike and hostility (but never
in the form of coherent replies) from BBC and ITV. (It
would be interesting to compare the tenor of the TV
companies’ response to GUMG with that given to Tebbit’s
assault.) Nor am I prepared to follow Raymond Williams,
at last year’s Association of Cultural Studies conference,
in equating political importance with theoretical acuity.

I remain convinced of both the empirical power and the
political importance of their work. Nevertheless, there is
a problem with their theorisation of ‘ideology’ in news
which has remained, perhaps surprisingly, unnoticed.

Take their conclusion to their compilation book Really
Bad News:

– – A new definition of the aims of broadcasting should
be established which recognises the conflicts of
interests between groups and lays down a duty on
broadcasters to represent these differences fairly
and accurately. Broadcasters should have a duty to
produce programmes from the different perspectives
within society. At the same time there should be
positive moves within broadcasting to combat racism
and sexism. We do not believe that broadcasting
‘freedom’ should extend to those groups who harm
others on the basis of their sex or colour of skin [2].

These conclusions arise naturally from GUMG’s combined
theoretical enquiry and empirical work. They are
therefore very revealing of the problems of their work. It
would be tempting to tackle them by noting the apparent
contradiction between, on the one hand, the supposedly
scientific investigations of news content which reveal
them to be ‘biassed’ (and therefore in need of ‘balancing’),
and on the other hand, the obviously political demand for
the removal of racist and sexist content from news. But
that does not reveal the key assumptions at work. It is
more important to tease out the implica tions inside their
notion of ‘balance’.

These come to the surface in an example of one of the
best pieces of empirical work GUMG have done, in my
opinion: their study of the way women were presented and
used in news coverage of the Falklands War. They noted
very acutely how news tended to restrict them to being
carriers of emotions, expressers of feelings – very often
without even the chance to speak for themselves. Instead,
there would be voices-over lingering shots of worriedlooking women with children. But this is how they then
connect this significant discovery with their general
themes:

It is very unusual for married women in the home to
appear on the news. An underlying assumption is
that serious news stories should be about public

28

events – government proposals, stock market
movements etc. The lives of women at home are
taken as a sort of steady background, only
‘newsworthy’ in this case because the men are absent,
and because the men are making news. Having
selected ‘ordinary’ married women’s thoughts and
lives as an issue in these extraordinary
circumstances, the TV journalists present them in a
traditional women’s role, which does not include
expressing dissident views. Reports on the relatives
are approached as ‘human interest’ items, ‘soft’ news
stories where the issue at stake is how wives and
mothers, sitting at home with emotions rather than
political opinions, cope with the waiting. Given the
rare chance of reports from naval housing estates, to
present an area of life that the news normally
neglects, the TV journalists find themselves falling
back on the old-fashioned stereotypes of women’s
role and family life.

According to the 1980 General Household Survey,
conventional family units – couples living with
children – make up only 31 % of households.

Households where the woman is dependent on the man
and stays at home to look after the children are only
13%. Altogether two thirds of married women have
paid jobs outside the home. This is not to cast doubt
on the genuine warmth, security and family
solidarity that the TV cameras captured, or the depth
of joy and relief felt in reunions with survivors after
the war. The point is that the TV news portrait of
the war was selective, and that it selected images of
unity and families, concealing much of the real
conflict and true attitudes within the country [3].

have quoted this at length to show how they have moved
from a revealing empirical account to a framework for
understanding that is most odd. To reveal its oddity,
imagine a composite news item in which we did try to obey
their injunction to ‘balance’ this (‘undoubtedly true’)
warmth of feelings etc. among the women at home, with
other perspectives.

The item must, I feel, open with the conventional
account. The camera can slowly pan across and zoom in
on a group of mothers with very young children, looking a
little worried. Follow with a close-up of an emotionfilled expressive woman’s face – all this with voice-over
about their feelings, perhaps (in order to assess them) a
question to one of them about how concerned she is for her
husband/boyfriend (the latter, of course, only if there is
no child!). We have to have this for, after all, it is a
legitimate point of view, isn’t it? But now ‘balance’ can
begin to. enter. So: cut to tight interview with women
discussing whether their men should have gone. Is it worth
the sacrifice of lives? But we can’t stop here, if ‘balance’

is truly to operate. So: next, cut to a woman showing
bruises to the camera. She’S bloody glad her husband is
gone for a few weeks – he used to beat her up. Perhaps
follow this with an interview with a radical feminist, who
will argue that war is a problem of male aggression
anyway (this is important, because we must make sure that
the battered woman is not seen as an isolated casej to
‘balance’ the dominant account, it needs an explanatory
framework) [4]. To close our news item, in all fairness,
we should return to the lingering emotional shots. After
all, it is probably still the majority view.

In their works, GUMG argue that the goal of news must
be to ‘help explain, and clarify events’. Does my
imaginary balanced item do this? My suspicion is that
(aside of course from the inevitable outrage it would
cause) it would produce a response somewhere between
hilarity and confusion – because it doesn’t make sense to
think of different views like this as simply alternatives,
which can be set against each other. But equally it
reveals the difficulty of actually operating with their
criterion of exclusion on sexist attitudes. For it could be
argued with considerable force that the ‘stereotyped’ view
of women as emotional bearers, as expressers of feelings,
is precisely one of the most oppressive and sexist attitudes
– hence one that ought to be banned from news?

Behind all this, though, lies the crucial assumption: an
epistemological assumption that, other things being equal,
people’s understanding of the world is ~ construct of the
balance of information that flows to them. If
‘unbalanced’ news would make no difference to likely
audience views, why worry? The implication is that
insofar as news is influential, ‘unbalanced’ news will
result in unbalanced audiences. In saying this is an
assumption of theirs. I am of course not denying that
censorship of information can be very important to the
possibilities of people understanding the world
effectively. But the GUMG perspective goes further; and
this comes to the surface particularly in another paper
from the Glasgow Sociology Department, which has the
same conclusions although from different hands. Ditton
and Duffy, in an occasional paper analysing patterns of
crime reporting in Scottish newspapers, point out
(comparably to GUMG) the gross imbalances between
actual cr imes reported and cases going before the courts,
on the one hand, and those that feature at all in
newspapers. For example, violent and sexual crimes were
far more represented in their Press sample than would
have been warranted by police or court statistics. They
then construct a model of newspaper audiences to give
significance to this:

Our hypothetical newspaper purchaser might buy a
Daily Record on Tuesday and thus receive the
impression that of reportable crime, only 17.7% took
place in Scotland. Alternatively, he might buy an
Evening Times on Friday, and receive the much more
alarming impression that 71.4% of reportable crime
was Scottish-based. To put it another way, a regular
reader of the Sunday Post (67.6% of crime coverage
Scottish-based) should rationally be twice as
apprehensive about safely walking the streets as a
regular reader of the Scotsman [8].

The assumptions in this are deeply empiricist. A rational
understanding of the world on this model is a compilation
of influences, an accumulation of separate pieces which
assemble into their own conceptual understanding of the
world. In no sense would it be a sufficient avoidance of
this empiricism to add that ‘Of course there are other
influences’ or ‘Of course some people may read the news
in different (deviant) ways.’ It is the underlying model of
what constitutes a rational reading of that ‘unbalanced’

news that is empiricist.

What is wrong with it? Many things. Not least that
audiences approach newspapers (or TV news) with
expectations as to the range of covering they will find.

So, a reader of a regional newspaper will hardly conclude
from the fact that very little crime seems to be going on
in the Sudan, Haiti or Billericay, that therefore these are
crime-free havens for the nervous. To put it this way is to
particularise an objection which I shall return to in more
general form; and that is that GUMG, and Ditton and
Duffy, take the relation of influence between media and
audiences to be essentially non-social. I shall explain
more fully what I mean by this later on, but I put it this
way here because I want to show that, although GUMG
hold this assumption in a particular form, it is in fact an
assumption found in more subtle forms in my other

examples. Here, the problem expresses itself in their
assumption (which they know to be absurd, once it is drawn
out) that readers approach their newspapers without
expectations, with no prior relationship to the papers they
might be influenced by.

It may of course be felt that in choosing the Glasgow
Group as my first target, I am choosing a most
unrepresentative case. In many respects, they are outside
the mainstream of media studies. I would accept that. But
they constitute a very good example of how
epistemological assumptions can lurk inside media
analyses, unrecognised but playing a very crucial
organising role. They organise both how the texts are
examined for significant contents, and then how these
contents are read for likely ideological import. These
general considerations remain valid in my second case,
even though it is a very different study.

McRobbie’s study of Jackie is something of a classic of
semiological investigations, much-cited, and several times
reproduced. In it, she does a thorough job of dissecting
what she sees as a coherent and powerful ideology which
is being offered, very seductively, to young girls: an
ideology of adolescent femininity which sells to them the
notion that ‘boys’ are virtually all that matter in their
lives. Forming romantic relationships, and doing all the
necessary hard word to prepare themselves for this,
through make-up, fashion, developing the right
personality: this is the sum-total of the magazine, which
embroiders this message through stories, through advice
pages, through the kind of interest the girls are offered in
pop, and so on. It is a powerful, and powerfully-argued,
analysis.

My prime interest is in McRobbie’s account of
mechanism; that is, how it is thought Jackie manages to
have its influence. McRobbie clearly believes that the
magazine is capable of considerable power: ‘Jackie
constitutes an ideological bloc of mammoth proportions’

[6]. This powerful bloc traps young girls into a false
sisterhood, one based on jealousy and competitiveness.

McRobbie’s semiological account sets itself
consciously against other approaches. She contrasts it
with an (empiricist) content analysis, with an (elitist)
high/low culture opposition, and a (sociological) cultureas-lived-relations approach. Semiology is a method, for
her, which can reveal the powerful ideological structures
in the text, without making moralising assumptions.

Perhaps the key concept in semiology is that of ‘form’.

‘Form’ in this approach is the internal structuring of
oppositions and relations that constitute Jackie as ~
‘whole’. If something is part of the form of Jackie, then it
is part of the system of meanings which is capable of being
transferred from text to audience. This methodological
presumption, however, leads McRobbie to class just about
every aspect of the magazine as part of the ‘form’. Thus:

colour vs black & white in the printing, print vs pictures,
the use of layouts, the title (connoting informality and
‘unambiguously designating the category of the subject’),
and page-organisation all take their place alongside her
four main codes, of fashion, pop, romance and personal
life. And they have equivalent importance. So we are
told that the organisation of contents is important, with
Cathy and Claire put at the end of the magazine to
‘rekindle our fading interest’, set in sombre black and
white to indicate its ‘serious’ nature. Thus is reality
reestablished after the fictional elements.

Now the simple fact is that in Jackie’s twenty-two year
history, Cathy & Claire have frequently moved their
position in the magazine – from near the beginning, to the
middle, to the end (where McRobbie found them), back to
the middle and so on. It would be sheer folly to build a
thesis on such shifting sands, and I don’t suppose for one
moment that McRobbie wants to. But the fact is that the
theory she is using doesn’t enable us to discriminate
important from unimportant bits of ‘form’. The theory, via
the method it prescribes, requires us to search for

29

structuring forms – and then assumes that these ‘forms’

transfer to us by a process of inserting themselves into us,
structuring us into their shapes (unless of course we are
able to resist – but that is the get-out caveat which I insist
does nothing to alter the basic model). Then a second
assumption comes into play, leading to a most peculiar
comment from McRobbie about what she sees as the
‘lightness of tone’ of the magazine. In her account, this is
understood as a form of disguise. That is, the message (the
structuring forms) is serious, but the lightness of tone or
non-urgency conceals this seriousness and aids its insertion
into the young girls.

Note the assumptions at work in this, because they are
so germane to my argument. On such an account, a media
‘text’ can be divided into two separate elements: the
‘message’, or the part which will be reproduced in our
heads if the media are successful; and the devices the
media employ to aid the process of transfer, to help
capture and penetrate the audience. And note again that
‘vulnerability’ is an epistemological category; it relates
to ways in which our minds (I almost feel the need to
apologise for using such a term, instead of fashionable
alternatives like ‘subjectivities’) are laid open to
influence. What is vital to note here is that it is assumed
once again that such ~ process of influence bypasses
cognitive understanding. The cognitive, if it is referred to
at all, is seen on an analogy with a carrier-wave,
conveying a cargo of messages but hiding the manifest.

This leads to a very particular account of the nature of
ideology, and once again it is one I have found commonly
taken-for-granted in a great deal of recent work on the
media. This sees ‘ideology’ as essentially a non-cognitive
construct. It may look like a conceptual account of the
world, but in reality it is motivated by emotions, feelings,
affects. I will illustrate this through my third example,
once more a study I admire enormously for its empirical
range. Hall et al studied the creation in the early 1970s
of the image of ‘the mugger’, who became the embodiment
of all that was threatening British society. He was alien,
dangerous, lurking around every corner, and he was black.

Using a wide variety of sources, Hall et al quite
brilliantly show how this was constructed as a crucial
element in the renewed law-and-order campaign of that
period.

Central to their theoretical account of it is Stanley
Cohen’s concept of a ‘moral panic’. Cohen had used the
concept to help make sense of public reactions in the mid1960s to the skirmishes and beach-fights of the Mods and
Rockers in places like Southend and Margate. With real
skill, Cohen had shown how melodramatic accounts by the
press in particular created a vast gulf between the
usually quite minor scuffles, and occasional broken
windows, and the image of vast scheming hordes of
hooligans invading sleepy seaside resorts. (My favourite
example of this is Cohen’s account of the journalist who
reported having heard a Mod, being arrested, call to his
friends: ‘Carry on with The Plan’).

Cohen had defined a ‘moral panic’ as
a period of moral spasm. A condition, episode,
person or group of persons emerges to become defined
as a threat to societal values and interests, its
nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical
fashion by the mass media, the moral barricades are
manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other
right-thinking people ••• [7].

We should pause over the language of this: ‘societal
values’, ‘societal reaction’, ‘symbolic crusade’, ‘moral
enterprise’, ‘mass hysteria’, ‘delusion and panic’. From
the perspective of 1960s interactionism, this is not
surprising. ‘Society’ was conceived as a conflict of
meanings. It is more surprising to find that these ways of
conceiving the nature of media ideologies survives into the
apparently more political account of Hall et al.

In taking over Cohen’s conceptualisation, Hall et al do
alter it significantly. They now take ‘moral panics’ to be

30

the surface expression of much deeper ideological crises,
rather like the relation between an earthquake and the
epicentre of disturbances:

(This) helps us to identify the ‘moral panic’ as one of
the principal surface manifestations of the crisis, •••
the displacement of a conjunctural crisis into the
popular form of a ‘moral panic’ [8].

Note straightaway the sense of ‘no ownership’. It is as
though an ideology has a ‘life of its own’, independent of
the people who hold it. This view is reinforced at another
point in the book when they comment on the role of the
police: ‘… though they are crucial actors in the drama of
the “moral panic”, they, too, are acting out a script which
they do not write’ [9]. It is as though ideological forms
produce themselves – a conception which owes a lot to the
Althusserian influence on Hall. They are not to be
understood as strategic, policy-directed initiatives. They
simply occur, as a function of the state of class forces.

But it is also more than this. For it is part of the tendency
to see ideological developments as like moods, or
climates. They ‘come upon us’, they do not become
‘accepted for reasons, though they may get rationalised
afterwards. This insistent reading makes them interpret
major incidents of their period in a strange way. This
shows, for me, particularly well in their discussion of
that most important figure of 1968, Enoch Powell.

Recall that in April, May and November ’68, Powell had’

made three speeches on the topic of immigration and race
relations which had the effect of pulling the whole
public domain of race discourse very sharply to the Right.

Politically, they were events of major importance in
giving respectability to resurgent racism. Here is the
entire discussion of Powell and Powellism as it occurs in
their book:

On 20 April on the eve of the Race Relations Bill,
Mr Powell delivered his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in
Birmingham. ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy
they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad,
as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of
some 15,000 dependants •••• It is like watching a
nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral
pyre.’ Discrimination, Mr Powell continued, was
being experienced, not by blacks, but by whites ‘those among whom they have come’. This invocation
– direct to the experience of unsettlement in a
settled life, to the fear of change – is the great
emergent theme of Mr Powell’s speech [10].

A few sentences later, in the only other reference to
those speeches or their impact, we are told of his appeal
to ‘more subliminal nationalist sentiments and passions’.

‘Fears’, ‘passions’, ‘sentiments’ – curiously, the very
language in which Powell presented his own
interpretation of white reactions to immigration – a
language (shared by Hall et al) which makes it hard to
conceptualise that reaction as racist. I don’t want to deny
the emotional charge that Powell’s speeches carried, nor
the rhetorical element in them. But in this account there
is no space for the strategic thrust or conceptual
reorganisation for which many others, including myself,
have found evidence. It is not that Hall et al have found
no evidence of such cognitive aspects; it is that their
theorisation of ‘moral panics’ has no space for such an
account. This connects with the job which they have
brought the concept in to do, about which they are quite
explicit. The concept of a moral panic has to explain how
the working class has been made quiescent – they have
been ‘injected’ successfully with fears, quaked by a moral
crisis:

One of the effects of retaining the notion of a ‘moral
crisis’ is the penetration it provides into the
otherwise extremely obscure means by which the
working classes are drawn into processes which are
occurring in large measure ‘behind their backs’, and
led to experience and respond to contradictory

developments in ways which make the operation of
state power legitimate, credible and consensual. To
put it crudely, the ‘moral panic’ appears to us to be
one of the principal forms of ideological
consciousness by means of which a ‘silent majority’ is
won over to the support of increasingly coercive
measures on the part of the state [11].

Note that this is known in advance of any evidence that the
working class did absorb the lessons of the ‘panic’, that
they did generalise from a resurgence of racism to an
acceptance of increased state power in general. It is not
that they have the evidence and then theorise it; in this
account the concept of a ‘moral panic’ does away with the
need for evidence. And if indeed there is any evidence of
either absorption of the panic, or generalisation from it,
then that evidence is already read into a certain mode: it
is not rational understanding, it is not even truly
cognitive, instead it is ‘moral’ in the sense of being
motivated by passions and sentiments. And, as I have
already suggested, the powerful component of racism in
responses to Powell gets distinctly marginalised in all
this.

Three cases, then, which to me are indicative of general
tendencies in thinking in recent work about the media and
ideology. For all the differences between them, there are
‘significant assumptions in common. The three most
important (though there may well be others) are these.

(a) Ideology is not properly cognitive either in its
content, or in the process whereby it is got into the mind
by the media. By ‘not properly cognitive’, I mean that in
each case the authors appear to be arguing that, although
ideology may take the form of beliefs, arguments and
other forms of rationalised opinion, in reality they are
accepted and adhered to for non-rational reasons. People
may ~ that they are convinced by and agree with the
arguments of Powell, but in reality he has appealed to
their fears and that is what has produced this epicentric
moral panic. ‘Deeper forces’ than beliefs are at work.

It may seem that I am here tending to set up a false
opposition between the rational and the non-rational, as if
I am saying that either people accept ideas for rational
reasons, or they adhere to them for emotional reasons.

am definitely not saying anything of the sort. On the
contrary, I am arguing that these studies are the ones
prone to do this. For they set up an opposition. On the
one hand, there are ‘beliefs’ which are inserted by
ideological, non-rational processes.

(b) These are conveyed into us, if we do not succeed
resisting the process, by devices in the media which hook
onto us and aid the transfer of media messages. Even in
such a sophisticated and ground-breaking study as David
Morley’s The Nationwide Audience, one of the few
sophisticated attempts to theorise and investigate the
nature of audiences, we find that he still advises the
seeking out of such ‘devices’, the ‘points of identification
within the message which transmit the preferred reading to
the audience’ [12]. (This concept of identification has a
long history which I cannot go into here, except to note
that as far back as the mid-nineteenth century in the
campaign against the Penny Dreadfuls the same concepts
·were at work, even without this label, and they were even
then distinguishing within the texts between the messages,
and the devices which implant them into us.)
The irony however is that while on the one hand
devaluing the grounds on which audiences might come to
agree with ideas offered by the media, at the same time
studies like these then present an overrationalistic picture
of how media influence might be combatted. At the point
where ideology is effective, it exerts influence over us in
non-rational ways. But if we resist it, we do so by
somehow, maintaining our distance from it; inserting, as it
were, cognitive space between us and its devices. Whether
they think it or not, our authors are working very close to
a conception of demystification. If only we can awaken
audiences to the devices and traps set for them, then we

will create protective barriers between them and the
messages. And this shows in another opposition which is at
work within these studies.

(c) At the moment of influence, our relation with the
media is seen as non-social. Now these studies are part of
that whole reevaluation of the media which took as its
starting point a rejection of the very psychologistic
character of most ‘effects’ studies, where audiences were
seen as decontextualised, isolated individuals whose
response to the images and messages presented was seen
purely as a function of frequency of presentation, and
individual personality. Drawing on the battery of
sociological criticisms, post-1960s studies took it for
granted that media audiences are socially located and
active. But what we have in fact seen is that they have
retained one vital component of the old effects model. It
may be the case that our ‘reading’ of the media is very
much a function of our class/race/gender relations. But
if, as it were, we fail to ‘read’ the messages in negotiated
or oppositional ways, then at the moment of influence we
are desocialised. So what we have to do is to encourage
audiences to hang onto their social location. This is very
much an argument that people can be socially taught to
resist the power of the media; it is the old and
problematic notion that if only we are not taken in, we
will not be influenced.

I do not believe that I am caricaturing the studies I have
used as examples. Though these assumptions that I have
been unpicking are not there on the surface, I believe I
have shown they are there, constructing evidence, and
marshalling concepts. Their viability and acceptability is
of course still another matter, and it is not possible to
undertake a full critique of them here. I want only to
indicate some areas of problems, which I believe that an
alternative formulation would have to solve.

First to note is the way this view presents an invert
mirror-image of a view well criticised by David Bloor.

Bloor, in a study of the ways knowledge may be thought to
be socially influenced, comments on what he takes to be a
‘standard’ view of this within philosophical discussions:

When men behave rationally or logically it is
tempting to say that their actions are governed by
the requirements of reasonableness or logic. The
explanation of why a man draws the conclusion he
does from a set of premises may appear to reside in
the principles of logical inference themselves.

Logic, it may, seem, constitutes a set of connections
between premises and conclusions and men’s minds
can trace out these connections. As long as they are
being reasonable then the connections themselves
would seem to provide the best explanation for the
beliefs of the reasoner. Like an engine on rails, the
rails themselves dictate where it will go ••••
Of course, when men make mistakes in their
reasoning then logic itself is no explanation. A
lapse or deviation may be due to a whole variety of
factors. ••• As when a train goes off the rails, a cause
for the accident can surely be found. But we neither
have, nor need, commissions of enquiry into why
accidents do not happen. •••
The general structure of these explanations
stands out clearly. They all divide behaviour into
two types: right and wrong, true or false, rational or
irrational. They then invoke causes to explain the
negative side of the division. Causes explain error,
limitation and deviation. The positive side of the
evaluative divide is quite different. Here logic,
rationality and truth appear to be their own
explanation. Here causes do not need to be invoked
[13].

The inversion that the radical critics have introduced is
this: that instead of truth being that which ‘needs no
commission of enquiry’, now it is ‘resistance to influence’.

It is being-influenced, being-persuaded that now needs a
special separate mode and method of investigation.

31

I believe that Bloor is right to suggest that this kind of
explanatory dualism is untenable. Like classic dualisms
(such as a Cartesian body/soul interactionism), it is very
har.d to conceive how, where and why a point of interaction
occurs. Indeed, it is relevant to note, I feel, that in the
work of these wr i ters, there is a tendency for the moment
of influence to recede into a never-to-be-observed endpoint. It plays the necessary role of saying what would be
the influence, if it could be found; but in reality when any
particular audience is looked at, all that are found are
negotiated readings. The difficulty then becomes to
provide anything other than purely speculative
justifications for the particular interpretations of the
texts and their messages that the authors claim to have
isolated, or even justifications for the notion of influence
itself. And that would be a very ironic outcome for a
programme of investigation for which that has been one of
the primary assumptions.

One consequence of this dualistic account of our
relations with the media is that, if a genuinely
‘influenced’ person is found, it has to be concluded that
they hold their beliefs in different ways from the rest of
us. Whatever they may say about themselves, having been
‘influenced’ in the way indicated, their mode of holding
those beliefs which are the result of media influence is
non-cognitive and non-rational. Now there are cases
where we might want to query the grounds for someone
holding a belief; there certainly are individual cases
where people are greatly moved by emotional or other
non-cognitive processes to believe things for which they
do not have rational grounds that would convince anyone
else. But that is not quite the case here. It has to be
asserted that even if such a person was able to give
reasons for his or her beliefs, if it was judged to be a case
of media-influence, the belief could not be being held on
rational grounds. Of course, the get-out in such a case
would be to say that there was simply here a parallelism
of beliefs. This person happened to believe the same as
was being presented by the media, but was not influenced
by the media into holding the beliefs. The danger here is
a retreat into absolute unfalsifiability, where we will
only ascribe media influence where we have other grounds
for believing that a set of beliefs is being held without
rational grounds.

A rather interesting moral view would also seem to
follow from this account; and that is that in alerting
people to the ways the media are ‘getting at them’, we are
in some sense making them more whole. A person who is
influenced is, as it were, cut in two. They hold some
beliefs, no doubt, on arguably rational grounds; but those
which are media-induced are not so. A person who is
rescued from this is a more integrated human, whose
rational and affective capacities are more satisfactorily
related. Not only is this a slightly odd view of human
beings but, in the context of media theories which have
sought to ‘deconstruct the concept of the Subject’, it is
rather ironic.

The other main worry I would put down for
consideration is this. However much the authors of such
works may want to reject such a notion, it seems to me
undeniable that the implicit politics of their approach is
that of demystification. In other words, the implication of
their work is that the way to rid ourselves of the
influence of the media is to expose their subtle messages,
and thus to encourage more negotiated or oppositional
readings. Of course, there is worth in working with groups

such as trade unionists, black people or whoever to help
clarify just how the media are presenting them. But a
house built on such examples will prove to be on sand; for
these are groups already moving into some form of
opposition, and seeking clarification. The experience on
the other hand of working, for example, with white racists,
and trying to ‘demystify’ them by revealing the sources of
their ideas, has frequently been that their ideas have been
clarified for them, reinforced and strengthened by the
exposure.

This implication to the politics of demystification
flows directly from the distinction I have pointed to
between asocial and precognitive influences, and social
and cognitive-affective negotiated readings. Of course,
the best of such studies have their greatest and most
interesting complexity in their exploration of the way
different kinds of social location related to different
kinds of negotiated readings. And from such work it will
be relevant to consider how, and in what sorts of ~
using what sorts of pedagogy and building on what sorts of
interests, teaching the media might undermine their
influence [14]. Still, even within these best studies, there
remains that core of idealism (in both moral and
philosophical senses), that people can be ‘saved’ from
media influence by having it properly drawn to their
attention.

I have chosen these three studies as some of the very
best examples we have of analyses of the media’S
ideological role. I am trying to show the need for closer
analysis of the implicit epistemologies in work on
ideology. I think I have shown that those epistemologies
have powerful implications for our methods, our
theorisation of ideology, and indeed our political
strategies. The problem is conceiving an alternative
account. Here, I would say only that if, as I suspect the
prime source in the end for most work on media-influence
is the structuralist presence of Ferdinand de Saussure,
then the alternative will begin from Saussure’s most
brilliant critic, Valent in Volosinov. Volosinov, one of the
intellectuals in the last flowering of Russian marxist
thought before the (literally) deadening hand of Stalinism
destroyed the remnants of critical thought, provided a
devastating critique of just the simplistic notions of
influence I have been attacking. This was in course of
developing an account of the ideological nature of
language (or ‘speech’, as he usually prefers to call it,
insisting on its active dimension). That account stresses
three factors. First, that language is dialogical, in the
sense that all communications take place between people
within already-existing social relationships. Second, that
people do not use language; they speak to each other in
forms of language, or ‘little speech genres’ as Volosinov
terms them. And thirdly (and in my reading of Volosinov,
this is the most important step in his argument), that in
receiving any communication (be it from the media or
anywhere else), we understand it in the first instance by
acknowledging the ‘answering role’ that is being defined
for us. This is what Volosinov means, I would argue, by his
account of ‘laying down a set of answering words’ in
understanding a message [15].

Volosinov’s argument is complex and frequently
misunderstood. Its implications for a theory and method
for studying the media have never been developed, so far
as I know. That, I would argue, is the task that now faces
media and cultural studies, if it is to escape the
perennially returning tradition I have been unpacking.

Notes

2

32

Glasgow University Media Group, Bad News, Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1976; ~~ Bad News, RoutJedge and Kegan Paul, 1980; and
Really Bad News, Writers & Readers, 1982; also ~~ and Peace News,
Open University Press, 1984. Angela McRobbie, ‘Jackie’: ~ ideology
~ adolescent ~mininity, Occasional Paper, CCCS, University of
Birmingham, 1977; Stuart Hall et ai, Policing the Crisis, Macmillan,
1978.

GUMG,!!~ Bad Ne~ p. 154.

3

GUMG, ~~ and Peace News, pp. 99-100. I am quite convinced that
there is a strange set of assumptions underpinning the use of the word
‘old-fashioned’ to refer to stereotypes. It is extremely common, and
seems at the least to imply that ‘once these might have been true, or
acceptable, but now that is no longer so’.

This is by no means inconceivable as an intervention. In the Guardian
today (10 November 1986) there is a report that a group of women

6

spray-painted the Bristol cenotaph with the slogan ‘Dead Men Don’t
Rape’; the logic of this associated with Remembrance Day is that such
things as rape and war are specifically a problem of Men. It is a view,
according to GUMG it should be represented.

J. Ditton and J. Duffy, Bias l!! Newspaper Crime Reports, University of
Glasgow Department of Sociology: Occasional Paper, 1982•.

Angela McRobbie, ‘Jackie’ .!!!I p. 6. Though it has to be said that she is
one of the worst offenders against my rule that one can’t duck the
epistemological implications of one’s analysis by entering caveats
that perhaps they aren’t that much affected, or perhaps they will
‘read’ it differently. McRobbie gaily adds that she doesn’t know how
readers ‘read’ it, and tha t there is the possibili ty tha t they use it for
deviant purposes. But the very notion of deviant purposes

7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15

acknowledges still that there is an assumed ‘natural’ reading.

Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and ~oral Panics, Paladin, 1973.

Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, p. 221.

Q.P!..Qb p. 54.

Q.P!..Qb p. 246.

Q.P!..Qb p. 221.

David Morley, The Nationwide Audience, BFI, 1980.

David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1976, pp. 5-6.

I am again thinking in particular of David Morley’s study.

Valentin Volosinov, ~arxism and the Philosophy £!. Language, Seminar
Press, 1973; originally published in 1929.

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