Mapping the Divide

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Review of 'The Global Media Atlas', Mark Balnaves, James Donald and Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, BFI Publishing £14.99

I love maps, and this well presented paperback provides 50 maps with a difference--they break down the world into the haves and have-nots in the global communications revolution that has swept the world in the last ten years.

By the use of maps, graphs and colour charts, the three authors extrapolate trends on a wide variety of topics. We learn that Bill Gates is richer than half the US population put together, and that 50 percent of the world's population have never made a phone call. We can understand why banks are so keen to get us to do our own internet banking--we find that it costs $0.01 for an internet transaction compared to $1.07 if we go to the branch.

In the US and Britain over half of schools have access to the internet, but billions of people in other parts of the world are still excluded from this brave new information world by poverty and illiteracy. Without a telephone line, and unless you speak English, most of the information available on the internet is unavailable. Tiny Iceland, for example, has 20 times as many internet hosts as the world's 100 poorest countries combined.

One map on women and the media shows how women in the US, Europe and South East Asia are well provided with specialist magazines because they are valuable advertising targets, whereas in Africa and the Middle East such magazines hardly exist because of women's limited economic power and lack of literacy skills.

The question of who controls the internet is explored. The authors show that the internet has always been regulated--first by the US government and military, and then by an informal regime of commercial regulation, with companies like Lycos or Yahoo determining what information is available. Governments can impose their own restraints on internet access. In Burma failure to declare ownership of a computer incurs the penalty of a 15-year prison sentence. The internet is officially condemned in Saudi Arabia unless routed through centres which ban sites that provide 'information contrary to Islamic values'.

Not surprisingly, the US is the dominant force in the media revolution. For instance, US firms account for 86 percent of all cinema box office receipts in Britain and 83 percent in Latin America. The graphs show how the big Hollywood studios cling ferociously to their control of the distribution of films worldwide, with the result that 90 percent of films showing in Singapore, Shanghai or Scunthorpe will have originated in Hollywood.

Likewise US media companies dominate television export markets, accounting for 85 percent of light entertainment programmes sold worldwide. British television companies come second at a much slimmer 8 percent.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. A map is included showing the number of journalists killed from 1997 to 2000. Russia shows the most, at 18 for this period, but only two are shown for Turkey, which makes me wonder how these figures were arrived at--Turkey is notorious for its suppression of the pro-Kurdish press. This book gives a total of 134 journalists killed over this four-year period, yet my latest copy of the NUJ magazine tells me that more than 100 journalists were killed in 2001 alone.

There is also a rather bland and uncritical account of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire. The authors claim there is an 'epic quality to the buccaneering story of how Murdoch went on to build News Corporation'. I suppose I would describe this union-busting tax evader a bit differently, having been involved in the battle of Wapping in the 1980s.

This is a very useful guide to the global diffusion of old and new media, and its politics are in the right place. I just wish it was a little bit more punchy in some of its analysis.