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Birth of a new communications order

Date Released: Tue, 13 August 2013 08:14 +0200

Globalisation is flowing from the rest to the West, and the West will have to adapt.

The global communications order is changing, and new theories of communication are needed to understand the changing global media landscape. This was a point researchers from all over the world made time and again as they presented academic papers at the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research, in Dublin, Ireland, recently.

Several papers and panels dealt with the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the impact of this on global media. The use of media for soft diplomacy by China was one of the topics that attracted the attention of scholars. In a special session, Hu Zhengrong, a professor at the Communication University of China in Beijing reflected on the conference theme of "Crises, 'creative destruction' and the global power and communication orders". He asked whether this financial crisis is a Western crisis rather than a global one, given the recent growth of economies outside the Western centers. He nevertheless warned that the crisis that originated in the West is also already having an effect on countries such as China, where the stock market recently reached record lows. However, the question is whether China can translate the hard power it still commands in the areas of its economic investments globally, its clout in international trade, its sophisticated technologies and military force to the soft power of global influence over news agendas and global public opinion.

Hu pointed out that China already has a large domestic market for traditional media and a growing market for new media: almost half the country's population has access to the Internet, and 80 percent of those users are accessing the Internet through mobile phones, tablet computers and the like. But there is also an intellectual property trade deficit as the country is importing more media products than it is producing locally, and a lot of Chinese TV production, such as reality television formats, is copied from the international market.

Despite the country's big cultural industry market, Hu reckons China's media content production is not yet strong enough to use in the service of soft power strategies. State-owned media have played a big part in China's going-out strategy: the Chinese state-owned media like CCTV (50 international bureaus), Xinhua (140 overseas bureaus), and newspapers like People's Daily and China Daily have also helped to promote the country's image to international audiences. But according to Hu, the country will be unable to contribute to restructuring the global communications order until it has managed to address the value crisis it is experiencing internally. He sees this domestic crisis as a result of the rise of the market society, which has led to "money fetishism, utilitarianism and consumerism". The state-owned media are also not as powerful anymore to set the agenda for public opinion as they used to be in the 1980s, Hu said.

A survey last year showed that 75 percent of the public opinion agenda was set by non-official media, like social networks.

New social media have become like a pressure cooker, said Chen Chingwen of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Although citizens are using new media to campaign for social justice, they now also spend more times indoors and have become more individualized.

China's soft power is exercised in a global communications landscape that is feeling the impact of the shift of global geopolitical power to the BRICS countries. The impact of the rise of these countries was discussed in a panel by members of a global project on media systems in the BRICS countries (of which the author of this column is also a member).

Jyrki Kakonen, a professor at the University of Tampere in Finland, said that the rise of the BRICS countries is a symptom of the end of globalization as Westernization. The process of globalization is changing, flowing now from the rest to the West, and the West will have to adapt. But what kind of international order the BRICS states want to build remains unclear. There is big diversity in the BRICS group, with no common denominator other than being against the dominance of the United States. This anti-US attitude is, however, not enough to provide cohesion among the group. Kakonen says the absence of an Islamic country in BRICS prevents it from representing the whole of the Global South as a new international order and not merely an economic formation.

It would also be a mistake to view the BRICS countries as internally homogenous nation-states each with one stable media system. Within the BRICS countries themselves there are big differences and sometimes tensions between various media models and practices.

In Brazil, for example, professional journalists are experiencing an identity crisis, as the rise of new media is demanding new functions from them. Raquel Paiva de Araujo Soares and Muniz Sodre Cabral, professors at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, talked about a generation gap between journalists in Brazil, where young journalists are not as interested as the older generations was in being champions of civil liberties.

India is another BRICS country whose media system displays internal differences. Sanjay Barthur, a professor at the Central University in Tamil Nadu, India, told of how the media and entertainment sector in India is growing exponentially. However, that growth should not necessarily be seen as an indicator of greater diversity in the media. Daya Thussu and Savyasaachi Jain, professors at the University of Westminster in Britain, stressed the size and diversity of India's media audiences and the vibrant media sector serving them. Unlike in the West, where media are struggling economically, media in India are booming.

In Russia, the post-Soviet society also demonstrated great complexity, but political and media elites orient themselves toward Western media, said professors Elena Vartanova and Anastasia Grusha from Moscow State University.

In South Africa one could also argue that the commercial media orient themselves largely toward an elite, and in this country as well there are ongoing debates about what the ideal role for media now is.

All this diversity across and within the BRICS countries demands new theories to internationalize media studies. Thussu reckons that we need to rethink and reformulate "the global". It is not only that the working environment of media professionals has changed, but also the relationship between media and society as formulated in the West does not easily translate to other contexts. Western communication theories are limited in their scope, and need to move beyond Euro-centrism to recognize multiple modernities.

Hu of the Communication University of China summed up this need for the internationalization of media theories by saying that to understand global media today, scholars need to think beyond just the relationship between media and politics, as is often the case in Western theories. We need a multi-dimensional picture that accounts for culture, different civil society and economic formations in a shifting, diverse global society.

By Herman Wasserman, professor and deputy head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University. This article first appeared in China Daily on 9 August 2013. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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