11 May 2021 The MacBride Report today: In search of communicative justice
Cees J. Hamelink
Forty years ago, I edited one of the first critical commentaries on the MacBride report. In the preface I stated that it is a challenge “to see the Report only as a step in a broader process and as an invitation to further reflection”. The authors of Communication in the Eighties: A reader on the McBride report made an attempt to stimulate further debate that should go beyond the MacBride analyses and recommendations. The downside of the haste in which we produced our reading of the report was that it became the McBride report. Was that a beautiful Freudian slip?
When the authors finalized their comments in Caracas, August 1980, on the occasion of the IAMCR scientific conference, they certainly agreed that the commission had not been sufficiently critical of the reality of the corporate McDonaldized media scape. A crucial omission was the absence of a critical political economy analysis of corporate media power. “The Report supports – with qualifications – the Third World’s case for a new international information order. It misses, however, an essential point by not seriously analysing the role of the transnational corporations in the movement towards a new international order”.1
Our collective of critical readers thought that the expansion of international information flows would primarily benefit the networks of large transnational industrial and financial corporations. As Herbert Schiller noted in his contribution, “Increased linkages, broadened flows of information and data, and above all, installation of new communication technology, are expected to serve nicely the world business system’s requirements. That they can be considered as constituting a new international information order is so much additional icing on the cake of the transnationals.”
We projected that the new international information order would follow the same route as the new international economic order. The basic framework was created by the transnational corporations. In fairness, the Report did point to the crucial role of transnational corporations in the field of international communications, but did not sufficiently recognise that the new international information order would indeed likely be the order of the transnational corporations. The “one world” the Report ambitiously referred to in its title could very well be the global marketplace for transnational corporations.
The frightful five
Forty years later this critical analysis would still be needed and is possibly even more urgent because of the unprecedented control today’s “frightful five” exercise over the world’s information flows. The five, Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, are today collectively more powerful than many governments. They affect national elections and guide national economies through the impact they have on job markets. Moreover, they exercise unprecedented measures of censorship over the materials their platforms publish.
In the context of selectively spreading information and providing misleading news, platforms such as YouTube have become key players in a global debate on “fake” news. This debate tends to focus on the damage that this news would inflict on democratic societies. It is not about the democratic deficit of those societies. The mainstream media will rarely engage with the question of how democratic our societies really are. Usually, they report dutifully about the ins and outs of the system and leave fundamental questions about the system itself off the agenda.
The real problem, however, may not be fake news, but fake democracy! It therefore seems logical that governments are eager to intervene in the news services via social media because these media give citizens an open forum to express themselves.
Forty years later, a MacBride Commission would have a different global mediascape to confront and would deal with the issue of truth-finding in an information environment in which lying, deceiving and misleading have become shamelessly “normal”. In the midst of truth, post-truth, and fake news the Commission would have to address the question whether there could be a system to determine what is misleading news. It would be interesting to see how the Commission would engage with a public discussion in which the subject of all commotion about “fake news” is often the role of social media. Social media are considered to be the main cause of the spread of fake news. But in many countries the twitter noise is caused by small numbers – especially so-called angry citizens, often confused people chattering at the village pump. A social problem arises only when conventional media take this chatter seriously. Then it can have political effects.
Media tend to view communications from politicians on Facebook and Twitter as news (while in fact they are press communiques that are hardly worth mentioning). The tweets of US President Donald Trump received a lot of attention in the conventional media! Maybe the Commission would offer the comforting thought that news has always been largely fake news. Its main sources, such as governments or commercial companies, never had great interest in opening up. Moreover, the representation of events is always inevitably distorted, biased and incomplete. It is a reassuring thought that immediately puts the whole heated discussion about fake news into perspective.
I think we should not have any illusions about the willingness of the producers and their sales channels to deal with the news service with greater responsibility. In all probability, all kinds of creative forms of regulation are so much part of the problem that they cannot solve it. The only party that can enforce change is the public and that was greatly overlooked in the 1980s. Attempts (in the 1990s) to mobilize a critical media consumer movement (including the People’s Communication Charter or the Cultural Environment Movement), however, were not very successful. In the 21st century prospects for critical media consumer movements actually seem to be even slimmer than before. This is due to a remarkable and disconcerting shift over the past 40 years in the ways publics are informed about global and local events. After the politically tumultuous 60s and 70s, public discourse shifted to what singer Sixto Rodriguez baptized as the Establishment Blues.
Largely inspired by the neo-liberal thinking of the Thatcher/Reagan duo, predatory capitalism came to be seen as the only working system and discussion about it was considered pointless. With the increasing privatization and oligopolization of the information media, this also became the ideology of more and more news suppliers. This de-politicized the public discourse. There was still room for all kinds of criticism, but the establishment system was not open to fundamental critical debate about ideological differences. The social order was no longer seen as a provisional construction but as a completed project.
Small is beautiful
In conclusion, it would be easy to draw up an agenda for MacBride 2021. However well-intentioned, this would not be a very realistic or even meaningful project. The time for commissions of wise men and women to deal with burning global issues belongs to the past. The establishment of commissions such as the MacBride Commission, the Brandt Commission, the South Commission and the Brundtland Commission reflected the old belief in wizards who have the power to wave their magic wand to solve perplexing problems. Laudable Commission recommendations, however, failed in the real-life confrontation with narrow political interests, commercial objectives, and the failures of the international governance system.
Addressing the world’s most pressing issues through ad hoc groups of experts also suggested that social problems, in essence, are ahistorical and apolitical. The temporary nature of the problems’ analysis and resolution ignores the processual quality of fundamental social problems. It cannot take into account the fact that social reality is constantly shifting and changing. Delivering recommendations while commissions are dissolved also seems to suggest that there is no responsibility beyond the proposals, and it denies the inevitable problem that many proposed solutions may create other, maybe even more serious, problems.
The efforts spent in these commissions to produce consensus recommendations also quite deceptively ignore the basic political character of important social issues. This makes all proposed resolutions contestable in the light of the divergences in value systems that exist in the real world. On top of these more principled considerations, there is the trivial logistical reality that these commissions consistently have too little time and too few resources to do a decent piece of work.
In the midst of an unprecedented oligopoly in the provision of information and communication services, a “Zeitgeist” which is overwhelmingly post-political, an enormous confusion about veracity in newscasting and an increasingly complex network of new public and private platforms, a Commission – however wise and experienced – could not provide the perspectives we may need. It is time to return to Schumacher’s wisdom of “small is beautiful”.2 We need to give up the illusion of comprehensive and permanent social change because, although the scale of social justice movements has enormously expanded around the world, this did not change our living together on the planet completely and permanently. Yet, we see everywhere that small victories are achieved from Black LivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street and Extinction Rebellion to youth marches, the network of journalists whose mission is to continue and publish the work of other journalists facing threats, prison, or murder, the kids skipping schools for a better planet, and women calling attention (singing and dancing) in the major cities of the world to violence against women.
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 should be supported by such global organizations as the WACC and the IAMCR. These initiatives could reach a critical mass that constitutes the tipping point to realize the “communicative justice” that was the global aspiration all along. ν
1. Communication in the Eighties: A Reader on the McBride report, ed. by Cees J. Hamelink. Rome: IDOC International (1980).
2. E. F. Schumacher. Small Is Beautiful. A study of economics as if people mattered. Blond & Briggs (1973).
Cees J. Hamelink is emeritus professor of international communication, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.