McPhail, Thomas L. Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends. Paperback. Allyn and Bacon: Boston. 2002. Paperback. 272 pages. ISBN 0-205-5635-5. US$49.
Reviewed by Ralph D. Berenger, the American University in Cairo.
Just as media delivery systems are converging from separate mass media subtypes, so are the once-distinct, unhomogenized fields of the social sciences beginning to coalesce and congeal in their studies of how people get news and information. That is one of the main inferences readers draw from Thomas McPhail's latest effort.
McPhail's book bridges some important gaps between the fields of international relations, international public administration, and international mass communication theory and practice in his attempt to synthesize the dialectic divide between disciplines. Intellectual transformation is no longer limited by distance (spatial) or time (temporal), nor for that matter by artificial academic constructs (disciplines). What is happening globally impacts not only journalism and communications, but on economics, politics, sociology and all the other humanities as well as on fields in business, trade and even the military. All aspects of social and communal life are affected and all who have access to the new technologies are stakeholders in what is taking place in globally.
The author synthesizes several theories of mass communication and international relations, and ties them neatly into a bundle with a single ribbon: Immanuel Wallerstein's core-periphery world systems theory. The basic premise of the theory, which often makes conservative media scholars jittery for its neo-Marxist class-struggle overtones, is that 30-plus countries are "core" nations that are highly resource developed and technologically advanced. Led by the United States (the core of the core), and European Union states, the core includes others such as Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Core nations deal mainly with elites in 20-plus semi-peripheral countries (such as Egypt, South Africa and Mexico) and the 100-plus peripheral, less-developed countries in the former Third World, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
Information flow from the core to the periphery is uneven, the theory goes. While news and information speeds like a Mercedes down an autobahn into the semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, communication from the lesser-developed countries meanders into the core like a donkey cart on a goat path. The uneven distribution, variety, and speed of information from the core to the periphery create changes in tastes, cultural orientations, and ways of doing business, all oriented toward the core. This is at the heart of the so-called Electronic Colonialism Theory. McPhail's notion of stakeholders is thought provoking since it fundamentally changes the prevalent Western Concept view of mass media as a market-driven capitalist force. The market this concept refers to is advertising, the "spear point of capitalism," as Herman and McChesney say (Herman, Edward and Robert McChesney (1997) The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. London: Cassell; review TBS 3[ADD LINK]). What McPhail seems to say is that stakeholders rather than shareholders are the "owners" of the product, an idea that plays well among supporters of the moribund New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).
Once a consultant to UNESCO during those fractious cold war years of the 1970's when NWICO bubbled to the top of the East-West debate, McPhail provides the reader a noble service. He charts the developments from the McBride Commission to the walkout of UNESCO by the United States and Great Britain 16 years ago and the changes in the international organization that reversed field so that both Western leaders could return.
With insider knowledge, McPhail gives us perhaps the best summation (devoting a chapter to the issue) of the Sean McBride Commission in the 1970's, which produced recommendations that would have tilted the balance of media and information power and influence to Second and Third World countries, a prospect that might have altered the present and probably could have stalled development of the Internet and computerization and the newest wave of globalization itself. The latter is speculative, but administratively putting the under-developed South on a bureaucratic par with the developed North and West would not have resulted in the market-driven advances the world has witnessed in the past two decades. Of course reasonable minds can disagree about the normative values of globalization and whether the global information glass is half full or half empty.
McPhail arrives at three major conclusions on the effects and promises of global media.
The first is that large multi-national media corporations, International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs), and transnational broadcasters have blurred not only state borders but also the definition of sovereignty itself. The collapse of bi-polar hegemony created a vacuum in world information and communication expectations caused by development of the "new media." That void was filled by multi-national media corporations, INGOs, and regional (transnational) broadcasters. Increasingly, states are seen as anachronisms of the 17th Century when the concept of statehood, in Europe at least, was seen as a way of ending royal feuds and wars between principalities.
Unlike Herman and McChesney, who openly espouse an increase in publicly owned (which would continue state controls) as a counter-balance to commercial interests, McPhail tends to be more pragmatic, saying the current media landscape is "dominated by a fundamental aspect of the global economy." Media and media delivery systems are too varied for any one company, state, or cabal of like-minded organizations to control.
While transnational and global broadcasting threaten to amalgamize and homogenize the world and diminish the importance of geo-political boundaries (states), the Internet has had an opposite effect of "fueling a resurgence of nationalism and localism, and are means of protecting and reinforcing indigenous cultures, groups and languages."
In addition to lessening the importance of formalized media systems, the Internet has "empowered" individuals around the world to "narrowcast" to like-minded individuals irrespective of geography (the spatial) or time (the temporal) since the medium is both synchronous and asynchronous in nature, both local and global in its reach. The only constraint seems to be understanding the semiology (signs, use of codes, language, etc.) of the online senders.
Global Communication should be a valued edition to any transnational broadcaster's library, and is an excellent supplement to graduate and undergraduate courses in international communication, especially since McPhail has purposefully discussed media systems and stakeholders outside of the United States, with which most other books seem inordinately preoccupied. Another difference of the highly readable McPhail book from his predecessors is an entire chapter (instead of perfunctory paragraphs) on the role of global news services, which provide 90 percent of the international news we read or see. Similarly, McPhail devotes entire chapters to the role of global advertising agencies, the impact of NGOs and INGOs, and global technologies organizations. A glaring omission in the book is the role of international legal organizations and the changes taking place in laws governing international communication beyond space band allocation issues. The problems of piracy of intellectual properties and media law receive short shrift. There is also scant recognition of the varying political cultures of media resulting in an evolving typology of press concepts. It would have been nice to include chapters discussing the above to make the book more complete as a classroom text. But these shortcomings are minor and fixable in subsequent editions. For students, information is readily available from other sources on the omitted subjects.