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Archive for September, 2009

With the London and Pittsburgh summits the G20 has come of age. The management of the global economic system at the head of state/government level has decisively shifted from the G7/G8 grouping to the more inclusive G20. But like its predecessors, the G20 does not have a secretariat – no headquarters, no secretary general, and no dedicated bureaucratic apparatus to support its work. Instead the G20 is to be managed by rotating the chair’s responsibilities among the members (Guardian). Placing responsibility with this system of rotating leadership is a mistake. Instead the G20 should establish a secretariat.

Rotating G20 leadership suffers from the same competence and coordination problems as the rotating European Union presidency. In terms of competence, rotation means the institutional leadership is exposed to sheer luck of the draw. Every member nation does not have the depth and breadth of expertise and diplomatic skill to successfully lead the G20 for a year. For instance compare the EU’s rotating presidency system’s results. The recent Czech presidency of the European Union was not exactly covered in glory. The Czech prime minister remarked that Obama’s stimulus package was “a way to hell” that will “undermine the stability of the global financial market.” The Times reported that, “The comments were greeted with embarrassment by many Europeans who believe that the Czech leader does not represent a European consensus.” The head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament remarked that the Czech prime minister had “not understood what the task of the E.U. presidency is”. The Lisbon Treaty plans to replace the EU’s rotating presidency to resolve these competence and coordination issues. Another example of rotating chairs gone wrong, Italy’s preparations for the G8 summit this year were strongly criticized as chaotic, with the US intervening in the final weeks before the summit to organize the agenda (Guardian, Independent). Rotating leadership needlessly exposes an institution to instability.

A secretariat places responsibility in a reliable home, secretariats are better able to coordinate because that is their domain of expertise. Furthermore, a secretariat would have longer time horizons. In 2010 South Korea is set to coordinate the G20, in 2011 France will take up the task. One year is not enough time to get a coherent agenda organized and implemented, let alone successfully monitoring or reporting on whether participating nations have lived up to their commitments. Even a weak secretariat is capable of acting as the conscience of the institution. Nations sometimes get into a habit of mutual disarmament with regard to leveling criticism – even a weak secretariat could help nudge G20 members towards implementing the grand gestures of the communiqués. The fact of monitoring by an expert figure alone means agreements have a higher likelihood of being implemented. For instance, guarding against protectionist measures and meeting past foreign aid commitments are two areas ripe for secretariat level nudging. What expert figure could criticize Italy for falling woefully behind its Gleneagles G8 commitments when Italy was hosting the G8 this year? A chair is fairly unlikely to criticize itself, certainly not in the terms Italy deserves for delivering a paltry 3% of aid pledged in at Gleneagles (Guardian, Independent).

A G20 secretariat would also serve a crucial mediating role. Similar to the UN’s role in situations where there is skepticism as to motives, the G20 secretariat can say and propose things individual states cannot say or propose. For instance, South Korea proposing an agenda item on North Korea is different from a G20 Secretary General proposing a discussion of North Korea. With the prospect of the G20 taking up any pressing global issue from the environment to trade, a secretariat could contribute to meeting global problems with global solutions (Brookings).

Finally, a G20 secretariat creates another prestige post in international politics. Basically, there are not enough top jobs to go around. The nationality of the heads of major international institutions is a petty matter, once a post becomes vacant however it’s a big deal. Witness the wrangling over the UN Secretary General post (NPR, VOA). In the economic sphere, the problem was solved by dividing two top posts between Americans and Europeans, with the managing director of the IMF being a European and the president of the World Bank being an American. The G20 has purportedly ended the European-American compromise, with future heads of the IMF being selected without regard to nationality (Reuters). I do not think prestige and symbolic fights such as these are so easily resolved – the rotating G20 chair itself is an attempt to resolve this type of conflict. Unfortunately, too much is sacrificed by way of coordination and stability using the rotating resolution.

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Greed is good.

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

Gordon Gekko’s encomium to greed undergirded James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival. James Murdoch strongly criticized the British media regulator (Ofcom) and the BBC. The son of Rupert Murdoch and heir apparent to leadership of News Corporation concluded his lecture by remarking,

If we are to have that state sponsorship [of the media] at all, then it is fundamental to the health of the creative industries, independent production, and professional journalism that it exists on a far, far smaller scale.

Above all we must have genuine independence in news media. Genuine independence is a rare thing. No amount of governance in the form of committees, regulators, trusts or advisory bodies is truly sufficient as a guarantor of independence. In fact, they curb speech.

On the contrary, independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency.

Independence of faction, industrial or political.

Independence of subsidy, gift and patronage.

Independence is sustained by true accountability – the accountability owed to customers. People who buy the newspapers, open the application, decide to take out the television subscription – people who deliberately and willingly choose a service which they value.

And people value honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage that challenges the consensus.

There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society.

The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.

How is profit working out as a guarantor of independence in the media industry?

In April 2009 the heads of News Corporation and GE decided the longstanding Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann bust up had gone far enough (NYT). Olbermann repeatedly named O’Reilly in the “Worst Person in the World” segment. O’Reilly wouldn’t refer directly to Olbermann, but had strongly criticized GE for its business dealings in Iran, remarking, “If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of [GE Chair] Jeffrey Immelt.” The Times reports the owners of MSNBC and Fox News, “…G.E. and the News Corporation concluded that the fighting ‘wasn’t good for either parent,’ said an NBC employee with direct knowledge of the situation.” Not only was the O’Reilly-Olbermann conflict to quieten, the back and forth criticisms across both cable networks was to quieten.

Shortly after [a meeting between Jeffrey Immelt and Rupert Murdoch], Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, told producers that he wanted the channel’s other programs to follow Mr. Olbermann’s lead and restrain from criticizing Fox directly, according to two employees. At Fox News, some staff members were told to “be fair” to G.E. The executives at both companies, it appears, were relieved. “For this war to stop, it meant fewer headaches on the corporate side,” one employee said.

Two media conglomerate CEOs essentially dictating where criticism can be directed, doesn’t speak to highly of profit-focused media conglomerates’ independence from each other. (Glenn Greenwald has excellent posts critiquing this Immelt-Murdoch deal, here and here.)

What about media independence from governments? James Murdoch’s lecture frets over the potential for Orwellian mischief due to state sponsorship of a major media player – suggesting profit is the bulwark against such interventions.

In 1998 a News Corporation publisher dropped a book by the last governor of Hong Kong concerned that the book would be critical of China, reportedly Rupert Murdoch personally intervened in the decision to drop the book (BBC). The publisher later apologized to the author for claiming the book was dropped because it was boring (BBC).

In 1995 various media organizations were pressured by China over a Martin Scorsese film. China strongly objected to Kundun, an official remarked “We are resolutely opposed to the making of this movie,” continuing, “It is intended to glorify the Dalai Lama, so is an interference in China’s internal affairs.” China first tried to to stop the filming and then to stop distribution of the film (NYT, Time). Universal Pictures caved to China, which also tried to get other TV studios to not distribute Kundun. Disney ultimately didn’t give in – but reportedly did engage “the employment of the services of arch-diplomat Henry Kissinger to soothe relations” (Independent).

In early 1994 News Corporation dropped the BBC World Service from satellite broadcaster Star TV due to Chinese concerns – the Chinese government concerned over the BBC’s coverage and News Corporation concerned over the loss of potential profits in the Chinese market. Jack Shafer at Slate writes about the Star TV affair and presents clippings from various sources. From the Economist,

Seldom has [Rupert Murdoch] let ideology stand in the way of profits; nor is he especially fond of the BBC. Recently he told The Economist that the BBC caused him “lots of headaches” with a number of Asian governments—especially the one in Beijing—because of its critical news coverage. (March 26, 1994)

Profit as a “reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence” – in the face of peer media conglomerates or the Chinese government profit hardly stands up as a profile in courage.

Echoing Gordon Gekko’s reference to the evolutionary spirit, James Murdoch has high praise for an evolution-like rough and tumble in the media landscape. In Murdoch’s vision, this landscape goes untrammeled by obtrusive dictates from Ofcom, the European Commission, or an anti-competitive, state-sponsored BBC. Murdoch remarks,

intervention only on the evidence of actual and serious harm to the interests of consumers: not merely because a regulator armed with a set of prejudices and a spreadsheet believes that a bit of tinkering here and there could make the world a better place.

James Murdoch urges us to allow the consumer (and profits) to decide. Foxes and hen houses come to mind. Sure, the BBC is imperfect – but these imperfections are equaled (if not surpassed) in the for-profit media world. James Murdoch’s hope for public broadcasting on “far, far smaller scale” would do violence to the media landscape. Evolution has no conscience. We can do better. The public interest is better served by a large, resilient, high quality public broadcaster that retains a rich normative mix of inputs, as opposed to merely profit-driven corporations willing to adapt to the worlds many geopolitical pressures.

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