The recent activism against globalization has encouraged people the world over to reassess the role of transnational corporations and their governmental counterparts in the widening of the gap between rich and poor and the headlong rush toward global warming and ecological devastation. Media corporations are key targets in the ongoing struggle. The actions in San Francisco last September against the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) were a hopeful prelude to a global movement for authentic public media.
In the mid 1970s, many newly formed countries in Africa and Asia were realizing that colonialism was a structural part of their information systems. Several non-aligned nations demanded a “New World Information Order,” and UNESCO began an initiative to address issues of, as they put it, information parity. As an organization devoted to the development of education and science in the world, UNESCO recognized that media access was part of the information picture. Many research papers were commissioned and over 100 studies conducted in various countries, which clearly demonstrated that information distribution was essentially a “one way street”: much of it coming from Hollywood and New York.
The published results of this UNESCO project became perhaps the most maliciously attacked volume (pre-Rushdie) in the twentieth century. Named for the chairman of the commission, Sean MacBride (founder of Amnesty International, great Irish patriot, son of Maude Gonne, the only person to win both the Lenin and Nobel Peace Prizes, and whose tireless efforts for justice in the world only ended with his death at age 92), The MacBride Report: Many Voices, One World, dared to propose ways in which other voices could be heard. It saw the essentially “one-way” flow of information as a problem to be reckoned with and contained suggestions for making media production accessible throughout the world.
Contrary to the claims of a rather extensive misinformation campaign, the report did not call for censorship of the press. In fact, it clearly articulated the need for more voices, more freedom of expression, and the protection of journalists’ rights. And it identified as a problem the extent to which forms of Western commercial media were dominating the entire world. This so threatened Western media corporations that U.S. representatives at the UN screamed excessive regulation and control. In retaliation, the U.S. cut off funding to UNESCO and all but stopped payment of its dues to the UN. Eventually, UNESCO was reorganized, restructured, and swept clean, so that not even a residue of this research remained. Today, the MacBride Report is no longer available among the books the UNESCO distributes.
What was so dangerous about this report? Surely not the style. In language replete with diplomatic jargon, the MacBride Report cautiously and modestly proposed ways by which communication policies might be changed to create media structures that do not make people into “others,” and suggested regulatory policies that might encourage broader participation in the media. It also suggested providing equipment and training to the “others” to allow them to speak for themselves. The suppression of this work certainly discouraged further research around these issues, especially at the UN.
For more on the subject, see Hope and Folly: The United States and UNESCO, 1945-85, by William Preston, Jr., Edward S. Herman, and Herbert I. Schiller, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1989.
Changing the ITU Agenda
We should not, however, lose sight of the possibilities of international media organizing. Perhaps it is time to look at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and to reinsert the public into their agenda. The ITU was organized before the UN as a global agency to assign telegraph traffic and, later, radio frequencies, to prevent interference among nations. It has the task of designating both global spectrum and satellite paths–essential resources for any telecommunications project. At present, most of this supposedly global resource has been assigned to commercial entities and military users. However, it is not too late to reassert the need for an authentic public participation in this crucial forum. And who better to do it than those of us who daily work at the community level to foster grassroots communication?
The local and regional models of collaboration and participation can be reformulated to design a global system of information resources that sees human beings not as markets to be exploited, but as participant citizens. Global deliberations led to agreements on such issues as saving the whales and ozone depletion. Surely, a global standard of participatory communication can be addressed by asserting the public nature of global information resources, such as earth orbits and spectrum.
The ITU is currently an official United Nations organization, and, as such, is required by the UN charter to have participation by nongovernmental organizations. How this is formulated is being negotiated, and there are other complications that may limit the powers of the ITU. But, just as a movement to address issues of public participation within the ITU is taking shape, some of its power is being usurped. With the redefinition of information as a commodity, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is beginning to take over some of the regulatory functions that were performed by the ITU, which in theory at least, is a one country, one vote organization. The WTO, on the other hand, does not have the democratic, representative basis required of UN organizations, and will be harder to convince of the merits of democratic communication.
The Willow Declaration
In 1981, a group of artists, activists, educators, and media producers met in Willow, New York to draft The Willow Declaration, a treatise in support of UNESCO and the call for a New World Information Order. The following is an excerpt from that document: “We strongly support freedom of the press, but we see that in our own country, this freedom now exists mainly for huge corporations to make profits, to promote socially useless consumption, and to impose corporate ideology and agendas. As workers who produce, study, and transmit information, we pledge to change this reality. We will work to preserve and encourage face-to-face communication: people can speak best for themselves without the intervention of professionalism or technological mediation. We support that technology which enhances human power and which is designed and controlled by the communities which use it.”
Dee Dee Halleck, cofounder of Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish Network, has been organizing for independent media since the 1960s. She is a professor at U.C. San Diego.