The Geopolitics of Information – How Western Culture Dominates the World by Anthony Smith is a book that deals with a crisis resulting due to a great divide between the developed “North” and the under-developed “South”. The third world accuses the Western world of cultural domination through the control of major news agencies, unrestricted flow of cultural products, financial power of advertising agencies, international newspaper chains, etc. Various technological advances mainly concentrated in the hands of the West. This has resulted in a repression of traditional cultures in the Third World countries.
In the time the book was written, the world could easily be divided into two main systems – Communism and Laissez-faire. Western nations shared a common belief in the separation of power between the press, and government. On the other hand, Socialist countries had a belief that press must only present information consistent with the society’s acknowledged goals. However, in the developing countries it was argued that the state machinery is so weak that the change and movement brought about by press would make social and political settlement impossible.
According to the author, the Western news agencies are blamed for controlling the thinking of the Western people. They give the image of South characterized by famine, poverty, corruption and disorder. This in turn, hurts the interests of developing nations in search for capital, and a share of world resources. Thus, there has been a pressure on Western governments to “interfere in the control and content of the press”. (page 15) On the other hand, governments in the developing world have come up with their own justifications for domestic repression on journalism.
The first chapter of the book, “The old international information order” gives the reader an insight into history. After a look deep into the history, Smith discusses events in the last century. By 1970, developing countries had started experiencing great changes. They refused to accept the Western notion of development. With high birth rate and low economic growth rates, falling or weak democracies besides other aid problems made the overall picture grim. The author believed that roots of the idea of the new order were in the rising nationalist movements of the nineteenth century. In 1978, UNESCO General Conference gave a declaration on mass media, placing greater emphasis on the “free and balanced flow” of information. However, a very important point worth considering is that “there is a conflict between the needs of the Third World as they have been defined in these international gatherings and the media doctrines by which the information in the West is generated and distributed”. (page 32-33)
The second chapter, “Cultural Insights” presents more interesting arguments. The author sheds light on various media forms such as film, cable etc. He says that American films dominated the world and in 1920s “it was noticed that Hollywood products were responsible for four-fifths of all films screening in the world”. (page41) Economic development unfortunately entails sacrifice of some part of every traditional culture. The spread of cultures of the West towards the under developed countries, aided by technology, makes it even harder to preserve local cultures. This in turn results in a political backlash and a debate over the flow of news and information.
Chapter three, “News Imperialism?” is full of valuable information about different news agencies. The author lays focus on the importance of newspapers as “symbols of identity”. A newspaper can be the most ethnocentric. It is the closest medium to audience which has to make daily decisions, besides the government which it monitors. However, for international news coverage through keeping correspondents in foreign countries, it can be very expensive. Therefore, most international news reaches the vast majority of newspapers through a group of four large Western agencies: Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and United Press International. This gives a kind of domination to the West in the field of information. The author sheds light on an important issue. He says that Western news agencies are on the lookout for information concerning violence, war, crime, corruption, disaster, famine, fire, food etc. It is not realized by many that the Third World becomes the target of such news and the international knowledge of the cultural, political and economic progress is distorted. “The agencies have a long history of sensational reporting of the Third World”. (page 79) An unbalance image of the world, especially of the Third World, hinders development and progress.
Chapter four is titled “And a new international electronic order?” The author starts with a discussion that the modern communication advances have enabled the flow of information to all corners of the world. The compute age has further aided this development. However, “world distribution of means of production of information is grossly unequal.”(page 112) It is amazing how information travels through different mediums and takes new meanings. It constantly acquires additional usefulness as it passes through books and magazines, libraries, educational systems etc. The author fears that societies deprived of the communication revolution would further recede into backwardness and a spiral of low information generation. In addition, blockages in the flow of information by autocratic systems of government are creating hindrances in economic expansion.
A dilemma faced by world today is that a great majority of information resources are controlled by a tiny proportion of humanity. Another issue which has arisen is the management of the electro-magnetic spectrum. “The spectrum is the resource upon which the exploitation of all information resources (or almost all depends).” (page 118) An important aspect is the management of this spectrum on which all nation have a right. With the advent of satellites another problem has emerged. The question now is about the distribution of orbital slots in space. Only a handful of countries have the know-how of making satellites and initiating a space program. The developing world is again left behind in this field. Another development in the communications field has been the remote sensing by photo satellites. For example, NASA’s Landsat set of satellites is able to collect information about the resources of developing countries without communicating it to them. In this way American companies have an edge over others as they would have the knowledge of important natural resources. On the other hand, satellites also enable developing societies to link themselves together, thus enabling lateral and vertical transfer of information and technology to take place. Even then, the dependence still remains on “foreign” or Western built satellites. However, it is believed that “the ideal of the 1980s in the Third World lies in technical cooperation among developing countries.” (page 145)
The author mentions another important issue at the beginning of the computer age. IBM was responsible for 70% of all computer installations in the entire globe. Its revenue in 1978 from rental of computers was $10 billion. Other countries especially those in the European community, India and Brazil tried to devise their own systems. The author believes that “What is at stake today is nationhood.” The author concludes the chapter with an important note: “Those cultures which are condemned to be the observed rather than the observers may in this, as in other matters, turn out to be not the beneficiaries of modernity, but rather its victims.” (page 147)
Chapter five titled as, “Double standards of freedom?” is also very interesting and informative. Journalism has always taken new meanings in different societies. The author believes that the distance between Leninist journalism and development journalism is important. Development journalism was and still is one of the surviving idealistic goals of the 1960s. Journalists in various countries including the Third World have done great struggles for a free press. However, even within the Third World, different views exist about the role of journalism. For example, in Kenya, Nigeria and India, critical journalism has taken root despite government controls and/or foreign ownership.
Freedom of press is a paradoxical concept. A reporter in New York or London may also not be able to write what he really wishes. In every society there are limits to what a journalist may actually write. The author points out an important observation about the plight of journalist in the developing societies. He says that they are living “wasted lives”. They wish to write and express as they were professionally trained in the West, however, state controls and the policies are a hindrance. However, journalists in the developing world are trying to overcome this challenge. The author also gives a detailed account of the journalism in India.
The author concludes by saying that “Perhaps that greatest weakness in the list of demands which makes up the New International Information Order has been its lack of conception of the primal value of press freedom.” This was a wonderful book about journalism and mass communications. The historical accounts are truly interesting and give a good insight to readers about the reality of journalism and the course it has taken to reach where it is today. Its struggle in the Third World is also very thought provoking. The author is left with a string view that it is surely a free press that leads a country to progress in real terms and the society to mature towards being civilized.