Legalised Piracy

By Julian Petley

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In 2003, Vertigo joined a whole series of NGOs in blowing the gaff on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), a scheme hatched secretively within the World Trade Organisation to ‘liberalise’ the global trade in services. This meant removing all governmental regulations deemed ‘barriers’ to international trade, as well as measures regarded as ‘interfering’ with the market such as ‘discriminatory’ government subsidies. Not only would this have left services in developing countries entirely at the mercy of rapacious western service providers, but it could have destroyed the BBC licence fee and any other form of public support for broadcasting regarded by Murdoch and his ilk as ‘unfair’ competition. No wonder we called it ‘legalised piracy’.

Fortunately we were far from alone in our concerns, and the GATS monstrosity stirred some powerful international counter-forces into action. This culminated in UNESCO’s 2005 General Conference approving the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The US and Israel voted against, and Australia, Honduras, Liberia and Nicaragua abstained. By 18 March 2007 the Convention had gained enough signatories to achieve legal force. To date 78 states have signed, the UK in November 2008.

The Convention rests on a number of basic premises about cultural diversity; for example, that it is ‘an important factor that allows individuals and peoples to express and to share with others their ideas and values’ and that ‘this diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities and cultural expressions of the peoples and societies making up humanity’. This being so, it recognises ‘the need to take measures to protect the diversity of cultural expressions, including their contents, especially in situations where cultural expressions may be threatened by the possibility of extinction or serious impairment’, and emphasises the fact that ‘cultural diversity is strengthened by the free flow of ideas, and that it is nurtured by constant exchanges and interaction between cultures’. More fundamentally, the Convention is based on the idea that ‘cultural activities, goods and services have both an economic and a cultural nature, because they convey identities, values and meanings, and must therefore not be treated as solely having commercial value’. A resounding shot across the WTO bows.

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Signatories to the Convention agree to protect and promote cultural diversity within their own bounds whilst at the same time being open to cultural goods and services from other countries, especially those whose cultural industries are in need of protection and/or development. More specifically, they agree to ‘reaffirm the sovereign rights of States to maintain, adopt and implement policies and measures that they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory’. Measures include those aimed at

• providing domestic independent cultural industries and activities in the informal sector effective access to the means of production, dissemination and distribution of cultural activities, goods and services;

• encouraging non-profit organizations, as well as public and private institutions and artists and other cultural professionals, to develop and promote the free exchange and circulation of ideas, cultural expressions and cultural activities, goods and services, and to stimulate both the creative and entrepreneurial spirit in their activities;

• establishing and supporting public institutions, as appropriate;

• nurturing and supporting artists and others involved in the creation of cultural expressions;

• enhancing diversity of the media, including through public service broadcasting.

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The Convention clearly recognises that the cultures most under threat from globalisation are those of the developing countries and of countries in transition. It is thus necessary for signatory countries to ‘strengthen international cooperation and solidarity in a spirit of partnership with a view, in particular, to enhancing the capacities of developing countries in order to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions’. More specifically, signatories must endeavour to strengthen the cultural industries of developing countries through:

• creating and strengthening cultural production and distribution capacities in developing countries;

• facilitating wider access to the global market and international distribution networks for their cultural activities, goods and services;

• enabling the emergence of viable local and regional markets;

• adopting, where possible, appropriate measures in developed countries with a view to facilitating access to their territory for the cultural activities, goods and services of developing countries;

• providing support for creative work and facilitating the mobility, to the extent possible, of artists from the developing world;

• encouraging appropriate collaboration between developed and developing countries in the areas, inter alia, of music and film.

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Clearly, then, an extremely important role for the Convention consists in protecting and supporting the cultural industries of developing countries. But, equally obviously, it is also of tremendous importance to those fighting for the provision of indigenous, culturally-specific, public service media in countries such as the UK. One wonders, for example, if Ofcom took it into consideration when formulating its plans to flog off digital spectrum to the highest bidder, which quite clearly has implications for cultural diversity. Judging by the hole-in-the-corner manner in which the government ratified the Convention one can only assume that it hoped that no-one would notice, thus enabling it to add it to the list of international obligations which it chooses either to ignore or to fulfill minimally. In which case it will be up to the growing UK Coalition for Cultural Diversity (of which Vertigo is a member) loudly to remind them of their commitments and to bring these to the widest possible attention.


Julian Petley teaches at Brunel University.