11 May 2021 Revisiting 45 years of history in communication policies
Kaarle Nordenstreng and Juan Somavia
This article is an extension to the video presentation at the online conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in its final plenary. It reminds us of the origins of the MacBride Commission and provides an insider’s view of the Commission’s work. It also reflects on the changing landscape of international relations and communication from a present-day perspective.
Knowing and understanding history is indispensable – and too often overlooked – also in matters of international communication. A short history lesson on the MacBride Commission leads us to two root causes.
First, the immediate launching ground was UNESCO’s General Conference in Nairobi in November 1976 and one item on its agenda: Draft Declaration on Fundamental Principles Governing the Use of the Mass Media in Strengthening Peace and International Understanding and in Combating War Propaganda, Racism and Apartheid (Nordenstreng, 1984: 101-113). This document originated from a Soviet-inspired UNESCO initiative of the early 1970s attempting to formulate normative guidelines for media in matters of global concern. It had been prepared by experts and diplomats and was merely a reminder of the existing international norms and instruments. But there was one Article on “state responsibility” and a reference to the recent UN resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism, and these became a casus belli for Western governments and media. A campaign was mounted against the Draft Declaration, suggesting that the Declaration would be a “curb” to control media in the interest of the socialist East and most of the developing South.
The political controversy in Nairobi escalated into a crisis which was tactfully handled by Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow. He suggested that the Draft Declaration, although prepared by an intergovernmental conference the previous year, be postponed and further negotiated aiming at consensus, and that meanwhile a “reflection group” be formed to undertake “a comprehensive study on the problems of communication in the modern world” – the mandate of the MacBride Commission. To balance these conceptual and normative activities unpalatable to the West was an initiative to begin mobilizing material resources for the media systems of the developing countries – something which was unwelcome among hard-liners in the East and South as the “Marshall Plan of Telecommunication”. In the end a delicate balance of different interests was approved by consensus. M’Bow deserves a medal in commemoration of this historical achievement when he turns 100 on 21 March 2021.
Second, the deeper roots of the MacBride Commission lead us to the global context – a movement towards a new international information order (Nordenstreng, 1984: 3-77). Four different, although partly overlapping, stages can be discerned in the development of the global relation of forces since the early 1970s – in the field of media policies as well as in the grand designs of world political strategies – until the late 1980s, when the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War heralded a new era in history with globalization as its main feature until the new millennium.1
The first stage, from the early 1970s until 1976, was dominated by a decolonization offensive by the developing countries against the industrialized West. Its first landmark was the 4th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algiers (1973) declaring that “the activities of imperialism are not confined solely to the political and economic fields, but also cover the cultural and social fields” and demanding “concerted actions in the fields of mass communication”. This led to the NAM Symposium on Information in Tunis (April 1976), to the founding of the NAM Pool of Press Agencies in New Delhi (July 1976) and finally to the political declaration of the 5th NAM summit in Colombo (August 1976) proclaiming: “A new international information order in the fields of information and mass communication is as important as a new international economic order.”
The second stage can be characterized as a Western counterattack of a self-defensive nature, which peaked in 1976-77, mainly against UNESCO’s programme promoting communication policies. The third strategic stage in 1978-80 emerged soon after the second and was marked by the adoption of the Mass Media Declaration and the MacBride Commission. It can be characterized as tactical maneuvering in a spirit of compromise, or truce. The fourth stage followed after 1980, when the Western countries once more adopted a confrontational course, with a corporate offensive.
Accordingly, the MacBride Commission was no isolated chapter in history; it was an integral part of a highly politicized information war, academically known as the great global media debate (Gerbner, Mowlana and Nordenstreng, 1993). Originating 45 years ago in the eventful year 1976, the Commission should be seen as a manifestation of a long and tortuous process.
Commission member Somavia recalls its mission2
From the perspective of the developing countries of the time, confronting “information dependency” and placing it at the heart of the report was both daring and indispensable for an autonomous development outlook. It began with the dynamics of decolonization and was part of a wider struggle to deal with neo-colonialism, but was rapidly transformed into a powerful Third World movement, both governmental and non-governmental: countries wanting to assert themselves with their own cultural and political identity. They felt that their reality was communicated to the rest of the world, including their own countries, with the cultural, and often political bias of the four Western news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuters, AFP) which dominated the international media arena of the time. All this in the context of the Cold War with a polarized East-West information sphere.
These elements led to the realization that we needed a new world information and communication order (NWICO). What the report does is to legitimize that discussion and show a way forward based on the conviction that this outlandish idea was indeed possible. Four key values or cornerstones emerge from the report.
The first is respect for diversity and cultural identity – the basic notion of respect for the other. And it is not only in terms of acknowledging that the developing world is not well reflected, but also has to do with the essence of communication at the national level: you have to respect the other – national, society, culture, individual, gender. It should reinforce social cohesion and convey a sense of belonging. As the comment by Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Somavia in the MacBride report puts it: “Communication… is a determining factor of all social processes and a fundamental component of the way societies are organized.” (Many Voices…, 1980: 281)
The second value is the need to democratize communications, which means acknowledging the rights to inform and be informed as human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the related Covenants. That means you need to have a multiplicity of sources, from vertical to horizontal. Moreover, it proclaims a need to go beyond elites and to give the voice of the people a more direct hearing. Sources need to reflect the society that we are describing. So, it began as an international problem, but it also dealt with communication at home. And, linked to that, is the unequal concentration of power and the need for a balanced and transparent relationship between the controllers and media output as a cornerstone of democracy.
The third value is the conviction that information is not a commodity. It is a right and consequently has a social function. As a foundation of society and development, it is an integral part of the manner in which societies move forward. It is fundamental to social cohesion, but it costs something and there is a price to be paid. The report states that we have to distinguish between communication as a business and the meaning of communication in society. Consequently, communication cannot be considered simply as a commodity.
The fourth key value is to acknowledge a link between international information and global peace and security issues – that information should not be used as a tool in the East-West confrontation of the time. The fact is given – and this is where the Cold War comes in so strongly – that the extent of disinformation, misrepresentation and distortion on both sides and their link to international peace and security was extremely strong.
Forty years later the world is quite different, but the key values prevail
The East-West confrontation of the Cold War era is long gone, neoliberal globalization has emerged and is in crisis, different forms of global power shifts are underway, the Internet has proliferated, changing the entire media ecology, and it is no longer the four news agencies but five large international platform oligopolies that dominate the communication scene. How does the Commission’s message look from the perspective of today?
We should ask if communication today is more democratic; are information flows more democratic? In terms of individual access, we must answer yes, the capacity to communicate has expanded enormously. Anybody can tweet something, and if it strikes a chord, it can become a trending topic. It is also a major instrument of social organization and activism and many other expressions of individual and social activities. At the same time this expansion has brought about the dispersion of responsibility for what goes into the air; there are enormous problems in digital access. We are at the very threshold of addressing this matter as an issue of a democratic society. Also, access comes with a basic commercial conditionality by the five global companies and their use of our personal data for business purposes. This is a blatant invasion of people’s privacy. Again, we are just beginning to grapple with this issue.
Another question is content: is it more culturally and politically diverse? It is in terms of availability, but it has not changed the basic norm described in the report: one way or another, the owners and the controllers of the communication system continue to call the shots. Misinformation is rampant, professional information is being replaced by opinion and accountability for fake news is non-existent. So, in a certain sense, the traditional, professional role of journalism and of making information available is being much more constrained by the manner in which the power of large enterprises determines the nature of content.
Summing up, we are led to the question of credibility of information fuelled in part by a disconnect between the people and the elites and in part by the enormous multiplicity of sources, leading to a lack of trust in what comes out from the system. So, whom do you believe? You ultimately choose those who share your own views, including your family, friends and the people you trust. And in terms of public information, you find yourself connected to likeminded people; in a sort of sociological mutation, you become a complacent fellow traveller rather than a citizen exercising the right to be informed.
In the end, the above four values continue to question our communication systems and information flows in a different technological and political setting. From the perspective of human rights and power structures, democratization continues to fall short. Again, the comment by Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Somavia remains topical:
“More democratic communication structures are a national and international need of peoples everywhere promoting access, participation, decentralization, open management, and the diffusion of power, concentrated in the hands of commercial or bureaucratic interests, is a worldwide necessity.” (Many Voices…, 1980: 281)
Changing platforms of communication policy: Time for a comprehensive look
The great global media debate since the mid-1970s was largely facilitated by UNESCO with the MacBride Commission as its flagship. However, UNESCO lost its leadership of the intellectual movement by the mid-1980s after the Reagan administration and the corporate offensive pushed it to make a U-turn in media policies (Preston, Herman and Schiller, 1989). At this stage, UNESCO ceased to promote the ideas of the Commission.3 Also the Mass Media Declaration was deliberately forgotten and NWICO had no place in the Organization. Normative and standard-setting issues were set aside and UNESCO adopted the traditional free flow of information doctrine, while the Constitution sets as its overriding mission the advancement of the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples for the higher cause of peace and security (Nordenstreng, 2013).
To fill the intellectual and political vacuum around NWICO, a number of non-governmental professional and academic organizations created a platform to follow up the work of the Commission as a grassroots initiative (Traber and Nordenstreng, 1994). The MacBride Round Table on Communication met first in Harare (Zimbabwe) in 1989 and thereafter annually in different parts of the world (Vincent and Nordenstreng, 2016). However, after 2000 it was no longer convened.4
The new millennium introduced new momentum to international communication policies with the UN and ITU organizing the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005.5 The intergovernmental platform with an extensive NGO following replaced UNESCO and the MacBride Round Table as a forum for bringing various parties together to discuss and take action on common concerns, especially in the era of digital communication. It gave birth to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a body for all stakeholders from governments, private sector as well as civil society.
The Internet-related global debate is well established,6 also at the European level,7 with the latest contribution the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.8 All this is welcome but does not address the ever growing global problems of communication. Especially topical is a trend against democratization under the pressure from both authoritarian governments and private giants. Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Big Bother are lurking around some governments, while commercial giants threaten the individual and collective rights of citizens, surrounded by a strategic competition between China and the USA, with many communication components.
This dangerous landscape calls for a fresh look with a comprehensive approach. 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.
1. For details, see reviews on the Commission’s 25th and 30th anniversaries (Nordenstreng, 2005 and 2010). Nordenstreng attended the Non-Aligned Symposium on Information (April 1976) as a representative of the invited guest, Finland, and participated in all General Conferences of UNESCO dealing with the Mass Media Declaration and the MacBride Commission (1976-85) as President of the International Organization of Journalists (IOJ).
2. At the time Somavia was director of the Instituto Latinoamericano de Estudios Transnacionales (ILET) while in exile from the Pinochet dictatorship in Mexico. ILET had a major program on international communication headed by Fernando Reyes Matta, who became a senior advisor to the Commission. This, together with the vision of Commission member Gabriel García Márquez, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, provided a think tank contribution to the Commission’s work.
3. By the end of the 1990 the Commission’s report in English ran out of print and UNESCO no longer took new printings. Instead, media scholars arranged a reprint by the American Publisher Roman & Littlefield in 2004.
6. For example, see http://www.circleid.com/posts/20210108-internet-governance-outlook-2021-digital-cacaphony/
7. For example, see https://www.eurodig.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/EuroDIG_Media-and-Content_A-Decade-of-Change.pdf
Gerbner, G., Mowlana,, H. and Nordenstreng, K. (eds) (1993) The Global Media Debate: Its Rise, Fall, and Renewal. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Many Voices, One World. Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order (1980). Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by Seán MacBride. Paris: UNESCO. Reprinted in 2004 by Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD).
Nordenstreng, K. (1984) The Mass Media Declaration of UNESCO. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Nordenstreng, K. (2005) A milestone in the great media debate. Quardens del CAC, No 45: 25-48. Available at https://www.cac.cat/sites/default/files/2019-05/Q21_nordenstreng_EN.pdf
Nordenstreng, K. (2010) MacBride Report as a culmination of NWICO. Les Enjeux de l’information et la communication, Supplément 2010 A. Available at https://lesenjeux.univ-grenoble-alpes.fr/2010/articles-revue/publication-supplement-2010-a-communication-changement-social-afrique-30-ans-apres-rapport-mc-bride/
Nordenstreng, K. (2013) Deconstructing libertarian myths about press freedom. In Carlsson, U. (ed), Freedom of Expression Revisited: Citizenship and Journalism in the Digital Era, pp. 45-59. Gothenburg: Nordicom. Available at https://www.nordicom.gu.se/en/publikationer/freedom-expression-revisited
Preston, W., Herman, E. and Schiller, H. (1989) Hope & Folly. The United States and UNESCO 1945-1985. Preface by Seán MacBride. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Traber, M. and Nordenstreng, K. (eds) (1992) Few Voices, Many Worlds: Towards a Media Reform Movement. London: WACC.
Vincent, R. and Nordenstreng, K. (eds) (2016) Towards Equity in Global Communication? Second Edition. New York, NY: Hampton Press.
Dr Kaarle Nordenstreng is Professor Emeritus at Tampere University, Finland. His PhD is from the University of Helsinki. He has served on national committees for communication policies, foreign affairs, culture and education. Internationally he has served as a consultant on communication research and policy at UNESCO (1971-76) and at the European Science Foundation (2000-04). He was Vice-President of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) 1972-88 and President of the International Organization of Journalists (IOJ) 1976-90. More at https://sites.tuni.fi/kaarle/
Dr Juan Somavia is a Chilean diplomat who served as Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) 1999-2012. Earlier he was Ambassador to the UN 1990-99, Director of Instituto Latinoamericano de Estudios Transnacionales (ILET) 1973-90, adviser to the Foreign Minister of Chile, Ambassador to the Andean Group and Executive Secretary of the Latin American Free Trade Association 1966-73. He studied law at the Catholic University of Chile and economics at the Ecole de Droit et Sciences Economiques in Paris. Honorary Doctorate from Pantheon 3, la Sorbonne.
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