The Ninth MacBride Round Table, hosted by the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was held in Boulder, Colorado, USA, 1-2 October 1997. The Round Table was held in association with the 12th colloquium of the European Institute for Communication and Culture on Community Citizenship.
Over 50 participants, mainly from the North American academic community, were in attendance and the programme included some 20 papers, workshops, and two keynote speakers, Steven Bates who spoke on 'Realigning Journalism with Democracy: The Hutchins Commission, Its Times, and Ours,' and Saskia Sassen who spoke of 'The State and the New Geography of Power.' Community and alternative media attended in strength, as did critical media analysts, and representatives of national and international NGOs. Those present shared both an awareness of the great challenges facing us and some optimism, summarised by more than one speaker in Antonio Gramsci's famous words 'pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the spirit'.
The MacBride Round Table reflects two historical developments towards the end of the 20th century: the growing societal influence of privately owned media, and a power shift from governments towards civil society. This non-governmental platform was established at the end of the 1980s when it became clear that the intergovernmental UN system, particularly UNESCO, was incapable of supporting the intellectual and political dialogue emanating from the emancipatory movements of the 1970s, notably the International Commission for the Study of Communication, chaired by the late Seán MacBride.
The Round Table theme, 'Global Media and Global Responsibility: A Time to Choose', points to a crucial turning point: Must we acquiesce to total market domination, or can we assert an alternative view? This was explored in three intensive sessions.
The first took a critical look at the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) and its legacy. It was addressed from the Perspectives of American media ideology, of Latin American traditions, and generally the developing countries adjusting to the new information age.
Secondly, several papers reviewed current trends in mass media around the world, ranging from journalism in the age of globalisation to the use and abuse of the concept of Information Society. The third area focused on alternative and participatory media, reporting several experiments and studies, and including a video session by Paper Tiger Television's DeeDee Halleck and Michael Eisenmenger.
Stephen Bates, literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, addressed the gathering on the second day of the Round Table. It is now 50 years since the Hutchins Commission published its report 'Free and Responsible Press'. Dr Bates reviewed the conditions which led to the setting up of this unique exercise of reflecting the role of the media in society, the work of the Commission and the lukewarm, even hostile, reception it met within the media industry of the day. Round Table participants noted similarities between this US exercise of the 1940s and the global work of the MacBride Commission 30 years later. While the changing times have naturally made some of the Hutchins Commission's analyses and proposals obsolete, many of them remain valid - perhaps even more so than at its time - under the contemporary conditions of global communications.
One aspect raised by the Hutchins Commission that has become ever more central is the need to develop media literacy and media criticism. As observed in a paper by Sakae Ishikawa of Japan, the new communication environment is entering an age of overload, as people become overwhelmed by a flood of information that may or may not be true.
A global media movement
The Round Table heard how, in the USA, the various elements exist on the ground to support a new phase of growth in community and alternative media. Key conditions are already in place, the training capacities, the facilities, and an active personnel. What is missing, perhaps, is a crucial element that could, in practice, bind these together and energise them. An important parallel can be drawn at the international level, where such conditions may be present in greater force.
The various components of an international movement on media and communications, that can challenge the current neo-liberal orthodoxy, seem to be emerging. The creation of a global social movement - largely absent from the NWICO - requires a number of factors, among them a core constituency of on-the-ground activists who recognise their affinities and can mobilise in concerted actions; an understanding of the key global issues of the day and of the arenas in which they are fought out; and the capacity to get their message out both to natural allies in progressive movements and to the general public.
While operating at several levels, local, national, and international, such a movement would work on two broad fronts. On the one hand alternatives to current homogenised and commodified media must be further supported, in participative forms, producing a diversity of output - not to displace mass media, but to create a truly democratic space in which everyone has the right to participate in whatever active or passive manner they wish. On the other hand, the mass media and transnational institutions of corporate power and domination over world information must be challenged in their own terms and on their own ground. Public media policy and institutions, too, must be opened out to democratic participation.
Some elements of a movement are more clearly present than others. There is certainly growing activism in alternative media, such as radio, access television, and Internet use, across the world. A long tradition thrives of articulate voices raised in criticism of the current state and trends of the media, from academia to lobby groups to certain UN Commissions and reports. Furthermore, these are beginning to recognise their common cause and build bridges. Within the various strands, national and international organisations are already well established. Nationally, coalitions of several strands of the movement are appearing: The Round Table heard of national organisations in countries as diverse as the USA, Ireland and South Africa that bring together all forms of alternative media and media activists. The creation of such groups as the Platform for Co-operation on Democratisation and Communication in London in 1996 and growing support for the People's Communication Charter, point to a willingness to cooperate across the board, bringing together diverse constituencies in pursuit of a common mission.
Indeed, a major outcome of the 9th Round Table was the unanimous endorsement of the Charter, that will add the Round Table to the select group of the Charter's 'Founding Parents'. The Third World Network, AMARC, Vidéazimut, the Cultural Environment Movement, the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) and others have already approved the Charter through their respective procedures.
Further evidence of a growing movement can be seen in plans for a series of major international meetings during 1998, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet there are also elements that clearly need serious attention if a global movement of any consequence is to emerge. Among these are the need for a self-reflexive critical capacity on what the movement is about, tackling such basic questions, discussed at the Round Table, as whether participative media really do empower people and in what ways; whether civil society organisations and movements can themselves embody the democratic and participative principles they espouse; and what realistic alternative structures and institutions can be proposed.
Sharing of research results, a deep understanding of the core problems, and nuanced reflection on their contradictory impact, will be needed if strategic interventions are to be pursued effectively. At the same time, key issues at international level must be explored in depth, such as the shift away from the UN system towards a trade paradigm in media and communications; and the implications of trends in copyright and intellectual property rights.
Some immediate tasks
The Round Table was keenly aware that grand schemes and declarations cannot substitute for action, and many concrete ideas and approaches were raised. An immediate strategy across a set of different fronts is clearly needed, and mutual support and co-ordination among the growing number of initiatives and organisations was seen as critical to ensuring current energies are not dissipated. Participants enthusiastically shared information on many activities already underway and proposed collaborative action in others, among them:
• Research to assess the real impact of alternative media, to explore the relevance of emerging technologies, and to deepen understanding of activities outside the wealthy countries.
• The building of a broad-based social movement, self-reflective and self-critical and sustaining a clear common agenda.
• The need for an international non-governmental platform to cover global regulatory agencies (ITU, WTO, etc.) and democratic forms of governance.
The Round Table also announced that a book highlighting this intellectual and political movement as exemplified by papers presented in recent Round Tables, and including the final documents of all the Round Tables, is to be published.1 A second volume will highlight the potential of pooling together studies of content analysis in order to create a world-wide system of monitoring the performance of the mainstream media, particularly in issues of global concern.2
1 Toward Equity in Global Communication: MacBride Update. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998.
2 International News Monitoring. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998.
Most of the papers from both the Round Table and the Colloquium are available at the MacBride Web site: http://tdg.uoguelph.ca/~drichard/macbride/.