The Contested Global Public Agenda: Why citizen engagement, diverse media ownership and resistance groups matter
By ©Catherine Fleming Bruce
“G20 meetings provide opportunities to forge the global public agenda, a critical charge which can best be fulfilled in a meaningful way IF citizen engagement and resistance are present and heard, and IF diverse media ownership contributes to open dialogue and policymaking through a global public sphere.”
President Trump with other leaders at the 43rd G7 summit in Italy, May 2017
As Donald Trump returns to the US after his time in Warsaw, Hamburg and Paris, he will cross the ocean that brought to the United States immigrants like Barrett Visanska, a Jew from Poland, who in the second half of the 19th century learned English by reading the Bible on board the ship to American shores. Visanska landed in Columbia, South Carolina, founded the Tree of Life Synagogue, which still operates; fathered children who would grow up to perform music for royalty throughout Europe, and lived in a house noted with a marker in Historic Waverly, now a National Register of Historic Places African American District. When Mr. Trump addressed the people of Poland in Krasinski Square, site of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, he commemorated those who stayed behind to fight the German occupation of their country during World War II: the underground resistance, which included Polish Jews, and serves as an modern day example to various resistance what they view as harmful governments, leaders and policies.
U.S. National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster’s press briefing on this official trip came with ‘ground rules’: off camera with audio not for broadcast. The commemoration of the Warsaw Uprising was similarly suppressed by the communist forces of the People’s Republic of Poland. The monument that now stands in Krasinski Square was not approved until decades later, finally unveiled in August 1989, on the 45th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, three months before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The restoration of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, and the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated, took similar long roads.
From Warsaw Mr. Trump continued to Hamburg, Germany and met on July 7th and 8th with other member nations of the G20. Among several other US goals, the National Security Advisor relayed the President’s desire to ‘reassert who we are; a ‘we’ that according to General McMaster, did not include those who submit to ‘a perverted ideology’. G20 meetings provide opportunities to forge the global public agenda, a critical charge which can best be fulfilled in a meaningful way IF citizen engagement and resistance are present and heard, and IF diverse media ownership contributes to open dialogue and policymaking through a global public sphere. The images of protesters filling the Hamburg streets, some attempting to stop the G20 meeting altogether, reminds us of the contested nature and history of these global gatherings.
At all levels of politics, the quality of life for citizens remains a burden of communications. ‘Keeping politicians honest’, providing access to public information, transparency and open lines between citizens and their government has been a constant centerpiece of media practice, policy, philosophy and law. In 1962, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas introduced public sphere theory, an idealized model within which national political communications might take place. Habermas’ model of the public sphere responded to the works of Marx and Hegel, and set about creating a platform by which citizens could come together in a space to have their opinions both heard and shaped, as well as providing some participation in the actions of local and national governments, so that elections could properly hold political actors accountable.
WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999. (Steve Kaiser)
The need to construct a global public sphere emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, with the concept of globalization. Defined by a United Nations report as ‘increased integration of a national economy with the world economy through exchange of goods and services, capital flows, technology, information and labor migration,’ globalization facilitated the movement of some decision-making power from the nation-state level to the global level. The World Trade Organization, formed in 1995, is an example of a rulemaking global organization that citizens felt locked out of, leading to protests and an increased emphasis on human rights activism and civil society engagement at the global level. New forms of governance included an increase in the number of global forums, and in the level of civil society group participation in existing meetings of international bodies. Many of the issues that are addressed by these groups can be impacted by media, as media with broad reach is the most pertinent contributor to the creation of a formal global community with significant interactions between actors from the nation-state, multinational corporations, non-government and civil society realms.
The melding of the informal global community (citizens/resistance), in relation to the formal international organizations community led to the founding of groups such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives in 1990, a local governmental membership organization for sustainability and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. These efforts to open the global public agenda to formal non-international organization groups contributed to an increased number of Mayors at international climate change conferences, and later to the profusion of U.S. Mayors who have committed to climate change policy in the face of President Trump’s decision that the US would exit the Paris Agreement in 2017.
The current members of the G20: the European Union, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, convenes as a full group and in bilateral sessions to discuss the global economy, energy and climate policy, women’s empowerment, famine and other global crises. While membership has gradually expanded from its start in the White House as the Library Group, or Group of Five, in 1974, the G7 has not relinquished its leadership, having recently met this past May in Italy. The G20 leaders were joined by leaders of the International Labour Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and this year, at the invitation of G20 President Angela Merkel, the World Health Organization, a historic first time that health has been a part of G20 deliberations.
The deliberative forms of governance used by these groups, and in global forums like the World Summit for the Information Society in 2003 (First phase) and 2005 (second phase), can be seen less as a public sphere, and more as the use of deliberation as a substitute for democratic practice. Bureaucrats and other leaders continued to demand ‘off-camera’ options, which closed door meetings, free from the eyes of the media, mandated public representatives and interest groups in the decision-making processes. The German tradition of social science in which Habermas emerged, was rooted in the Second Ward War, the reign of Hitler and his Third Reich as overwhelming features in the political, cultural, economic, ethical, moral and social landscapes of the time, and Habermas thus chose deliberative over revolutionary methods.
Media outlets can provide a more sharply focused produced, while the Internet and social media can provide a more interactive but not necessarily overlapping discussion. Despite the goals of the second phase of the World Summit for the Information Society, many organizations documented free speech violations as the event was taking place. Despite the presence of national and global bureaucracies in the country, its citizens were ’out of’the public sphere of local and global decision-making. Launched by protests in December of 2010, the Tunisian government was overthrown in January 2011, leading to events that came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’, which spread the demand for Democratic practice to other countries in the Middle East.
Ongoing contributions of ‘the resistance’ in all these forms and more, are amplified by a press which is increasingly under attack. Independently owned media could be more resilient in resisting these attacks. One example of such an independent media is Entertainment Studios, owned by Byron Allen, an African-American whose use of Section 1981 of the 1866 Civil Rights Act led to settlement with AT&T and a decision in his favor by the US District Court in November 2016, advancing his case against Comcast. In this move, Mr. Allen’s actions echo the work of Medgar Evers, who was the first Civil Rights Movement leader to address mass media inequities, and to challenge the actions of media organizations. While there is no guarantee that a media mogul who is a member of a minority will produce more programs for the public interest or to support minority issues, a win based on the Civil Rights Act would come with a greater obligation to create such programming.
The G20 meeting was somewhat diversified by permanent guest Spain and by German Chancellor Merkel’s invitations to the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership, G20 partner members Norway, Singapore and the Netherlands. French President Emmanuel Macron, a polar opposite of his American counterpart in worldview, extended the invitation to Mr. Trump in the hope that his continued outreach during Bastille Day, a historic period of extraordinary collaboration between the two countries, might symbolize opportunity for expansion of thought and possibility for American action. Likewise, the inclusion of civil society groups in G20 proceedings is an expansion that reflects the historical change from nation-state leaders only to a mix of actors. Over 150 of these groups met in June to frame recommendations for the G20. While social media has bridged some of the gap in the way that global public sphere can be achieved, it will be the combination of citizen engagement, resistance groups action, and increased diversity in access to and ownership of media outlets that will have the greatest potential for impacting a global public agenda through greater accountability and transparency.
Catherine Fleming Bruce is the author of The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements, winner of the 2017 Historic Preservation Book Prize, University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation.