Problems in the New Conceptual Framework of Global Communication
Ph.D,Brigham Young University
- *Corresponding Author:
- Allen Palmer,Ph.D
Brigham Young University
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Global Media Journal
The new conceptual language of “transparency” that pervades much of the dialogue about globalization is the logical result of dramatic expansion in the scope and sweep of technological, political and social changes. A sampling of the uses of transparency by global interests reveals that it is used inconsistently across various spheres of discourse. Further, its popular usage poses a contradiction in terms of the naïve realism that it connotes. In spite of numerous efforts to promote, cultivate and measure “media transparency”, the concept remains poorly defined. One of the lessons to be gleaned from this new idiom for democracy is, more specifically, how transparency denies the power of mediation. This essay samples some of the divergent uses of transparency in its technological, political and social-cultural dimensions. The discussion focuses on the varied uses of the transparency metaphor in global communication; the implications for technological and institutional spheres; and clarification of how the public sphere can subordinate the “hidden transcripts” of marginalized social groups.
Problems in the New Conceptual Framework of Global Communication
The global aspirations of democratization and openness are captured in the
conceptual language of transparency. Transparency encompasses the new pervasiveness
of electronic technology and political accountability. As one internationalist observed, it
is, “the new buzzword of the international community, cropping up in all of the official
communiqués” (Anjaria, 1999). From an idealistic perspective, global communication
assumes a substantial degree of transparency. It arises from the convergence of forces,
including: (A) The technologies of surveillance that form a convincing backdrop of
transparency (e.g. the internet, miniaturized transmitters, satellite monitoring, etc.); (B)
The institutions of transparency, include media, which have rapidly expanded throughout
developing nations; (C) Lastly, the norms of transparency at work in transitional nations
giving rise to democratic aspirations. At the same time, transparency glosses the creative
impulse of subordinated people to survive, and perhaps thrive, under repressive
In this essay, I seek to clarify some of the epistemological and definitional
problems invoked with this new language as part of a larger project examining the new
conceptual framework for mediation of global problems. It confronts the recent assertion
that the sobering lesson of the last twenty years is that the global spread of free-market
democracy has been a principal aggravating cause of racial and ethnic violence
throughout the non-Western world (Chua, 2003). This project was initiated with research
conducted in Kosovo in 2001 to examine obstacles faced by international news media in
covering the NATO bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic (Palmer, 2002).
Despite aspirations of global transparency, one experienced international journalist
described the Balkan region as a “disinformation trap” (Poggioli, 1993). The Balkan
chaos was a virtual laboratory of global information in which old media frameworks of
global strife failed to provide adequate historical or social-cultural understanding
(Buckley, 2000; Chandler, 1999; Dyker & Vejvoda, 1996; Chomsky, 2000; Clark, 2000;
Hammond & Herman, 2000; Mertus, 1999; Pettifer, 2002).
In main currents of political discourse, for instance in the emerging European
Union, there has been a continuing debate over transparency, suggesting the kind of
uncertainty that exists in many quarters over the relationship of governance to the public
(Battini, et al, 1998; Clifford, et al, 1998; Doyle, 1996-7; Gronbech-Jensen, 1998;
Osterdahl, 1998). At its heart, this discussion deals with the implementation of the muchdiscussed
public sphere in new global regimes (Kalb, et al., 2000).
To date, there has been relatively little interdisciplinary effort to interrelate these
applications—and some notable abuses—of the language of transparency. As one analyst
put it, the discussion remains “murky” (Grigorescu, 2002, p. 61). Among the notable
efforts to sort it out is the work on political implications of global transparency on the end
of the age of secrecy (Florini, 1998); unfolding developments in satellite imaging (Baker,
O’Connell & Williamson, 2000); international power relationships negotiated around
transparency (Finel & Lord, 2000). The ironic conclusion drawn from many of these
studies, however, is that transparency is neither entirely practical, nor desirable, in the
While there are ambiguities in usage, the phenomenon of transparency exists in
global communication for good and valid reasons, some of which are congruent with the
experiences of globalization, while others are not (Ferguson, 1992; Rosenberg, 2000).
Further, where the usage of the term is valid, the phenomena of transparency draws
important insights into the emergence of new frameworks of international
communications, as well as the dystopian limits of global logic.
The Contours of the Metaphor of Transparency
Taken as a whole, transparency connotes a level of naïve realism, denying the
fundamental processes of mediation. The metaphor itself assumes both that a medium is
indistinct from the object of interest to be viewed on the other side, and the process of
seeing through the medium does not alter the nature of the object viewed. Among critics
of transparency are those who have written about transparency as a false ideal, especially
the kind of transparency fostered by television’s entertainment values (Balkin, 1998).
Others have argued the metaphor of transparency glosses other apt characterizations of
globalization (e.g. stretching, shrinking, networking, flows, etc.)(Moores, 2002).
Others have suggested that unrestrained transparency might be detrimental because:
(a) openness might aggravate conflict in the absence of universally shared, or at least
mutually compatible, norms of behavior; (b) some secrets are legitimately worth
protecting if revelation will betray, for instance, competitive market advantage; and (c)
information can easily be misused or misinterpreted because transparency reveals
behavior but not intent (Florini, 2000).
Analysts have sought to identify different kinds of transparency in typologies. For
instance, J.M. Balkin (1998) identified three kinds: (a) informational transparency based
on knowledge about government actors and decisions; (b) participatory transparency, the
ability to participate in political decisions either through fair representation or direct
participation; and (c) accountability transparency, or the ability to hold government
officials accountable when they violate public interests.
Also, Steven Livingston (2000) has suggested that transparency should be separated
into three conceptual levels. At the first, a free media meets its obligations to open
democratic society in the preservation of transparency, even tho ugh democratic
governments may object to transparency in specific cases. In the second level, new
information technologies actually constitute a threat to state security, since they may
reveal tactically significant information to an enemy. The third level is what he describes
as “systemic transparency,” in which micro technologies contribute to “regulation by
revelation” as individuals use them to function as the eyes and ears of a public audience
eager to tap into the restricted realms of forbidden documentation.
The interplay between those already possessing political and economic power, and
those who envy it, or desire to acquire it, is indeed complex. Stephen Holmes (1997)
pointed out that “successful office holders throughout the post-communist world have no
immediate interest in the creation of political transparency or a rule governed polity and
Technologies of Transparency
The technologies of transparency are inseparable from the clandestine motives of
surveillance and spying. Progress in communication has long been associated as a byproduct
of surveillance through, among others, satellites. In addition, 24-hour news
coverage, instantaneous reporting of major events, etc., constitute the “mechanisms that
facilitate the release of information about policies, capabilities, and preferences to outside
parties” (Finel & Lord, 2000, p. 137). Analysis of these information technologies
bringing changes to the diplomatic arena and give rise to such concepts as the
“transparency web” (Livingston, 2000). “Transparency provided by satellite imagery is
particularly comforting,” wrote one technology policy analyst. “Security depends on
detailed, broad-scale timely information about Earth’s surface…especially
since…[development of] access to high-resolution satellite imagery” (Williamson, 2002,
Despite earlier Cold War optimism that high-resolution satellite imaging would
enable diplomatic equilibrium through the UN policy of “equal access/open skies,” critics
point out that information access to previously closed state defense secrets would
eventually conflict with security interests. They predicted state secrecy would ultimately
prevail when confrontations occurred (Krepon, Zimmerman, Spector & Umberger, 1990).
Still, the steady movement toward private commercialization of satellite imagery, and the
enhanced power of that technology, creates moments of tension between contending
nations. Outside of armed conflict, international organizations emphasize the potential
usefulness of satellite imagery for science and humanitarian missions (see, for example,
In the European Union, discussions about the need to increase transparency began in
October 1992. By 1994, the EU took internal steps to open public access to their internal
documents, and increased momentum with the accession of Finland and Swden, both
considered among the most transparent nations in greater Europe. When EU leaders
outlined a campaign early in 2002 to further improve institutional transparency among
European Parliament member nations, the question of transparency was addressed in
these words: “How can anyone expect people to take interest in Europe when they are
being denied access to information?” asked European Parliament Vice-president
Charlotte Cederschiöld. In response, Secretary General of the European Commission
David O’Sullivan, argued against radical changes toward institutional openness: “the
political process should not be undermined with requests for too much
transparency…sometimes an open discussion is best held in confidence. The trust of
people is important but it is not always best served in things happen in the open”
(EUobserver.com, Jan. 7, 2002).
Indeed, the success of the EU has been ascribed by some observers to its resistance to
transparency. The “culture of secrecy” within the leading councils of the EU was the
deliberate design to achieve greater efficiency by not publicizing dissent.
Institutions of Transparency
From a pragmatic perspective, a transparent government is one bound by
determined institutions who exercise a will to oblige the release of information to citizens
even when government would prefer not. Shortly after the wave of democratization that
swept across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was
a “reverse” wave back toward authoritarianism in some nations. The
initial test of a new democracy, free elections, soon gave way to the recognition that other
elements—including institutions—are relevant to the survival of new democracies. From
a narrow political standpoint, transparency is frequently defined as “the ability of any
citizen to gain access to information held by government” (Grigorescu, 2002, p. 61).
Two main types of institutional changes support government transparency: (A)
legislation assuring access to otherwise restricted information, such as the Freedom of
Information Act in the United States; and (B) freedom of the press. These two
institutional developments are linked, insofar that legislation on access to information has
little impact on accountability of governments if the information accessed cannot be
disseminated, and a mass media system, even if free, is severely constrained if it is
limited to information provided by back channels and anonymous sources.
These kinds of institutional developments are now accompanied by sporadic calls
by some critics for media transparency, suggesting a significant level of institutional
distrust in media ethics and accountability.
A strong case for media transparency was outlined in 1994 by the Council of
Europe, arguing for the free circulation of information without interference by either
corporate media conglomerates or public authorities (Council of Europe, 1994). European
ministers on the council argued that corporate concentration would have an adverse
impact on media independence, contrary to the argument popular among some political
and social historians who argue that historically international institutions have promoted
openness and democracy (Mattleart, 2000).
Much of the Council of Europe’s media code focuses on disclosure of financial
stakeholders in mass media, suggesting that public confidence rises or falls on perception
of media control. Other institutional influence has been deliberately exercised by NATO,
focusing on issues of security. The internal ethnic conflicts that erupted early after the
end of the Cold War led NATO to emphsize domestic factors. For instance, the
Partnership for Peace sought to support democratic reforms in the new democracies. The
subsequent scramble by Eastern European countries to qualify for EU and NATO
membership has accelerated the institutional influence over domestic reforms leading to
Norms of Transparency
Even the tangible influences of technologies and institutions do not assure
seamless transitions, if a spirit of democracy does not underlay such changes. Such
ineffable characteristics required for success are tolerance for dissent, commitment to
orderly and peaceful changes in government, and the good will and faith of citizens in
support of a “social contract”. These norms are emphasized in the kind of substantive
democracy in terms of the processes that allow the governed to influence to decisions of
those that govern.
The alternative norms—secrecy, deception, lies and corruption—are already
embedded in many societies. Reasons for so-called “culture of secrecy” is easily
affirmed. One example was the European Union’s Council of Ministers drafted its first
report on its new code on access to public documents, the new report itself was kept secret at the insistence of two member states, France and the Netherlands. After two
months of argument, the report was made public.
The emergence of global organizations with transparency aspirations, such as
“Transparency International,” highlights more generally the problem of international
graft and corruption. Transparency International began issuing a measure of corruption in
1995, based on surveys from different institutions reflecting perceptions those doing
business and research in different countries. The average corruption score was 4.44 out of
a possible score of 10 for the least corrupt countries.
Similarly, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) initiated a
program to promote what its described as global media transparency based on narrowly
sampled opinions of international public relations practitioners about local media ethics
(IPRA, 2003). Based on the survey’s results, the organization drafted a “Charter on
Media Transparency” in March 2002 that stipulates that the organization calls on media
managers providers to observe the following:
•Editorial. Editorial appears as a result of the editorial judgement of the journalists
involved, and not as a result of any payment in cash or in kind, or barter by a third party.
•Identification. Editorial which appears as a result of a payment in cash or in kind, or
barter by a third party will be clearly identified as advertising or a paid promotion.
•Solicitation. There should be no suggestion by any journalist or members of staff of an
editorial provider, that editorial can be obtained in any way other than through editorial
•Sampling. Third parties may provide samples or loans of products or services to
journalists where it is necessary for such journalists to test, use, taste or sample the product or service in order to articulate an objective opinion about the product or service.
The length of time required for sampling should be agreed in advance and all loaned
products or services should be returned after sampling.
•Policy statement. Editorial providers should prepare a policy statement regarding the
receipt of gifts or discounted products and services from third parties by their journalists
and other staff. Journalists and other staff should be requir ed to read and sign acceptance
of the policy. The policy should be available for public inspection.
Notwithstanding questions about the IPRA survey validity, it reflects genuine
concern in the business community about ethical standards and practices of media. While
corruption among public officers and media managers is problematic in some part of the
developing world, ethical standards are a continuing focus of journalistic associations in
the more developed regions. Corruption, however, remains an important indirect measure
of behavioral levels of opaqueness. While low levels of corruption does not necessarily
correlate with high levels of transparency, in most cases, high corruption clearly thrives
in an environment of low transparency.2
The Subaltern Boundaries of Transparency
Cultural theorists have envisioned the shape of new “global communities”
through such conceptual tools as “ethnoscapes” and “mediascapes” (Appadurai, 1996),
“frontstage” and “backstage” behaviors (Meyrowitz, 1992), but the potential global
sweep over a staggering stage of wrenching human problems has its own range of
meaning and significance. From an audience perspective, a global gaze made possible by communication technologies presupposes a daunting emotional challenge. Evidence of
the problems associated with the new scope of surveillance is found in the diagnosis of
“compassion fatigue” as a reason the larger public might become disinterested in
international news (Moeller, 1999).
Neither should we underestimate the force of local mentalities—folklore,
language, tradition and stereotypes. Such identity formations are not easily displaced by
other community formations such as globalization (Bugrova, 2000). Even in relatively
advanced, developed societies, where globalization more directly affects everyday life,
local identities and self interests persist, reacting to various kinds of state policies and
ideologies of control, containment, and development, precipitating strikingly volatile
situations and social cleavage (Warren, 1993). At their base, however, persist the
historical roles and functions of ethnic and cultural patterns.
The cultural currents that shape national identity arise from massive structural
changes affecting identity and consciousness, involving significantly diminished role of
religion, dynasty and temporality. In this view, the transformation of national identity is
grounded in the means of communication production because it creates a unified field of
communicative exchange. Transparency is also relative to the “openness of places” in
which the boundaries are becoming “far more open than they have been in the past”
(Massey, 1995, p. 58). How those boundaries might be reconfigured in globalization is of
considerable interest in social and cultural studies (Chan & McIntyre, 2002).
Contrasting “weapons of the weak” and “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1985, 1992)
also suggests how ethnic and cultural groups stubbornly maintain their subaltern
identities, interests and meanings, even when confronted with threats to the ir physical and cultural survival. In this framework, hidden transcripts consists of the discourse that takes
place “offstage” by either dominant or subordinate social groups. Echoing the earlier
notion of the “spiral of silence” (Noelle-Neumann, 1984), the suppression of a group’s
discourse is not a matter of what is true or false empirically. The public transcript is the
normative ideal of an open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate the
In James C. Scott’s analysis of hidden transcripts, the “masks” of discourse are a
reaction to mastery and control, contrasted with the so-called masks of humility,
obedience and loyalty of subordinates. He further identifies double-meaning discourse as
an additional level of political discourse that functions beneath the formal level of media
communication. Double-meaning discourse can be found in rumor, gossip, folktales,
jokes, songs, rituals, codes and euphemisms. The act of making these hidden transcripts
publicly explicit can erupt in an “explosion” of social confrontation, Scott argues.
To avoid confronting dominant forces and to deal with domination, subordinates
engage in a variety of creative and divergent behaviors, including:
•Backstage talk—What is said outside the earshot of power holders. Domination
creates backstage resentment that is sometimes reinforced by the subordinate group
through punishing the over dutiful. The strength of sanctions deployed to enforce
conformity depends on the cohesiveness of the subordinated group.
•Manipulative acting—The subordinate performance of encouraging smiles,
attentive listening, appreciative laughter and comments of affirmation, admiration or
concern. The strength of sanctions deployed to enforce conformity depends on the
cohesiveness of the subordinate group.
•Fantasies of misfortune—Expression of anger and reciprocal aggression
consciously suppressed. The subordinate feel joy at the misfortune of the dominant, and
on occasion may take action to bring about the misfortune directly.
Such subaltern strategies further confound and obscure the normative standards of
transparent discourse, even while they sustain local interests.
Considered together, these varied uses of the language of transparency suggest the
broad scope of democratic political and social changes on the global stage. Although the
metaphor of transparency is widespread in popular institutional discourse, it deflects
deeper problems toward democratic inclusiveness and institutional accountability. At
bottom, these calls for transparency lack adequate grounding in the hegemonic influence
More specifically, the mass media are implicated as a key mechanism in the processes
of transparency, both prescriptively and ascriptively. The strengthening of independent
media is believed by most analysts to promote democratic reforms, but institutional
campaigns against corruption have recently focused on promoting “media transparency”
by institutional interests that are sometimes charged with influencing the same media.
The momentum toward global transparency presumes the weakening of the “culture of
secrecy” that prevails in some nations, including reforms against various levels of
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