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Governance of media and communication in society can be for people, for profit or for power. Depending on the nature of the governance, media and communication can be instruments to:

  1. Enhance creativity of people, understanding between people, and participation of people in all structures of society;
  2. Boost profits for private sector corporations, increasingly globalised;
  3. Secure the dominance of a power-hungry minority and their grip on the majority.

But it cannot do all three at once. So we must make fundamental choices concerning our goals. Most worrying, the last two – governance for profit and for power – can make happy bedfellows, and increasingly they do so.

But I want to begin by reminding us why, in the first place, media and communication need a special form of governance. Why not, as Rupert Murdoch would have it, govern them like tins of beans – the so-called ‘let the consumer decide’ argument?

What makes media different to other ‘goods’?

There are three special, overlapping, roles for media and communication:

A. Media and communication are central to the operation of democratic structures and a healthy public sphere, since most people gain their understanding of their society, and how it works, from the media. As conveyers and purveyors of society’s ideas, the right kind of media system is often called the ‘oxygen’ of democracy, one of the fundamental freedoms and enablers of participation in society.

B. With the breakdown of extended family, social solidarity and (for that matter) structures of subservience in society, mass media become central to both individual identity formation, especially for young people, and also for collective identity formation. Often unknown to us, the media play a huge role in determining not only ‘who we are’ and ‘what group we belong to’ – but the range of possible identities available to us and whether they embody solidarity, cooperation, understanding and respect, or fragmentation, competition and difference.

C. More and more, our culture is created as media artefacts, and is delivered to us through media. Our aesthetic values are formed, our appreciation and pleasure in our human creativity, the shape of cultural renewal and rebellion is either as cultural media products, or conveyed to us and debated through media – drama, entertainment, learning, games, sport, travel, food, books, language. Will these open out to flourishing creativity and diversity, or render a dull uniformity?

However, a particular media and communication regime may not always sustain these in a positive and liberating manner, a way that benefits all people. To do so demands a number of features:

- Media and communication must be free from manipulation and censorship by government and other major vested interests;

- There must be a great plurality of media sources for people to access and interact with;

- They must be great diversity of views expressed;

- All people and communities must have the means to create and disseminate their own content;

- There must be ready and open access to information and knowledge of public interest, the stuff from which democracy and culture and identity are constructed;

- People must understand the media fundamentals, how to interpret and assess content, to spot hidden messages and read between the lines, how to shape their own messages;

- Media governance must be an open and participative process, involving all stakeholders.

With these and a few more bits and pieces in place, a space is created for the spontaneous emergence of a creative, participative, liberating cycle of communication in society. Jars of coffee, tins of beans, cars or washing machines - none has such a complex and onerous set of social tasks to perform. And so their governance must also be different. The job of governance is to nurture this space into existence and to nourish and sustain it.

What type of governance have we, and what are the trends?

Unfortunately, the current situation and the outlook are not good.

First, good old-fashioned government censorship and oppression is not dead, by a long shot. We need not look far to find it – right outside this building - Newspapers, intimated and self-censuring when it comes to criticism of the government; voices of opposition physically silenced. And many countries are worse, much worse.

But the emerging threat is the process of concentration of global media ownership into fewer hands, and the accompanying commercialisation and commodification of communication. On the one hand, media ‘products’ are being forcibly shoved through the governance instruments of international trade, in the process rendering them into the commodified shape of other goods and stripping them of much of their capacity to fulfil social goals. On the other hand, attempts to build better international governance instruments, that acknowledge and support the key role of media and communication, are harassed and blocked.

We must look back to the 1970s and the 1980 to see the origins of the current wave, when decisive intergovernmental battles began to clear the ground for the export of a neo-liberal model of media, perfected in the US, a country in which most media have long been driven by little but profit, and in which corporate media interests are happy to the government line politically.

From the 1970s onwards direct broadcast satellite transmissions became the Trojan horse for Murdoch and other media empires of today. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the struggle for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) in UNESCO- caught up in the cold war but ultimately defeated by a coalition of western powers - effectively muzzled UNESCO and to this day discourages other UN bodies, including the ITU, from broaching issues of global media governance. The systematic exclusion in the WSIS of key media and communication issues is evidence enough of its continuing potency.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of factors shifted the paradigm for media and communication decisively towards a trade and commodity approach:

- Wealthy countries forced media onto the agenda of the GATT (later the WTO), less democratic but more powerful than UN agencies. Film and television remain for the moment outside, kept there by an alliance of European and other countries against much US and industry pressure.

- A major victory for corporate media and for-profit culture was the shift of copyright into the TRIPS agreement, coinciding with ever growing duration of monopoly (mainly owned by corporations) and draconian powers of enforcement.

- The move of telecommunication into GATS in the mid 1990s was a further major boost.

All were forced through against considerable resistance of poor countries - though the latter was often motivated more by concerns for power, not people.

But things get worse.

For a scenario exists even worse than politically controlled and manipulated media, or profit-driven corporate media. It is the combination of both.

In the past, governance-for-power often regarded governance-for-profit as a threat. But with the profit-motive now an inescapable reality, a new accommodation is emerging. Governments clinging to power (whether elected or not) are forming unholy alliances with media corporations, an arrangement that suits them both. Major media owners and governments – sometimes one and the same – implicitly conspire to barter favourable media coverage for a profit-friendly regulatory environment. But all at the expense of people.

This applies not only to poor countries. Thailand as well as Italy have media magnates in control - Thaksin and Berlesoconi - abusing their power to enrich themselves. It is widely believed that the UK’s prime minister Blair has struck such a deal with Ruport Murdoch – and Murdoch is also happy to pull BBC news from his Chinese satellite channel in return for a broadcast license. In Ireland, where I come from, there is evidence of an implicit pact between the biggest media owner, Tony O’Reilly (also a major owner in South Africa), and the largest party, Fianna Fáil. From Guatemala to Russia, media owners strike deals with governments behind closed doors, against the interests of the people. The deeply entrenched corporate-government links in the US were exposed in the invasion of Iraq – so clearly that it became an embarrassment to some of them (though there are few blushes in Fox News, the worst offender).

What are the implications of this?

What are the effects of this process of commodification and commercialisation? They include:

- Fewer genuinely diverse sources of information, as lap-dog editors and journalists are recruited to reflect the views and interests of their wealthy owners;

- More limited diversity of content, culturally as well as in news and analysis, as global entertainment perennials of violence, sex and spectacle become the norm; and costly current affairs are slimmed down in favour of cheaper infotainment and glossily packaged prejudice - despite the promise offered by the technology, most international news is still controlled by a handful of sources;

- A narrowing of focus on advertisers’ needs i.e. middle class audiences, and burgeoning advertising space spreading its influence over editorially;

- A new variation of indirect political influence on news and current affairs through implicit alliances between corporate media and political powers;

- The promotion of a limited set of ‘identity options’, defined by individually selecting and consuming branded goods associated with carefully crafted lifestyle options, and the associated implicit but powerful devaluation of identifies associates with shared values;

- An ever growing distance between media and people, as the corporate agendas no longer see media and communication as anything other than means to generate profits and opportunities to influence media agendas grow more remote.

In short, the process and content of the cycle of communication between people - our culture, our politics, our identity - are processed and packaged into commodities, with the goal of maximising the profits of media owners. To claim that this process represents the assertion of ‘consumer sovereignty’ is nonsense since the imperatives of profit filters and shapes so much before it gets near the consumer. As Alice in Wonderland said: Just because you like what you get, does not mean you get what you like.

So where has everything gone wrong? Is there nothing the international community can do?

Three Steps to getting it Right

The challenge is to invert current governance dynamics, and put people in the driving seat – the appropriation of media by people and communities to achieve their own goals. In the CRIS Campaign, we believe that the idea of communication rights offers a promising conceptual framework to pursue this process.

A menu of actions to rebuild such structures of governance could begin with the following:

  1. Fundamentally review media and communication within trade deals, including the WTO, regional agreements and bilateral agreements. They have no place is such agreements, except in carefully considered cases. UNESCO, to its credit, is a recent site of indirect struggle on this issue with the Convention on Cultural Diversity.
  2. Unravel TRIPS in relation to copyright, reorient WIPO towards its development goals, and establish a system of encouraging and rewarding creativity that ensures the widest possible circulation and use. There is little doubt but that copyright currently works to the overwhelming benefits of corporations, not cultural creativity or the general public.
  3. Formulate a new international framework and mechanisms under the United Nations, that integrally includes civil society and not just governments, to shift governance of media and communication towards a human rights and social justice paradigm, that would protect and actively promote the political, social and cultural role of media and communication. This could both reorient and reorganise existing entities (ITU, WIPO, UNESCO etc), and see the creation of new ones. The process could cover for instance :

- Instituting international action to curtail excessive media concentration;

- Implementing measures to actively promote diversity, for instance community/civil society media, and public service media at global levels;

- Allocating spectrum in a way that maximises the public interest;

- Reorganisation of Internet governance, as promoted by progressive groups at WSIS;

- Actively supporting minority languages, increasingly being sidelined and under threat;

- Recognising ICTs as a global public good, and support for bottom-up developments;

- Strengthening measures for media literacy and criticism at all levels of education;

- Instituting new financing mechanisms to provide the necessary resources.

These need not be vain aspirations. The first steps can be modest beginning with an explicit recognition by the international community that there is a job to be done here, and that it is urgent.

There is a growing movement for global governance reform, of which UBUNTU is a part, that could build an environment where momentous change becomes feasible. Furthermore, there are significant signs of emerging and potentially powerful alliances between enlightened government and progressive civil society around media and communication, including those involved in the CRIS campaign, around the WSIS, WIPO, in the WTO and within and among civil society fora. These are what we must build on.