Free Flow of Information

Oliver Boyd-Barrett. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Toward the end of World War II (1939-45), the expression “free flow of information” and the ideas that it encapsulates began appearing in national and international documents. Briefly, the expression is meant to convey the open passage of print and electronic media across borders and among nations. Important examples include (as “free flow of ideas by word and image”) the constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1945) and (as “freedom of opinion and expression”) the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Subcommission on Freedom of Information and of the Press in the early 1950s. ECOSOC addressed the problem of a global imbalance of information structure as early as 1961, as did the United Nations General Assembly in deliberations in 1952 and again a decade later.

The intellectual currency of “free flow” has demonstrated durability and adaptability over time, appearing, for example, in the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (as “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media”), and in the 1972 General Conference of UNESCO’s Declaration of Guiding Principles on the Use of Satellite Broadcasting for the Free Flow of Information, the Spread of Education and Greater Cultural Exchange.

Yet not long after the end of World War II it also became apparent that the principle of “free flow” of information might potentially clash with both equity among nations in their levels of technological and economic development, and with their national sovereignty. Transnational delivery of television signals by satellite, first accomplished in the early 1960s with Telstar, was predicted by some critics to pose a severe threat to national cultural sovereignty (although by the 1990s, it seemed that satellite had greater significance at local, national, and regional than at global levels). The “free flow” principle was broadened to a “free and balanced flow of information” in UNESCO’s 1978 “Declaration of Fundamental Principles Concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, the Promotion of Human Rights information and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War.” This long-titled document called for “greater reciprocity” of information, and for a “free flow and better balanced dissemination of information”—reformulations that were reiterated in the 1980 MacBride Commission report to UNESCO. The MacBride report was the culmination of a series of debates at conferences hosted principally by UNESCO and by countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, that sought to encourage a proposed “New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO) as a necessary sequel to an earlier New World Economic Order (NWEO). The story of the NWICO debates and their conflicting philosophical foundations has been recounted in many sources, including Mehra’s 1986 book, The Free Flow of Information: A New Paradigm.

The spirit of NWICO was first reflected in global telecommunications when in 1973 the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) eliminated its colonial system of voting whereby nations voted according to the number of colonies they administered. In 1982, the ITU expanded its mandate to address particular needs of developing countries. Both the NWICO and the 1980 MacBride Commission report to UNESCO met with a sustained Western media attack, spearheaded by the United States (including 1982 congressional measures against UNESCO, and strong lobbying of the newspaper-backed World Press Freedom Committee) and Britain. Their reaction expressed a fear that UNESCO might endorse restrictions on “free flow” imposed by undemocratic governments. It was also argued that these might require government licensing of journalists (although UNESCO itself never supported this concept). Western negative reaction can also be seen as one reflection of an evolving postcolonial world in which the UN was no longer as compliant with Western foreign policy as it had been earlier.

The United States (in 1985) and Britain (a year later) withdrew from UNESCO, prompting conciliatory changes in UNESCO structure and policy. Both nations returned to membership two decades later, by which time UNESCO had ceased to aggressively promote the ideas of the MacBride Commission. Through its International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) UNESCO concentrated instead on technical assistance, often in bilateral contexts. Discourse about “free flow” lost popularity for some years following MacBride, which exposed the concept as an ideological tool wielded mainly by America and its allies. Those responsible for such exposure were roundly condemned by Western governments and mainstream media. Inspired by the work of Manuel Castells and his disciples, some academics later abandoned the metaphor of “flow.” Instead they favored the concept of “network” and other alternatives that better visualized the complex interrelationships between digital communication, space, and time. Critics wondered whether the newer language subtly distracted attention from continuing concerns about media power, gate keeping, and control.

Indeed, UNESCO found it useful to revive the language of “flow.” “Promoting the free flow of information and the development of communication” appeared as a component of UNESCO’s strategy for 1996 to 2001, as adopted at its General Conference in 1995. The report of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Tunis a decade later, saw 170 governments recognize “that freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas, and knowledge are essential for the Information Society and beneficial to development,” a very different text than the MacBride report a quarter of a century earlier. WSIS had a strong government, corporate, and technocratic character, focusing principally on computing, the new media, and the Internet. Its patrons worked hard, though not altogether successfully, to avoid ideological and political controversy.

Benign Implications

The earliest uses of “free flow of information” had broadly benign meaning. Later attacks on the concept generally targeted particular uses to which the expression was applied, rather than the inherent ideals that it was intended to represent. The word flow is associated with fluidity (whether of liquid or electricity), and the notion of a “free flow” of information is suggestive of a forceful, self-sustaining, and unrestrained movement of ideas. Yet limits of this positive interpretation are suggested by unidirectional flows of both fluid and electricity. These, in turn, are evident to critics who maintain that the term is ideologically loaded.

The specific reference to “information” is sometimes deemed a poor term to cover the full range of human communicative activity, seemingly confining the notion to knowledge of a neutral descriptive or scientific character. Still, “free flow” has acquired value as shorthand for the open movement of information and ideas and the creative expression within and, especially, between societies. It acquired considerable purchase during the twentieth century, especially in democratic societies in which processes of decision-making were said to be based upon interchange of rational argument among different interests, so that important ideas and information were widely articulated by well-developed media networks. Indeed, a close symbiosis between democracy and media has often been postulated. The historical context of World War II and its immediate aftermath was especially receptive to the idea of “free flow of information,” as the Western allies recovered from the threats of fascist authoritarianism, threats that many believed were revived in a different guise by Soviet communism.

As Tool of Ideology

The deconstruction of what he called the “free flow” doctrine was perhaps most eloquently undertaken by Dr. Herbert Schiller, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, notably in his 1976 book Communication and Cultural Domination. His second chapter, “The Diplomacy of Cultural Domination and the Free Flow of Information,” recounts the intensive diplomatic efforts by the United States, in partnership with influential U.S. publishers, associations, and the Associated Press, to promote the “free flow” concept. In a 1986 book, Achal Mehra noted congressional resolutions in 1944 that called for “world-wide right of interchange of news … without discrimination … protected by international compact.” Schiller recalled a 1944 resolution of directors of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in support of “world freedom of information and unrestricted communications for news throughout the world,” a sentiment that had the support of both major political parties and congress. The doctrine was also espoused by the Inter-American conference on problems of War and Peace convened in Mexico City in 1945 and embedded in the earliest drafts of the constitution and organizational structure of UNESCO, not to mention during the outset of the UN itself, including the foundation of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1946 and the 1948 UN Conference on Freedom of Information.

Writing in 1997 for the Le Monde Diplomatique, Schiller recalled U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as saying in the 1950s that “free flow” was the most important issue in American foreign policy. In 1946, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton had said much the same thing: “Freedom of the press—and freedom of exchange of information generally—is an integral part of our foreign policy.” In his article, Schiller referred to American delegates at the UN and UNESCO pressing “relentlessly” for free flow of information. Financial incentives were later added to ideological appeals. The Marshall Plan, for example, tied dollar grants to a recipient’s willingness to open its market to American cultural exports, including film. Schiller noted the “enormous significance” of U.S.-funded research and development for such things as computer and surveillance technologies. Communications satellites were designed, he argued, to purposefully “wrest global information control from Great Britain, which at that time exercised worldwide domination of underseas cable.”

In his 1976 book, Schiller linked all of this to the American experience preceding World War II, and in particular to the long period during which the leading U.S. news agency, Associated Press, was subservient to the British-based news agency, Reuters, in a world news cartel. An influential polemic, Barriers Down, written by AP Managing Director Kent Cooper in 1942, described his own campaign over many years to liberate AP from the cartel, something his agency had largely accomplished by 1933. His book became an influential source for “free flow” enthusiasts. It chronicled how the United States had been disadvantaged by cartel restrictions on AP’s news coverage, subjecting American readers to news written through the biased lenses of foreign journalists, and subjecting foreign readers to American news written by foreign journalists.

Schiller’s attack on the free flow doctrine revealed the extent to which use of the term had been put to ideological work on behalf of the United States taking over from Britain the role of world superpower, and the interest of American publishers, movie makers, and broadcasters in securing unfettered access to global markets at the very time when many nations (such as those emerging from war-devastated Europe) might have much preferred measures of market protection on behalf of nascent or recovering local industries. Yet, as Dwayne Winseck has noted, the “free flow of information” doctrine largely wiped out the rights of states in important areas of communications policy.

Skepticism of what Schiller labeled the “free flow doctrine” was reinforced by a 1970s series of UNESCO-sponsored conferences and debates about the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). Schiller’s deconstruction of the term exercised a powerful influence on many of those active in those debates, and the UNESCO-commissioned MacBride report of 1980.

At the start of this period, a development in Helsinki struck a discordant tone, temporarily dislodging political discourse from uncritical acceptance of “free flow.” Accounts have been offered by both Schiller in his 1976 volume and, in 1995, by Kaarle Nordenstreng, a Finnish communications researcher who participated in the 1975 conference that led to the signing of the Helsinki Accords. The leaders of 35 nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, signed a document calling for increased international cooperation in practically all fields, including culture and communication. In an address to the conference, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen critiqued the concepts of “freedom of speech” and “free flow of information,” arguing that these were not unalloyed benefits in circumstances of severe inequality of access to the means of communication. Could it be, he wondered, “that the prophets who preach unhindered communication are not concerned with equality between nations, but are on the side of the stronger and wealthier?” (quoted by Nordenstreng 1995).

Resuscitation of the Concept

Use and significance of the “free flow” term, therefore, has been ambivalent. In use, it has too often glided over the issue of whose freedom. Freedom of media owners, or of media consumers? of senders or receivers? Is there reciprocity of communication between parties to the communication? Ambivalence cloaks the play of power in situations where some communicating parties control far more capital, equipment, know-how, technology, and talent. Where there are wide discrepancies of power between the parties, any communication is much less likely. Additionally, the term “information” seems to many critics of “free flow” doctrine too narrow a concept to embrace such a vast array of publishing, educational, entertainment, and cultural products and activities that are disseminated in many complex ways. Such a restriction may mostly serve the interests of those who stand to gain by the reduction and commodification of this vast array into marketable bytes.

In its use, finally, the term often seems to assume that the primary enemies of “free flow” are governments, whereas increasingly those enemies are found to be private enterprise. Initiatives to stimulate privatization of previously government-owned or controlled media form part of the bundle of trends that accompany policies of media “deregulation.” Their impact is to enhance the likelihood that private interests may reduce “free flow.” This happens principally through the political power accumulated by giant communications conglomerates whose emergence has been greatly facilitated by deregulation policies. How such conglomerates choose to exercise their power in lobbying politicians, and how they shape their news and entertainment practices, will continue to affect “free flow” within an ongoing deregulation environment.

These problems notwithstanding, the term remains durable, as in the case of UN debate over the World Information Society. Dwayne Winseck in 1997 argued that “free flow” had been resuscitated through the “trade in services” regimes of the North Atlantic Free Trade Area, the World Trade Organization with their promotion of media deregulation as a condition for membership of the emerging global economic order. Features of media deregulation as advanced by the United States and Britain (such as removal of regulations that restrict foreign investment in domestic communications, cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters, or the share of national audience a single broadcasters might reach) also promote the corpo-ratization of media and reduce the potential for public access to media and decisions about media content. “Free flow of information” applied to such trends cloaks implications for growing corporate control of communications under the supreme “purr” word freedom.

In a final example of its rhetorical durability, a “free flow of information act” was proposed by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg and others in 2005 as a measure to limit the circumstances and manner in which reporters might be compelled to reveal sources in court. While out of line with uses of the term in the international realm, this instance begs the question, once again, of whose freedom—the freedom of courts to subpoena media as witnesses, or freedom of the media to protect sources in the interests of gathering information? We can conclude that despite its demonstrated lack of intellectual precision, the term “free flow of information” remains a valid tool in debates about the proper role of media.