We are unstoppable when it comes to communicating. “Communicate” means “to share” and it comes as second nature (it’s socially addictive in fact). The 300 million of us blogging can rarely be silenced. A comment on a Minister’s blog can provoke a policy change. A micro-blog can influence a legal challenge (the Trafigura/Carter Ruck affair) or inspire masses (the Iranian elections were the top news story on Twitter last year). And a social network group like Facebook can undermine an X-Factor winner’s success (a winner ironically chosen by “the people” by telephone vote). It is the public, not governments that are beginning to drive change. But whether we like it or not it’s still mainstream media that is being listened to most – TV, radio and most powerful of all – the old fashioned newspaper read out loud. It’s more coherent, more organised, and usually better written than the complex voice of the masses. Big media still counts.
And although millions of us are networking and tweeting – many of us are spreading stories and links that originate on mass-media platforms. We might be Digging and Googling like mad, but Nielsen’s top ten internet news sources for 2009 is dominated by the big players – with The New York Times and Guardian Unlimited leading the bunch. Preferred news sites for the recent US elections were the more conventional CNN and MSBNC over Yahoo.
When I joined the Foreign Service in the mid-nineties it was not unknown for a Minister “on tour” to foreign parts to ignore the mainstream media altogether – and digital diplomacy was an abstract concept. These past few weeks I have been involved in the preparations for the visit of UK Foreign Minister David Miliband to Pakistan. The scale of his media and outreach work whilst there was in stark contrast to those early days. It’s not an unfamiliar accusation to hear that politicians spend too much time on media and PR. This view has given the term “strategic communications” a cynical nuance, but I wholeheartedly disagree that this is a bad thing – and it’s certainly bang on track in relation to diplomacy. What’s clear to me is that international relations are no longer simply about talking with high level officials (although certainly part of it); of equal importance are the people. This is not about spin, it’s about reach – and the extra effort being put into reaching us is a testament to the power in us all.
One of Miliband’s chosen channels in Pakistan was Geo TV. I am no stranger to late night rants (and even the odd blog) about how mass-media should take responsibility and offer fair and balanced reporting – especially in terms of conflict and war. I have even been known to have a go at bloggers and social networkers who think sharing photos of dead children will make a difference and end suffering. (Regular readers will know I am about shining spotlights on the good to inspire change in the name of balanced reporting). I am still getting to know the Pakistani big players in media and how they are responding to regional instability – but I have learned that Geo, owned by the Jang Group have just launched the Aman Ki Asha (Desire for Peace) initiative. Partnering The Times of India, Jang have launched a huge scale project aimed at exploring common ground between India and Pakistan. Promoting shared tradition, history, language and culture, the two editors of the media groups have issued an eloquent joint statement. The concept has provoked both hope and cynicism, but to me this is “media without borders” at its best – and Miliband quite rightly commended the idea.
As well as to demonstrate the strength of UK/Pakistan relations, Miliband was also in Pakistan to promote engagement in the upcoming Afghan Conference in London. Behind the scenes the conference organisers in Whitehall are working frantically to set the stage – with over 60 countries and international organisations represented (including the World Bank) - this is diplomacy without borders. Impressed by the tenacity of the international community to keep going with Afghanistan, and sticking my two pennies worth in – I asked about media engagement – with a particular eye on Pakistan (as key partners in the region). Unlike conferences of old, the hosts hope it will not only spark renewed momentum for Afghanistan at a political and policy level (it’s being hosted by a mighty cast of Ban Ki Moon, President Karzai and Prime Minister Gordon Brown) – but also that it will reinvigorate commitment to progress at a public level. The organisers know one way of doing this is to involve the media in the event. Again, the commitment to engage with real people is a true testament to our power and perceived ability to effect change. I was told that Pakistani journalists were flying over to cover the conference and in fact that journalists of every nationality are doing the same. I can only hope for balanced coverage.
True, I am of the view that a media sector bent on reporting the horrors of conflict and division do not contribute to peace-building; however I am not naive enough to think that communications efforts alone can bring about peace. In Afghanistan, the crucial ingredients are security which transitions to being Afghan-led, a reduction of corruption, better governance and economic development – simply reporting recovery positively with no real substance is not enough. And India-Pakistan relations won’t be restored overnight with a few songs and some front-page doves. But what heartens me about Aman Ki Asha in particular is seeing media (refreshingly) taking responsibility, and understanding they have a part to play. So maybe I wield minimal power as a mere one-in-300 million of the unstoppable bloggers – but for me getting the mass media onside for peace is what matters most.
Photo Credit: Internews Network (on Flickr)