Friday, August 28, 2009

An Historical Spin on International Communication

Daya Thussu's "The Historical Context of International Communication," chapter one of the book International Communication: Continuity and Change, offers a solid, comprehensive view of the field's evolution over time, especially to those of us just starting to study it. He makes several compelling points to show the essentiality of communication across different cultures. One which I found particularly interesting was the idea that in ancient times, the size of an empire could indicate the strength of its communications network. Thussu states that "Communications networks and technologies were key to the mechanics of distributed government, military campaigns and trade." In other words, the more organized and advanced an empire's communication tools, the further it could spread. He also mentions the emergence of the world's first newswriters in ancient India, a fact which was news to me--I didn't think they appeared on the scene until much later.
The role of the telegraph in international communication was a prominent one in the 19th century, especially for Great Britain. Thussu's emphasis on the telegram's role in commerce and information gathering is strong, and for good reason--it truly connected the world at what was then an amazing speed. Thussu conveys its communicative power when he names cities on opposite sides of the world from each other--for example Lisbon and Recife in Brazil--that before the telegraph would have had to wait at least a month to communicate with each other via ship. Also important to note is the forming of the International Telegraph Union in 1865, which was the "first international institution of the modern era," albeit an almost totally Eurocentric one (all 22 founding member countries, except Persia, were in the Old World.) The United States was also a major player, however, second only to Britain in the miles of cable and the share of the market it owned.
Thussu's discussion of news agencies was also very thorough. I especially liked his treatment of the role that the three major agencies of the late 19th century--Havas (the predecessor to Agence France-Presse), Wolff in Germany, and Reuters in Britain--played in imperialism. I studied French imperialism as an undergrad, but I had never considered the role of news agencies in its execution. Thussu's statement at the beginning of the chapter about communication networks and ancient empires rings just as true for the colonial empires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In order to stay on top of everything going on in the British Empire, for example, constant communication links via Reuters were essential and were viewed as a sign of strength and success by the colonizers. The news agencies also proved important in forming and maintaining links with the people on the ground--the colonial and foreign administrations. Of course, the agencies also promoted the aims and values of the colonizers--for instance, Thussu notes that "Reuters was for the most part the unofficial voice of the Empire, giving prominence to British views."
After World War I, the radio revolutionized international communication all over again, according to Thussu. During the Second World War, radio evolved into a propaganda tool, as both sides broadcast in a huge variety of languages to try to influence public opinion. I appreciated Thussu's exploration of Voice of America and its cousins, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty--I hadn't known the magnitude of the competition between VOA and Radio Moscow during the Cold War.
One final point that I thought especially worth mentioning was Thussu's contrasting VOA and the BBC on a cultural basis. He states that the BBC provided a "mature, balanced view, winning by argument, rather than hammering home a point, in the best tradition of British understatement." I at first thought this was a little biased, as it made VOA sound brash, lacking in restraint, and in-your-face. However, when I went back and reread Thussu's descriptions of VOA broadcasts, I had to admit he had a point. The difference in styles between VOA and the BBC is just one example of how cultural differences can affect the way news and other information is relayed. All in all, Thussu's observations were a good starting point to the semester and provided a necessary context to the field of international communication.

No comments:

Post a Comment