11 Aug The MacBride Report legacy and media democracy today
In 1980, the year UNESCO first released the MacBride Report, one of us (Clemencia) was a second-year undergraduate communication major at Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. I remember knocking on the door of Professor Gabriel Jaime Pérez, who taught our course on media ethics. He welcomed me in, and I told him I was confused.
I felt the communication curriculum was full of contradictions: some courses seemed to be training us to work for transnational media industries while other courses deeply questioned the roles those same media industries played in a country like Colombia. Some of my professors insisted on teaching us the communication models of Berlo, Lasswell, and Lazarsfeld, training us to use media technologies effectively and persuasively to transmit messages for specific purposes that were mostly profit-driven or electorally centered.
In the same department, other professors lectured about Para Leer al Pato Donald [How to Read Donald Duck] (Dorfman and Mattelart 1971) and Pedagogía del Oprimido [Pedagogy of the Oppressed] (Freire 1967). In these lectures, the media industries, and especially transnational media corporations (TNMCs), were presented as imperialist entities that bulldozed local cultures. Their ultimate goal was to open new markets for ideas, ways of life, and products imported from the Global North – all for the ultimate profit of the TNMCs, with no regard for the well-being of local communities or the health of local democracies.
My experience as a college student in the early 1980s, studying communication and media at a university in the Global South, reflected the global debates around media, information, and communication that were taking place on the floors of UNESCO, the United Nations, and other international forums at that time (Nordenstreng 2010).
Professor Pérez agreed with me and told me that some of those same issues were discussed in a new book he had just received from overseas called the MacBride Report. He asked me how my English was and, when I responded it was good, he gave me the book and asked me to translate the introduction into Spanish because he wanted to use this text in his courses.
I returned with a very clumsy translation of the MacBride Report’s eight-page introduction, done on my typewriter. Professor Pérez photocopied and distributed my homemade MacBride introduction to my fellow students and then, a few months later, we got a copy of the Spanish version of the book, Un Sólo Mundo, Voces Múltiples: Comunicación e Información en Nuestro Tiempo (International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems 1980). This story illustrates how, since I was a 24-year-old college student, the MacBride Report has framed everything I think and do in the field of communication and media. The Report became part of my academic and activist DNA.
Now, almost forty years later, I think about the MacBride Report as one of the most significant documents in my field, mass communication and media technologies. And yet, I can also see how the discussions that immediately followed the release of the MacBride Report marked a turn toward the unprecedented global control of communication and information that TNMCs have today.
In the late 1970s, representatives from Third World countries exposed a scenario of global communication inequity at UNESCO and the UN. They revealed the almost one-directional flow of information and communication from First World countries into Third World countries and highlighted the starkly inferior communication infrastructure in these poorer countries. In 1977, UNESCO convened the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems to further explore and verify the inequalities in communication flows and media infrastructures denounced by Third World delegates. In April 1980, the Commission delivered its final report titled, Many voices, one world: towards a new, more just, and more efficient world information and communication order (International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems 1980), also known as the MacBride Report after the Commission’s president, Séan MacBride.
The MacBride Report, which was translated into many languages and widely distributed and debated across the planet, but especially in the Global South, demonstrated that most global media traffic was controlled by a few transnational communication corporations in the “developed world”. At the time, the Report stated that “fifteen transnational corporations control, in different ways, the largest part of operations in international communications, located in five countries” (page 109); those countries were the U.S., The Netherlands, FRG, France, and Japan. The Report alerted the world to the negative effects that media concentration has on free and democratic societies:
“We can sum up by stating that, in the communication industry, there is a relatively small number of predominant corporations which integrate all aspects of production and distribution, which are based in the leading developed countries and which have become transnational in their operations. Concentration of resources and infrastructures is not only a growing trend, but also a worrying phenomenon that may adversely affect the freedom and democratization of communication” (page 111).
From today’s perspective, the Report’s call for social responsibility by transnational communication corporations seems prophetic:
“Transnational corporations have a special responsibility in today’s world for, given that societies are heavily dependent upon them for the provision of information, they are part of the structure that fosters the development of economic and social models, as well as a uniformity in consumer behavior, unsuitable to many local environments. Transnational media have a major influence on ideas and opinion, on values and life-styles and therefore, on change for better or for worse in different societies. The owners or managers have a unique kind of responsibility, which society has the right to insist they assume. Public awareness of the structures of ownership is a necessary starting point. But we are inclined to draw two conclusions for communication policies in developed and developing countries to help safeguard internal democracy and straighten national independence; one, that some restrictions on the process of resource concentration may be in the public interest; second, that some norms, guidelines or codes of conduct for transnational corporations’ activities in the field of communication might well be developed to help ensure their operations do not neglect or are not detrimental to the national objectives or social cultural values of host countries. In this connection, the UN Commission on transnational corporations should pay particular attention to the communication, information and cultural implication of their activities” (page 111).
Limiting the power and control of dominant communication corporations
The Report’s call to develop and implement national information and communication policies provided support for countries seeking to establish regulations that limited the power and control of dominant communication corporations. During the 1980s and 1990s, several nations restricted how much media content and advertising could be imported from other countries; limited the concentration of media ownership; reserved broadcasting frequencies for public media; taxed commercial media to fund public media; and implemented policy incentives for non-traditional media producers (i.e., independent filmmakers, alternative/community media creators). Media regulation was not the Big Bad Wolf; a wide array of creative regulatory policies emerged to ensure the social responsibility of communication corporations.
In 1985, for example, Colombian Law 42 defined television as “a public service” that could be offered by commercial, for-profit entities and went on to establish a new framework in which civil society was responsible for shaping and regulating public and commercial television in Colombia. Law 42 created the Commission for the Vigilance over Television, which was responsible for regulating the medium in the country. The commission included delegates elected by different sectors of civil society, including universities, artists’ groups, unions, consumer associations, civic neighborhood associations, television critics’ and journalists’ organizations, advertisers, advertising agencies, the Catholic church, and parents’ associations (Vizcaíno G. 2004, 138).
This type of policy unnerved the transnational media corporations, which were eager to maximize profits by exporting their media content and opening new markets around the globe. Countries such as Colombia, which has traditionally managed to maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the U.S., were able to implement regulatory media policies. This was not the case for countries under the imperial domination of the U.S., such as the so-called “banana republics” in Central America, perceived by the U.S. as “el solar de atrás” [our backyard] – those countries that grow most of the bananas Americans eat every morning at breakfast with their Kellogg’s cornflakes. In 1973, 84% of all primetime television programming in Guatemala was imported; three quarters of that media content originated in the U.S. (Varis 2003, 74). This type of scenario was the target of the MacBride Report and its proposal for information and communication policies. Obviously, it did not take long for transnational media corporations to oppose the MacBride Report.
The MacBride Report also showed that Global-South-to-South communication was practically non-existent. Calling for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), the Report’s recommendations included implementing media regulation in the form of national communication and information policies, increasing South-to-South communication and information initiatives (such as South-to-South press agencies), diversifying information and communication sources, and creating a code of ethics for the mass media.
The forces unleashed in response to the release of the MacBride Report should have been warning signs for what was yet to come. Using freedom of the press as a smoke screen to protect transnational media corporations from regulatory policies that would restrict their operations – especially in the Third World – the United States threw a temper tantrum and left UNESCO, taking with it 25% of the organization’s funding. This was the beginning of the post-MacBride Report debacle, which ultimately led to the consolidation of the corporate communication and information entities’ immense power.
In the Global North, the Reagan/Thatcher era emboldened the forces pushing for deregulation and, as a result, media concentration increased with corporate mergers and horizontal/vertical integration. With the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall, the ideology of the free market economy gained momentum until it became a quasi-hegemon – the only way to think about economic models (IPSP 2018).
In the Global South, development “experts” pressured Third World governments to privatize their media industries in order to “modernize” their communication infrastructures or risk being left behind by the so-called developed, globalized world. At the same time, during the 1980s the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization began pressuring countries with large foreign debts to adopt structural adjustment programs if they wanted more loans. Many countries in the developing world had accumulated enormous foreign debt; in 1990, for example, Guatemala’s international debt was equivalent to 35% of its GDP (U.S. Department of State 1996). Central to structural adjustment programs was the privatization of services, including media and communication. This meant dismantling information and communication policies. Naomi Klein asserts that this scheme of neoliberal policies, privatization, and deregulation – what she calls the “Washington model” – was imposed on Latin American countries first by military interventions and later through structural adjustment programs.
The history of communication technologies is the history of tensions between divergent forces that sometimes moved toward regulation and social accountability and other times moved toward autonomy and commercial freedom. The MacBride Report marks a point in this history during which these two opposing forces became, for a brief moment, visible, transparent, and loud. Ultimately, however, the forces of deregulation, privatization, and corporate power bulldozed the Report’s call for regulatory regimes and communication systems designed to promote equality, justice, and democracy.
Rising power of transnational communication corporations
In 1982, two years after the MacBride Report’s release, international media expert Cees Hamelink noted the report’s failure to sound enough alarms warning of the rising power of transnational communication corporations when he stated: “The proposed measures – mainly legal in nature – seem to me totally inadequate in confronting the vast politico-economic power exercised by those transnational corporations that play a key role in international communications” (Hamelink 1982, 256).
Hamelink’s words sound prophetic today:
“The Report, although rightly pointing to the crucial role of transnational corporations in the field of international communications, did not sufficiently recognize that the new international information order is indeed likely to be the order of the transnational corporations. The ‘one world’ the Report ambitiously refers to in its title may very well be the global marketplace for transnational corporations” (Hamelink 1982, 281).
One of us (Andrew), despite being deeply immersed in regulatory and standards issues related to the internet, did not cross paths with the Report until recently. I think this could be due to a number of reasons. Most of my training has been in computational social science and internet studies. While in retrospect certain aspects of the Report may seem naive to computer scientists and too focused on the Global South, there was perhaps a tendency exhibited by my professors over the course of my technical training to overlook or ignore larger social struggles that have occurred throughout the history of communication and media regulation. Engaging tech communities in the conversation about social justice issues is among the main challenges for those of us working towards media democracy. Unless social justice and democratic values are considered from the moment of conception and design, communication technologies won’t address the needs of democratic and inclusive communities.
Bertilus Sainte Therese talks on her mobile phone in Lareserve, a remote village near Jean-Rabel in northwestern Haiti. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance. The telecommunications market is highly concentrated in Port-au-Prince, its suburbs, and, to a lesser extent, in other cities. It is expected to reach the interior of the country at a rate of 25 to 30% a year over the next five years. Cyber cafés are mainly found in Port-au-Prince and offer access to low-speed internet connections for long distance communications and internet browsing. Photo: Contributed
Looking back at the MacBride Report now, after the advent of the web, some sections appear idealistic and overgenerous in their pronouncements about the role of frictionless information transfer via computer networks. The Report states that “A constant flow of information is vital for economic life” and that communication offers “incalculable potentialities” (23). Although the Report was released well before widespread public access to the internet, the writers were able to articulate something analogous to it: “The global web of electronic networks can, potentially, perform a function analogous to that of the nervous system, linking millions of individual brains into an enormous collective intelligence” (34). The reality is that, after the growth of the commercial internet and distributed web services, the power of TNMCs has become consolidated in a small number of companies in places like Silicon Valley (Galloway 2017) who control the information that is sent along this ‘nervous system’ – an example of the concerns raised by Hamelink.
These organizations, who traditionally defined themselves as technology firms and who have only recently publicly acknowledged their roles as media companies (Napoli and Caplan 2017) after inadvertently facilitating the social media propaganda crisis of the 2016 US federal election, hold a privileged position in the diffusion of media content. Further entrenching this media power, traditional or “old media” companies must release material through web services to remain economically viable, and the companies that offer those services, mainly by way of California, form a new layer of editors and gatekeepers that control public access to information, automated through algorithms or otherwise (the Report’s authors did worry about “the potential dangers of news flow imbalance” and propaganda,  – just not in the context of emerging computer networks).
Concern for the Report’s idealistic tone in favor of new information and communication technologies (like the emerging internet) was expressed by some members of the commission at the time of writing. In their dissenting opinion in the Report’s appendix, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Somavia write, among other criticisms, that:
“There is a tendency in different parts of the report to ‘glorify’ technological solutions to contemporary communication problems. We want to emphasize that the ‘technological promise’ is neither neutral nor value-free. Decisions in this field have enormous political and social implications. Each society has to develop the necessary instruments to make an evaluation of alternative choices and their impact” (page 281).
The above point is crucial for understanding the Report in the light of the formation of the internet, its technologies, and the associated problems they introduced. Internet technologies are indeed not neutral or value free; tools like algorithms may act as filters that sort information according to a set of pre-defined rules, and while such rules are the product of decisions made by human developers at some point along the coding lifecycle, algorithms themselves have political significance. For example, as the technology of choice for California-based, for-profit social media companies, algorithms are the primary mechanism for sorting and ordering news feeds. In this context, algorithms are inherently political, and value loaded, owing to the nature of their probabilistic composition and forecasting technical features (in addition to the biases that algorithms may reproduce through processing already biased human-curated data).
While the Report does, in some places, warn about the limitations of what it calls “data banks” (64) and the sometimes “narrow criteria for the selection of data” (70), it also emphasizes their importance; “higher productivity, better crops, enhanced efficiency […] cannot be achieved without adequate communication and the provision of needed data (15). The report often seems to move back-and-forth about the utility of data technologies, as noted by Schiller (1982), who compares areas in the Report that seem to describe an electronic utopia with sections that describe more sober structural realities related to data.
Where the Report does present significant concern is in the realm of advertising and the commercialization of communication. While in the Global North, companies like Google and Facebook operate according to the market logic of the commercialization of data, Fuchs (2015) shows that countries in the Global South have adopted similar logics: “for-profit companies dominate, targeted online advertising is the main capital accumulation strategy, online shops and online advert services are popular, freemium services are combined with advertising” (10).
Fuchs notes that the Report warns about the dangers of advertising and argues for decommercializing the media, yet the authors of the Report perhaps could not have anticipated the intimate connections between datafication and advertising, especially in the context of the emerging internet and the web services that it would enable.
Other aspects of the Report may be problematized in the light of post-internet TNMCs. The Report states that “Denial of vital communication tools to many hundreds of millions of men and women makes a mockery of the right to inform or be informed” (53). While in the abstract this may be true, it would be interesting to think about the potential thoughts of the commission members on topics like Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child non-profit initiative, meant to bring computers to millions in developing nations, or Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, a Facebook project in partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm, an attempt to bring the Global South online through the Free Basics app.
The projects by Negroponte and Zuckerberg experienced extreme pushback and criticism from groups in the Global South. At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) event in 2005, held in Tunisia, one conference participant stated of Negroponte’s project, “If you live in a mud hut, what use is that computer for your children who don’t have a doctor within walking distance?” (Smith 2005).
Similarly, Zuckerberg faced backlash in 2015 when 67 human rights groups and advocacy organizations in 31 countries released an open letter protesting Facebook’s initiative, listing net neutrality, nomenclature, freedom of expression, and privacy as just some of their concerns. These debacles show that framing the digital divide in the simple terms of a “desire to connect” ignores more nuanced political issues related to connection. Connection might not be a justifiable end at any expense, and there has been a growing body of literature that suggests nonparticipation as a right in the digital divide era (Iliadis 2015).
Datafication of surveillance capitalism
In the end, the MacBride Report’s post-internet legacy may finally be tied to its silence on the rapid growth of what Couldry and Mejías (2019) call “data colonialism” and Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” (2018), “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.”
Variations of the word “propaganda” appear over 10 times in the Report, “capital” over 30 times, “politic” over 280 times, yet the word “surveillance” does not appear even once (though “privacy” is mentioned 15 times). This is meant less as a criticism of the Report and more as an indication of where things have headed.
The datafication of surveillance capitalism is the defining issue of our times, as evidenced by the innumerable crises it has generated, from Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government spying at the National Security Agency, to facial recognition technologies being developed by companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google to assist police, government, and military with crime and population control.
It may be time to revisit other critical interventions in the history of communication research. Several authors writing before, during, or after the MacBride Commission were attentive to the dangers of what we now may call surveillance capitalism. Writing in 1977, the Canadian communication scholar Dallas W. Smythe wrote that “the materialist answer to the question – What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertiser-supported communications under monopoly capitalism? – is audiences and readerships […] The material reality under monopoly capitalism is that all non-sleeping time of most of the population is work time” (3). If now, as Zuboff claims, all human experience is free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales, Smythe was attentive to these concerns before the publication of the Report in 1980.
Apparently, another Canadian communication scholar, Marshall McLuhan, was invited to sit on the Report’s committee, but had to decline due to ill health. McLuhan’s famous dictum, that the “medium is the message”, is telling of the new data worlds described in the Report. How the authors did not clue in to the surveillant nature of data technologies, given that the medium is indeed the message, is anyone’s guess.
It is easy to review a historical document like the MacBride Report and criticize it for the things that it missed. But there is a utility in doing so, if only because it illuminates just how profoundly sociopolitical issues in communication can change without notice. If there is to be any prescriptive or regulatory power that comes from documents like the Report, it will be found in a preemptive attentiveness to the shifting landscape of communication problems in modern societies.
Couldry, Nick and Mejías, Ulises A. 2019. The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press
Dorfman, Ariel and Mattelart, Armand. 1971. Para Leer al Pato Donald [How to Read Donald Duck]. México: Siglo 21 Editores.
Freire, Paulo. 1967. Pedagogía del oprimido. Bogotá: Editorial America Latina.
Fuchs, Christian. 2015. The MacBride Report in Twenty First-Century Capitalism, The Age of Social Media and The Brics Countries. Javnost – The Public (22) 3, 226-239.
Galloway, Scott. 2017. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. New York: Random House.
Hamelink, Cees. 1982. One world. Marketplace for transnational corporations. In Whitney, C. & Wartella, E. & Windahl, S. (eds), Mass Communication Review Yearbook Volume 3, pp. 275-281. Beverly Hills/London/New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Iliadis, Andrew. 2015. The right to nonparticipation for global digital citizenship. International Review of Information Ethics 23. Available at http://www.i-r-i-e.net/inhalt/023/IRIE-023-03.pdf
International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. 1980. Un Sólo Mundo, Voces Múltiples: Comunicación e Información en Nuestro Tiempo. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Available at https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000040066
International Panel for Social Progress (IPSP) (ed.). 2018. Rethinking Society for the 21st Century: Report of the International Panel on Social Progress, 523-562. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MacBride Commission. Many Voices, One World: Towards a New more Just and more Efficient World Information and Communication Order. New York: UNESCO.
Milcíades Vizcaíno G. 2004. La legislación de televisión en Colombia: entre el Estado y el mercado. Historia Crítica, pp. 127-151.
Napoli, Philip N. and Caplan, Robyn. 2017. Why media companies insist they’re not media companies, why they’re wrong, and why it matters. First Monday 22(5). Available at https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7051/6124
Nordenstreng, Kaarle. 2010. MacBride Report as a Culmination of NWICO. Keynote at International Colloquium “Communication et changement social en Afrique” Université Stendhal, Grenoble 3, 27-29 January 2010.
Schiller, Herbert I. 1982. Electronic utopias and structural realities. In Whitney, C. & Wartella, E. & Windahl, S. (eds), Mass Communication Review Yearbook Volume 3, pp. 283-287. Beverly Hills/London/New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Smith, Sylvia. 2005. The $100 laptop – is it a wind-up? CNN, Thursday, December 1. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/12/01/laptop/
Smythe, Dallas W. 1977. Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory/Revue canadienne de theorie politique etsociale 1(3), 27.
U.S. Department of State. 1996. Guatemala. 1995 Country Reports On Economic Policy and Trade Practices. Available at https://19972001.state.gov/issues/economic/trade_reports/latin_america95/guatemala.html
Varis, Tapio. 2003. The international flow of television programs. In Miller Toby (ed)Television. Critical concepts in media and cultural studies. Volume V, pp 72-82. London and NY: Routledge.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2018. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs.
Dr. Andrew Iliadis is an Assistant Professor at Temple University in the Department of Media Studies and Production (within the Lew Klein College of Media and Communication). His work focuses on the social implications of big data and algorithms with specific interests in semantic computing (things like metadata, web schemas, knowledge graphs, applied ontologies) and embodied computing (things like wearables, embeddables, ingestibles, implantables). He has work published in or forthcoming from Global Media and Communication, International Review of Information Ethics, Big Data & Society, Philosophy & Technology, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, The SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet, Online Information Review, Communication Booknotes Quarterly, and