Bourdieu’s ‘On Television’ and its relevance to Singapore in 2017

Image credit: Culture on the edge

[This essay is based off my interpretations of Priscilla Ferguson’s translations of Bourdieu’s lectures on journalism and television. I have spent a few days studying the text to the best of my ability but apologise in advance for any potential misinterpretations I may have made.]

This short essay will reference Pierre Bourdieu’s (1998) On Television, involving his lectures on journalism and specifically, television. I will summarise some of his points before offering my thoughts on it. In response, I will pose some general questions and further thoughts on the text. I will also question if his ideas are still relevant today in 2017, and situate it in the Singapore context – Does it support what he’s saying? How relevant are his ideas?

On Television suggests that the role of journalism (and television) imposes lower levels of social and political discourse on the citizen. He reveals the irony of democratic legitimacy derived from audience ratings (i.e. media for the people, defending their interests and functioning as a watchdog of power) by illuminating the structural constraints embedded in the world of journalism.

TV hides by showing – it can show something else, or show something in a particular way. The news has become a banal stream of images, and events are reduced to mere anecdote or spectacle –sex, blood and scandal. As a stream of unrelated images on separate issues, events become depoliticised. They seem detached from the individual – constructing the perception that politics is inaccessible. Bourdieu chooses to focus on TV because of its huge role in news dissemination but I believe that his points can be generalised to journalism as a whole.

Bourdieu’s concern is with the structural constraints and pressures: Journalism is situated in structures of competition (between agencies), market forces and market share over information dissemination. These are interrelated factors. Who is saying what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is influenced by what others are reporting (‘the circular circulation of information’) and their individual context in the world of journalism. As such, reports have nothing to do with an enlightened mass opinion or public rationality. What drives and constrains are these structures, and such is the irony of democratic legitimacy of the Fourth Estate. Where do The People reside in this picture?

When a broadcast agency circulates its information on topics that interest ‘everybody’, they get the views and boost their audience ratings. As Bourdieu pointed out, the news is reduced to political rituals, descriptions and things that the viewer already knows. It is constructed in accordance with the same mental categories of the receiver – It does not disrupt, inspire, nor raise problems. He cautions us that simplistic analyses that upset nothing result in lenses that see the world divided up in simplistic categories e.g. xenophobia, ethnic tension or religious divides. This is precisely because the news fails to unravel mental categories, properly educate the democratic citizen and inspire action. In his words, it inspires “vague humanitarian interest at best”.

What Bourdieu suggests as a remedy (but does not get into at length) is a form of collaborative journalism. It is a kind of journalism that does away with ratings and sensational-isations to work towards productive discourse. For instance, he gives the example of collaboration instead of a race for the scoop, and contesting the ratings system in the name of democracy. Therefore, what is emphasised is the importance for fighting for optimum conditions of diffusion where individuals can be educated. He is aware that this is utopian, but claims that morality works insofar as its structures support it and there are mechanisms which give people interest in that particular kind of morality. He then tells us that awareness of the mechanisms at work provides a measure of freedom to those manipulated by mechanisms (either journalist or viewer). One can be mindful of social demands and actively contest structural pressures.

Firstly, Bourdieu tells us that the news is reduced to simplistic criticisms that offer no analysis. How much analysis and nuance can we realistically have in the coverage of every event? Or rather, a more pertinent question is: How much is enough? Enough to educate the citizen? Often, people reject the unfamiliar and different. In that case, how do we go about educating an uninformed viewer who has no interest in ‘undoing’ their mental categories? More importantly to the journalistic body, how are they supposed to reconcile the need to satisfy these (market?) demands with these loftier goals of democratic or even moral education? Perhaps I am giving Bourdieu insufficient credit and we can attribute the vagueness of his solutions to the fact that it was outside of his purview to discuss them in detail. However, if Bourdieu is right, these questions are still important ones.

Bourdieu briefly discusses the banality and frivolity of news as spectacle. We may examine this point with other forms of journalism, including citizen journalism in the twenty first century. One might respond to this objection by saying: If no one heard you say it, did you really say it at all? Hence, one must first capture market share by attracting a wide audience first and get heard. Once they have a voice and presence, they can work to contest the system. The point is one needs to first understand and play the game before one can change its rules. This operates on the premise that there is great difficulty in contesting the journalistic milieu from the outside. This premise is a defensible one, but leads us back to the question of how we can reconcile market pressures with contesting the ratings system and aspiring toward education.

Back to the case of Singapore in 2017 – television and journalism is always inextricably tied to government control and censorship. While various online news sources have proliferated (and are fast gaining traction), SPH and Mediacorp still has a monopoly over information dissemination. In Singapore, the press is a means for the government to communicate certain kinds of information and perspectives. Whether or not this degree of control and censorship is desirable is not what I am concerned with in this essay. More importantly, news agencies in Singapore do not purport to espouse democratic values or legitimacy unlike in Western countries. Bourdieu reveals the irony of ‘free press’ not really being free. ‘Free press’ depends on your definition – what are you free from? There are degrees of freedom from government interests, but more importantly, Bourdieu’s lectures point out structural constraints (e.g. market forces and advertisements, internal pressures etc.)

On that note, the Singapore case is completely different from the context that Bourdieu himself was situated in. Singapore, unlike France, is not a liberal democracy and has never been steeped in a liberal tradition. Hence, news agencies in Singapore cannot and does not claim democratic legitimacy. Bourdieu’s lecture shows the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy in France, but this irony is not relevant to Singapore. However, I would argue that the Singapore case is still subject to structural pressures. They face pragmatic concerns such as pressures from audience ratings and market forces.

Bourdieu writes that the news should contribute to educating a citizen of his/her rights and how one may flourish in a democratic society. Looking at the Singapore case, how else might we justify the importance of education of citizens without invoking any notion of democratic legitimacy? What would be the role of the media for Singapore? Perhaps we may find our answer in some kind of morality and value system, but that is a subject for another essay.

In conclusion, I have attempted to draw links between Bourdieu’s arguments and the Singapore context. Bourdieu’s diagnosis and of the problem (banality and depoliticisation of the news) is very real in Singapore, but his arguments are illuminating insofar as we consider market forces as structural pressures rather than the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy. His lecture also opens up more difficult questions about what should be done and how media should be used more responsibly to play an active role in education.


Pierre Bourdieu. On Television. Translated by Priscilla Ferguson. New York: New Press. 1998.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s