Stuart Hall, now Professor of Sociology at the Open University, was a major figure in the revival of the British political Left in the 1960s and '70s. Following Althusser, he argues that the media appear to reflect reality whilst in fact they construct it.
Janet Woollacott (1982: 108-110) offers a useful critique of Policing the Crisis, a key work by Stuart Hall et al.(1978). The work reflects an analysis of the signifying practices of the mass media from the perspective of Marxist culturalist theory inflected through Gramsci's theory of hegemony, and 'an Althusserian conception of the media as an ideological state apparatus largely concerned with the reproduction of dominant ideologies', claiming relative autonomy for the mass media (Woollacott 1982: 110). For Hall et al. the mass media do tend to reproduce interpretations which serve the interests of the ruling class, but they are also 'a field of ideological struggle'. The media signification system is seen as relatively autonomous. 'The news' performs a crucial role in defining events, although this is seen as secondary to the primary definers: accredited sources in government and other institutions. The media also serve 'to reinforce a consensual viewpoint by using public idioms and by claiming to voice public opinion' (Woollacott 1982: 109).
Stuart Hall has also addressed theoretically the issue of how people make sense of media texts. He parts from Althusser in emphasizing more scope for diversity of response to media texts. In a key paper, 'Encoding/Decoding', Stuart Hall (1980), argued that the dominant ideology is typically inscribed as the 'preferred reading' in a media text, but that this is not automatically adopted by readers. The social situations of readers/viewers/listeners may lead them to adopt different stances. 'Dominant' readings are produced by those whose social situation favours the preferred reading; 'negotiated' readings are produced by those who inflect the preferred reading to take account of their social position; and 'oppositional' readings are produced by those whose social position puts them into direct conflict with the preferred reading (see Fiske 1992 for a summary and Fiske's own examples, and Stevenson 1995: pp 41-2). Hall insists that there remain limits to interpretation: meaning cannot be simply 'private' and 'individual' (Hall 1980: 135).
Hall's emphasis on ideology has been criticized for being at the expense of the importance of ownership and control (Stevenson 1995: 35).