There are at least two salient questions when thinking about foreign policy and the media. The first is whether foreign policy is affected by media considerations: have modern technological developments meant that foreign policy is increasingly affected by media concerns? The second is whether there is what might be called a foreign policy of media structures, namely an interest by an individual state (or the international community) in the mode by which media is developed through an interdependent set of nations. The answer to both questions is yes, and the issues are interconnected.
Media and Diplomacy
The term CNN effect is used to describe a variety of putative consequences of new media technology for foreign policy. The term was first used during the Gulf War of 1990. The argument was that because of the rise of CNN and its style of reporting, leaders learned more from television than from their own officials about what was going on both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic sphere. By conducting diplomacy in real time and in the fishbowl of a global news service, leaders could directly reach past official and autocratic gatekeepers to broad civil publics.
Stephen Livingston (1997) has listed three elements of this phenomenon: (1) agenda setting (trumping the agenda-setting effort of the government); (2) an impediment to policymaking (where the existence of the media effect narrows or forecloses options open to the government); and (3) an accelerant to policy decision-making (where the impact of media coverage forces the government to take an action it might otherwise not have been inclined to do). “Instant reporting,” it has been said, “requires instant response.” With the CNN effect, whatever leisure for decisionmaking that might have existed has been truncated.
There has been much controversy over the extent of the CNN effect and its transformation of the relationship between state and society. Several conclusions can be drawn. First, most of those who seek to shape multiple foreign policies – those who would react to the CNN effect – have internalized the phenomenon of global news services and have adjusted their behavior. What was most novel about the supposed impact of media in the early 1990s was its innovative qualities. Like militaries seeking to cope with new weaponry, diplomats had to adjust to an altered media world. Once they did so, once they could more consciously calibrate the consequence of various appearances on global news services, the transformative impact of the new technology was lessened. Second, it is no longer just a CNN effect, it is also an Al Jazeera effect; networks are competing among themselves to have the most stunning breakthrough, and therefore the most impact on foreign policy. While the first factor works toward reducing the effect, the second works toward increasing it.
An important area for inquiry has involved a consideration of when use of broadcasting is most effective in transforming foreign policy. James Hoge (1994) has argued that the impact is greatest during a humanitarian crisis when there is an effort to mobilize a domestic community to press its officials into taking action. Imagery is also an important factor: the effect of broadcasting is most conspicuous when a broadcast shows, to a government’s domestic audience, a sustained set of images that, through their tragic and dramatic force, undermine the narrative of success that officials have proclaimed. Here such a broadcast narrative can impede or accelerate government action or can alter the agenda.
The issue can be put differently. The ubiquity of media and its capacity to provide unfiltered access to harsh global events increases emotional impact – and an emotional impact not constructed or controlled by the government or its menagerie of gatekeepers. This is not to say that foreign policy was previously based solely on reason and conducted in an environment wholly immunized against public opinion. But, at certain times, and subject to the varying skills of international players, media can foreshorten time for reflection and spectacularly raise the way the stakes are perceived and governments are measured.
Media and Sovereignty
Even leaving aside this described impact on media (but certainly in light of it), individual states as well as the international community have an interest in the structure and functioning of transnational media. Precisely because of the CNN effect and its now far broader incarnation, states wish to have unimpeded access to foreign audiences to present their priorities and their visions of the world; simultaneously, they wish to control efforts by other states to reshape, counter, or block that message.
Historically, states have had a tacit agreement that the media of one state would not persistently permeate the boundaries of another. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was, in a sense, created to help police the allocation of the spectrum so that, for the most part, radio (and then television) signals would be contained within national boundaries. Short-wave efforts designed at first to reach subjects around a colonial world were an exception to this general rule. While there were accepted and less accepted violations of the general principle, it was only with the arrival of the satellite (and to a lesser extent cable) that the general understanding disintegrated. And even then, there were attempts at the UN and elsewhere to transfer to the satellite regime the state-protective elements of terrestrial radio and television.
International human rights norms, such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which gives the right to receive and impart information, can be said to be part of an international “foreign policy” of media structures. States have utilized Article 19 to press for a greater range of domestic voices, especially in societies that are thought to be authoritarian or oppressive of domestic minorities. The general proscription against hate speech, and bilateral agreements to adjust media use in the interest of peace, are another example. In 1947, Pakistan and India agreed (though the history of this agreement is not consistent) to modulate speech that might instill enmity to the other within their borders. In the ill-fated Oslo Accords, there were mutual undertakings by Israel and the Palestinian authority to seek a media sphere that was more conducive to sustained amity.
Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting
States have also undertaken persistent and large-scale efforts to subsidize radio (and later television) that would alter the flow of ideas in a target society. Some of these efforts are called “international broadcasting” and include Deutsche Welle, the Voice of America and the BBC World Service. But the process of developing government-subsidized efforts for radio and television that reach a global audience has altered greatly. Serbia, as an example, invested in a satellite service to reach its diaspora and gain moral and financial support for its position in the 1990s. Hungary, after the transition, created Duna TV to reach ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania (Romania).
The strongest of these international services, like the US-funded Voice of America and RFE/RL, and the BBC World Service, financed by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had extensive ambitions that were tied to foreign policy goals (sometimes only the goal of greater access to information, but sometimes more). RFE/RL was established as “surrogate radios” in the Cold War, ostensibly to provide information-deprived populations with access to news and information about their own society. In the early twenty-first century, the US foreign policy question was which of these Cold War services to maintain and at what level, or whether to use scarce resources to reach, inform, and persuade another “demographic.”
Patronage, foreign aid payments, transfers through non-governmental organizations – subsidy on a relatively large scale – is often deployed to determine what groups to persuade or influence, using what languages and what technologies. Qatar, in a novel use of funds, established Al Jazeera and altered the media face of the Middle East. Other governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia, saw to it that their satellite presence was bolstered. Even independent satellite services are tied to government-related interests. For the west, there is a determined notion of using media to reach the “hearts and minds” of Arabic youth across boundaries. The BBC launched an Arabic-language television service; the French promised to do likewise; and the US limped along with Al Hurra, its entry into the competition among Arabic satellite channels for the privilege of defining “news” and presenting a stronger image of the US or a view of the world as defined through the management of the channel and its relationship to Washington officialdom.
Beginning with the post-Soviet transition, western nations have subsidized or invested in the development of an indigenous media in the transitioning societies as part of the process of democratization. Without being too reductionist, the US has emphasized the development of “free and independent media” as an integral part of this process, while the UK has focused on strengthening public service broadcasters. In some transitional contexts, this odd Great Powers contestation has led to temporary stalemates. It is not clear that there is a formula that works.
Restrictive State Responses
It is an element of domestic policy (with foreign policy overtones) to limit or prohibit foreign ownership of internal communications technologies or to limit foreign-originated channels on cable or satellite channels that serve domestic audiences.
In the Internet era, government policies vary in terms of surveillance, limiting access to the Internet and prohibiting certain kinds of use. From these variations, foreign policies arise, as one country seeks to pressure another (usually) into expanding use of the Internet and, through that, access to a greater bank of information. Some countries have foreign policies that would condition access to international finance or to regional alliances on their fostering of Internet technology.
We now see a broader interplay among leaders, governments and publics than was identified in connection with the CNN effect. That phenomenon somehow located the broadcaster as the independent variable, and the impact on leaders, governments, and publics as dependent. But the examination of a foreign policy of the media sphere demonstrates how almost all aspects are interdependent, including the broadcaster itself. Major players – finance, government, international goals, human rights – are interconnected. The mixture of foreign policies of media space provides the background against which daily media practice emerges.
- Hoge, J., Jr. (1994). Media pervasiveness. Foreign Affairs, 73(4), 136 –144.
- Livingston, S. (1997). Beyond the “CNN effect”: The media–foreign policy dynamic. In P. Norris (ed.), Politics and the press: The news media and their influences. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 291–318.
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