Monday, December 20, 2004

Dealing with American influence

In today’s Wall Street Journal Europe Daniel Henninger says, rather unkindly but amusingly:
“ ‘American influence’ is the great white whale of the 21st century, and Jacques Chirac is the Ahab chasing her with a three-masted schooner. Along for the ride is a crew that includes Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, Kofi Annan, the Saudi royal family, Robert Mugabe, the state committee of Communist China and various others who have ordained themselves leaders for life. At night, seated around the rum keg, they talk about how they have to stop American political power, the Marines or Hollywood.”
Along for the ride, also, are sundry European leaders, though many of them are beginning to wonder whether the chase is worth it. In particular, there is an uneasy understanding or, at least a glimmering of one, that the chase is for the glory of Captain Ahab not any of his European crew. A good deal of overcoming ‘American influence’ is about somehow restoring French to the pre-eminence it enjoyed as a language some years ago (about two hundred, to be precise).

That is, of course, very odd. Are we not told that we are all Europeans now and national differences are less important than the new European identity we are building? Just as it did not matter what colour the early Fords were, as long as they were black, so it does not matter what language the European identity is created in, as long as it is French.

There have been two developments to show that Captain Ahab is on the job. The Pompidou Centre, France’s pre-eminent museum of twentieth century art, is opening a branch in Hong Kong. One curator in Paris explained that this was necessary as “US culture is too strong there”. He also added that “we need to have a presence in Asia to counterbalance the American influence”. Not the British or the Chinese, you understand, but the American. If one were really unkind, one could remind the French government that France used to have a presence in Asia, but it all ended rather badly.

Still, a Pompidou Centre in Hong Kong is preferable to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In fact, it is harmless and has many positive aspects. Only, one wonders what effect it might have and how is it going to counterbalance anything.

Captain Ahab’s other weapon is what has been described as France’s answer to CNN. Actually, it is France’s answer to CNN, the BBC World Service and, to show that they do not discriminate, Deutsche Welle, which broadcasts in German and English, Al Jazeera and Al Arabya and, even, GloboNews in South America. Where on earth have the French been all this time?

Still, the new international information channel CII, due to start broadcasting in late 2005 or early 2006 is described by the somewhat demented “Ahab” Chirac as “CNN à la Française”.

There are problems. CNN, for instance, is a private company. The BBC is not but is carefully separated from the government (some would say, a little too carefully). Al Jazeera is an independent broadcasting organization, proud of its record of not being in hock to any Arab government.

The new French channel will be owned by the state-funded France Télévisions and the private station TFI. The French government has promised €30 million ($40 million, £21 million) in start-up money. In order to carve the money out, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has announced an amendment to the 2005 budget, as the new channel, in his words would offer the “diversity to which our country is so deeply attached”. The report does not say whether there was any laughter at this point or whether the deputies merely nodded their heads sagely.

President Chirac is more forthcoming. As far as he is concerned, this is a way of putting France’s voice out there. In fact, French TV has been available on satellite for years, but that was as part of TV5, a consortium of French-language channels from France, Switzerland and Belgium. Not good enough, apparently.

The new channel will not be available in France, as that might run into difficulties with EU regulators and with existing news channels.

There are worried predictions of costs rising and, inevitably, the unions have “expressed concerns”. The union for RFI, France’s international radio station, is worried that its budget will be reduced to pay for the international TV. The union for journalists at France Télévisions has urged its members not to co-operate, describing the new channel as a “parody” and adding:
“What will be the credibility of an international channel that is led by a multinational with benefits that are dependent on good relations with the government?”
A fair question until one remembers that France Télévisions is funded by the state. Presumably, good relations with the government are of some importance there, too.

Alas, the white whale seems to have escaped again, as they do. American influence appears to be spreading in the most peculiar fashion imaginable – through software designed for other languages.

American-engineered technology (often by people who went to America quite recently) has helped the people of Ukraine and is helping people in many other countries where there are oppressive regimes.

There are now, apparently 600,000 personal Chinese language weblogs, often run by English speakers who import and translate the material into their language (this was the beginning of samizdat in the Soviet Union, but how much more efficient and far-reaching the new technology is). The Chinese government employs 40,000 bureaucrats to police the blogs. But the white whale swims on.

The third most used language on the Web is Farsi. Yes, that’s right. There are 75,000 individual blogs in Iran. The tools were created by a young Iranian journalist, now based in Toronto (OK that is not the white whale, but his mate, vaguely grey whale). He says that many of the blogs are not political but deal with music, movies, poetry, Western and Iranian culture. I beg to differ. Under the mullahs that is all political.

In California they are developing Arabic-language blogging tools. There are plans to report the forthcoming Iraqi elections on the web in that language by 25 internet journalists.

The world will not change overnight because there are blogging tools available in many languages. But it will move a little closer to that change. People are being given the tools. But Ahab, he keeps chasing the white whale.

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