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Rethinking News Agencies, National Development and Information Imperialism

Looking back on the New World Information and Communication Order debate of the 1970s when the global domination of four western news agencies was seen as a form of information imperialism, this essay points out that in some ways it looks like there has been a further deterioration in the relations of power. But there has been both the significant growth of regional players since the 1970s and the internet since the 1990s. Against the background of the current paradigmatic shift of development communication from state-led to market-led development, and a comparative study of news agencies in China, India and Russia, it argues that there is scope for rearticulating the role and significance of news agencies, even within a flawed, hierarchical system, that is more positive than what the old discourse might have indicated.


Rethinking News Agencies, National Development and Information Imperialism

Oliver Boyd-Barrett

Looking back on the New World Information and Communication Order debate of the 1970s when the global domination of four western news agencies was seen as a form of information imperialism, this essay points out that in some ways it looks like there has been a further deterioration in the relations of power. But there has been both the significant growth of regional players since the 1970s and the internet since the 1990s. Against the background of the current paradigmatic shift of development communication from state-led to market-led development, and a comparative study of news agencies in China, India and Russia, it argues that there is scope for rearticulating the role and significance of news agencies, even within a flawed, hierarchical system, that is more positive than what the old discourse might have indicated.

Oliver Boyd-Barrett ( is at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

Information Imperialism

ational news agencies have a long-established place both within discourses of development communication and media, and information imperialism. During the 1970s, in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)-sponsored New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate, news agencies were assigned a privileged role as examples of what was wrong with the global order of communication and as sites of potential reform. The relevance of news agencies was flagged, most notably, by Tunisia’s Information Minister Mustapha Masmoudi, in working paper No 31 of the MacBride Commission (its full report was published in 1980). The NWICO discourses framed information within anxieties about national sovereignty and the nefarious role of global news agencies in subverting national information sovereignty. Even if news from global agencies was channelled through government-controlled national news agencies, both governments and the media chafed at their dependency.

The main sources of concern were the two US agencies of that time, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), the British agency Reuters and the French agency Agence France Presse (AFP). None of these could have been described as wealthy relative to transnational corporations generally. Apart from the European television news exchange between public service broadcasters – Eurovision – the principal sources of wholesale television news were Visnews (in which Reuters had a stake; Reuters later acquired it outright), and UPITN (a collaboration between UPI and the British news company ITN, and later folded into Associated Press Television News, APTN). These commercial television news agencies also supplied footage to the Eurovision exchange. Supported by revenues from their members and/or clients in the world’s wealthiest media markets, the global agencies enjoyed privileged access to powerful western political and economic actors whose policies, investments and decisions had a global impact. They confessed no ideological agendas other than fidelity to the conventional norms of western news-gathering – accuracy, recency, objectivity and impartiality (leaving the door open to complaints related to inequities in their distribution of news-gathering resources, the range of countries and topics they prioritised, and the framing of individual stories). They had built news-gathering and newsdistribution networks with which no other agencies could compete although, within their spheres of interest, TASS of the Soviet Union and Xinhua of China, whose information at that time was free, tried their best.

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In the NWICO discourse, the system of powerful western news agencies, which had been built to serve, primarily, the world’s most influential western news media and, secondarily, media everywhere else, constituted a form of information imperialism. Information imperialism was a necessary adjunct to economic neo-imperialism – it constructed a way of seeing the world through information and images that both reflected and supported the unequal economic relations separating the so-called first, second and third worlds. The NWICO proposed to help less powerful countries resist information imperialism by (a) building or strengthening national news agencies; (b) forming newsexchange or collaborative networks to offset western news agency influence; and (c) providing clients with alternative or supplemental sources.

Contextual Shifts and Developments

Looking back on these debates some 40 years later, one may argue that in some ways there has been a further deterioration, not an amelioration, in these relations of power. In place of the four giant agencies that could make a reasonable claim to independent, global news-gathering and distribution, there are now only three – AP, AFP and Thomson Reuters. Two are based in New York

– AP, still a cooperative of daily US newspapers, and Thomson Reuters (although Thomson was founded in Canada, and the headquarters of Reuters operations remains in London). UPI has lost its place as a leading global news agency. The market in wholesale television news continues to be dominated by two players – APTN, which absorbed UPITN; and Reuters Television News, which absorbed Visnews. These are tied respectively to AP and Thomson Reuters. AFP is a smaller supplier of television news. The Russian news agency, ITAR-TASS, is less significant as a global news supplier than its predecessor, the Soviet TASS, was. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, in contrast, is growing in influence as a global news source, especially in Asia. More than ever, news agency services tilt towards economic news, and the interests of business, commerce, investment and finance. Even during the NWICO debates, Reuters experienced a lift-off as the world’s main supplier of sophisticated information, analytics and trading platform services for non-media business, finance and economic news clients, who now account for 95% of its revenue. Its near equal is Bloomberg, established in New York in 1986 by Michael Bloomberg (who has since served as Mayor of New York three times) as a business, finance and economic news agency. It subsequently developed political news services, has a business news cable channel and owns Business Week. Other news agencies, including Xinhua of China, the three main news agencies of Russia, and AFP, have followed suit but without comparable success.

Apparent intensification of informational imperialism in the realm of news agencies, however, does not constitute the full picture. Since the 1970s, there have been two contrasting contextual developments. The first has been the significant growth of other sources of global news distribution and supply. In the traditional “wholesale” news market, there continue to be regional players of note, including the Spanish agency EFE, strong on Hispanic news for South America, and dpa of Germany, with a reputation for reporting on the southern hemisphere. More important is the appearance of direct-to-home (DTH) global satellite television news. This includes the proliferation in the 1990s-2000s of 24/7 television news operations, of which CNN International (established 1991) based in Atlanta, Georgia, and BBC World News (established 1991), based in London, are leaders in terms of audience size and revenues. Their well-resourced websites carry original text and video news, and CNN has developed its own “wire” service in competition to AP, to which it no longer subscribes. To these have been added the global ventures of Al Jazeera (established 1996), based in Qatar, and of TeleSur (established 2005), based in Caracas. The strength of Al Jazeera is its “alternative” framing of global news through a Muslim perspective, although this constitutes a weakness in some western markets. Western media, in contrast, see the world through the lenses of “western” (corporate, elite, cultural) interests. Until now, survival as a global player has required penetration of lucrative western markets, and this has been denied to Al Jazeera on both economic and political grounds. TeleSur’s strength and weakness is its framing of global news through a relatively populist, South American lens. In 2009, Xinhua launched China Xinhua News Network Corporation (CNC). Other countries have launched comparable services (for example, Deutsche Welle; France 24; Russia Today) though not on the same scale. These resemble external service (radio) broadcasts of an earlier era – state-supported projects of soft diplomacy. On global markets the phenomenon of 24/7 still represents a rather narrow range of interests, US and British predominating, followed by a range of other services that are primarily regional or whose purpose is more openly that of “soft diplomacy”.

Even more significant has been the growth since the early 1990s of the internet, accessed regularly by almost two billion people in 2010, or by just a little short of a third of the global population ( This has revolutionised access to web-based services worldwide, and generated an appetite for yet more services. This transformation notwithstanding, it appears that the traditional news agencies and their clients still command a towering presence on the internet as sources of international news (Paterson 2010).

A second, related development since the 1970s, following the adoption of Chicago School Friedmanesque economics by the 1980s administrations of Ronald Reagan (US) and Margaret Thatcher (UK) has been the pace of globalisation, spurred by trade deregulation and the universalisation of market economics. Contributing to this development have been (a) growth in prosperity and power of transnational corporations chafing at the traditional restrictions on commerce imposed by nation states;

(b) the relative failure of many statist regimes to deliver on their promises to create better lives for their citizens in terms of material goods and opportunities; and (c) the construction of an international regulatory environment via organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, whose function has been to promote neoliberalism worldwide. Their net impact on communications has

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been to undercut the arguments of the NWICO advocates, who had focused their reformist hopes on greater state sovereignty over information and state-led efforts to offset the power of global media conglomerates and reduce information inequalities. Commitment to market economics undermines the rationale for state regulation over capital and information flows. Chicago School economics has demonstrably improved the fortunes of large numbers of people in many parts of the old “Third World” even as it has accentuated inequality within and between nations, and even as very large numbers of people (possibly about half the world’s population of 6.8 billion) continue to live in absolute poverty.

Where do these considerations leave the issue of news agencies and informational imperialism? What are the outstanding issues? In what follows, I first ask whether the relationship of news agencies to development communication has been appropriately articulated, noting their role as infrastructural facilitators of development communication. Second, there is the question of the role of news agencies in what is arguably the most significant paradigmatic shift for development communication since second world war – the conversion from state-led to market-led development. Third, there is scope for deeper understanding of how news agencies contribute to reconfigurations of national, cultural and political loyalties and identities accelerated by market-propelled globalisation. Finally, I argue that the basic concerns of the NWICO, with respect to agencies, have still to be remedied, since considerable global inequality of news-gathering and news-distribution resources persists.

Fundamental, and a continuing motif throughout, is the question of informational imperialism. If we conclude that news agencies have contributed more significantly than previously appreciated to both infrastructural informational capacity as well as to the articulation and support of paradigm shifts in the forms of development that any given society will allow or disallow, we have hopefully refined ideas of development communication, but what are the implications for informational imperialism? We can acknowledge the global neoliberal project as an achievement that was steered into existence principally by alliances of the global rich, in critical dependence on efficient information flows to whose construction news agencies contributed. This occurred within the context of a de-territorialised global communications space that has been significantly colonised by large infotainment conglomerates, and to which news agencies are linked as clients, suppliers or affiliates. Is this something to regret or to celebrate? If there is an answer, it depends on at least three considerations – whether the interlocutor stands to benefit or lose from this new order; whether the opportunities for potential happiness for the vast majority of the world’s population are elevated; and whether the planet can actually survive the externalities of industry-based development and mass consumption. With specific reference to news agencies, however, I shall argue there is scope for re-articulating the role and significance of news agencies, even within a flawed, hierarchical system, that is more positive than the NWICO discourse might have indicated.

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National Development Communication

The NWICO discourses framed news agencies primarily with reference to inequities of access to, and control over, global news flows. Nations at the receiving end of western-based global agency reporting had little control over how news was reported and distributed and were at a significant disadvantage in their relative inability to “frame” information about themselves on global news markets or to shape the news of the rest of the world that was domestically available. Global agency reporting was demonstrably lopsided in terms of the countries and topics that received most attention (Boyd-Barrett 1980; Boyd-Barrett and Thussu 1992). This had perceived negative consequences for the ability of nations to attract investment, ensure representation of their own “spin” on events, and promote their own goods and services. On the other hand, the NWICO discourses failed to pay sufficient regard to the different kinds of nation state and underestimated how domestic power imbalances (sometimes occasioned by western co-option of local elites), insufficiency of resources and other problems would devalue state-led solutions to the inequitable character of global news supply. When countries did establish or reformulate national agencies with goals and aspirations in line with the NWICO discourse, or participated in collaborative news exchange arrangements such as the Non-Aligned News Agencies Pool, such experiments often failed to deliver anything that was appreciably new, better, or in tune with a developmental agenda.

The developmental benefits of news agencies, nonetheless, extend well beyond content. Content is always important, but news agencies have an infrastructural impact on society that may be seen as facilitative of social change generally and without which any major social change is all the more difficult to achieve. The extent to which this infrastructure is tethered to state-articulated goals is important to the state, naturally, because agencies are critical components of campaigns to exert paradigm-changing reconfigurations of social structure, of political, cultural, and social relations, and of geography, ethnicity, gender and labour. Here are some of the positive infrastructural contributions of national news agencies.

  • (1) News agencies typically contribute to the formation of informational networks and to an informational environment that has a relation to territory and to units of political configuration, as well as, sometimes, to national, ethnic, linguistic and other markers of identity formation. In this sense, it may be that news agencies are components of an enabling communications infrastructure that has both top-down as well as bottom-up capabilities in a balance that is determined by many factors, even if the top-down may seem to prevail by reason of typical radial structures of communication from major urban centres or subcentres to peripheries.
  • (2) Bottom-up communication occurs in a variety of ways.
  • (a) Local correspondents, who may work full-time for the agency or, not infrequently, for a local newspaper or broadcaster, post information concerning local events to a regional or national clearing house which selects, edits and disseminates for broader audiences news that may be region-specific, national or international.
  • (b) For the local information that they report, local correspondents typically draw on local media in addition to their own sources and their own stories, and these may encompass a relatively broad diversity of owners, journalists, ideologies and topics.
  • (c) Collating news from different localities and regions, agencies become a conduit for inter-regional communication and, not infrequently, agency infrastructure allows for the collation and dissemination of region-specific news within the region from which it was obtained without central intervention, so that agencies can contribute to enhancement of local information distribution that is relatively independent of central-local power relations.
  • (d) News agencies with sufficient resources and imagination have the capability of organising mutual or collaborate investigations into issues (for example, environment, health, social justice, migration) that affect many different localities, within and between regions and nations, drawing on and coordinating local inputs.
  • (e) News agencies are typically technology leaders in the context of their own countries, and this now extends to mobile media and to social media – these media enhance the possibilities of access, convenience, and reaction.
  • (3) News agencies are frequently, if not typically, among the first sources of news of regional and national relevance and importance; in some countries, especially where they are not subject to pre-publication censorship, they are routinely ahead of intra-government channels and therefore may act as a significant lubricant to knowledge and understanding of political and other developments within the political apparatus as well as between the political apparatus and the people.
  • (4) News agencies deliver categories of original and/or timely information to end users both in metropolitan and rural districts that would ordinarily be beyond the capacity of such users if they were obliged to gather it for themselves. This information tends to be dominated by news of political, administrative and economic affairs and activities that are generally indispensable for life in these spheres and for the exercise of citizenship where this is operative. Even in the age of the internet, when there are many more open sources than even a few years ago, there are few sources that rival, in originality, comprehensiveness and credibility, the information packages that national news agencies typically assemble. News agencies defray the costs of gathering national and regional news from the revenues they derive from multiple users. Additionally, they frequently benefit from national and local subsidies of various kinds – these include subsidies from the government; subsidies from users who may contribute news, or cross-subsidies from entrepreneurial activities in which agencies sometimes engage to support their main product.
  • (5) From the previous points it is clear that even those agencies that devote most of their news-gathering and news-dissemination resources to major urban areas, as is the case of many – even those in countries that are predominantly agricultural – they nonetheless do contribute to urban-rural information flows and information connectedness, distributing periphery news to other peripheries, periphery news to the centre and central information to both the centre and peripheries.
  • (6) By, in effect, subsidising costs of news-gathering of client media, agencies release client resources for other purposes, and some of these purposes will likely be development-oriented or have the potential of being so.
  • (7) Agencies in most countries are training grounds that eventually benefit client media by nurturing the supply of trained information personnel, of whom some will originate from periphery areas. This may be regarded as another form of cross-subsidisation. Additionally, most agencies serve as a forum for inter-media communication, through diverse client media representation on their own governing boards or consultative bodies. Agencies themselves are usually involved in inter-agency networks of a regional and/or global character – these associations typically place development-related issues on their agendas, and invite speakers from governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies to address agency members on development-related issues. These associations also contribute to periphery-to-periphery inter-media communication within and between the periphery regions of the world, including west Asia, Africa and Asia.
  • (8) National agencies typically demonstrate sustainability and durability over time, even though there have been some failures and changes of ownership and structure. This is testimony to their perceived political importance by governments, and their perceived economic and informational importance to client or retail media. Agencies realise scale economies relative to other media; these may be accentuated by the impact of the internet in reducing costs of news-gathering and distribution.
  • (9) Many agencies are supported by governments (executive or parliamentary) through ownership, part-ownership, subsidy through fees paid by state bureaucracies, routine direct subsidies, and occasional direct subsidies for infrastructure development. While these forms of government support undoubtedly contribute to top-down information flows and even propaganda, they may also ensure the preservation of a space for public sphere agendas and dialogues within media environments that are otherwise highly commercialised or have been corrupted by corporate power and interest. Some governments provide subsidies to ensure that news of the public sphere is maintained even as agencies enhance their entrepreneurial activities. Government may even be a significant impulse to improvement in this sphere. Another way of saying this is that news agencies present themselves as one of the domains that even ineffective or corrupt governments can be seen to invest in in the development of a public sphere.
  • (10) Some news agencies, in addition to providing topical news and information, provide extensive information about their respective countries, governmental systems and cultures that is of general utilitarian value to local, national and international users. Some agencies even provide access to interactive services such as utility and tax payments, thus performing an essential function for citizenship.
  • News Agencies and the ‘Paradigmatic Shift’

    The most important paradigmatic change at state level in recent years, affecting most nation states of the world, has been the construction or enhancement of an apparatus of what I shall

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    call the market-economy state. As in the movement from agrarian feudalism to industrialisation in the economy of Britain through the 17th to 19th centuries, such a change has historically unparalleled implications for the material quality of life of large numbers of people who live in countries affected by this paradigm shift. I do not argue that an improvement in the material quality of life is an absolute good. I recognise also that beyond subsistence level, what constitutes “material quality of life” is inherently subjective and that the costs of providing a 21st century material quality of life may have vitiated the possibility of a return to what might sensibly have constituted a material quality of life before the tragic 18th century British “enclosure movement”. This was when powerful landowners prohibited peasants from cultivating lands previously considered part of a common domain. In fencing off such lands to raise sheep and profit from wool, the aristocracy drove peasants into the cities as fodder for the emerging industrial regime of mills and factories.

    Nor do I argue that accretions to material quality of life have been achieved in an equitable way. Large numbers of people, perhaps half the world’s population, have still to benefit from any of those improvements experienced by newly emerging middle classes, and there is a complex range of secondary and tertiary externalities arising from the degree of development that has been achieved (including environmental degradation, climate change, the extinction of species, and the depletion of vital resources) whose most extreme outcome would be planetary annihilation, clearly in nobody’s interest.

    My purpose rather is to try to address the enormity of the changes that the world has witnessed in the last two decades, particularly with reference to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and others like them, and with a view to thinking through some of the implications for development communication and the role of news agencies. It seems indisputable that the changes wrought in terms of economic growth in countries that are among the most populous of the world constitute some kind of “development” for very large numbers. The extent to which these changes have resulted from participatory models of development communication has surely been uneven, at best, reflecting contrasts of political system. But, equally, it would seem facile to deny any role to participation, discussion and negotiation at every level through which countries have generated and implemented their programmes of liberalisation even as one must allow for a considerable degree of top-down restructuring – as has occurred in Russia and China – not just from traditional centres of power but also from international organisations and from other, more powerful nation states. Effective implementation of such massive changes generally requires sustained informational campaigns and perception management (sometimes through the distraction of infotainment), which can only be achieved with the support of a relatively compliant or supportive media.

    In this context, I briefly refer to an agency that I believe exemplifies some of the issues and the possibilities for a central role in such dramatic transformations, Interfax News Agency of Russia. Interfax started out as, and has sustained a role of being, the

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    lar gest independent news agency in Russia since the closing days of the Soviet Union, in competition with two state-owned and controlled news agencies, ITAR-TASS and RIA-NOVOSTI. How has it achieved this, and in what ways might it be said that Interfax is contributing to development in Russia?

    Independence of Ownership and Operation

    Interfax was founded in 1989, in the final years of the Soviet Union, and benefited from the top-down processes of perestroika and glasnost initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s regime from 1996 onwards. Interfax, which grew out of a state organisation, Radio Moscow, and later asserted its independence, developed a niche in providing exclusive news, initially distributed by fax, in a manner that helped explain the complexities of political change during that period and in a style and language suited for and deemed credible by the international media community. Interfax also became one of the first or the first independent news agency voice for the federal districts of Russia, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the old republics, now independent nations, in which it has built daughter agencies. Interfax independence has been sustained even as the federal government under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in the 2000s has eliminated much of the influence during the 1990s of the so-called media “oligarchs”, and re-exerted a strong element of government control over federal (mainly Moscow-based) television and the print media.

    A Range of Financial News Services

    Interfax has contributed to the development of the infrastructure of the market economy in Russia in a way that has not only facilitated the opening of that economy to the global economy but has also preserved a national institutional presence on the domestic market, curtailing what would otherwise be the increasing penetration of the market by Reuters, Bloomberg, Factiva and Dow Jones. The Interfax contribution to the construction of the market economy in Russia is further enhanced by (i) state acknowledgement of Interfax as one of the institutions to which Russian companies are obliged by law to disclose their company information. This permits Interfax to construct an interactive data base, SPARK, that has become an indispensable tool of business information and analytics for both Russian and international investors; (ii) strategic partnerships with international players such as Bloomberg, Dun and Bradstreet, Moody’s, Experian and others have enabled Interfax to enhance its position in the Russian and CIS market for business fundamentals, market data, investor relations, company credit information and ratings and, in the future, development of services that will permit companies to assess the payment histories of possible clients, suppliers or partners;

    (iii) Interfax, on the basis of the centrality and credibility that it has achieved, is also a key player in working with the Russian exchanges, RTS and MICEX, and with the Central Bank of Russia, among other institutions, to increase the transparency of Russian business practices, and develop the rules for such activities as credit rating and ranking and for the development and recognition of agencies that seek to accredit such activities.

    News Agencies and the Reconfiguration of Identities

    The institution of the news agency has shown itself highly adaptable to changing configurations of political, social and cultural power. Historically this was evident by the speed with which, in the period of decolonisation in the 1960s and 1970s, what had been the bureaus of AFP and Reuters became the nuclei of national news agencies. A similar process was again evident during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, with the appearance of new national news agencies in the old Soviet republics and, again, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia during the 1990s when new national agencies arose in the Balkan republics, emerging from bureaus of the older Yugoslavian agency, Tanjug.

    Certainly after the collapse of the European-dominated news agency cartel in the 1930s, and maybe before, national news agencies have engaged in bilateral and/or regional news and information exchanges by which they have broadened their news agendas in conformity with their territorial, diasporic, political and ideological allegiances. Such exchanges are sometimes formalised into, or are a result of the formation of regional-based associations such as the Alliance of Mediterranean News Agencies (AMNA), the European Alliance of Press Agencies (EAPA), the Federation of Arab News Agencies (FANA), and the Organisation of Asia and Pacific News Agencies (OANA).

    News agencies are adaptable not just to the formation of new nation states or to emerging regional and other alliances between nation states but also to shifting identities within nation states. A recent example is provided by the national news agency of Catalonia, based in Barcelona, Agencia de Noticies de Catalunya (ACN), supported and subsidised by the government of Catalonia. This facilitates the emergence of a media infrastructure at the service of national identity construction within the pluri-national state of Spain. Established in 2000, ACN has a broader network of correspondents throughout the region than any competing news agency (including the national agency of Spain, EFE), gathering news from the different parts of Catalonia and disseminating it to news media of the cities and regions of Catalonia. Increasingly, the news media, public institutions and enterprises of Catalonia are subscribing to ACN; most maintain their subscriptions to EFE, although some have chosen to add ACN at the expense of dropping what up until recently had been the number two agency choice, Europa Press. Second, one consequence of this is that the agency is helping to nurture a new generation of Catalonian journalists, who are trained from the beginning to work on a multi-platform basis, equipped with a backpack that includes a television-quality video camera, audio recorder, boom, camera and laptop computer. Not all journalists are expected to provide stories for all these platforms all of the time; it depends on the story and on where the journalist is. Journalists outside the major urban centres are more likely to be working alone, without other back-up, and they may provide stories for the different platforms. More senior journalists may even file stories to different categories of client at their own discretion, although in sensitive cases, there will likely be central editorial consultation, if not intervention. In these ways, the news agency is introducing new practices of gathering and disseminating news to the region, which would not otherwise have been possible, in a way that significantly enhances public sphere communication at the regional level, and in a way that significantly supplements the efforts of the bigger national news agency of Spain. Care is taken by the agency not to privilege those journalists that operate from the centre but to regard and treat journalists equally regardless of their location. The model developed by this news agency may also inform the development of news agencies in other communities of Spain.

    Global Balance of News Agency Influence

    Some 30 years following the NWICO debates (McBride 1980), the president of the OANA and also head of Antara, the national news agency of Indonesia, Ahmad Yusuf, complained of the continuing dependence of national news agencies on the big agencies of the developed countries (2009). In contrast, research reported in 2010 from the News Agency Promotion Foundation (NAPF) at Hallym University, South Korea, found that the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, accounted for as many stories in a sample of nine Asian news agencies as the total number of stories coming from the western major news wires, and that most Asian news and most news of North America and Europe was coming from Asian news agencies (Choi 2010). I shall address the paradox of continuing perceptions of dependency on western sources, on the one hand, and evidence of a shift in patterns of dependency, on the other.

    The 2010 NAPF study is indicative of change, at least in the area of textual news as relayed by Asian news agencies. Choi conducted a content analysis of nine national news agencies in Asia over nine days in July 2009. The analysis privileged the 10 most important stories on local language editions of agency websites. In terms of country, Asian news agencies covered the US first of all, followed by North Korea, Iran, and China, among the top locations of reported news stories. In terms of region, however, Asia was preferred, and North America typically ranked between second and fourth position. Of all news stories, 33% came from Xinhua, the same proportion as the total stories coming from the major western news wires. Xinhua influence was particularly notable in the case of Philippine’s PNA and Malaysia’s Bernama news agencies. Most Asian news on Asian news agency services came from Asian sources. Just 7.4% of Asian news in the Asia news agencies originated from western major news wires. Even North American and European news stories were mostly coming from Asian news agencies. Xinhua dominated. Asian news agencies tended to cover Asia more positively (than western news agencies) while keeping fairly neutral overall.

    This study gives a single snap-shot in time; it does not compare information directly with previous studies, so does not establish a trend, although we might assume this from other, indirectly related studies. It is based on the top 10 stories on agency websites. It is not unlikely that separate patterns are established among the most prominent stories, on sections of agency sites that are freely available, as opposed to subscription services for media clients. The study is based on news agencies, not on consumer, or retail media, where choices may favour western-based news

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    agencies, especially where these are subscribed to directly. There is no consideration of quality. We cannot tell whether Xinhua stories are typically lighter, briefer, more superficial than stories from other sources, or whether Xinhua is itself dependent on western sources for some of the leading stories, for example, from Iraq or Afghanistan. There is no consideration of price. We do not know whether Xinhua was performing well because its services were cheaper, in comparison with western-based news agencies. Additionally, as we have seen, the study is based on traditional text news and does not account for audio-visual news services or for financial, business and economic news services, to which national news agencies do not necessarily subscribe. In many markets of the world, as we have seen, the predominant wholesale suppliers of audio-visual television news footage are Associated Press Television (APTN) and Reuters Television (Paterson 1998).

    Is there evidence of a shift towards a permanent supplanting of the traditional, principally western sources of global news supply towards competitive Asian sources? If so, which sources are most likely to be favoured in the future? How do discernible shifts in news agency influence relate, if at all, to developments in the foreign policy horizons of their originating countries? I shall consider three likely contenders, in terms of country – China, India and Russia (which bridges east and west and has influence across much of central Asia). I have not considered the case of Japan’s leading news agency, Kyodo, in this analysis. Kyodo does claim 43 overseas bureaus (25 in Asia) and sells to major international media such as the BBC, Bloomberg and the Financial Times. It claims to cover Japan and the rest of the world from Japanese and Asian viewpoints, a domestic prioritisation that is typical of the international coverage of some of the larger national news agencies.

    In assessing China, India and Russia, I have addressed six factors, variables or considerations. These are extracted from my earlier studies of international and national agencies (Boyd-Barrett 1980, 1998, 2010) as likely to be associated with global activity now or in the future. In the first instance, I asked whether the selected countries or their leading news agencies show evidence of desire to become players in global news markets. Desire is generally a prerequisite for corresponding behaviour. Second, considering that those western agencies that do have a global presence have each traditionally enjoyed a dominant position on a domestic or, in the case of Reuters, regional market that is relatively wealthy in terms of resources, I have asked how the news agencies of China, India and Russia respectively fare in their domestic markets. Third, noting that the established western agencies have demonstrated considerable capacity for competition in global markets, as evidenced, among other things, by their flexibility and willingness to venture new products and technologies, how do the news agencies of China, Russia and India fare in this respect? Fourth, given that those established western agencies with a strong global presence each demonstrate considerable, although not in all cases complete (thinking particularly of AFP, which depends on subscriptions from government agencies for over 40% of its income), independence from their host governments, how do the news agencies of China, Russia and India perform on independence? Fifth, given that some western-based agencies with a global presence (in particular,

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    Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg) enjoy a lucrative market share in providing financial, business and economic news for non-media clients, how well situated are the agencies of China, India and Russia in this sphere? Finally, it is clear that the established western-based agencies have sufficient resources to maintain the correspondent networks, clients and technologies that a global news system, originating much of its own copy, requires. What evidence is there that agencies of China, India and Russia are comparable?

    Global Aspiration

    Both the Chinese government and its news agency, Xinhua, demonstrate significant aspiration towards global news media markets. The Chinese government has growing enthusiasm for “soft power” ventures, demonstrated, for example, by the opening of Confucius Institutes in many countries. Supporting such soft power, Xinhua maintains an almost unparalleled network of bureaus around the world and for decades it has supplied services to media on a global basis even if these have had most influence in countries of the South. Xinhua launched CITV in Hong Kong, with a view to supplying television news to overseas audiences. Xinhua maintains a strong website, in Chinese and English languages, available for global audiences and providing textual, audio, and video news services. The Chinese government has shown tolerance, if not support, for Phoenix Satellite Television, which carries news of China to a diasporic audience worldwide. Most recently (2009), as we have seen, Xinhua, drawing on government investment funds, has established a global Englishlanguage television service, CNC. Strong evidence of aspiration in the case of China almost certainly relates to its rapid rise as a global political and economic power in recent decades, and to its ever more assertive protection of territorial and other interests in the Asia-Pacific rim (for instance, Taiwan) and further afield.

    In the case of India, the dominant news agency, the Press Trust of India (pti), has shown little or no interest in playing a global role, and even its regional ambitions, formed at the time of its post-war partnership with Reuters (which ended in 1953) have not much developed in the following years. Along with its smaller competitors, United News of India (UNI), Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) and Asian News International (ANI), PTI’s regional or global aspirations appear to be limited to the supply of services of news about India and the Indian diaspora to members of the diaspora in the US, the UK and the Gulf states. Unlike in the case of China, therefore, Indian news agencies appear not to relate in any very direct way to changing horizons of foreign policy interests as these may be related to the subcontinent and central Asia.

    In the case of Russia, none of the three leading news agencies (ITAR-TASS, RIA-NOVOSTI and Interfax) has recently demonstrated strong global aspirations. Such aspiration was more in evidence in the case of TASS in the days of the Soviet Union. But its post-Soviet successor, ITAR-TASS, an important, state-owned news source of Russian news for the Russian media and world, has scaled back from the position that it once held. The state has boosted RIA-NOVOSTI, which supported establishing an English-language international television channel, Russia Today (RT). RIA-NOVOSTI still has a long established reputation for feature or soft news coverage. Interfax is independent of the state, and became very popular among western and other international media for independent and exclusive news in the English and Russian languages in the turbulent final years of the Soviet Union, since which it has grown into a strong national general and financial news agency. While selling internationally, its news gathering is centred principally in Russia, the CIS countries and the old Republics of the Soviet Union (Vartanova and Frolova 2010; author interviews 2010). We can say that Russian news agencies, like the government of Russia, are principally focused on their “near abroad” in the CIS, central Asia and, in the case of Interfax, China (where Interfax is a significant player in reporting and disseminating economic news).

    Domestic Market

    Xinhua has a government-approved monopoly in the general news agency business of China. Until 2009, this was extended to its role as a monitor of financial news services of western-based news agencies in China. Xinhua’s domestic strength is enhanced by ownership of several newspapers and magazines (placing it in a potentially competitive relationship with some of its own “retail” clients). Some of these generate substantial advertising and circulation revenues. In China, as overseas, Xinhua operates on all platforms. It may one day be allowed to link with a domestic television broadcaster to further strengthen its skills and presence in this area (Xin 2010). The Chinese media market is new and rapidly growing, even as ownership and control contracts (with the government’s encouragement; Zhao 2008). Xinhua can expect to continue to serve a growing and consolidating sector. In terms of global television news supply, CCTV has a commanding presence, as regional broadcasters must carry CCTV news, and CCTV will increasingly be able to look to supply from Xinhua’s CNC, otherwise unavailable to the domestic Chinese market.

    The Indian market is somewhat more fragmented. PTI’s own estimate of a 90% market share may be an overestimate (Shrivastava 2010) based mainly on the number of clients for its traditional text services. India had a chance to centralise its news agency market in the period of Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” in 1975 when all agencies were merged into one: Samachar. With the lifting of the state of Emergency, Samachar was forcibly disintegrated and the old agencies re-emerged. A large proportion of all news media clients publish information in languages other than English and this factor tends to fragment the market between relatively wealthy English-language newspapers and less wealthy but more numerous local-language publications. In general, this is not a market that is accustomed to spending much on news agencies. PTI’s less established competitors, IANS and ANI, have harnessed newer technologies and are responsive to the appetite for Indian news from international new media clients and the international Indian diaspora.

    In Russia, the domestic market is principally divided among three agencies, of whom two are state-owned and one is private. The state agencies are well resourced, but the private agency Interfax is by far the most cited source of general news for Russian and international news media. A 2005 GfK survey of Russian and foreign media operating in Russia found that Interfax was the “leader among news agencies…93% of the surveyed media use Interfax News. Almost 60% of respondents named Interfax as their main agency, that is, the services of which they use the most.” For example, Interfax is only Russian agency source to which CNN’s Moscow bureau subscribes. Several Interfax clients interviewed by the author in Moscow in June 2010 indicated that Interfax was their primary, if not their only major, source.

    Global Competitiveness

    Xinhua has demonstrated flexibility in converting, in the 1980s, from a classic state-controlled propaganda agency to a statesubsidised news and information agency partly dependent on sales to domestic and international customers in the 1990s. On its domestic market it has also demonstrated considerable ingenuity in growing its advertising-supported retail newspaper publishing business and in preparing the ground to supply television news (although the government does not permit Xinhua to compete with the state-controlled national television service, CCTV), as well as experimenting with a range of entrepreneurial initiatives at local bureau levels. On the international markets such flexibility is in further evidence as the agency prepares for a new era in which it will likely be a significant supplier of financial, business and economic news services and of television news services (Xin 2010).

    In India, all major agencies have demonstrated interest in new products and initiatives, but rarely have these significantly transformed their respective business models. ANI is perhaps the most multi-media, multi-platform of all the agencies, principally on behalf of the diasporic market, in business to business, and business to consumer operations (Shrivastava 2010). In Russia, the performance of the state agencies has been influenced by the extent to which they have been favoured by the Kremlin. ITAR-TASS was once the strongest agency, but during the Putin years, RIA-NOVOSTI was nurtured into becoming a multi-media, multiplatform business, lending significant support to Russia’s major overseas broadcasting initiative, Russia Today. Interfax has demonstrated considerable agility in its transformation from being a source of exclusive general Russian news in the English and Russian languages, delivered by fax and radio to the international media, and embassy and corporate clients, to becoming a multimodal source of general news for the Russian and foreign media and non-media clients, and at the same time expanding its presence in the market for financial, business and economic news and information products for media and, particularly, non-media clients in Russia, the CIS countries, the old Russian republics and globally. The Interfax Group (comprising more than 30 companies) has spawned partly autonomous regional news agencies within Russia, and in some of the CIS and old Soviet republics, and maintains a strong presence in China. Evidence of flexibility, competitiveness and strategic partnerships (with organisations that range from Bloomberg and Thomson-Reuters to Moody’s, Experian and Dun and Bradsheet) is principally directed at consolidating market share on the domestic Russian, CIS and central Asian markets.

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    Xinhua is a government news agency. Since the 1980s, it has charged for its news services and for a period in the 1990s moved within sight of being a fully self-sustaining news agency (Xin 2010). But it decided against that route, in favour of remaining a government news agency, depending on a state subsidy of $106 million in 2006. The state has played an important role in furnishing funds for Xinhua’s expansion into the financial, business and economic news markets and for the launch of its international television news service, CNC. The news agencies of India, in contrast, are independent of government, despite a brief period in the 1970s in which they were forcibly merged under state control. PTI then returned to being a cooperative of Indian newspapers. IANS and ANI are privately owned. In Russia, as we have seen, there is only one significant, independent national news agency, Interfax, although its success has partly been sustained by the agency’s ability to insert itself into the heart of the country’s network of leading financial institutions. A competitor agency, RBK, a multimedia conglomerate, built by debt acquisition and whose assets included a television business news channel, was strong in the early 2000s but was severely affected by the 2008 economic crisis (Vartanova and Frolova 2010). In effect, therefore, the agency that appears to be generally the most successful as a source of Russian general and financial news is also independent of government.

    Market Economy Orientation

    With the support of government funding, Xinhua in 2010 was preparing to penetrate the market for financial, business and economic news in competition with leading global players. It had developed strong relations with the Chinese central bank and stock exchanges, partnerships reminiscent of a similar role in helping develop the infrastructure of an emerging media market that had been earlier achieved by Interfax in Russia. It remains to be seen whether the international financial and trading communities will trust the services of a governmentowned agency. Xinhua revenues projected in 2009 for 2015 were considerable, at $1.5 billion. But this would still represent only a modest fraction of the revenues earned by global competitors Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters in 2009, and might suggest that China’s ambition for financial services is limited to domination of the domestic Chinese market. Even here, Xinhua must overcome the constraints of operating from within a government bureaucracy, and the challenge of finding sufficient recruits of international calibre (Xin 2010). The Indian news agencies have not shown indications of particular strength in this sphere of market economy beyond the development of economically focused services of consumer interest. In Russia, each of the major agencies is involved in business, financial and economic news. The leader is Interfax. It is followed by RIA-NOVOSTI, which is being encouraged by the state to develop services in this sphere. RIA is followed by PRIME-TASS, owned in part by ITAR-TASS. Interfax sources told this author in 2010 that the agency’s total revenues were in the range of $50-$60 million a year in the late 2000s, of which 65% was accounted for by

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    financial, business and economic news products, and that these were substantially greater than revenues earned by its competitors from economic and financial news services for non- media clients. How much further RIA-NOVOSTI or ITAR-TASS can grow in this area may depend in part, as in the case of Xinhua in China, on whether international financial and trading communities will trust the services of a government-owned agency in realms in which even minute market movements can generate or lose substantial amounts of money for investors.


    Xinhua has in place the resource fundamentals necessary to operate globally, with 117 news bureaus. It has provided textual news services globally for several decades; and it now produces television news services and online news services for international clients in both Chinese and English languages, and is being equipped to compete in financial, business and economic news markets. In India, none of the current news agencies have demonstrated a global capacity or have the resources to sustain global capacity; they maintain foreign bureaus in only a few countries and their revenue bases are comparatively weak, although all operate services for diasporic markets. In Russia, similarly, none of the agencies today indicate that they have sufficient resources and revenues to sustain a global capacity that would compete with existing majors such as Thomson-Reuters, Bloomberg, AP or AFP. Nor is there much emphasis on a Russian diaspora. Of much greater interest on the part of all three major agencies is their capacity to cover and to sell news services to media and non-media clients beyond the federal provinces of Russia itself, to the CIS countries and the old republics. Interfax has several daughter companies that operate in these markets. In the Ukraine, for example, it has a total staff of about 100 covering a country whose population is approaching 50 million.


    Returning to the NWICO debates of the 1970s, I noted that discourses of development communication made frequent references to the place of news agencies and, in particular, to the domination of global news gathering and distribution by a small cluster of western agencies based in London, New York and Paris. I showed that in significant respects the problems identified in the 1970s still persist in 2010. I considered whether substantial changes of global and media context would make a difference to any appraisal as to whether news agencies continue to matter in development communication and whether the persistence of some of the original problems should continue to be a concern. My answer turned on four considerations. I considered whether the NWICO had necessarily focused on the right questions with respect to news agencies and showed how, regardless of specific content, it may be argued that national news agencies have and continue to perform significant operations for development communication, but primarily at an infrastructural level. Insofar as most countries of the world are now served by such facilitative structures, there has been a significant improvement. I then turned to what I have called the “paradigmatic shift” to the market economy nation not in the spirit of celebrating that shift, which is not my intent, but in the spirit of acknowledging that on the basis of some important measures this shift has indeed inspired important developments that have positively affected the lives of many hundreds of millions – if that is not “development”, whatever its shortcomings, it would be difficult to imagine what is. And using Interfax of Russia as a case study, I have indicated just some of the ways in which national news agencies can be significant components in the execution of any such shift. Third, I considered to what extent ideas of “development” and news agency contributions to it have to do with the re-configuration of social relations in the wake of significant paradigmatic shifts of the kind I have described, and I provided several examples of these.

    Finally, I returned to what was possibly the major NWICO concern about news agencies – the inequitable structure of global news gathering and distribution, to which they contributed by commission or omission. I noted that there have indeed been significant developments that might promise a more equitable global news system, at least on the basis of nation states. On five out of six criteria, Xinhua of China scored reasonably well. Its principal shortcoming was lack of independence from government. But it had strong global aspiration, domestic market strength, evidence of global competitiveness, market economy orientation and proven resources. In India, the largest agency, PTI, demonstrated no evidence of global orientation (although all agencies of India are disposed to services for the diaspora), and has evinced relatively modest evidence of flexibility and competitiveness (interestingly, PTI did try out television news before most other agencies, and moved early into the local language market). PTI rated strongly on independence of government, but modestly on market economy orientation and on resources. In the case of Russia, there was little evidence of global aspiration. The domestic market was somewhat fragmented. There was a lot of evidence of flexibility and competitiveness but this was principally demonstrated on the Russian market (with the exception of RIA-NOVOSTI’s backing for Russia Today). Two of the three agencies were state-owned and subsidised. There was evidence of market economy orientation on the part of all three agencies, but none currently demonstrated sufficient resources for global capacity to compete with the established western-based agencies. In short, Russia ranked middling on most criteria and low on the others.

    This analysis supports the view that within Asia the country most likely or best positioned to make a bid for equivalence, longterm, with the western-based global news agencies is China and, in particular, its news agency, Xinhua. Although its lowest rating is for independence of government, this need not in itself be a crippling factor, since France’s AFP depends on state subscriptions for over 40% of its annual revenue. Unlike AFP, Xinhua is accountable to the Communist Party, a very different relationship to the state than that of AFP, and potentially a much greater liability in efforts to win global recognition as a leading and trustworthy source of global news. Offering Xinhua services at a lower cost is unlikely to be a sufficient strategy for winning over the world’s leading news media. A steady supply of substantial, original, fast and exclusive news stories from all countries of the world, on the other hand, would be a far better strategy, but one which, for the time being, is likely to conflict with Xinhua’s status as a government agency. On the basis of these considerations, the indications are of a continuation into the short to medium term of the strong continuing influence in Asia of the major western-based news agencies as underwriters of the infrastructure of original global news supply.

    Have the anxieties and concerns of the NWICO discourse been rendered somewhat redundant over the past 30 odd years? No. The principal, overriding concern was to foster a global media system that was truly plural in terms of access to the opportunities for expression offered by media technologies, plurality of representation in media content, and equitable, affordable access to reception of and interaction with media services. If anything, this concern is even more intensely important today than it was in 1980 because the underlying problems facing our species and our planet have intensified. Where the NWICO got it wrong was principally in its failure to assess (1) how far statist solutions to economic and informational problems were in question and vulnerable, and (2) the scale of the digital revolution. The relative decline of national sovereignty (a westphalian concept of limited history) does not signify the end of struggles over informational imperialism. Softening of territorial boundaries expands the scope and opportunity for conquest.

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