Anthony Smith

Film vs. Print

VTR Date: September 23, 1980

Guest: Smith, Anthony


Hosts: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Anthony Smith
Title: “Film vs. Print”
VTR: 9/23/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is an Oxford scholar who serves now as Director of the British Film Institute. His writings include: “The Shadow in the Cave”, an analysis of broadcasting from something close to a Platonic point of view; a new book just published by Oxford University Press, “Goodbye Gutenberg”, an analysis of what he predicts as the newspaper revolution of the 1980’s; and “The Geopolitics of Information”, also published by Oxford an analysis of the west’s presumed cultural domination of the developing countries of the world. These works all make Anthony Smith a controversial and highly valued guest.

Mr. Smith, thank you for joining me today. And I think the way for us to begin our program is for me to ask you what you mean by “The Geopolitics of Information.”

SMITH: Well, it has become clear in the last decade that one of the most important issues dividing the different sectors of the world is the way in which the flow of information is skewed towards the interests of the west and against the interests of developing countries. Now, that has become a highly politicized argument, and a lot of rather hotheaded things are said perhaps on both sides. What I’ve tried to do in this particular book is I have probably fairly, not concealing my own concern, I’ve tried to describe the evolution of that controversy and explain why it is that so many influential figures in the third world countries are focusing on information as a major area of grievance against the development nations.

HEFFNER: Do you think they’re correct in this focus?

SMITH: Well, I think from their point of view they are. I take the line that the skewing of information is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between those different sects of the world. So fundamental that it isn’t possible to eradicate it simply through hysterical expressions of political exasperation. In other words I’m fairly moderast in terms of the solutions, but really quite firm in my acceptance of the basic argument that there is an unfairness built into this.

HEFFNER: What’s the nature of that unfairness? How is there a skewing of information?

SMITH: Well, if you are trying to establish a new society in a developing country amid a host of economic, political and traditional problems, the first thing you need, the prerequisite of any form of development, whether it’s modernization in the classic western sense or any kind of development is independence. And if you cannot establish the political integrity of the society, you can’t begin really to develop an economy and to see what skills and talents can be drawn out of that society. And what is happening in so many third world countries is that the new elite, the new educated public upon whom the whole of that development, process of development depends, these people are being drawn more and more towards the west, their culture, culturally, towards their information, tastes, and lifestyles. They’re being attracted towards the unachievable goals of other societies. And that is undermining the whole process of establishing and maintaining the sort of the cultural and political independence of those societies.

HEFFNER: How does that undermining go on?

SMITH: Well, if you … My answer may need to be a slightly long one to that. Let’s take the example of some of the Southeast Asian countries where they have just established a large enough public or quite a flourishing newspaper industry. Now, if that newspaper industry is ever going to develop any freedom in our sense, the kind of freedom of the press in our sense, it must be able to operate on the basis of economic independence. In other words, there must be advertising. If those newspapers depend on government funds, then they will never evolve into being independent, having any kind of editorial independence. Now, it so happens that the very community that’s worth advertising to, the people with any money at all, attractive to advertisers, are immensely attracted to western advertising. And so a lot of that sector of those communities in Southeast Asia are attracted to the English language newspapers that sell the same kind of goods that are available in the west, contributing to the distortion of the economy of those countries. All the people with money are attracted towards, you know, Swiss watches and American chattel goods and so on and so on. And the task of the indigenous newspapers in establishing their own base in the country is made ten times more difficult.

HEFFNER: Then you call for protective actions?

SMITH: No, I don’t. You see, I think the most important thing is for us to see the problem that exists. I think it’s too soon to rush off and say, “Therefore things should be nationalized.” It’s too soon to say whether draconian measures should be taken. I think the important thing for us in the west to do is simply to realize the problems that are entailed when we go our own sweet way and offer all the cultural goods of the west to the countries of the third, those countries of the third world. And I think the responsibility lies with the journalistic information community, if you like, of the west to recognize the problem that it causes and try to take their own corrective measures. And there are innumerable things that they could do.

HEFFNER: You say, “Corrective measures.” Once again it implies a manipulation to bring about corrections.

SMITH: No, it doesn’t.

HEFFNER: How do you correct things?

SMITH: Well, first, one of the things that can be done is to see that the quantity of reporting in the third world countries is improved and that the people who report third world news in the west do so with far greater care of the news values of those other countries as well as the news values of our society. You see, the markets of the west are the major markets for information. The elites of the third world countries receive the spillover of that information. They receive the same news about them that we receive about them. Now, if all those responsible for those flows of information simply understood the way in which that information can jeopardize the chances of development and modernization in those third world countries, I think there could be a general improvement, and it would be to our advantage too because it would improve the whole tenor and objectivity of the information that circulates within the west. But it does involve the altering of our own news values in order to do that.

HEFFNER: All right. You talk about altering then; I talked about control or manipulation. You would have us alter what has in the past been an open and competitive and, to use the hackneyed phrase, free flow.

SMITH: That’s right; I’m not proposing that the free flow should change. I’m proposing that we should alter it of our own volition. Just as … just think of the way in which women or blacks are presented in the news media of the west. Just think how much that was changed in the last 20 years. I’m suggesting that the issue raised by The Geopolitics of Information is another such issue. It’s a challenge to our own news values and we’ve absorbed, to some extent, similar challenges in the past from within our societies. I think this is another one.

HEFFNER: Certainly though there are many people who, recognizing what you say, that we have absorbed many such areas of responsibility…

SMITH: Right.

HEFFNER: …feel that we have endangered the whole concept of free flow even in our own country by taking on obligations that go way beyond the traditional reporting, even the traditional interpretation of the news, that we are involved in so many different kinds of compensatory activities in the reporting of news, as you suggest in terms of the presentation of women, presentation of minority groups, and now you’re suggesting that we add to this the approach that we have traditionally taken to reporting news from the world outside.

SMITH: You mean you think we manipulate our information if we are fair in our treatment of women and blacks.

HEFFNER: No, Tony, I’m not talking about being fair. I’m talking about being different, doing something different than what we have done.

SMITH: That’s not manipulation.

HEFFNER: What is it?

SMITH: That’s an improvement.

HEFFNER: Ah, you don’t manipulate to improve? You just …

SMITH: No. No. You are saying, or you appear to me to be implying that all forms of improvement are manipulation. I am saying that there are forms of improvement which are simply improvement, and should not be described as manipulation.

HEFFNER: What I’m suggesting is that you are urging action upon the news media. Correct?

SMITH: I’m urging the news media to improve themselves. Isn’t that what the press in a free society is supposed to do?

HEFFNER: Why are you urging them to do this?

SMITH: Because I think if we do not, then we will be contributing to the failure of the developing world to develop. And that will lead to far more colossal and serious and dangerous developments in the world as a whole.

HEFFNER: I don’t know whether the glass is half empty or half full, but it feels to me as though for perfectly good reasons you are nevertheless saying, in a voluntary fashion, saying the media must take upon themselves this voluntary task, must take upon this voluntary task, lest we suffer the kinds of consequences you describe. That it is once again, maybe the word manipulation is too pejorative a word, it is the management of news, to improve it as you suggest, but to improve it largely because of concerns outside of our own country.

SMITH: Well, I would suggest these concerns do not any longer lie outside our own country. The very notion that the position of the third world is a concern that lies in some faraway part of the world, that in itself is one of the distortions which the media have left us with.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

SMITH: Well, at a time when even your great country with its enormous resources is dependent on imported oil, it’s hardly possible to speak of the affairs of the OPEC countries as external concerns, countries about whom we should have no deep anxiety. I think we have to be … have that anxiety, because if we don’t, the results may destroy us.

HEFFNER: We discussed here at this table not so many weeks ago with Herb Schmertz of Mobil Oil the question of efforts that had been made to, shall I say euphemistically, minimize the impact upon our oil resources of a documentary that had been made about the treatment of a certain princess in a developing country.

SMITH: Right.

HEFFNER: Would you subscribe to having the kind of concern for our friends overseas that would lead us to limit what we present in this country?

SMITH: No. In the case that you’re alluding to, which was a British documentary, no one interfered with the transmission of the documentary …

HEFFNER: In England.

SMITH: … in England. In other countries they did. And I think that’s regrettable. And I think that kind of thing does happen. That was a well publicized case. But I think quite often there are pressures from government, and I think quite often the media, out of a sense of responsibility, succumb to that pressure. And it’s nearly always a mistake. It is always right, practically, I can’t think of an example when with a year’s hindsight it isn’t always right to have published rather than withheld publication. But I’m not speaking of withholding publication. I’m speaking about the, what we should say; not about what we should not say in our press about the third world.

HEFFNER: What do you think the consequences will be in terms of efforts in UNESCO and elsewhere to limit perhaps direct satellite broadcasting, to impose native censorship, impede the free flow of information? What do you think the consequences will be if we do not improve, as you suggest, our coverage of the third world?

SMITH: Well, as far as the satellite’s concerned, I think all countries have an interest in being able to control the flow of television material into those countries. I mean I hope the United Kingdom will do precisely the same, or will see that all satellite channels spreading over the United Kingdom are duly licensed by the government of the United Kingdom. I should hate us to be legally subject to a flow of propaganda from any country at all. And I don’t think that is interfering with the freedom of the press if one has a simple licensing system for overseas satellites.

HEFFNER: What you’re suggesting, I gather, is that the receiving country should take the responsibility for receiving or not receiving the signals that might come from satellites.

SMITH: Yes, I think that is inevitable.

HEFFNER: But you’re not talking then about censorship at the source preventing programming via direct broadcast satellites itself.

SMITH: No, no, no. Well, each country has a different regulatory system. What we will probably do, the same as the other western European countries are doing, which is to form bilateral agreements with other countries that might have a footprint that extends over your territory, to see that they keep to their own languages. In that way we won’t be swamped by foreign material, foreign entertainment. But that the actual programs can be bought and sold between the owners of the various channels…

HEFFNER: Why are you concerned about being swamped with foreign materials?

SMITH: Well, if you live, as I do most of the time, in a relatively small island which has its own very powerful, strong, vibrant culture, you even then you are rather nervous of any medium which is going to steal — I use the word with care — the whole of your audience. You see we went through this in the 1930s when a number of powerful radio stations on the European continent actually took about perhaps 40, perhaps even more, percentage of the audience of the United Kingdom. You cannot have, no independent country can have the bulk of its population with their minds permanently turned towards some other country in terms of their entertainment and information. The Canadians are a particularly poignant example of this tragedy at the moment. You see, there are children in Canadian schools who know more about the American Constitution than about the Canadian Constitution. And this in a country which has severe constitutional problems, where it’s vital to the future of Canada that everyone in that society understands the nature of the Canadian. And if they’re deprived of that, then the society cannot maintain its political integrity.

HEFFNER: Then I gather you would opt for, shall we say, protective tariffs in intellectual fare, in entertainment fare?

SMITH: Well, I wouldn’t like to pronounce on any kind of universal technique for doing this. I think each country needs to work out its own. And they never last for very long. I mean you know, whichever technique you use it tends to be subverted in the course of time, and you devise another one. I don’t regard that as an unwarranted interference in the freedom of expression.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

SMITH: No. I mean it is obviously an interference in the total freedom of expression, but then, you know, so is the famous prohibition on shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. There are limits within which even extremely free societies like my own and your own have to function.

HEFFNER: Therefore, the question always is: Where do we draw the line?

SMITH: Where do you draw the line. Precisely.

HEFFNER: And you would, in this instance, draw it in protecting your own language, your own conditions?

SMITH: Yes. In the case of the satellite which in the last decades of the 20th century is going to really present a profound and fascinating challenge on this whole area of national cultural integrity. I think a great deal of line drawing will have to be done. Now, it’s easy to draw the lines between countries that speak different languages, because then it’s impossible for the majority of the population of a society to be permanently glued to the television sets of another society, probably. But there may be exceptions to that too. But where countries speak the same language, then some kind of system has to be adopted, otherwise the political future of the receiving country can be put in jeopardy.

HEFFNER: How do you distinguish then between this kind of protection and the Soviets’ efforts for so many decades now to jam the signals of Voice of America and your British exports? You certainly haven’t been a friend of jamming, have you?

SMITH: No. The, you see, in the case of radio, most countries have overseas services and most other countries are free to listen to them. And these are not, never constitute the mass information, the central core of information received by a given society.

HEFFNER: But the Soviets have thought that, to the extent that it is damaging, they should jam our signals. Now you’re suggesting, I think, the counterpart.

SMITH: No, what I’m suggesting, in the case of the Soviet Union, sole control is their own domestic information system. But none of their population believes it at all. And so they are very susceptible to any foreign signal which has a trusted quality of information, so that a very large number of people in the Soviet Union listen to BBC broadcasts and Voice of America and so on. And the Soviet Union has taken, from time to time, whenever they get nervous about the results of this, to jamming signals. We don’t jam their signals, because they’re of no conceivable threat to us, even though they’re in the English language.

HEFFNER: But as I understand what you have been saying, you would suggest that there be a counterpart of jamming, let’s say, on the part of Canadians against American material so that the Canadian children will know more about the Canadian form of government than our Constitution?

SMITH: Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily … the Canadians will decide, I’m sure, for themselves without consulting me as to what best to do.

HEFFNER: What will the British do then?

SMITH: I think what we should do is ensure that no satellite signal reaches British territory that has not been licensed by our own regulatory authorities. Now, we don’t have such a regulator authority at the present time. We might need to set one up. Or we might give that responsibility to an existing body of some kind. But I think it’s important that when, in the case of a medium which is pumping out mass entertainment, as opposed to shortwave radio, which is a totally different matter, or the newspaper, which is a totally different matter, but in those cases there should be some care that we don’t get ourselves into a Canadian situation. Now, it could be that in the course of time — and I don’t think there are any eternal advantages –– in the course of time there may be such a multiplicity of channels, there may be sufficient confidence that there is no danger to the central core of the national culture, and those regulations can be, can simply be abandoned. I don’t think there’s any sacred thing about control. It’s simply that it’s a device that I think we shall use with some care in the ‘80s and ‘90s and then perhaps abandon it about 30 or 40 years from now.

HEFFNER: Do you think you can ever abandon control? Do you think that the free market place, having been set aside initially, can ever be recaptured?

SMITH: Oh, yes. It’s not a question of a free marketplace. After well …

HEFFNER: What is it then?

SMITH: Look, within the United Kingdom we have a thing called the BBC. And we have another organization called the IBA which regulates the commercial broadcasting system of Britain. No one else can broadcast in Britain. We don’t have a system like yours. Even before deregulation in America it’s relatively simple to have a radio station somewhere if you wanted. You can’t do this in Britain. We don’t regard ourselves as cultural slaves because we have a state … not state control, but a state licensed broadcasting authority.

HEFFNER: There does seem to be a difference, a basic difference between our approach in this country in the United States.

SMITH: And everybody else’s.

HEFFNER: … and everybody else.

SMITH: In this case, you see, you are in the position of saying that America … you would be in the position of saying that America is the only free country in the world. Now, it’s not. It is an extremely free country, probably the freest in the world, but there are many other countries, including my own, that are free societies. And in those we do not regard it as contradictory to have state licensed broadcasting institutions which are held at arm’s length from government, which are not controlled by government, but which do not allow anyone who comes along simply to have a broadcast signal. Now, it doesn’t in any way derogate from the freedom of those western European societies, in fact, all of them in the world that adopt those systems.

HEFFNER: That’s, of course, an arguable point. But let’s get back, in the minute and a half we have left, to this question of the new international information order that you see coming from a deepening concern on the part of third world countries. What do you see happening in terms of our fairly intransigent position on free flow?

SMITH: Yes. I think that we need a period of thought. I mean I think third world spokesmen, as I say in “The Geopolitics of Information”, have been very mean minded and very tactically wrong, and I think intellectually and morally wrong in the way they’ve attacked the media of the west, because they’ve laid themselves open to the charge that they are not actually in favor of maintaining freedom of information domestically. And I don’t defend them, rather the reverse. But I think now we need a period of thinking. The American government has been very intransigent on this question. Other western governments I think slightly less so. And I think even within the United States there now is a growing understanding of the problem. And I think for the next few years – – we can’t predict further – – there should be a period of just thinking about the problem, digesting this great report that has been produced which has a lot of nonsense in it and a lot of sound sense in it as well. And at the end of that period of thinking, I think we may find that the quality of our journalism simply responds of its own accord, as a result of its own moral self-examination, to the needs of the time.

HEFFNER: Anthony Smith, you’ll have to come back then after that period of thinking to see what has happened, as we thought about “The Geopolitics of Information” and about “Goodbye Gutenberg”. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on The Open Mind too. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”