The Corporation by Mark Achbar

First published by Indymedia and the Morning Star on 17th November 2004.

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IN FOCUS: NICOLAS LALAGUNA asks how we can save the internet from the hands of the corporations and speaks to film-maker Mark Achbar.

In recent years, progressives’ arguments have reached an unrivalled audience thanks to the internet.

Although seeming to act like a global superhighway for the new left, in truth, the internet faces a desperate struggle for an uncertain future.

For the last 10 years, it has been caught in a constant tug-of-war between the interests of the corporations and those of the public.

People’s movements from all around the world have become increasingly vocal and media-savvy.

Their popular call for more representation within politics and the media is visible in the growing tide of critically and economically acclaimed political films.

In the last year alone, we have seen Michael Moore release what is arguably one of his best pieces of work in Fahrenheit 9/11.

Unfortunately, however memorable the blistering attack on the relationships and hypocrisy of the neoconservatives and their war on terror was, many will soon forget the attempts by Disney to withdraw distribution in the weeks before release.

Disney attempted to silence one of Bush’s fiercest critics in the run-up to the 2004 election, amid allegations of lobbying in Jeb Bush and Disney’s Florida.

Moore went public before the gag was tied.

The film was released and took $21.8 million in the first weekend at the box office, making it one of the most successful full-length documentaries in history.

In another example and in what fast became one of the surprises of the genre, SuperSize Me was one of the most interesting cases of corporate propaganda blowback in recent times.

Made by Morgan Spurlock on a relative shoestring budget, there seemed to be no price, other than financial of course, too high in the making of SuperSize Me, including Spurlock filming his own rectal examination and warnings from his doctors and family about the potential of very serious and long-lasting illnesses in the final days of the experiment.

Obviously outraged by the damning content and effective delivery system of Spurlock’s barrage, McDonalds stepped into the ring.

And, using the kind of logic only accessible to a single-minded monolithic corporation, McDonalds blew an unimaginable marketing budget to attack the film.

The negative campaign got Spurlock and his film onto television, radio, newspapers, magazines and websites all around the world, buying him the airtime, column inches and bandwidth normally reserved for the multimillion-dollar advertisers.

In an attempt to discredit Spurlock and his film to the widest audience possible, McDonalds, in fact, brought the film to their attention, biting themselves hard on the arse.

Although it was never admitted publicly, a lot of people allege that McDonald’s removed the “super size” option from their menus shortly after this film was released, because of the damage that the film and adverse coverage was doing to their image.

In both of the above cases, the internet and its chat forums, websites, e-zines, email lists and independent media groups made sure that the public was aware of what was happening to these films and their makers as it was happening.

In the case of The Corporation, a book by Joel Bakan and a documentary by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Bakan, the internet went a long way to informing a potential global audience about the book and film.

Without the support of a large media conglomerate projecting it on to the rest of the world, The Corporation needed the support of the growing network of similarly minded techno-competent progressives, like the bloggers and the anti-war sites, to spread the word.

In The Corporation, Achbar, Abbott and Bakan go a long way to undermining the received wisdom that modern capitalism is in some way paternalistically looking after humanity and the wider world.

Bringing some of the most progressive thinkers of our time, like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva together with CEOs, commodities traders, whistle-blowers and champions of corporate capitalism, The Corporation performs an autopsy with surgical precision on the virulence of capitalism and, more specifically, the legal obligation of shareholder responsibility that puts the profits of the few above the welfare of the many.

With the decline of the public service broadcasters, society has found it increasingly difficult to get access to this sort of documentary, the sort that is willing to look at the fundamental assumptions that maintain the structure of global society.

Arguments are generally made within a very narrow set of parameters and films and books are almost always set within a specific model of society and relationships. For many, the internet looked like it was going to be the democratic forum that could help to halt the steady homogenisation of mainstream media.

The demonstration at the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle was among the first signs of a mass political action administered, promoted and, at times, even taking place in cyberspace.

The World Social Forum and the global anti-war movement have shown how the organisation and communication potential of the internet can bring together diverse groups from around the globe into a shared powerbase, ignorant of national and legislative barriers.

Unsurprisingly, just as society begins to engage with the internet and its potential to make equal some of the divisions in society, the drive is now to downgrade it from a mass production tool to a mass consumption tool.

The cost of access means that there are now financial reasons for the general public to forego getting production capabilities and to simply consume online.

Rather than advancing technology to make web production cheaper, which could have been the first steps towards a more democratic form of mass communication, the companies took a different direction and we are now fast moving towards a society of online consumers.

The famous case of Napster showed the rest of the world how one person could go out and buy an audio CD, bring it home, tinker with it and put it onto their computer, making it accessible to millions of people around the world free of charge.

Soon, software, DVDs, computer games, TV programmes, films, audio CDs, music videos and books all become freely downloadable in a wave of “pirate” media crashing across the internet.

But this was not benefiting the progressives.

When asked how he feels about The Corporation being made downloadable on these type of sites, Mark Achbar said: “If people think for a nanosecond about what they’re doing, they may reconsider.

“If they want to see more work like the stuff they’re pirating – which obviously they like enough to pirate – perhaps they’d consider helping out the person making it. And I mean financially. Just on moral grounds.

“Sure, I want to get the work out, but I also have to not only survive, but thrive if I am to continue making these films.”

Achbar goes on to explain that one of the key failings of the pirate sites is in not taking into account the already uphill struggle for independent films.

“If they fail financially, I don’t get future investors, private or public.

“If the whole financial model were different and I didn’t have to spend three-and-a-half years doing nothing but fund-raising for my films and I didn’t have to put my house on the line to finish it and go into debt, then, sure, all media should be free to all.

“But that’s not the world we live in. The downloaders are living in one end of the equation, but utterly oblivious to the other.”

In contrast, on what has been the response from the public service broadcasters to his work, Achbar explains that “the publicly funded educational networks have supported me. The more mainstream, part-commercial, part-public service (such as CBC) have not been quick to support my work.

“They’ll consider an acquisition afterwards, which doesn’t help make the film in the first place, but they won’t commission anything from me,” he says.

“My distributor put it simply – ‘they have a lot of corporate sponsors’.”

In a further clarification, Achbar tells us that “the gradual erosion of public service broadcasting is tragic.

“When it’s gone, people will miss it and it will be a monstrous struggle to get it back.”

In light of the commercialisation of the media into the hands of unrepresentative corporations and their super-wealthy shareholders, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the internet hasn’t got the very real potential to make huge differences in the division between consumers and producers.

In fact, the largest hurdle is that the multinational media industry have been doing everything that it can to control the internet since its inception.

There are progressives and independents and people with no respect for commercial authority who all have much to gain from the internet not becoming just another corporate delivery tool.

The corporate world is chipping away at one of our greatest assets.

Capitalism, by its very nature, needs to arrest the intellectual development of society in order to sustain itself.

Now is the time to come together and investigate how the different communities can accelerate our development using this forum.