Global pushback against 'Titanic' culture

A proposed UN treaty would protect nations' arts.

If you were watching television Sunday night in Sydney, Australia, you had a choice between the American sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," and a couple of US movies: "Meet the Parents" and "Coyote Ugly."

In fact, 76 percent of all new programs launched on Australian TV in the eight months prior to April 2003 were foreign shows, mostly American. Australia's largely Made-in-USA television diet is part of the background to a new round in the global culture war begun here last week.

Talks are starting on a United Nations treaty designed to help countries protect their native cultures in the face of what many characterize as the homogenizing effect of Hollywood. It's the kind of pact that Washington sees as likely to hamper free trade and free expression - as well as hurt profits.

The UN convention on cultural diversity, championed by Canada and France at the head of some 60 European and developing countries, would take cultural goods, such as films, plays, and music, out of the realm of trade negotiations. It would exempt them from free-trade rules, allow governments to protect and support their cultural industries, and enshrine the "cultural exception" that European nations have defended in international law.

Behind this emerging conflict in UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, lies a debate over whether trade in cultural products should be governed by different rules from those for other commercial products, and what role governments should play in protecting national identities in the face of globalization.

The clash, pitting the United States and a handful of other skeptics against the majority of UNESCO members, comes less than a month after the US rejoined the UN agency after a 19-year absence.

If such a treaty were passed, suggested French President Jacques Chirac in an address to last week's UNESCO general conference, "peoples and states concerned for their identities will open up to the world with greater confidence."

On the contrary, argued Terry Miller, who headed the US delegation to the meeting. "A convention to control the flow of cultural ideas, products, or services," he said, "is a perfect example (of) an easy answer to globalization ... to try to shut out the rest of the world."

Washington, he explained, also feared that a convention recognizing governments' rights to apply cultural policies could be a tool that abusive governments might use against minorities.

The plan for a legally binding convention, he said, was "a bad idea."

"It is up to the individual to decide what he should see," Mr. Miller added in an interview. "Why should a government impose its choice on a citizen?"

That, say proponents of a convention, is the view from the cab of the cultural steamroller that is the US entertainment industry.

The view from the tarmac, they argue, makes it clear that far from limiting choice, government intervention is the only way to guarantee it in many countries.

In Australia, for example, which is about to finalize a bi- lateral free-trade agreement with the US, negotiators are fighting for the right to extend government policies to support local filmmakers into new delivery systems such as the Internet.

Australian broadcasters must ensure that 55 percent of their daytime and evening programming is locally made, and pay-TV drama channels must spend 10 percent of their program expenditure on Australian drama.

"The market today has failed to deliver a level of choice including a minimum of Australian content, and we can assume the market won't deliver on the Internet either," says Kim Dalton, head of the Australian Film Commission. "It will deliver American products."

Though Australian TV programs are popular, Mr. Dalton says, they cost about $200,000 an hour to make, while US producers who have already made a profit in America can sell similar drama series to Australia for just $33,000 an hour.

"The economic reality is that Australian broadcasters meet their quotas but rarely exceed them because they are commercial organizations, forever looking at input costs," Dalton says. Without government rules, he fears, "Australian culture is going to become roadkill" under the US juggernaut.

In America, foreign shows made up just 4 percent of new launches from September through April 2003, according to figures from media analysts "Mediametrie."

"The free market is basically homogenous," Dalton argues. "American audiences have far less choice than French or Australian audiences."

The resolution calling for negotiations to begin was passed by a consensus vote on Friday.

In the two years that UNESCO officials expect negotiations over a treaty to take, debate is likely to focus on how to define culture, and whether its expressions are different from other tradeable goods.

Mr. Miller takes the view that "culture" means language, history, and religion, rather than their expression in works of art. "It's not fair to give the same status to a DVD or a cassette as you would to them," he says. "I don't see much difference between a copper ingot, textiles, or a film."

For Sheila Copps, Canada's heritage minister, "A book is clearly quite different from a ball of wool," and should not be subject to the same trade rules. "If you demand the right to see your own language reflected in a book, is that anticompetitive?" she asks.

Canada's strong cultural policy - some aspects of which the US authorities challenged successfully in the World Trade Organization (WTO) - "ensures free movement of ideas," says Ms. Copps, "but it saves shelf space for our own faces and voices. If you don't see yourself reflected in books, movies, TV, and music there is a part of civilization that's missing."

To leave cultural trade issues to the WTO, she worries, "would reduce the world to a giant shopping center."

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