Marxist Instrumentalist theory holds that media owners control media content, and that the media performs ideological functions. The primary role of the media is to keep a largely passive audience from criticizing capitalism and thus maintain the status quo.
Marxist Instrumentalist Theory is also known as the Traditional Marxist or Manipulative Approach to the media.
This post is primarily written for students of A-level sociology, studying the AQA 2019 specification.
Media owners control media content
Media owners are part of the ruling class elite and they consciously manipulate media content to transmit a conservative ideology to control the wider population and maintain their wealth and privilege.
The content of the media is thus narrow and biased and reflects the opinions of the ruling class generally and the media owners in particular.
The government does not effectively regulate media content because the political elite are also part of the ruling class like the media owners.
The media performs ideological functions
According to Instrumentalist Marxists, the primary role of the media is to spread ruling class ideology and maintain the status quo, keeping the current unequal capitalist system in place.
The media performs ideological functions in many ways:
- We see many favourable representations of (rather than critical commentary on) the wealthy – for example Royalty, millionaires on Cribs, and middle class lifestyles more generally in all of those hideous programmes about spending £500K on a house in the country.
- It spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – Dragons Den and The Apprentice are two wonderful contemporary examples of this.
- The News often dismisses radical view points as extremist, dangerous or silly, and a conservative (ruling class) view of the world as normal.
- Negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and immigrants serve to divide the ruling class and discourages criticisms of the ruling class.
- Entertainment distracts the public from thinking critically about important political issues.
The audience are passive
Marxist instrumentalists see the audience as a mass of unthinking robots who are passive and easily manipulate. They essentially take what they see in the media at face value, and believe what they see without questioning it.
Curran (2003) suggests that there is a lot of historical evidence of media owners manipulating media content. He carried out a historical analysis of UK media, broken down into four historical periods.
Control by owners was most obvious in the era of the Press Barons in the early part of the 20th century, when some even said that they used their newspapers to consciously spread their political views.
Rupert Murdoch’s control of his News Corporation since the 1970s is another good example of an owner controlling media content. All of his newspapers have a strong right wing point of view, which reflects his values.
A specific example of Murdoch’s control is that all of his news outlets supported the Iraq War in 2003, a war which he personally supported. It’s unlikely that all the editors of all his newspapers globally shared this view.
Pluralists are the biggest critics of Manipulative Marxists.
It is impractical for media owners of large corporations to control all output on a day to day basis. At some point they have to trust editors.
Pluralists argue that media owners are primarily motivated by making a profit and thus would rather provide audiences with the diverse content they want rather than use their media companies to spread their own narrow view of the world.
The previous criticism follows on from the Pluralist view that audiences are not just passive and unthinking, they are active and critical, and thus not easily manipulated: they can easily choose to switch off if they don’t like what they see.
The rise of the New Media especially undermines the Manipulative approach – New Media encourage audiences to be more active and allow for a greater range of people to produce and share media content. It’s simply not possible for owners to control such content.
- Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
- Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2