Modern Media and International Affairs

By: Robert MacNeil

It is a pleasure on many levels to be here today: to be in Halifax, the city that largely shaped and still feeds my imagination; to be at King’s and Dalhousie,1which tried to discipline my mind; and to be speaking in this lecture series memorializing the legendary O.D. Skelton.

Being at King’s reminds me that you educated one of the finest diplomats of the Skelton era, the witty and literate Haligonian, Charles Ritchie. In his justly famous diaries, Ritchie wrote in the late fifties:

I could never understand the mistrust and alarm with which some diplomats viewed the press, for in the two-way relationship between diplomat and journalist, the diplomat often has quite as much to gain as the journalist.

But, in those days, to the fabulously well-connected Ritchie, “journalist” meant the likes of Walter Lippman and James Reston-men whose minds were tuned to all the subtleties of statecraft, confidants of presidents and secretaries of state, journalists who knew as well as any diplomat which fork to use when dining at the captain’s table on the ship of state.

I doubt that Ritchie would find the same sympathy and intellectual nourishment-although he would certainly find some amusement-in the media scrum diplomats contend with today.

The word scrum is interesting. As far as I know, it is a term unique in Canadian government-media relations. With its connotations of sweat, disorder and bloody knees, it suggests official distaste for transactions with the fourth estate-and for fourth estate, read television, which some see as Visigoths assaulting the gentle vineyards and sacred cloisters of the foreign-policy establishment.

If they feel that way, Canadian officials are not alone in their dismay.

When the United States tumbled into Somalia, George Kennan, the revered scholar-diplomat, was appalled. It was a “dreadful error of American policy”, he wrote, caused primarily by an emotional reaction to “the exposure of the Somalia situation by the American media, above all television”.

Kennan wrote to The New York Times:

… if American policy from here on out … is to be controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry, then there is no place-not only for myself, but what have traditionally been regarded as the responsible deliberative organs of our government, in both executive and legislative branches.

His cri du coeur was echoed more mildly by Barbara McDougall2 when she left External Affairs last June and told Maclean’s:

Public opinion tends to respond to what the public sees and hears on its television set. That can be very dangerous, or it can be very helpful. The world, to some extent, was driven into Somalia because of the media coverage. At the same time, starvation in the Sudan has been virtually ignored. The question is a simple but frightening one: when the cameras move on, does that mean that foreign policy moves on?

It was put more dramatically the other day by [U.S.] Secretary of State Warren Christopher:

Television is a wonderful phenomenon and sometimes even an instrument of freedom. But television images cannot be the North Star of American foreign policy.

By which time George Kennan had weighed in again:

Fleeting, disjointed, visual glimpses of reality, flickering on and off the screen, here today and gone tomorrow, are not the “information” on which sound judgments on complicated international problems are to be formed.

Kennan, McDougall and Christopher all seem to suggest that television is usurping the function of responsible people in government to set the agenda in international relations and to define the national interest.

The point is carried further by Michael O’Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News. In a new book entitled The Roar of the Crowd, he says: “thanks to the communications revolution and the new technology, the old world of diplomacy is itself in ruins”. The game used to be played by professionals, who considered public opinion a vulgarity and had only disdain for politicians, journalists and, more often than not, the statesmen who employed them. “Now, however”, O’Neill writes, “every Tom, Dick and Harry is trampling over their red carpets. They are no longer the chief custodians of policy. Their arts are the arts of an era that has disappeared … and ambassadors [have] become a threatened species.”

That observation might please Pierre Trudeau. He thought diplomacy was outmoded 25 years ago. Granatstein and Bothwell quote him as telling a reporter: “In the early days of the telegraph, you needed a dispatch to know what was happening in country A, whereas now, most of the time, you can read it in a good newspaper.”

Today, apparently, you can see it on CNN.

Jordan’s King Hussein, irritated by something George Shultz said on CNN, did not call his foreign minister or ambassador in Washington. He called CNN to broadcast his reply. Criticized for favoring Iraq in the Gulf War, the King again chose CNN as the quickest and most forceful way to get to President George Bush.

Initially hesitant in the Moscow coup of 1991, President Bush decided whom to support only after seeing the defiant Yeltsin on top of a tank-on television.

After the Gulf War, Bush was determined not to be drawn into Iraq’s internal battles, confident that the blows he had dealt Saddam Hussein would cause his overthrow. Instead, Saddam attacked the Kurds and pictures of their misery were so affecting that Bush felt forced to intervene to protect them.

When President Ronald Reagan saw television pictures of the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps, he quickly sent in the Marines, an ill-considered mission that ended in tragedy.

It is a commonplace now to say with Marshall McLuhan that the Viet Nam war was lost in the living rooms of America. It was far more complicated than that, as I have argued elsewhere, but there is enough truth in the observation. Since Viet Nam, the reach and pervasiveness of television have increased exponentially.

Do these examples mean that television is driving foreign policy? Let us hope not. What television has done is to bring public opinion into play as never before in determining where national interest lies and the policy to further it. It may be a mighty inconvenience for policy-makers. Public ventilation usually is, because the public is such a bull among the delicate porcelains of the experts, indifferent to the endless nuances of those trained to find nuances. But I would argue that it is also, at bottom, essentially more democratic.

It should not surprise us that television, which has modified all our institutions, should be altering the conduct of international affairs.

The car changed the physical landscape of our cities and countryside; it revolutionized housing patterns and towns, shopping, personal transportation and recreation. But television has changed the landscape of our minds-displacing, to some extent, even the literacy that has been the mould of our reason for 500 years.

In medieval Europe, the Church was matrix of thought, the boundary of the popular imagination: it explained everything. Television sets the boundaries of the popular imagination today, and it sets them very wide, if not often very deep.

There has never been a phenomenon like television in its ubiquity, its seductive appeal, the passive absorption it encourages, its lifelikeness, its companionship, its ability to leap across international frontiers and the barriers of class and literacy. What hyperbole can you talk of a medium that has African tribesmen living close to the Stone Age and Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace both doting on the same TV series, “Dallas”?

The only thing that people, on average, do more than watch television is work and sleep. And, if they don’t have work and can’t sleep, they watch television. Though it may be eroding literacy, it sells millions of books. Though academics deplore it, they too seek the social legitimacy television exposure confers-and so on.

Television has created a different order of public opinion. In the issues that touch foreign affairs, the public witnesses the same apparent reality as their leaders. The public is no longer a mass to be sold a policy after it is decided. It is now active in seeing policy made, one might even say getting policy made. Witnessing the same images, of course, is the political opposition, loyal or not, which is able to use them, like any other evidence, to challenge the competence of government.

Television is the public window of the information revolution-and its noisiest voice.

Many new technologies, employed by myriad interest groups, have transformed how nation speaks unto nation and how public opinion is shaped. By jet travel, fax, cellular telephone, satellite, portable uplink, electronic data-transfer, computer networks, video and audio cassette, as well as radio and television, there are now streams of information between business people, currency speculators, medical experts, environmentalists, scholars, writers, journalists, political dissidents, religious fundamentalists, drug dealers, advertising and public-relations people-within nations and among nations. Their volume far exceeds information controlled by governments.

In the Moscow coup of 1991, loyalists used a private, national computer network with Western connections, as well as fax machines and portable radiotransmitters to mobilize support for Yeltsin. When the KGB shut down newspapers and radio stations, Yeltsin backers taped lo-minute newscasts and slipped them to the BBC and Radio Liberty, to be played in the West and back into Russia. Eduard Shevardnadze said afterwards: “Praise be information technology! Praise be CNN!”

Even in closed nations, the public has vastly increased sources of information than formerly. Portable phones and message-beepers are flooding China. In Beijing, satellite dishes are sprouting on thousands of rooftops, able to receive a new BBC Asian channel as well as CNN. When television is too conspicuous, new miniaturization has increased the influence of short-wave radio. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s overthrow of the Shah was preceded by a secret blizzard of audio cassettes recorded by him, mailed to mullahs and disseminated by them to the Shi’ite faithful.

The public in any nation comprises many interest groups, and all are mobilized more efficiently by the new communications to plead their cases.

Television soars over and among all these groups, distilling the most newsworthy bits of all their information; capriciously alighting here, departing there; dramatizing this issue, ignoring that one; governed by the need to be fresh and to attract an audience. It seeks out controversy, violence and all the heartaches of the world in an insatiable appetite for novelty. Those with an idea to sell, a cause to push or an outrage to call to the world’s attention, seek out television. In Somalia, it was not merely the pictures that wrung the hearts of our public: the pictures were made more eloquent by the words of Audrey Hepburn of UNICEF and Mary Robinson of Northern Ireland.

Chief among those who seek out television are governents and politicians, because it has become indispensable. For political leaders in modem democracies to complain of television, is like Angelo in Measure for Measure condemning fornication, while he plots it himself. Governments are not virgins in television. They are in bed with it - in flagrante delicto.

Warren Christopher says television images should not be the “North Star” of foreign policy. But television images were quite acceptable to the White House when they made the Gulf War look like a giant video game and sent Bush’s approval ratings into the nineties.

Television images are quite acceptable in getting presidents and prime ministers elected; that is, in choosing the leaders who will make the foreign policy. Fleeting, disjointed, visual glimpses of reality, in Kennan’s phrase, now dominate the central rite in our democracies. So, are we to believe that triviality, distortion, overdramatization are fine to get someone into office but not fine when the same medium casts its gaze around the world afterwards?

It has to be recognized that, ever since politicians discovered how to adapt public--pinion sampling and consumer-product mass-marketing, image-making is how they win office. But it does not end there. Governments in office cannot chuck the image-making habit. Increasingly, government policy is marketed by images. The making of foreign policy becomes in part a contest of images. Televised images condition the public. Constant opinion polling measures their highly simplified views. Politicians react to the polls.

Brian Mulroney singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with Ronald Reagan at the Shamrock Summit was foreign policy by calculated image-making, as was Reagan’s disastrous visit to the cemetery in Bitburg. Every time Brian Mulroney rode out in George Bush’s speedboat, it was an act of Canadian foreign policy. Whether it was smart domestic policy is for others to ponder.

The televised Rabin-Arafat handshake coaxed by Bill Clinton gave their decision to deal with each other an instant global credibility far exceeding their signatures on a piece of paper.

Governments are not passive victims of television. When Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and George Bush wanted to go to war without the inconvenience of hostile public opinion, they let television see only what they wished in the Falklands, Grenada, Panama and the Gulf. No more Viet Nams for them. The public, able to live with cognitive dissonance, cheered the exclusion of the press, while it cheered the press for its reporting.

Governments live by television-and may die by it-but to deplore its influence is disingenuous. In our democracies, the creatures of television, the Ariel and Caliban of our time, have been given their freedom, but government still tries to be the Prospero who controlled them with his magic.

Now let us look more closely at television. None of us need instruction on the nature of the fleeting, disjointed images that worry George Kennan. We see them every night, and over two generations they have become our memor y bank, our popular history.

More interesting to me is the ethic that informs the image-producing intelligence.

Television inherited its definitions of news from print journalism, where they evolved as merchants of news better understood how to harness human curiosity for profit.

In my first days at Reuters News Agency in London, I was instructed that news is the doings and sayings of famous people, the rise and fall of governments and economies, wars, revolutions and disasters, man-made or natural. Modem media observe this definition, some with serious intent, some frivolously. There are still good newspapers to serve Mr. Trudeau in lieu of outmoded diplomatic dispatches!

Television journalism is both serious and frivolous. Its journalists may have serious intentions, but they are often trivialized by the commercial imperatives that have made the short attention span and kaleidoscopic presentation so characteristic of the medium. But that almost doesn’t matter: McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message”, only grows truer.

Like Canadian foreign policy, television journalism came of age in the Cold War. The milestones in my career were a series of Cold War flashpoints, from the Hungarian Uprising to the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. At dawn on an August morning in 1961, I was at the Brandenburg Gate as the East Germans erected the first barriers that became the Berlin Wall. There were a few cameras present. You needed to be there to experience it. In 1989, when the Wall came down, I was in New York, watching the incredible pictures like everyone else. Some colleagues asked whether I regretted not being there. I did, but also realized I didn’t need to be. Live television can almost duplicate the actual experience.

For all those decades, the Cold War framed the world view. But suddenly, like governments and scholars and foreign offices, the media were cast adrift from these secure moorings and needed a new way of looking at the world. Television, in particular, has found it in humanitarianism.

As the collapse of the Berlin Wall showed, this period has coincided with the arrival of marvellous new technology, especially lighter cameras, requiring lower intensities of light. Even amateur home-video cameras can take pictures acceptable on the air. Portable satellite-uplinks make it possible to broadcast, and for star anchorpersons to perform, instantly from anywhere.

There has been a proliferation of TV channels, including all-news channels, thirsty for information. There has also been sudden access to many regions previously closed by the Cold War. In its wake has come a surge of nationalist and tribal violence, providing an unlimited supply of suffering humanity.

Television deals best with people, not ideas. The human consequences of the Cold War were often hidden from view. They were an abstraction, the stuff of talk in television studios, and often nothing more exciting visually than the comings and goings of officials in conference.

Distinguished officials of External Affairs may have found such pictures quite stimulating, but they did not have to sell soap-or, since we are in the territory of Sam Slick, soft sawder. By territory, I mean Nova Scotia, not External Affairs.

Now, violations of human rights from many causes are manifest to the cameras, and the cameras, understandably, lap it up, arousing the pity and indignation of audiences at home. I don’t think there has ever been anything like it before.

Also emerging from the Cold War has been a United Nations eager to fulfil ambitions long frustrated by the divided Security Council, to intervene to keep the peace and to alleviate suffering. Further, the only surviving superpower, the United States, has begun to appreciate the virtues of multilateralism, which less powerful nations like Canada had preached for years-to empty pews south of the border.

Yet the instinct to intervene clashed with other realities: a global recession, which sapped revenues, increased unemployment and aggravated the painful industrial restructuring caused by the same electronic revolution that drives the new information order. These realities produced a counter-trend, an urgent political need to repair and convert economies distorted by the Cold War.

A heady mixture, all these trends: a proliferation of peacekeeping and peacemaking initiatives running into budget and social deficits, and a rising clamor from new isolationists. Governments were battered simultaneously by calls to do something, do everything, do nothing.

To John Ruggie, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the new situation led the media to “want a more humanitarian foreign policy … a foreign policy beyond the national interest”.

Peter Rodman of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said there is a danger that “our moral impulse will outreach our strategic sense”.

This argument suggests that the loose cannon of international media were firing all their guns for intervention (if loose cannon can fire), whipping up their publics to drive governments into action.

While that was the initial wave in Somalia, and perhaps in Bosnia, another wave followed in reaction. As television watched the United Nations mission in Somalia appear to founder in violence and as the casualties-particularly American-mounted, the political barometer swung quickly toward withdrawal, forcing President Clinton to articulate his goals more precisely, and to set a time limit on the U.S. presence.

In Bosnia, the ghastly images of suffering provoked not a clarion call for decisive intervention, but a creeping sense of impotence and resignation, as the complexities and moral relativities became more apparent to the public and government alike.

As Roger Rosenblatt, an essayist on our program, noted recently:

Too much may be made of the power of pictures. They often give a quick rush, like a dose of sugar, but the rush also wears off quickly, leaving the mind with facts to sort out and self-interest. And people seem to understand that this is true. Otherwise, all anyone would ever need to get us into a war would be a TV camera, and that has not been the case. It has not even been the case in Somalia. Every picture is one side of an event, often the outside. Sometimes we want to see it, only it. Sometimes we want to see through it.

American presidents used the rush of sugar for different purposes. Of George Bush’s intervention in Somalia, George Kennan observed:

… one must assume the reasons lay largely in his memories of the political success of the move into the Persian Gulf, and in the hope that another venture of this nature would arouse a similar public enthusiasm, permitting him to leave his Presidential office with a certain halo of glory…

In Bosnia, it suited Bill Clinton’s purposes as a candidate to chide Mr. Bush for inaction and to promise stronger measures if elected. Those measures-air strikes on Serbian gunners and arms for the Bosnians-proved to have no international support, so he settled on relative inaction. To say that either Bush or Clinton was the prisoner of a popular cry for action generated by television pictures is to ignore political calculation; that is, their wish to harness the occasion for political, as well as humanitarian purposes.

By and large, both the media and the public tend to follow strong leadership, capable of identifying the clear national interest in a course of action. It remains true in the television age as in the past. The foreign-policy agenda is driven by a president or prime minister until he or she, instead of riding the tiger on a particular issue, lets it ride him or her. While the leader is in the saddle, television acts as a megaphone, explaining, selling, critiquing policy and acting as a catalyst in the chemical reaction between opponents and proponents of a policy within government and outside.

If television senses that the country generally approves of a policy-especially with troops in the field-it amplifies a particular action to the point of stupefaction.

However, when events slip into the saddle and ride the leader, then television will loudspeak the leaderss helplessness, inaction, seeming impotence or overreaction. I think of Jimmy Carter in the Iran hostage crisis.

By focussing attention and raising the temperature, modem media and the polls they generate increase the pressure on a political leader, not necessarily to act impulsively, but to be decisive. As a former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, put it recently:

Public officials have to account to the public, and, if nothing else, they’ve got to decide either to do something or to explain why they’re not doing something … when television brings these things into people’s living rooms, this tends to deprive policy-makers of the option of ignoring them. If that’s helping set an agenda, maybe it’s not too bad.

Coincidentally, the collapse of Communism and the new technology have made visible many issues neglected in the Cold War struggle-the environment, global ecology, disparities in resources and standards of living between North and South, and human rights. They are things that cameras can now see, and this will increasingly drive them to the attention of publics and governments.

For Canadian policy-makers, who have been pushing precisely this agenda for years, this pressure should be welcome.

So the alarms sounded by George Kennan and Barbara McDougall seem to mean this: political leaders must not be in thrall to the powerful new media. But in the democracies today, no modem leaders take office unaware of that media power in shaping public opinion. They use it themselves to win office, and they have to continue to use it to hold office. None are quite the Prosperos they might like to be; they have to compete with their opposition and many other interest groups using the same media to turn opinion their way.

Instantaneous television coverage from around the globe has made the media impact on popular opinion more dramatic. It has put a greater premium on a government’s ability to react quickly and to make clear statements about the national interest.

If officials like Warren Christopher do not want television images to be the North Star of foreign policy, they had better point to the star they are steering by.

The new information order forces government to enter the lists of public argument more quickly and more forcefully than might have been necessary in more languid times. Even Canadians, long remarkable for their deference to government, have grown sceptical of official infallibility. The flood of information delivered by the new media encourages public opinion to doubt that elected representatives or public officials have a monopoly on wisdom, or some inspired perception of the national interest.

In this climate, policy achieved in open dialogue with an aroused and attentive public, although more difficult for policy-makers, must be a better policy than one concocted behind closed doors and communicated as though divine revelation.

In the difficult choices that lie before us, of shaping a new world order while defending our standard of living, balancing our selfish interests with those of others, recognizing the need to curb some expectations in a globe whose limits in satisfying all human demands are more apparent, national consensus will be more necessary, most especially in a nation as fractured as Canada is today. Consensus is best achieved through openness, and openness, however untidy, is the essence of democracy. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, open compromises, openly arrived at, suit the tenor of these times.

Finally, it may be the paramount virtue of the miraculous new media that they have shrunk the earth in our perceptions. They have made it more apparent that we are one species, inhabiting one planet. This may have begun to condition people, particularly in the most-favored nations, to think more co-operatively, even more supranationally.

Since we Canadians, disdaining nationalism, seem to have supranationalism in our political genes, perhaps we should be saying with Eduard Shevardnaze, “Praise be information technology!”


1 University of King’s College and Dalhousie University.

2 Former Secretary of State for External Affairs.