The only woman on the MacBride Round Table…

Message: 1
Date: Sat, 3 Mar 2007 10:44:29 -0800
From: “Frieda Werden”
Subject: [CRIS Info] The only Woman at the McBride
Round Table

Dear Bruce, and CRIS members:

Thank you for sending the link to the McBride report online.
When I opened it, I saw that Betty Zimmerman of Canada was
one of the members. Using a search engine, I found this 2005
article, which had been removed from the web but was still
available in cached form. It tells a lot about the dynamics of
the Round Table, from Zimmerman’s perspective, and things
she remembered that were left out of the report. She was the
only person from electronic media at the roundtable, and the
only woman.

In honor of International Women’s Day (annually March 8),
I forward this now – please pass it on.

– Frieda Werden, WINGS: Women’s International News
Gathering Service

Betty Zimmerman: MacBride: Many Voices but No Music

Until Marshall McLuhan withdrew, the MacBride Commission
(International Commission for the Study of Communication
Problems) was known as “The 16 Wise Men.” McLuhan’s
replacement, Betty Zimmerman, found that, as well as being
the only woman, she was the only member of the commission
with a background in the electronic media. The MacBride
Commission was established by the director-general of UNESCO
after the quarrelsome 1976 General Conference in Nairobi to take
some of the steam out of the debate about the flow of information
– or, at least, to direct the steam to some purpose. Its origins
were therefore political, and during the eight sessions held
between December 1977 and November 1979, there was much
discussion about “cultural domination” of developing countries
and about what might be done about it.

As a Canadian, Betty Zimmerman had similar concerns. But
she also wanted to get Sean MacBride (the former foreign
minister of Ireland and UN commissioner for Namibia) and his
colleagues to focus on some other subjects: in particular, the
profound issues surrounding communications and women,
stemming from the fact that girls’ education usually ends before
that of boys and that two-thirds of the illiterates in the world
are women. She also stressed the importance of professional
training and of entertainment.
For some of these points Zimmerman drew from her
own career. When she graduated from the University of
Manitoba in May 1945, she was hired by John Grierson
of the National Film Board who said, “If you get to
Ottawa, you can have a job in the negative room as a cutter.”
She says: “I remember well that the salary was a magnificent
$90 A month…. I was very interested in film. But it was
extremely difficult after the war for women to get into
production, so after six or seven years I went from the
Film Board into Crawley Films where that particular
restriction about women was not in force.” At Crawley
she learned to be a director and producer. In her spare
time she wrote children’s plays.

Zimmerman moved to CBC Public Affairs, first as
radio producer and then TV producer. A bursary in Britain
helped widen horizons further and, after two years
coordinating the CBC planning for Canada’s centennial
year, she helped start its International Relations group –
“that was, in fact, my greatest interest” – and was its
director for 14 years. When Zimmerman was nominated to
the MacBride Commission, she was director of Radio
Canada International.

“Almost everyone on the MacBride [Commission]
had been involved with journalism in some form or
other, but nobody else had been in the electronic media
or film. I found [that] strange…. And there was no
one from Britain – and that historical perspective would
have been extremely important with some of the subjects
we were discussing. I was never able to find out how the
mix of members came about. Mustapha Masmoudi of
Tunisia and Bogdan Osolnik of Yugoslavia came to be seen
as co-godfathers of the New World Information Order;
they were writing a good deal on the subject and looking
for international support. Mochtar Lubis of Indonesia
and George Verghese of India were journalists who had
both been imprisoned by their governments; their
point of view was not the same as that of Masmoudi on a
number of matters. On some of the basic things, though,
they did agree. One of the big concerns was about outside
cultural domination. Most of us -not all of us – shared that
problem. We just had different experiences and, mainly,
we had different solutions.

“At our meeting in Mexico several groups of academics
and social scientists came eagerly to see us, because
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was their hero and he was on the
Commission. In Mexico, the groups that own the stations
are in the high-income bracket, and the programming
is involved with American programming and there is a
great tie-in with the American commercial grouping.
A number of the Mexicans said that their public
broadcasting was not strong, that the educational
component was not there and that they were very much
afraid of losing their cultural identity. So we were
talking about ways of getting access to the media and
about the fact that there should be much less national
programming and much more local and smaller regional
programming. And the discussion was about cultural
domination but also always about ‘cultural aggression.’

“Canadians will talk about cultural domination, but
‘cultural aggression’ is not really something we sense.
Most of us feel that the selection has been made by
ourselves. We may be disturbed about it, but it hasn’t
been forced upon us from outside. Every Canadian has the
God-given right, apparently, to American programming.
In looking for solutions to this perception of cultural
domination – and this was true of the discussions that
led to the recommendations in the Caplan-Sauvageau
Report – our discussions will be very much based on
what we can do, while still sticking to the principle of
as much free flow of information as possible. We feel
that there should be very little interference with choice,
but that there should be what would be considered more
real choice – that is, not just the choice of what
we have now but a choice that will include more
Canadian material. We also feel that we have to build up
and spend money on providing that alternative. If we treat
this issue seriously enough, it is up to us to do something
about it as a country and to make our points politically.

“The difference between the Canadian approach and
that in some other countries – I am not talking necessarily
about Mexico now – [that] feel there is cultural domination
by the United States is that they don’t have a strong feeling
about the concept of a free flow of information. They
look at the television programming and conclude that
it builds up consumerism, as an audience sees the materials
that are in the background of American programming
(and maybe commercials as well), and they say, ‘We don’t
want these things to happen in our society. We don’t want
Western solutions to it, because we haven’t the
kind of money that could be put into improving our own
programming. It would be easier to set some regulations to
keep these programs out.’ “They were forgetting, however,
the real love for entertainment – and for American
entertainment – that is practically everywhere in the
world. I felt quite often that the Commission and the people
who came to it forgot how important the media is as an
entertainment. I began to feel terribly trivial and frivolous
from time to time when I would say, ‘But why are we not talking
about music? Why are we not talking about stars of entertainment
and that quality of programs that so many people want?
Why are we not talking about escapism that most people

“Most of this part of the discussion was about television. They
hoped it would eventually be available for mass audiences,
instead of being, as now in most developing countries, strictly for
the elite or perhaps for community viewing. There was thought that
things could be done before television became such a general form
of entertainment or education. I was amazed that there was not more
talk of radio – but then radio is not the same problem. What can you
have in radio from another country other than music? Music alone
will go worldwide. A great deal of informational programs and
public affairs and important cultural material are just not available
in the language of the country.

“(We did not go into shortwave broadcasting, because the
research had not been done. Sean MacBride and I thought it
important, and I outlined the research that would need to be done
before we could do a proper analysis and make any kind of
recommendations. I’m not worried about that, because we would
probably have had to get into a lot of discussion with the
International Telecommunications Union [ITU] about frequency
allocations. This comes under ITU jurisdiction, not under
UNESCO. Our discussion would have been meaningless without
their input.)

“A lot of the discussion was about democratization of the
media and about access to it, all of which I really do agree
with very strongly. I feel there should be a great deal more
done in this field – but not to the extent that it should be
substituted for professional excellence, which the audience
likes. That would make no sense. You are building nothing to
make possible a future where people would prefer
indigenous material. For one’s own programs to be used and
appreciated, the material has to be well produced; and I made
a fuss about production and training.

“The report doesn’t show enough of the positive thinking or
good examples we came across. In Mexico, they have these
wonderful soap operas, like the feuilletons on the CBC French
service, half-hour formats of family life that are adored by their
audiences. Most of the discussion was about what is wrong,
and almost nothing about some of the most exciting things
that are happening around the world. Why don’t we learn from
what works?

“The most fundamental discussions were on the multinational
press agencies and the whole field of journalism. Most of the sources
of information for consumption in developing countries are foreign,
and the information from these agencies has been pretty
ethnocentred and was difficult for the governing bodies in
developing countries to accept. They felt strongly about the
ways in which foreign journalists looked at their customs,
at their mores and at the political situation from a Western
viewpoint, and discounted many of the things that were
important to them.

“Out of these discussions came the questions: Should there be
a universal code of ethics? Should there be an international right
of rectification? Should there be special protection for journalists?
Now, for very important reasons, I think all three would be
unsuitable. Sean MacBride thought we were callous in opposing
special protection for journalists, but Verghese and Lubis were
also strongly opposed. Our reason was that, although protection
of journalists sounds good, in the analysis of how you would
achieve it the fear comes up that it would lead to the licensing
of journalists. We all know the grave problem there, that licences
which are given can be taken away and therefore people’s livelihoods
are at stake, plus their right to report honestly. It could bring a great
deal of self-censorship.

“There is licensing of journalists in many places, I know,
but I don’t know enough facts to say how serious the
drawbacks are. I do know what it would mean in our
terms and with our principles. I am not prepared
to endorse an international concept that journalists should
get special protection everywhere and therefore should be licensed.
And always in this discussion comes the comment: ‘You cannot
Really protect journalists who have shown no objectivity.’
Objectivity in whose terms? From what I heard in a small
group of 16 people, everybody had a different idea of what
objectivity was. I would find, even in a group of journalists
here in Canada, that it would be very difficult to agree on a
precise definition which also brought in the question of
responsibility. The MacBride Report stated that freedom
was inseparable from responsibility, and responsibility was
inseparable from freedom. But the second part was not always
said and, if the concept of freedom is not there, you have
immediately wrecked the whole discussion. We went ’round and
around and around with this kind of discussion, and it did take a
very large proportion of the Commission’s time.”

Before the MacBride Commission had drafted its final
report, the General Conference of UNESCO had in 1978
reached a compromise form of phrasing in the Declaration
on the Media, replacing “fundamental principles governing the
use of the mass media” with “fundamental principles concerning
the contribution of the mass media” (see the LeBlanc contribution) –
Betty Zimmerman says: “That did not stop the
Commission from arguing the whole thing from the beginning
again…. It became a discussion between where is power, and
where should it be, in presenting information. As you read through
Many Voices, One World, on one page we have one way of putting
the whole discussion and on the next page the other side; but there
would never be an agreement. The title of our report was a
very proper one.”

Some omissions worried her. “We weren’t looking into the
future. We were talking 1980s, at best. There was not much talk
about new technology or its applications, and not much about
some of the really basic problems. We were all concerned about
literacy and, suppose the programs work, there will be an immense
new group of literates. There are problems of newsprint and of making
sure these new literates can get the books they need. That needs
some planning. Is there some kind of electronic step that can take us
to the next generations without going through exactly what we have
gone through? Should we be planning to jump some steps, because
the chances are all there? UNESCO [United Nations Education,
Scientific and Cultural Organization] should have
been addressing these issues; if it has, we didn’t pay attention to
what has been done.

“I am disappointed that a much stronger section on the
concerns of women wasn’t in the report. But some of the strongest
wording is there: ‘… of all the violations of human rights, the most
systematic, widespread and entrenched is the denial of equality to
women….’ [page 189 of the report]. The wording is fine; it’s just
the space which the section on Equal Rights for Women takes up –
two pages. References should have been in nearly every chapter,
and indeed they were written for every chapter by me. The section
almost ended up in the wrong place entirely, such as ‘We must be
more concerned about the generally handicapped’! It needed women
at all levels of the Commission to get these points across, and
UNESCO itself at that time was totally male-dominated, so there
was nowhere to appeal.

“I am not disappointed with the book or its recommendations.
It will serve a certain purpose, which is that it is a very good study,
it gives a lot of information in different areas and each country can
then look at it in its own terms. A lot of the problems people were
talking about were put down, but not solved. No commission is going to
solve them. It put ideas in people’s minds in many fields. I’m always
disappointed that my own idea of priorities is not met, but in fact in
many cases I was convinced that the group as a group was wiser than
its individuals.”


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