11 December 2003



(Reissued as received.)



GENEVA, 10 December (UN Information Service) -- The world was in danger of losing its sense of community as a result of the new information technologies, suggested UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor this afternoon.  Moderating a panel discussion at the World Electronic Media Forum in Geneva, he challenged panellists to respond to questions on the implications of today’s rapidly evolving communications environment.  Had those new technologies revolutionized the relationship between national broadcasters and their governments?  Could their competing imperatives -- that media be more available to those who govern, and that governments be kept at a distance -- be reconciled?  While the media had a greater potential than ever to be a force for teaching us about our world, many argued that they were in fact trivializing events and desensitizing viewers to violence and suffering.  Did the abundance of available information make people more engaged in problems around the world, or did it instead allow them to distance themselves?

The panel discussion, entitled “A View from the Bridge”, was intended to reflect on the present and future of electronic media.  It was one of the side events of the World Summit on the Information Society, which opened here on Monday and runs through Friday.

Mr. Tharoor also wondered whether the new technologies had actually extended the global reach of the privileged, with Western values and interests predominating.  Unquestionably, those same technologies made it much easier and cheaper to create and distribute information reflecting local interests in local languages, theoretically reaching to the most remote village.  But was the new information society a democratizing tool, allowing more voices to be heard, or did it instead threaten cultural diversity?  In the long term, would it unite us, or accentuate our differences, or both?  Finally, were the new media just providing old news faster?

Speaking by videoconference from London, Greg Dyke, Director-General of the BBC, said that with 24-hour news coverage and broadcasts -- a phenomenon made possible by the advent of real-time transmission -- there was a danger, although not deliberate, of misreporting because of the need to be first.  That new reality notwithstanding, however, there were inevitably times when broadcasters -- if they were doing their job well, being impartial and reflecting a broad range of opinion -- ended up in conflict with the government of the day.  In times of conflict and war, precisely when governments might prefer that only their view be conveyed, it was all the more important for broadcasters to communicate a broader perspective.  This year’s coverage of the Iraq war, he said, was one such time.

Other panellists agreed that Americans seemed to have seen “a different war on TV” from the rest of the world.  John Rendon, CEO of his own communications consultancy, said that at least five or six different wars had been portrayed -- none of them in alignment -- depending on where the media coverage originated.  That raised the issue, said Mr. Tharoor, as to whether there were many different media cultures and whether there was not some “unconscious political influence” at work on the media in “a country so proud of its press freedoms”.  But United States audiences of BBC had risen significantly during the war.  To Mr. Rendon, this suggested that with the new media and wide access to the instantaneous delivery of information, the role of news organizations becomes “the brand value of the legitimacy of the information they provide”, which was what set the BBC apart.  And while media were now using technology to deliver what they had always delivered, only better, they were not engaging in dialogue, and in a few years they would lose their relevance.

The BBC’s Greg Dyke concurred that, despite the breadth of United States news organizations, they had all reported on the war from one particular perspective; and there was in fact a multitude of cultural perspectives and different cultural sensibilities.  This contributed to some misunderstanding between the Western world and other regions and cultures, particularly where coverage of the Iraq war was concerned.

The multiple war “realities” depicted by the media showed the extent to which communication today had become “a kind of immersive art form”, commented German writer and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who said that what the ancient Hindus called “Maya”, moderns called television.  It was important to differentiate among the five or six wars, because they showed how deeply people today are involved in “the construction of fiction”.  But the media’s fundamental role had not changed from its primal function of helping people to relax and escape stress. 

Martin Luther had called movable type God’s gift to humankind for spreading the Gospel, he went on, and Luther would probably have said the same thing of today’s new media.  But the real purpose of media communication -- the real media ethics -- was the same in both the print and electronic ages:  to provide people with sufficiently good news balanced by bad news, and to juggle optimistic and pessimistic messages. “The meaning of media is to generate courage, entrepreneurial values, generosity, and to dissolve resentment; this is what the Gospel is always about, whether Christian or otherwise.”  But today’s media were not responding to that task; its “group-dissolving powers” prevailed over its “group-creating powers”.  The media ethics of the future should thus be redefined.  And while media literacy was important, it must be carefully linked to the “humanizing effects of primary literacy”--reading.  Similarly, said Mr. Rendon, the lines between content, news, information and entertainment had become blurred, and viewers needed to be able to distinguish among them.

Juan Somavia spoke to the need to bridge the enormous divide between human rights or communications rights and the actual exercise of those rights.  Those rights had to be exercised amidst the media’s many and multifaceted relationships with government, ownership, advertising and the market.  The new technology enlarged on the media’s agenda-setting and gate-keeping role: the NGO movement known as Porto Alegre, for example, would not have been possible without the Worldwide Web.  The mass media should also play a greater role in explaining globalization, promoting knowledge and dialogue on complex, worrisome issues, as the informal alternative media were already doing.

In a brief question-and-answer period, participants voiced concerns about the technology gulf between the developed and developing countries, particularly in Africa, where media financing was a problem and vast numbers of people had no access to information.  They discussed the gender dimension of war and violence and said that, while children were gaining in speed of communication, they were losing their depth of understanding.  The media should focus on problems of poverty and workers in the information society.





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