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Developing Countries (News)

Volume 959: debated on Monday 4 December 1978

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42.

asked the Minister of Overseas Development what representations she has made to the United Nations regarding the proposals discussed in UNESCO that news from the developing countries should be restricted.

During the nine days which I spent at the UNESCO general conference I made clear the Government's views on the draft declaration on the mass media. I think that our representations played an important part in bringing about the consensus which was eventually reached. We and our Western colleagues, with the support of many of the nonaligned countries, succeeded in removing from the final declaration any reference to State control of the media, of journalists, or of the flow of information. Indeed the declaration positively reaffirms the principle of freedom of the Press.

I have begun consultations on how the United Kingdom can give practical help to the developing countries to strengthen and expand their media; and we shall also co-operate in any UNESCO initiatives to this end.

As freedom of information and freedom of the press, with a view to seeking the truth, are matters upon which we cannot equivocate, both in regard to our own affairs at home and in relation to other countries, is the right hon. Lady fully satisfied that this cardinal principle has been fully embodied in the UNESCO agreement and that it is not a woolly consensus which does not mean anything at all?

It is a slightly woolly consensus, but I am satisfied that it avoids any of the references to State control of the media which would be intolerable to us and many other countries. It is a negative achievement. We have succeeded in getting a declaration which is harmless but which may have some positive good effects in that any journalist who finds himself in difficulties anywhere in the world will be able to quote what was agreed in Paris. There is a certain amount of positive achievement and nothing left in it is dangerous to our principles.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Third world has some reason to be anxious because the major international news gathering agencies are owned, controlled and directed from the Western world? Could she spell out a little more her suggestion that we are prepared to help Third world countries to do a little news gathering and dissemination on their own account?

It may be helpful if 1 put in the Library my initial speech to UNESCO. My hon. Friend will discover that it dealt with some of these matters and with the problem of developing countries which find that they need, economically, State subsidy of their media, but do not necessarily want to translate that into State control. There are many areas—I mentioned them in my speech—in which one can provide practical assistance to the Third world in developing its media and a counter force to the pressure, that one understands clearly, of Western interests.

While welcoming what the Minister has said about the improvement in the UNESCO communiqué and her view of it, may I ask whether she can hold out any hope that UNESCO will be able to bring pressure to bear to achieve a more positive attitude by developing countries to the freedom of the press? When the right hon. Lady talks of assistance for these countries, will she consider insisting, as a prerequisite, that they accept a free press?

We cannot insist on anything. That has to be clear. However, UNESCO and countries such as ourselves, as bilateral aid agencies, can assist in areas that will help the Third world countries to develop their media, free from the concept of State control. That is the objective. Many practical things are possible, but much work needs to be done. I have considerable consultations, not only with the United Kingdom commissions to UNESCO, but with people in the media, and we shall try to develop a programme of assistance to the Third world and its media which we can press upon UNESCO and a good deal of which we may be able to do ourselves.