Below is a story from the Wall Street Journal (1 June 2011). It is by Li Congjun, the President of China's Xinhua news agency, and is thirty years out of date. We all know what happened to MacBride, published in 1980; moreover, attempts to regulate international media and communications have never been very successful. Remember the struggle between the right to freedom of speech and the right to protect one's own internal affairs and sovereignty, both enshrined in international regimes at the end of WWII and both used at regular intervals by all powers during the Cold War to justify or rail against international propaganda.
Li suggests in this article four principles which could provide the foundation for a new regime, but he fails to tell us how these might be practiced or enforced. Moreover, if the principles did contribute to the structure of a new international regime about information, Xinhua would be the first to feel its heavy hand (read the four principles and then remember this is the President of Xinhua - a news agency in an authoritarian political system - suggesting them).
Finally is the idea of cultural imperialism relevant anymore in an international system where culture and information do not flow north-south, or west-east, but are multi-directional and allow for a number of greater regional voices that challenge a supposed 'western hegemony' (Al-jazeera is the most stunning example)?
One must ask: why Xinhua and why now? Could it be that China's international media (and Xinhua's own television service) have finally realised that they are unable to compete with other broadcasting systems? Do they believe that it is far easier to blame outsiders (after all, the western media ARE biased against China, right?) than to address shortcomings in their own organisations, content and formats?
We need a mechanism to coordinate the global communications industry, something like a 'media U.N.'
By LI CONGJUNThe world established a new international order after World War II with the founding of the United Nations. For over six decades, the international community has endeavored to create a more balanced, just and rational political and economic order.
Unfortunately the rules governing the international media order lag behind the times, especially compared to changes in politics and economics. The gap is seen, first and foremost, in the extremely uneven pattern of international communication. The flow of information is basically one-way: from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries.
In 1980, the 21st General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) addressed the imbalance and inequality in international news reporting and called for a new order in international mass communication. Over the years, a growing number of insightful people, including many from the West, have proposed changes with the conviction that the existing order is far from just, rational and balanced.
In our interdependent world, the human community needs a set of more civilized rules to govern international mass communication. This reminds me of bridge, a game I truly enjoy. Modern bridge is known as contract bridge, indicating that players are bound by a contract and the game is a bidding process, in which wise and effective exchanges of information rely on collaboration and communication carried out in a fair and just manner.
Earlier variations of bridge, known as bridge-whist or straight bridge, were different. In bridge-whist, there was no bidding and the game was all about gambling, making communication difficult. The modern game has been shaped by gradual rule changes over the years.
The "bridge" linking modern information flow and the international media is crumbling, in a sense, due to a lack of fair "contracting" and "gaming." This situation is incompatible with the contemporary world. An unjust and irrational order hinders the global media industry's sustainable development and contributes to the problems in today's world. We need to start a constructive reform through rule changes to rebuild the bridge of communication and let the media industry play a more active role in promoting the advancement of human civilization.
Four principles should guide changes in the value system:
• Fairness: This requires that media organizations from all countries should have the right to participate in international communication on equal terms. Those media organizations in turn should provide comprehensive, objective, fair, balanced and accurate coverage to minimize discrimination and prejudice.
• All-win: It is advisable to create conditions allowing media organizations from different countries to share the fruits of development in information and communication industries, to play an active role in international mass communication, and to reverse the unbalanced situation where the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.
• Inclusion: To maintain the world's diversity, media must respect the unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations; strive to dispel suspicions and remove barriers between different cultures and civilizations; enhance dialogue and communication; and seek common ground while putting aside differences.
• Responsibility: Media organizations should not only ensure openness and transparency to promote the building of an open society, but also keep to rational and constructive rules so as to turn mass communication into an active force for promoting social progress.
We must also keep improving rules and explore new mechanisms governing international communication. Unesco should actively negotiate and settle issues within the U.N. framework. However, it is necessary to keep improving rules and, when the conditions are ripe, to explore a long-term, nongovernmental mechanism to coordinate the global media industry, something like a "media U.N." This can be a mechanism for global media exchanges and consultation, and it may evolve into an organization for coordination and maybe even arbitration.
A sports analogy may help explain what I mean. Ping-pong, or table tennis, played a unique role in restoring China-U.S. relations in the 1970s and is known as China's "national sport." For many years, Chinese ping-pong players have taken the top prize in almost all major international events. This presents a paradox: The stronger a team becomes, the more it desires to maintain its position and keep improving. However, when a team is invincible for too long, few others are inclined to compete.
In the long run, the sport in which China enjoys so much advantage will be less appealing, less viable, and may eventually be excluded from future Olympic Games. In fact, ping-pong has undergone a series of major rule changes over the past two decades. After the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the older 38mm balls were replaced by 40mm balls and the former 21-point scoring system was changed to an 11-point system. These changes, aimed at limiting the advantage of "super players," have made the sport more enticing to players from different countries.
The theories of "checking superpower" and "maintaining equilibrium" also apply to the media. It is time to reverse the marginalization of developing nations in the media, change their underdeveloped status, and enhance their rights of expression in the international media market. To that end, a mechanism for international cooperation, exchange and coordination is needed, as well as an increase in funds and technical support for media from developing countries.
Almost five decades after the discovery of the double helix, James Watson said in his book, "DNA: The Secret of Life," that the Human Genome Project found that human beings are similar in genetic makeup. Our common ground is far wider than any potential gulf that threatens to separate us.
Information flow, like gene transcription and expression, plays a vital role in the evolution of civilization. Resetting rules and order in the international media industry is an adaptation to the trend of democratization of international relations. With diversified expression and information flow, we can mend the broken bridge of cross-cultural communication and build an information link to the future.
Mr. Li is president of China's Xinhua News Agency.