11 May 2021 MD 2021-2 Editorial
By Philip Lee
Those familiar with the history of the 1970s New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) and the 1980s communication rights movement will remember the name of Seán MacBride as the chairperson of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, which produced the report “Many Voices, One World”. Paradoxically, this much-feted event in communication circles played only a tiny part in the remarkable life and career of a man who was both respected and controversial for his views on political struggle.
The son of Irish military leader John MacBride and suffragist and actress Maud Gonne, Seán MacBride was born in 1904 in Paris, where he lived until 1916 when he moved to Ireland. MacBride retained his soft-spoken, slightly Germanic, French accent all his life. At the age of 12, the British executed his father for taking part in the Easter Rising. At 14, he witnessed his mother’s arrest on charges of painting banners for seditious demonstrations and preparing anti-government literature. At 15, MacBride joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and at 17, he went to London with Irish revolutionary Michael Collins for the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.
MacBride went on to become chief of staff of the IRA. He was twice secretary to Éamon de Valera, President of the Irish Republic, and he later founded Clann na Poblachta (the political party that set itself up as an alternative to De Valera’s Fianna Fail). He became Ireland’s most distinguished lawyer, founder of Amnesty International, United Nations Commissioner for Namibia, and the only person awarded both the Nobel (1974) and Lenin (1977) peace prizes. Seán MacBride died on 15 January 1988.1
It is no surprise that the mantras of liberation, self-determination, and anti-colonialism that marked MacBride’s early political life, and his later work to promote global justice and peace, should find expression in the MacBride Report, “Many Voices, One World”. As other commentators have pointed out:
“It was Seán MacBride’s involvement in movements for human rights and peace that led him to be concerned with questions of communication. Trying to influence public opinion on these issues, he could not help facing the strategic role of the mass media. Also, like many others, he realised that communication is an increasingly important human right of its own which needs protection.”2
Identifying the democratization of communication, diversity of media, accessibility and affordability as key issues, the MacBride Report pointed out that democratization could not simply be reduced to its quantitative aspects, but that qualitatively a combination of processes were needed:
“[Democratization] means broader access to existing media by the general public; but access is only a part of the democratization process. It also means broader possibilities for nations, political forces, cultural communities, economic entities, and social groups to interchange information on a more equal footing, without dominance over the weaker partners and without discrimination against any one. In other words, it implies a change of outlook. There is surely a necessity for more abundant information from a plurality of sources, but if the opportunity to reciprocate is not available, the communication process is not adequately democratic.”3
If the MacBride Commission were to sit today, what might its members have to say about inclusion, exclusion, and social progress in a world taken over by digital technologies of all kinds? That is the focus of this issue of Media Development, in which Cees J. Hamelink suggests that “The time for commissions of wise men and women to deal with burning global issues belongs to the past.” It’s an acute observation, given the many calls for civil society to play a more vital role in policy-making. The same author concludes:
“The ‘many voices, one world’ theme of the MacBride Commission will in the 21st century have to be dealt with from the bottom up. No longer as a debate on a new global order or a global re-set, but in the form of inspirational local initiatives that… could reach a critical mass that constitutes the tipping point to realize the ‘communicative justice’ that was the global aspiration all along.”
The mantra of communicative justice, closely allied to genuine social progress, has been explored in several previous issues of WACC’s journal Media Development. Themes such as “Expanding Public Communication Spaces” (3/2020), “MacBride+40: What Next for Media Democracy” (3/2019), “Wanted: Sustainable Development Goal 18” (2/2019) and “Digital Futures” (1/2017) are persistent in their advocacy of communication rights as a vital component of sustainable development.
The MacBride Report, and the work of the MacBride Round Tables that followed it, led directly to the communication rights movement, energized by the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) Campaign and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Twenty years later, its impetus slowed in the face of political roadblocks, transnational media conglomerates, deregulation, technological convergence, the emergence of Internet service providers, and unregulated digital platforms.
The kind of social progress implicitly advocated by the MacBride Report was stymied by globalization, neoliberalism, corporate greed, and finally a politics of fear in the context of the return of right-wing politics and populism. Nevertheless, in the considered opinion of Juan Somavia – a member of the original MacBride Commission – and Kaarle Nordenstreng:
“The MacBride Commission was a success story in its time. Its vision based on the democratization of communication continues to be relevant in today’s totally different context and indeed would serve well as a model for a new round of global reflection and multilateral policy action.”
And for Stefania Milan, also writing in this issue:
“Without a doubt, our digital ecosystem urgently needs a new MacBride Commission able to produce a comprehensive critique of the state of play, and to identify corrective policy measures and directions for activists and practitioners to follow in the attempt to reclaim the central role of communications for human development.”
The question is how civil society, “from the bottom up” and in tandem with stakeholders worldwide, can organize and mobilize to bring about digital justice – in terms of diversity, equality of access, affordability, and transparency – before those that seek to retain power and profit without accountability seize the day.
1. Two biographies have been published: Seán MacBride: A Biography, by Anthony J. Jordan. Blackwater Press, 1993; An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: The Nationalist and Internationalist Politics of Seán MacBride, by Elizabeth Keane. Tauris, 2006.
2. “Seán MacBride: A Short Biography” by Jörg Becker and Kaarle Nordenstreng in Few Voices, Many Worlds: Towards a Media Reform Movement, ed. by Michael Traber & Kaarle Nordenstreng. London: WACC, 1992, p. 20.
3. Many Voices, One World. Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Paris: UNESCO, 1980, p. 173.