Maha Rafi Atal, Ph.D. Candidate

University of Cambridge

City: Cambridge, England

Country: United Kingdom

About Me:

I am PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, where my research focuses on the intersection of business and international affairs, and in particular on how corporations exercise political power. I'm also a former journalist and policy researcher, and the founder and Executive Director of the media nonprofit Public Business, and so eager to assist journalists wherever I can.

Research Interests


Political Economy

African Politics

Asian Politics

International Political Economy


Global Governance

Corporate Social Responsibility

Multinational Corporations

News Media

Countries of Interest



South Africa

United States

My Research:

I research corporations, and how they exercise political power, both historically and in our world today.My doctoral thesis examines the role of multinational corporations as political authorities in India, Kenya and South Africa, covering the contemporary role of 'corporate social responsibility' as well as the history of political corporations going back to colonial times. I have also conducted research on corporate influence in the media, including case studies in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Finally, I am currently researching the role of corporations in international trade, and how issues like labor rights or environmental protection are affected by international trade policy and globalization.I'm eager to the speak to the media about corporate social responsibility and economic development, about the general politics, economics and history of India, Kenya and South Africa, about any issues of corporate accountability, and about international economic policy more broadly, including labor and environmental issues.


Journal Articles:

(2018) The Cultural and Economic Power of Advertisers in the Business Press, Journalism

Media studies scholarship on advertising has traditionally fallen into two camps. Cultural analysis emphasizes the signals advertisements send to consumers, focusing primarily on the role of advertising creatives. Economic analysis emphasizes advertising’s impact on media companies’ financial performance, focusing on the role of sales managers and proprietors. Both approaches minimize the role of reporters, against whose work advertisers place their messages. This article draws on interviews, as well as financial analysis, at six newsrooms to examine the impact of advertising practices on the editorial independence of reporters. Combining cultural and economic analysis, the article highlights the unique threat advertiser influence poses to critical business reporting, which takes as its subject the very firms who must choose to advertise against it. The article argues that the new forms of advertising, where branded content is presented alongside, and intended to mimic, reported content, increase the threat of advertiser capture. At four legacy outlets studied, investigative business coverage has declined as media organizations react to the changed operating environment with practices that compromise the divide between news and advertising staff. At two online startups studied, where new advertising formats have always been part of strategy, news and sales staff remain separate. Yet there is limited appetite at these outlets for conducting critical business journalism, which is not seen as key to organizational mission. The article concludes with policy recommendations to safeguard the viability of critical business journalism.

(2017) White Capital: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Failure of Transformation in post-apartheid South Africa.", Extractive Industries and Society

Since the 2012 Marikana killings there has been a boom in scholarship about labour relations in the South African mining sector, focused primarily on the ability of workers to organise and the role of state violence in policing strikes. Quality of life issues in mining communities are usually explored only insofar as they affect these labour relations. This article argues that this focus is incomplete, because it ignores the way that services and infrastructure in mining communities affect local residents who have no formal links to the mine. Local residents engage in resistance to the mine’s operations quite separately from labour activists. Scholarship that treats these local residents simply as a potential labour force subject to stabilisation overlooks their political agency. Indeed, local residents and labour groups come into conflict with one another, and with the state, even as all three groups come into conflict with the mine. The article situates the 2012 violence within an ongoing multi-party conflict over the post-apartheid social settlement. It finds that the logic of transformation, with its emphasis on companies’ contributions to social welfare, places white-owned mining companies in a position of political authority, and strengthens their position against demands for reform.

(2015) A 'place-in-the-world': Foreign Interventions in Africa, Cambridge Review of International Affairs

Introduction to a special issue on foreign interventions in Africa, situating these within a wider literature on Africa's place in international relations theory and practice. Co-authored with Gabrielle Peterson.

(2008) GWM Reynolds in Paris, 1835-1836: A New Discovery, Notes and Queries

Analysis of new, original archival findings of papers pertaining to the life of radical journalist and politician GWM Reynolds, illuminating in particular how exposure to French radical thinkers and activists during time spent in Paris influenced his later role as a 'black sheep' on the British left.

Book Chapters:

(2017) Competing Forms of Media Capture in Developing Democracies, CIMA

Media capture has been historically manifest in four forms—plutocratic, state, corporate and intersecting—but the intersecting form of media capture is likely to be dominant in countries where independent media institutions are still consolidating in the context of the shift to digital forms of communication. Powerful plutocrats affiliated with political elites often seek to capture print and broadcast media to limit the scope for political debate. While new communication technologies and outlets can provide a check against this plutocratic capture, new platforms in the developing world may—as in the developed world—also be captured through advertising and corporate pressure. Because “traditional” and “new” media technologies have emerged simultaneously in many developing democracies, these forms of capture do not replace one another, but combine and compete. This chapter relies on examples across the developing world and a case study on South African media to explore the challenges and implications of four interacting forms of media capture.

Media Appearances:

Radio Appearances:

(2017) BBC

Discussion of white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and historical links between racism and misogyny in American politics on BBC Radio 4.

(2015) BBC

Discussion of Indian history, in particular role of East India Company in colonialism, on BBC Radio 3.

Blog Posts:

(2016) SPERI Comment

Analysis of the ways that the makeup of the working class in developed democracies in changing - both in terms of the racial and gender demographics of who is working class, and in terms of the types of work they are doing, with flexible and part-time jobs for companies like Uber replacing steady unionized work in industry. Argues that for left and center-left parties, this requires both economic policy to address hardship and a new moral politics that engages with the cultural and political values of this new working class.

(2016) SPERI Comment

Analysis of the fight between hard left and center-left/liberal factions in the UK Labour Party, arguing that the two factions have different views of the purpose of political parties in the first place, which shape what they want the Labour Party to do. These different view of what political parties are for may not be reconcilable.