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Media Attention, the UN, Sean MacBride and “ancient” media history

Last week, I had the pleasure of leading a class of Digital Democracy, a Harvard Law School course being team taught by Berkman Center staff and faculty. The class, as a whole, is concerned with issues of political and legal power and how these power relationships change in the “new world” of the Internet. I’ve recently been interested in building statistical models for information flow and focused my lecture on questions of where, geographically, mainstream media focuses its attention, and whether this focus has economic, social and political consequences for the nations that are covered and ignored.

John Palfrey, Berkman’s fearless leader, did a great (if perhaps overly kind) job of blogging the class. The title of his post sums up the issue I was most interested in covering: “Is relative news coverage among countries a legal issue?” I figured it would be a lively topic for debate – in a global economy, being ignored (or misrepresented) by major media sources (CNN, the New York Times) can cost you foreign direct investment, international aid, intervention in military conflicts, involvement in trade negotiations, and so on. Surely some counterbalance should exist between the rights of the media to report what they want to report and the impacts this reporting can have around the world?

Evidently not. I had a hard time getting anyone to even consider a situation where the first amendment rights of a newspaper should be in any way constrained by considerations of fairness or political or economic impact. (To be very clear, I’m not advocating any constraint of first amendment rights – I was just interested to see whether I could get anyone to acknowledge the shortcomings the press has re: developing nations and suggest some solutions.) My colleague Charlie Nesson seemed to sum up my students’ and colleagues feelings with the comment, “Interesting stuff, but I don’t think it’s a legal issue.”

A week, and some web research later, I’ve finally got a retort: “It may not be a legal issue, but it’s certainly a policy issue, or at least it was 20 years ago.” In 1980, a UNESCO commission headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride released a report titled “Many Voices, One World”. The report looked for ways to create a more equitable flow of news content, to encourage independent journalism in developing nations and to limit the power of media companies in wealthy nations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report was extremely controverisal in the United States and Europe. Gerald Long, managing director of Reuters at the time of the report’s release dismissed the entire 312 page document in the New York Times as a ‘’freak, rotten as a whole.’’ Most US reactions were based on concern that some of the report’s more radical suggestions – including the licensing of journalists – would compromise first amendment freedoms.

As UNESCO began implementing some of the report’s recommendations, the US, UK and Singapore pulled out of UNESCO – the US only rejoined UNESCO this year, 19 years later. Deedee Halleck, filmmaker and media professor, has an excellent description of the MacBride affair and a statement of support for the MacBride principles on her website. UNESCO, in a wonderful bit of irony, lists the MacBride report in its list of “major books”, but hasn’t distributed the report in over a decade.

Clearly the issues faced concerning news flow in the 1970s haven’t gone away – my research seems to suggest that these imbalances are as strong as ever. With the spread of the Internet and the accompanying concern about digital divides, why aren’t we hearing about information imbalances and calls for a “New International Information Order”, as was endorsed by the UN in 1974? Why has this chapter of media history been forgotten?