The first phase of a truly global media network ran from the 1860s through the 1920s. Two major interpretations of this era are available. One, long established, emphasizes how aggressive nation-states deployed communication firms to further their own economic and political goals in carving up the planet. Another, more recent, reads the period as one of capitalist cosmopolitanism, noting the international cartels and other multinational enterprises that in actual fact dominated the growth of the first global technical infrastructure for communication. However, growing nationalism and protectionism over the 1920s put paid to early proposals for a constructively regulated global communication system.
Britain’s Initial Lead In Colonialism And Global Communication
The flow of news and information has followed channels of trade, migration, and cultural contact for millennia. Media historians, however, usually look to the period between the second half of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth, when a global media system emerged consisting of a worldwide network of submarine cables and news agencies interlinked with urban and national telegraph systems and national commercial press systems. While access was limited to financiers, traders, diplomats, and military strategists, the rise of these global media coincided with the birth of the commercial press, whose mass appeal and extensive foreign news coverage, even by the standards of our own time, brought these facilities within reach of a larger general public.
The maturation and consolidation of the telegraph industry in Britain, Europe, and North America by the mid-1860s led to the initial steps to wire the world. Expanding commerce, especially in the transatlantic economies, combined with the British Empire’s commercial, diplomatic, and military reliance on fast and secure international communications, added further momentum. For the first time in history, worldwide electronic communication networks and the mass production and dissemination of news, financial information, and diplomatic correspondence brought distant events to far-flung communities almost instantaneously. This simultaneous shared experience of distant events provided at least a thin basis for a mediated global culture.
British firms, especially the Eastern Telegraph Company – the biggest multinational of its time – led the efforts to create a sprawling network of telegraphs and submarine cables to Europe (1850s), to the Middle East, India, and North America in the 1860s, to South America and Asia in the next decade, and finally encircling Africa in the mid-1880s. Simultaneously, three European-based wire services – Reuters, Havas, and Wolff – emerged. These firms were early and prominent multinational corporations whose operations served as the informational underpinnings of global capitalist modernity, or liberal internationalism as it was referred to by contemporaries. The news agencies, in essence, broadcast news over the wires to big city newspapers and their influence on press development was strong in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle and Far East. Their standardized service simultaneously underpinned the new journalistic principle of objectivity and attracted specialized and mass audiences alike, while their policy of giving exclusive service to one newspaper per city (except in China) reinforced the drift toward local press monopolies (Boyd-Barrett & Rantanen, 1998). From as early as 1869, Reuters, Havas, and Wolff divided the world’s news markets into mutually exclusive areas and set the rules governing news exchange and cooperation among them. The Associated Press was included in 1893 in recognition of its growing standing in North American and European news markets.
The fact that the largest communications company – the Eastern Telegraph Company – and most powerful news agency – Reuters – were based in London gave Britain unparalleled hegemony over world communications. Control over both the medium and the message conferred enormous commercial and strategic advantages, a power that British officials refused to yield lightly. Britain’s free trade policy was explicitly designed to attract cables and capital to London in a bid to reinforce its status as the world’s communication hub. In foreign markets, British officials used diplomatic prowess and ties to local elites to preserve the monopolistic concessions acquired by British companies since the 1850s, which remained a prominent feature of the global media system until the 1920s. Huge subsidies were given to firms, mostly the Eastern Telegraph Company, to extend cable systems to commercially unviable places within Britain’s vast territorial empire.
By 1900, however, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States began to build their own international communication systems, engaging, according to Hills (2002), in a “struggle for control of global communication.” Communications media were “weapons of politics” for powerful nations in the worldwide competition for territory, wealth, and power (Headrick 1991). This was especially true following the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. Parts of Asia and the Caribbean met a similar fate. Fast, reliable, and secure communications became an essential element of imperial administration, diplomacy, and conflict among the imperial powers as well as between them and those they controlled. World War I magnified this strategic role, as surveillance, censorship and war propaganda became systematic elements in military conduct.
Britain was slowly displaced by the United States as the locus of world communication, initially as a consequence of the latter’s rapid commercial, political, and military expansion, but also due to the ravages of World War I. This decline accelerated quickly after the costs and consequences of World War II led to the dismantling of British and European territorial imperialism.
Revisionist Historical Analysis
However, new historical scholarship suggests the need to refine this perspective. It is important to cast the analytical lens beyond competition between powerful nations, especially Britain and the US, for control of world communication and beyond conflating the history of global media with the history of imperialism (Bayly 2001; Jones 2005; Winseck & Pike 2007). Studies written after World War I reread the past through the excessively nationalistic prism that defined much scholarship and the public mood in the decades following. However, the half-century prior to World War I can be better interpreted as “cosmopolitan” in nature, an era of liberal internationalism that deeply shaped the structure and operations of the global media.
As Jones observes, “London was exceptional in the degree of cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century, [but] the lack of concern about the nationality of ownership was general. This stance did not shift with the intensification of nationalistic rivalries in Europe before World War I” (Jones 2005, 282). The structure of the global media business exemplified his argument. First, while London was home to many important cable firms, in particular the Eastern Telegraph Company, just because capital poured into the city during the cable-building boom years (1870 –1910) does not mean that the firms that emerged were British. Indeed, many of the most important firms contained a mixture of British, European, and North American capital, and their boards of directors reflected this fact. The French Atlantic Cable Company in the 1870s illustrates the point, with its combination of French and British capital and two boards of directors, one in London, the other in Paris. The Great Northern Telegraph Company, the Western and Brazilian Telegraph Company, and the Commercial Cable Company were other notable firms with similar features. This is obscured by most studies which refer generically to firms as British, American, German, French, Japanese, with the inference that they were tools of their respective states. In fact, many firms took an opportunistic stance toward their national identity. The Commercial Company was a master at this, claiming to be British when it successfully sought subsidies for two “British” affiliates that it owned – the Halifax and Bermudas Telegraph Company (1890) and Direct West India Cable Company (1898) – and “all-American” when standing before Congress to promote its bid to lay the first American-owned cable across the Pacific (1904).
From its inception in 1888 until the 1920s the Commercial Company displayed its indifference to national identity by leading alliances with several European cable companies in the transatlantic market, while joining with an affiliate of the Eastern Telegraph Company and the Anglo-Danish Great Northern Telegraph Company for its Far East operations. This reveals another crucial aspect of the cosmopolitan character of the global media: the dominance of cartels. Cable firms formed cartels throughout the world in the 1870s, cutting deeply across national lines. The ring-circle agreement of 1869 created a global news cartel consisting of Reuters, Havas, and Wolff (and Associated Press from 1893). The big four commercial wireless firms – Marconi, Compagnie Générale de Télégraphie sans Fil, Radio Corporation of America, and Telefunken – adopted the same methods after World War I. Hogan (1977) calls these cartels “private structures of cooperation”; they were critical to efforts made by companies and governments to avoid “ruinous competition” and to negotiate among foreign policies of nation-states. The news cartel collapsed only in 1934, the wireless cartel in the mid-1940s, while the cable cartels have continued, albeit in different form, to the present day. All of this suggests that it was the internationalization of control, rather than the struggle for control, that characterized early globalization.
The most important communications and news markets were between Europe and North America, a few key cities in Atlantic South America, and in certain Chinese and Japanese cities. This is where the cable companies and news agencies focused their efforts. However, usually through state subsidies and sometimes through state-owned cables, these firms extended their operations into the zones carved out by Britain, European powers, Japan, and the United States in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia, though these newer areas were some of the least-connected, worst-served places in the planet. In them too the collaborative nature of imperialism was on display, despite episodic flashpoints between the imperial powers. From the mid-1880s to just after the beginning of the twentieth century, the imperial powers worked together to a remarkable extent, most notably as France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal all gave subsidies to affiliates of the British-based Eastern Telegraph Company to meet the commercial and imperial communications needs in Africa.
The “Empire Of Capital” And Moves For Reform
Beyond the colonized territories lay a much vaster capitalist imperialism, where “informal imperialism” intersected with national modernization discourses to shape the relationship between local and global communication media. These areas included the post-imperial nation-states of South America and the faltering regimes of the Ottoman, Persian, and Chinese empires. In each, nation-builders, business leaders, reformers, and technocrats vied with opportunistic cities, thieves, and culturally conservative forces to define the terms upon which telegraph systems and the nascent commercial press would be integrated into the global media system. Unlike those areas where either markets ruled or “territorial imperialism” rode roughshod over the local population, the empire of capital was based on a loose discourse of modernity and of creating a harmonized global space for capital accumulation.
Initially, the terms upon which the countries just mentioned were integrated into the empire of capital involved long-term monopolistic concessions, high rates, and little attention to developing local telegraph agencies and the press. Over time, however, these countries began to gain greater control over the terms of cable concessions, to create their own telegraph administrations, and to oversee the emergence of a relatively vibrant, locally controlled press. Such achievements, however, were short-lived. A combination of financial debts and the perceived failure, in the eyes of western commercial and political interests, of these countries’ modernizing initiatives resulted in their fledgling media, along with much else, often being brought under the de facto rule of foreign interests – a process not reversed for decades. This was not universal though. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile possessed wealthy and influential newspapers, such as La Nación and La Prensa in Buenos Aires, and by the 1910s a cadre of adroit officials who pushed to nationalize domestic telegraph systems, and to liberalize international communication markets. These countries benefited by playing the once all-powerful foreign cable companies and news agencies off against each other, and their efforts strongly influenced the rebalancing of power that took place among US and European cable companies and news agencies after World War I.
In short, the idea that imperialism meant one-way exploitation by imperial states and corporations is unduly simplistic. The politics of these global media involved local and foreign interests, and the dynamics differed between territorial and informal imperialism. It was not only “developing countries” that chafed at monopolistic concessions, cartels, and exploitative arrangements, but also individuals drawn from the ranks of social reformers that emerged across the North Atlantic countries between the 1880s and 1920s. Among these individuals were those drawn from parliaments, engineering, journalism, academia, and other walks of life, who set their sights on the monopolistic telegraph and cable companies, cartels, and news agencies whose high rates and collusive behaviors they saw as choking the flow of information and preventing the new means of communication from being turned into vehicles of mass communication. Since the 1880s, this “global media reform” movement pushed to eliminate monopolistic concessions and cartels, for rate reductions, and sometimes for state-owned cables, with one testimony to their success being the state-owned Pacific Cable jointly constructed and owned in 1902 by the British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand governments. While their gains were limited, the fact that they achieved a measure of support in, for example, the New York Times, The Times (London), and the conservative Economist, kept the cause alive and arguably put downward pressure on rates that had remained prohibitively expensive for nearly half a century. In 1912, the British government finally came to agreement with all transatlantic cable firms to implement new “cheap rate” services to enhance popular use of long-distance communication – a practice soon copied worldwide.
The reformers’ grievances were exacerbated by the extensive surveillance and censorship of cable traffic, and collusion among news agencies, press, and governments for propaganda purposes, during World War I. The movement was broadened among journalists, as Reuters and press barons revealed their willingness to continue to produce “tainted news” even afterwards. The reform movement agenda converged with a willingness to include communication issues within the 1919 Versailles peace talks. While Britain and Japan sought a narrowly focused review of how to deal with several German cables captured by the Allies during the war, the US, France, China, and a few others sought a more expansive review of the global media system. While the latter initiative has often been dismissed as a “cloud of high-minded rhetoric” (Headrick 1991, 174), this misses the point that many believed a comprehensive review of the barriers to world communication – monopolies, cartels, high rates, hidden subsidies, and propaganda – was long overdue. An agreement was reached for just such a review to be held in Washington in 1920, but continued wrangling over the agenda led instead to the issues being dealt with more bilaterally over the 1920s. In the end, this piecemeal approach and the overall relative failure of Versailles, coupled with a turn to a more nationalistic climate over the following decade, signaled the end of an era. The 1930s Depression thereafter put the final nail in the coffin of early modern globalism, and with it the first period in which elements of a truly global media system were in place.
- Bayly, C. (2001). Informing empire and nation: Publicity, propaganda and the press 1880 –1920. In H. Morgan (ed.), Information: Media and power through the ages. Historical Studies 22. Dublin: UCD Press, pp. 179 –201.
- Boyd-Barrett, O., & Rantanen, T. (eds.) (1998). The globalization of news. London: Sage.
- Headrick, D. (1991). The invisible weapon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hills, J. (2002). The struggle for control of global communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Hogan, M. (1977). Informal entente. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
- Jones, G. (2005). Multinationals and global capitalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Winseck, D., & Pike, R. (2007). Communication and empire: Media, markets, and globalization, 1860 –1930. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.