In 1974, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a New World Information Order. During the 1970's the United Nations was also the site of debates on a New International Economic Order. Both efforts can be seen as related to decolonization and the rise of power of the newly independent states in intergovernmental affairs, as well as their belief that new international orders were required in justice to repair the legacies of poverty and undedevelopment that remained from colonialism.
In 1976, UNESCO’s Director General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow -- following up the UN resolution, with the approval of the General Conference -- appointed a distinguished committee headed by Sean McBride to report back to UNESCO on the international communications and information order. Given that, with leadership from the United States, communication and information had been included as the "other C" in UNESCO's charter, this was not only reasonable but almost necessary. The committee worked over several years, and submitted its report in time for the UNESCO general conference of 1980, and it was sent on to the member nations for their attention. That report, titled Many Voices, One World, has been increasingly seen as a useful and prescient view of the need to give voice to poor people in poor nations.
The discussion of communications and information at the General Conference was not limited to the recommendations of the McBride Report. The delegates of the emerging developing nations had developed their own elaborate set of recommendations, and the United States and other delegations from developed nations opposed many of the specifics. At last a resolution was adopted by consensus, although the UK delegation stated that they would have opposed it on a vote.
One authority states that the Belgrade declaration affirmed that UNESCO should play a major role in the examination and solution of problems in this domain. "The assembly also agreed on a number of guidelines for the new information order:
1. elimination of the imbalances and inequalities which characterize the present solution;The General Conference of UNESCO in 1980 as always conducted a full agenda of business on the organization's educational, scientific and cultural programs. However, the press in the United States covered little but the discussion of the New World Information Order. While the U.S. Delegation report on the General Conference was not especially negative about the NWIO, the issues continued to draw attention from the members of the press media. (Editor's note: I have always suspected that the media objected not only to their perception that UNESCO was enabling state control of media in countries with coercive governments, but that the international press services were also concerned that the call for pluralism which might diminish their oligopoly control of world news. JAD)
2. elimination of the negative effects of certain monopolies, public or private, and excessive concentrations;
3. removal of the internal and external obstacles to a free flow and wider and better balanced dissemination of information and ideas;
4. plurality of sources and channels of information;
5. freedom of the press and information;
6. the freedom of journalists . . . a freedom inseparable from responsibility;
7. the capacity of developing countries to achieve improvement of their own situations, notably by providing their own equipment, by training their personnel, by improving their infrastructures and by making their information and communication means suitable to their needs and aspirations;
8. the sincere will of developed countries to help them attain these objectives;
9. respect for each people’s cultural identity and the right of each nation to inform the world public about its interests, its aspirations and its social and cultural values."
UNESCO had been drawing negative comment from other segments of the American Public, especially among conservatives, starting from its creation. The idea of a global forum for discussions between East and West, North and South was not universally accepted during the Cold War. Perhaps the low point in suspicion of UNESCO came during the McCarthy era when seven Americans were forced out of UNESCO's International Civil Service due to allegations of Communist sympathies.
Some Americans had been concerned about the potential impacts of UNESCO educational efforts on American schools. Others had been concerned by the anti-Israeli sentiment expressed by many Arab and developing nations in its fora. Indeed, there remains a segment of the American public that expresses concern about UNESCO's drawing global attention to America's World Heritage sites and biosphere reserves.
UNESCO then as today had a huge mandate and a limited budget. It had been subjected to pressures to improve efficiency, as it is still. There also seemed to be a real cultural divide between Amadou M'Bow, the African Director General, and officials of the conservative Reagan administration. In any case, the combination of factors proved too much, and Elliot Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, announced in 1981 that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO. (Editor's Note: Yes, the same Elliot Abrams who was convicted in 1991 on two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra Affair investigation; he is also the well known neoconservative who is currently Deputy National Security Advisor in the Bush White House, and who appears to have been deeply involved in the decisions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more generally in Middle Eastern affairs during all of the Bush administration. JAD)
Unfortunately, the old disagreements about the New International Information Order have been unfairly linked in the literature to Sean McBride's name. The McBride Report produced in 1980 is still available on the World Wide Web. In its honor, McBride's name has been given to the The MacBride Round Table on Communication. Had its importance been more fully recognized by the Reagan administration, the Report could have helped the world better respond to the Information Revolution, as well as better respond for a need for information services that would better contribute to international development and poverty alleviation.
The old controversy can little diminish Sean McBride's career as Ireland's most distinguished jurist, as one of the people most responsible for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as one of the people responsible for Amnesty International. In the United States he is now perhaps best known for the McBride Principles that helped bring the international pressures in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland and for his critically important efforts to end apartheid in southern Africa.