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Author: Richard Barbrook


An Analysis of State Regulation and Intervention in American and British Radio Broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s 

Under the Thatcher government, the mass media has not been often at the centre of political debate. Despite lobbying from right‑wing think‑tanks and commercial interests, present policies are marked more by confusion and paralysis than by ‘the resolute approach’. The Tories are caught in an insoluble contradiction between the desire to deregulate in favour of market provision of media and a fear of the anarchic consequences of abandoning state control. The forthcoming Broadcasting Bill will force the government into some hard choices. But this not a new problem in the history of the electronic mass media. This branch of production originated from a close and intimate relationship between commercial interests and the state. An examination of radio broadcasting during the inter‑war period shows this clearly. In both the USA and Britain, the state intervened in the nascent broadcasting industries to facilitate the establishment of a successful sector of production. The different solutions to the problems posed by the introduction of radio broadcasting adopted in both countries served as models for subsequent developments in the electronic mass media, most notably television. In fact, the present debate between the advocates of market choice and public service is an ideological expression of these rival models of broadcasting organisation.

However the vigour of the debate has obscured the close similarities which link both systems. An analysis of the genesis of commercial and state broadcasting systems shows that their origins were not the result of any coherent planning by the state. Instead its interventions were ad-hoc and contradictory, responding to the contemporary crisis by adopting solutions which were seem as pragmatic. Only after both methods of organising broadcasting proved successful, were apologists for ‘free speech’ and ‘public service’ employed to justify the broadcasting status quo in Britain and the USA. Today, these national systems of broadcasting are challenged from both inside and outside their domains. Therefore, it is now necessary to construct a more materialist approach to the origins of commercial and state broadcasting systems. Above all, such an analysis must be based in history. The relationship between the state and the media must be placed in its context. The most basic reasons for the emergence of the mass media must be understood before the specific relationships between the state and broadcasting in individual countries can be examined

The mass media have only existed in capitalist societies. Newspapers, radio, television and the other cultural industries emerged as part of a more general transformation of social existence. Capitalism is distinguished from all previous modes of production by its relentless innovation in both the methods and methods of production. (Marx and Engels 1975: 36) This involves not only changing the way of creating existing use values, but also the introduction of completely new goods and services. (Marx 1973: 409) The mass media is a prime example of this process. For example, radio first appears at the end of the nineteenth century. It was one result of an extensive exploration of the uses of electro‑magnetism during this period. Scientific labour was organised to produce the knowledge needed to create electric motors, lights, trams, telephones, telegraphy and many other innovations. (Dunsheath 1962) Electro‑magnetism could only be discovered as a series of commodities, including radio. The first use for radio was as wireless telegraphy in long‑distance and marine communications. (Sturmey 1958: 61, 87‑8) As such, it played a key role in binding together the European empires of the period. (Headrick 1981: 207‑8)

But neither the wireless telegraphy companies nor their governments foresaw the emergence of a new use value for radio. It was the amateur ‘experimenters’ who discovered the joys of radio broadcasting. (Barnouw 1966: 27‑8; Briggs 1961: 53‑5; S. Briggs 1981: 26‑30) In turn, corporations engaged in radio set or related areas of production saw the opportunity to open up a completely new market. By turning the radio set from the toy of amateur scientists into a household commodity, the corporations built up one of the leading industries of the inter‑war period. (Sturmey 1958: 155) Along with automobiles, radio sets ‘…were the brightest flowers of the Coolidge prosperity.’ (Allen 1931: 410) By the 1930s, almost every household in the USA and Britain owned a radio set. (TNEC 1940b: 120; Coase 1950: 199) The radio industry was the hi‑tech sector of its era. This was shown in various ways:

  • It relied on constant technical innovation both for its existence and continued expansion;
  • It used the most advanced means of production, especially assembly‑line methods;
  • It adopted the methods of Taylorism in organising its workers, as demonstrated by its hierarchy of administrative/scientific, skilled and semi/unskilled workers;
  • It was owned by corporations organised into cartels and controlled by the bankocracy;
  • It was supported and aided by the state as a key national industry.

During this period, the American and British states aided their radio manufacturing interests in a number of ways. They preserved capitalist property from external and internal enemies. They also provided the legal framework necessary for commodity circulation. Beyond this, the law also gave the manufacturing cartels protection through guaranteeing their ‘patent pools’. This allowed them to dominate their smaller rivals. (TNEC 1940a: 158‑60; Sturmey 1958: 214‑34) Furthermore, both states levied tariffs on imported radio sets to protect their home industries. (TNEC 1940: 290; Sturmey 1958: 145; Briggs 1961: 115‑6) The American state intervened even further. It forced the ‘foreign’ Marconi company to sell its American assets to its rival: the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The creation of the American radio trust was initially the work of the U.S. Navy! (Hammond 1941: 376) But if both countries’ manufacturing industries were very similar, their broadcasting industries took different paths of development. Radio manufacturing became a boom industry. The radio set was a veritable commodity, which could be bought and sold like any other. The problem of commoditising electro‑magnetism was solved in the receiver industry. But radio broadcasting was entirely different. The very success of the transformation of radio sets into commodities undermined the turning of radio programmes into commodities.

‘…the greatest advantage of radio‑ its universality and, generally speaking, its ability to reach everybody everywhere‑ in themselves limit, if not completely destroy, that element of control essential to any program calling for continued payment by the public.’ (Sarnoff 1939: 106) 

This problem appeared as a limitation in the material‑technical basis of radio broadcasting. Programmes could not be sold individually or as a service in the market place. However the difficulty of commodity‑formation in broadcasting was wholly social in origins. It is only under capitalism that production can only be carried out as a valorisation process, as the accumulation of capital as capital. The role of state intervention into radio broadcasting in this period was shaped by this fundamental problem facing radio broadcasting. The different national solutions adopted in the USA and Britain resulted from the same problem of commodity‑formation.

In the USA, the amateurs were the first people to open up the airwaves for broadcasting. They were rapidly followed by universities, churches, political groups, municipal administrations and others. (Eoyang 1937: 155) Even when they were commercial companies, what united these early stations was that they did not see radio broadcasting as profit‑making. There appeared to be no way of charging for programme reception, so these stations were run as philanthropic organisations. But as set ownership spread, the problem of financing radio broadcasting grew. The investment in studios and professional workers demanded a steady source of income. (Sarnoff 1939: 186) The manufacturing industry was initially interested in broadcasting as an after‑sales service. It was necessary to preserve the use value of sets after purchase by providing programmes for listening to. Early suggestions for funding American broadcasting included levies on set sales, charitable donations, municipal funding and taxes. (Barnouw 1966: 109, 155‑7)

But it was the discovery of selling airtime for advertising which solved the problem of commodity‑formation in American radio broadcasting. If the programmes could not be sold to the listeners, then the listeners could be sold to the programmers instead. There were specific reasons why advertising could provide the revenue for radio broadcasting in the USA, such as the lack of national newspapers, the growth in the consumption of mass produced commodities and so on. (Boucheron 1928) The importance of this discovery for radio broadcasting was that it turned radio stations into businesses. There were immediate consequences of the transformation of broadcasting. First, the number of stations increased rapidly. Many different entrepreneurs wanted a share of the lucrative urban advertising markets. This resulted in ‘transmitter wars’ as rival stations sought to drown out their competitors with ever more powerful equipment. In turn, the radio manufacturing cartel no longer saw broadcasting simply as an after‑sales service for their sets. It was now a lucrative sector of production which RCA wished to dominate.

The strategy of the cartel to monopolise radio was based on overturning the existing regulatory structure in broadcasting. This had emerged haphazardly during the previous two decades. The first radio legislation in the USA was the 1912 Radio Act. (Davies 1928: 163) This had been passed before the emergence of radio as a mass media. It was designed to prevent naval and amateur broadcasters from interfering which each others’ broadcasts. It was primarily a registration act, which gave the Department of Commerce only limited powers. (Davies 1928: 165) With the growth in radio broadcasting, the American government was faced with new problems which could not be solved under the old legislation. The 1912 Radio Act did not clarify who owned the airwaves. The consequence of this situation was the ‘transmitter wars’, which caused mutual interference between the competing stations. There was public pressure for regulation to prevent listening being ruined by ‘whistles and squeals’ caused by overlapping signals. (Davies 1928: 170) Clear property rights needed to be established over frequencies and locations. But when the Department of Commerce tried to control the number and power of radio stations, it was challenged in the courts. The American state was subject to its supreme law: the Constitution. This had been written to prevent government restrictions on free competition. (Beard 1969) Therefore the courts upheld the rights of individual capitalists to enter this new and lucrative market. (Davies 1928: 169) Furthermore, the First Amendment specifically guaranteed the right of every capitalist to ‘free trade’ in ideas. The ‘independent’ radio stations sought the same privileges as their newspaper rivals. By the mid‑1920s, it seemed as if the USA was setting up the first ‘deregulated’ electronic media. If individual frequencies and positions could have been protected, then radio stations would have become fully integrated into the market economy.

However, though the courts guaranteed free entry into the marketplace, they did not divide up the airwaves into private bourgeois property. As the number of stations increased, so did the interference. Therefore the politicians decided to act. The result was the 1927 Radio Act, one of the most important pieces of American legislation of this era. The 1927 Act was ‘…the most severe, the most drastic, and most confining which was ever imposed upon any American business.’ (Davies 1928: 171) It expropriated millions of dollars of private property. Investments in studios and staff became worthless overnight. (Davies 1928: 172) This legislation laid the basis for state regulation by nationalising the airwaves. It gave the American government the power to decide who should broadcast. It set up a Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to divide up the frequencies and broadcast areas among the competing stations. This guaranteed interference‑free broadcasting for the listeners.

The 1927 Act was presented as a ‘progressive’ measure with state regulation ensuring private interests provided the American listeners with adequate services. It was also a precursor of the policies of the New Deal. During the 1930s, the state regulated other sectors of the economy to prevent the unfortunate consequences of ‘too much’ competition. But the 1927 Act was not simply an act of regulation. Though it established bourgeois property rights on the airwaves, it also represented a massive redistribution of these frequencies from the ‘independents’ to the corporations. (Brindze 1937: 28; FCC 1940: 10) The FRC was modeled on the commission established to prevent monopolies under the Clayton Act. (Eoyang 1937: 197) This was very ironic, as the FRC is one of the first and best examples of ‘regulatory capture’. This occurs when a regulated industry uses the state to exclude competitors. 

If the USA had adopted a more laissez‑faire approach to organising broadcasting, then the radio cartel could have slowly bought‑out its ‘independent’ rivals. But using the FRC was quicker and cheaper. The FRC harried the ‘independents’ either into closure or onto the margins of the broadcasting system. Licences were refused, frequencies continually changed and transmitter power restricted. (Barnouw 1966: 258‑60) The technical problem of allocating specific frequencies and locations to individual stations was used to mask a political economic decision. On the surface, 1930s American radio appeared as 600 local stations, many owned by small capitalists. But this diversity masked a uniformity created by the networks of RCA/NBC and CBS. These local stations were contracted as franchises for the programmes of the broadcasting corporations. (FCC 1940: 71) This allowed the networks to centralise most radio production in one city: New York. (Brindze 1937: 54; FCC 1940: 11) A few thousand workers could broadcast to millions of listeners through three key stations and AT&T’s telephone lines. (Eoyang 1937: 163) Through the FRC, the networks obtained a near monopoly of urban advertising, both local and national. (FCC 1940: 77) This centralisation and cartelisation led to extraordinary profits, making the radio industry one of the few success stories of the Depression. (FCC 1940: 17‑22)

The programmes of the networks reflected this devotion to profit‑making. Jack Benny’s comedy show was ‘…sinking in a sea of Jell‑o.’ (Brindze 1937: 89) Politically, the programmes were anti‑Left and anti‑union. (Brindze 1937: 181, 242, 247‑8; Barnouw 1966 86‑7) Even jazz music was banned because it was played by black musicians. (Brindze 1937: 186‑7; Barnouw 1966: 128‑31) The content of programmes was determined by the need to sell advertising. Most programmes were made by the ad agencies themselves. 

‘The advertiser is…the first censor. His influence is only indirect on the programs sponsored by the stations, but for the programs which arranges and pays for, he determines exactly what the public may or may not hear.’

Here the networks resisted any FRC intervention on behalf of educational or cultural broadcasts in the name of the First Amendment. (Sarnoff 1939: 61‑72) However the 1927 Radio Act overturned the rights of free trade embodied in the Constitution. Common law property rights were abolished in favour of state planning on behalf of the corporations. Not surprisingly, the Chairman of General Electric, one of the members of the RCA cartel, wanted the New Deal administration to adopt similar policies of compulsory cartelisation in all leading industries. (Rothbard 1972: 142) The shift in radio regulation away from laissez‑faire towards state‑sponsored monopolisation reflected more general changes in the relationship between the state and capital in inter‑war USA. If state intervention changed the organisation of American radio broadcasting, then the problems of radio broadcasting themselves helped transform the American state.

In Britain too, the emergence of radio as a mass media paralleled new types of relationship between the state and capital. The British state was forced to respond to the same difficulty of funding stations. But it adopted very different solutions. However the British radio manufacturing industry did develop along similar lines to its American counterparts. It too was dominated by a cartel protected by patent rights. (Plummer 1937: 47) By the 1930s, these companies had amalgamated to form a single monopoly: Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI). (Plummer 1937: 49; Sturmey 1958: 176) Radio manufacture was a leading industry in Britain, pioneering the new disciplines of Taylorism and techniques of Fordism. (Plummer 1937: 58‑66; Llewyn‑Smith 1931: 128‑31) Moreover, British manufacturers also started radio broadcasting as an after‑sales service. Initially, the government was very reluctant to licence anything as ‘frivolous’ as radio broadcasting. But pressure from the manufacturers and amateurs, combined with fear of Russian broadcasts, convinced the government to allow the new service to start. (Briggs 1961: 93‑134) British broadcasting never went through a phase of ‘chaos’ such as that experienced in the USA. This reflected the very different types of state in both countries. Britain had no supreme law embodied in a Constitution and therefore no appeal could be made to challenge the sovereignty of Parliament. (Harvey and Bather 1963: 10)

The British state had used its powers to nationalise the airwaves as far back as 1904. This was enacted to protect the telegraph monopoly owned by the GPO. (Briggs 1961: 95) Therefore, in Britain, the state had a leading role in deciding the future of broadcasting. The 1904 Act could not be challenged in the British courts. This allowed various key groups with influence on the politicians to set clear limits on the emergence of British broadcasting. The military wished to keep as many of the key frequencies as possible. The Post Office wanted a monopoly as it wished to avoid choosing between rival broadcasting groups. The powerful Newspaper Proprietors Association wanted advertising banned from a potential competitor. The protection of the interests of these various groups led to a very particular compromise. (Briggs 1961: 93‑134; Coase 1950: 33‑5) The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was set up as a private monopoly licenced by the state and dominated by the leading manufacturers. It was financed by set royalties and licence fees. Its monopoly powers were restricted by a limit on its profits. (Briggs 1961: 123‑6; Coase 1950: 16‑7; Sturmey 1958: 161)

This privileged private monopoly was both a success and failure. BBC broadcasts stimulated a boom in set sales during the 1920s. (Williams 1933: 286) But set royalties and licence fees were dodged by many listeners. (Briggs 1961: 128‑9, 145‑6; Coase 1950: 34; Sturmey 1958: 149) This problem of establishing the preconditions for successful capital accumulation in broadcasting forced more state intervention. This was done in a very specific way, by establishing two Parliamentary committees. This was a method of incorporation. All political parties (except the Communists) and interest groups, such as the military, GPO and NPA, had representatives on one or both committees. (Coase 1950: 199‑200) This ‘political cartel’ sought a solution to the financing and control of the BBC which would be acceptable to all its members. In the USA, local capitalists were incorporated into the national networks through the franchise system. In contrast, the British state confined its consensus seeking to the national state’s policy‑making process. In this way, the Sykes and Crawford committees could plan the structure of broadcasting of the 1930s.

They did this by creating agreement around two key decisions: the funding of the BBC by the licence fee and its ownership by the state. Licence fees were originally just registration charges. But after the Sykes and Crawford reports, they became the price levied for listening to BBC programmes. The state instituted the compulsory sale of radio programmes to the owners of radio sets.

‘We are clear, on the one hand, that if funds are required to pay for the broadcast programme they should be contributed by those who in fact receive it, rather than by the general taxpayer…’  (Sykes 1923: 20)

In this way, the material‑technical problem of commodity formation was solved by state intervention. The BBC’s output could now be valorised. This allowed the corporation to become a business. The nationalisation of the BBC was a consequence of the transformation of the licence fee into the price of broadcasting. The BBC’s success in promoting radio set sales meant the interests of manufacturers and broadcasters began to diverge. (Coase 1950: 57) Once the BBC could finance itself, then the manufacturers were guaranteed broadcasting as an after‑sales service. Moreover, the BBC’s ban on advertising and limits on profits prevented the vertical integration between the two sectors of production along American lines. Though the cartel lost control of the BBC’s assets, the corporation continued to support the interests of the manufacturers after nationalisation. Long Wave services were introduced, which could not be received on many imported sets. (P.P. Eckersley 1941: 78) Both ‘the trade’ and the BBC waged a joint campaign against the relay services. This is why there was little opposition from the Right when the BBC was taken into state ownership. For it was a Conservative government which nationalised the BBC. (Coase 1950: 51) It was a forerunner of a more general adoption of the policies of ‘Social Imperialism’ after the Slump. Whether through the Imperial Preference or the agricultural marketing boards, even Conservative governments were forced to intervene to prevent ‘unhealthy’ competition. In this way, the private monopoly set up as a bureaucratic convenience became a public corporation. No wonder Herbert Morrison saw the takeover of the BBC as an example of ‘…Socialist legislation which is respectable if introduced by a Conservative government, but is Bolshevism if introduced by a Labour government.’ (Morrison 1933: 153)

As the BBC was neither commercially owned nor reliant on the market, some contemporaries saw the corporation as being outside economics. (O’Brien 1937: 45) This perception was incorrect. The BBC was a state‑owned branch of capital accumulation. It was only after nationalisation that the BBC became very profitable. In 1931, the Treasury received 41% of the BBC’s licence fee receipts! (Gordon 1939: 184) The corporation was also one of the pioneers of new technologies and management disciplines. As with the American networks, the BBC used the telephone lines to centralise broadcasting. (P.P. Eckersley 1941: 127) A few thousand wage labourers produced programmes listened to by millions. Their work was closely supervised through the vetting of all scripts and even the standardisation of pronunciation. (Boyle 1972: 256‑9; P.P. Eckersley 1941: 169) This combination of Fordism and Taylorism shaped the content of BBC programmes. Whereas the exchange value of American programmes expressed itself in advertising, the BBC earned its money by propagating the culture of its political paymasters.

‘The loudspeaker is the voice of God suggesting moderation.’ (P.P. Eckersley 1941: 155)

The most notorious example of this was the BBC Sabbath. Programmes broadcast on Sundays were mainly religious or educational. (Briggs 1961: 273‑4) By the late 1930s, 70‑80% of British listeners were tuning into Radio Luxembourg. (R.R. Eckersley 1946: 163‑4) At least here listeners were provided with the use value of dance music in return for listening to the exchange value of advertising. The close link between the compulsory sale of programmes and a monopoly backed by nationalisation was demonstrated by this threat of commercial competition. Again, the state was called upon to intervene. The foreign music stations could not be touched, despite the Foreign Office’s efforts. But the BBC was determined to attack the local suppliers of commercial radio. Though cable television is seen as a recent phenomenon, 1930s Britain saw a quick growth in radio programmes delivered by cable. These were known as the radio relays. (Coase 1950: 70, 76, 80) Their appeal lay in the cheapness of the receivers (which were little more than loudspeakers) and the provision of Radio Luxembourg and other commercial stations. Once again, a Parliamentary committee was used as the method of creating a consensus for broadcasting policy. A grand alliance was constructed against the radio relays. The BBC wanted to protect its broadcasting monopoly. The GPO feared for its telegraph monopoly. The NPA wanted to prevent the loss of advertising to commercial radio. EMI disliked the creation of a market for cheap sets. (P.P. Eckersley 1941: 23) Again these monopolists used the tactic of nationalisation in their own interests. The Ullswater committee recommended the state take‑over of the radio relays. (Ullswater 1936: 39‑40) Though not implemented, the threat was sufficient to halt the growth in relays. (Coase 1950: 80) This policy was supported by Clement Attlee, a member of the committee, who wanted to protect the state broadcasting monopoly. Other members of the Labour Party were more perceptive about the BBC’s position. When the Popular Front government was elected, they approached French commercial stations to purchase airtime! (Coase 1950: 114) The BBC had actively supported the Establishment’s position during both the 1926 General Strike and the 1931 ‘Great Betrayal’. (Boyle 1972: 191‑206; Briggs 1961: 361‑84; Lansbury 1936: 916) Top Labour politicians were incorporated inside the BBC during quiet times so they could be more easily excluded at times of crisis.

Therefore in funding, ownership, programme content and style, the BBC appeared very different from its equivalents in the USA. But, in many ways, the history of broadcasting during this period shows the very close similarities between both systems.

  • Both the NBC and BBC were established by set manufactures as an ‘after‑sales service’;
  • Both used the technology of telephone wires to centralize programme production in one city;
  • Both had small staffs of wage labourers broadcasting the same programmes to millions of listeners nationwide;
  • Both adopted programme‑making policies which turned the use value of entertainment into exchange value, whether through advertising or licence fees;
  • Both owed their existence to close and continual state intervention.

This did not mean just that left‑wing or radical ideas were marginalised or vilified. It also meant that the working class as a whole was excluded from radio broadcasting. The conversion of electro‑magnetism into a commodity principally took the form of the receiver. The subsequent transformation of broadcasting into a valorisation process reinforced this process of separation. There were to be no pirate radios during the 1926 General Strike or the CIO‑led strikes of the 1930s! Thus a divergence of media organisation hid an identity of purpose: the establishment of radio broadcasting as a site of capital accumulation.

This is especially true of the specific types of state regulation and intervention adopted in the USA and Britain. The state’s considerable power over radio broadcasting rested on the material‑technical limitations of the media. The two intertwined problems of commodity‑formation and frequency allocation needed state involvement to designate both sources of revenue and property rights. Specific solutions were adopted to turn broadcasting into an autonomous site of capital accumulation, whether through advertising or licence fees. The particular decisions taken reflected the various pressures brought to bear on the state form, whether from bankers or newspaper publishers. But such regulation also had to create in a legal form the necessary preconditions for capital accumulation. Analysts, such as Aglietta and Lipietz, use the term regime of accumulation when describing successful periods of growth in capitalist economies. (Aglietta 1979; Lipietz 1987) These occur when a ‘virtuous circle’ of technologies, labour disciplines, social forms of capital and so on create a period of sustained growth. Though each historical period shows general characteristics, regimes of accumulations are ‘chance discoveries’ which take different forms in various countries. (Lipietz 1987: 15) This is also true when examining specific branches of production, such as radio broadcasting. The history of radio broadcasting during the 1920s must be seen as the struggle to discover the methods by which a successful regime of accumulation could be established in radio broadcasting. In this process, the state played a major role.

This is because every specific regime of accumulation acquires a mode of regulation which is a key component of the continued expansion of capital. (Lipietz 1987: 33‑4) This was especially true of the inter‑war period, which saw the bloody and slow emergence of Fordism as the major regime of accumulation. During the nineteenth century, Marx analysed capitalism under the system of competitive regulation. But this type of capitalism was changed by the continuing evolution of the mode of production. This transformation was not, as the theorists of ‘monopoly capital’ supposed, simply a change in the forms of capital ownership. It also saw the introduction of mass consumer commodities, assembly lines, Taylorism, organised scientific research and many other features. A key element of this restructuring of bourgeois society was the closer involvement of the state in capital accumulation. (Aglietta 1979: 237) Where corporate ownership prevailed, this usually took the form of Keynesian fiscal policies and indicative planning. But its state capitalist manifestations were not limited to the USSR. The ‘mixed economy’ needed its public corporations. Even in the USA, nationalisation was used when it was in the interest of the bankocracy, such as ownership of the airwaves.

Thus the specific forms of regulation and intervention adopted in the USA and Britain during this period must be located within the more general emergence of Fordism as the primary regime of accumulation. Both RCA/NBC and the BBC were at the leading edge of industrial innovation within their respective countries. They were pioneering new labour disciplines and technologies. RCA/NBC was the model for the whole New Deal attempt to introduce indicative planning and compulsory cartelisation into American industry. The BBC was the prototype for later public corporations, which combined state ownership with management prerogatives of capital. Whether in the American move from laissez‑faire in broadcasting to the network cartel, or the transformation of the BBC from a private monopoly into a public corporation, state regulation and intervention were designed to introduce the most advanced methods and means of capitalist production into radio broadcasting. The mode of regulation was dependent on the success of the regime of accumulation. These changes in regulation, or even ownership, were specific and various methods of adaption to the more general needs of Fordism as a regime of accumulation. A restructuring of the international capitalist world‑market forced the emergence of National Fordism in different forms with each state. (Aglietta 1979: 235‑51; Harris 1986: 155‑60) The needs of accumulation changed the nature of the state itself. Radio broadcasting played a leading role in this growing integration of the state within capital accumulation, as both the 1927 Radio Act and the nationalisation of the BBC demonstrate. Therefore the state could alter the course of capital accumulation, especially through different types of commodity‑formation, but it could not abolish the need to accumulate capital. What is more, even the specific type of regulation adopted had to be congruent with the needs of Fordism as the basis of all advanced regimes of accumulation during this period. This why regulatory structures initially proved so unstable and adhoc. A stable set of state policies depended upon the success of the valorisation processes which they shaped and guaranteed.

It is precisely these Fordist regimes of accumulation within the mass media which are being undermined by the present crisis. This encompasses both commercial and state‑owned institutions.National Fordism in the mass media are threatened by two complementary phenomena:

  • The globalisation of the media, both in programme production and transnational stations. This is accompanied by the emergence of new types of media corporations, technologies and labour practices.
  • The divergence and diversity of the media within national markets. This is coupled both with rising living standards and new forms of self‑organisation within the working class.

As the present crisis began in the early 1970s, the long‑established media corporations found themselves under attack. The policies of incorporation and consensus had broken down as the boom faltered. For example, Italy saw an unholy alliance between the Far Left and commercial interests against the state broadcasting institutions controlled by the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party. This coalition was expressed in the policy of deregulation. This was the abandonment of the state’s support for the monopolization of radio and television broadcasting. Though both anarcho-communists and capitalists gained out of the licencing of new stations, their aspirations were very different. On the one hand, deregulation created the Berlusconi networks. On the other, many radical community radio stations came into existence. The dystopia of the media multinationals was intertwined with the utopia of media self‑management.

In Britain, these contradictory consequences of deregulation have paralysed Conservative media policy since 1979. In 1986, the community radio experiment was abandoned because of the fear of unregulated stations being owned by black and ethnic minorities. The government found it difficult to give up one of the welcome side effects of Fordism in the media: close political and cultural censorship. This was a political bonus derived from the need to construct monopolies or cartels within the national market. The breakdown of Fordism threatens this particular privilege, both through the importation of ‘foreign’ programmes and through the emergence of new voices on the airwaves. For the Home Office, this problem expresses itself as the continuing contradiction of deregulation and reregulation.

But this is not an isolated phenomenon. The restructuring of the media is only one part of a more general transformation of all sectors of production during the current crisis. The outlines of the post‑Fordist regime of accumulation are by no means clear. The specific forms taken by individual countries or branches of production are even less certain. As in the 1920s and 1930s, there will be experiments in many different types of media regulation. These various modes of regulation will also reflect the specific characteristics of each nation and its pre‑existing media. But until the new media regime of accumulation is established, there will be a period of instability in regulation. Though the Tories have postponed many difficult choices concerning the present media system, they are now being forced to encapsulate their ideas within next year’s broadcasting bill. However, unlike the inter‑war period, the future of the media will not be agreed by an all‑party consensus. Instead there will be confrontation and conflict. What is more, no one can be certain such deregulation or reregulation of the media will collapse as it did in 1920s USA and Britain, or if it will be successful as in these countries during the 1930s. It remains to be seen if the new mode of regulation will fit the emerging regime of accumulation.

[Swiss Cottage, London, England :: June 1987]


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