• Eternal Vigilance

    I had the privilege, until quite recently, of chairing the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. During my term as Chair, my fellow Commissioner, Paul Smith, established – with my support – what we called the Freedom Page on the Commission’s website.

    Our goal was to raise awareness of the importance of press freedom, and of the threats to that freedom – particularly, and sadly, in some of our Pacific neighbours. There was, however, some nervousness when we made it clear that the Freedom Page would not shrink from drawing attention to similar issues if and when they arose in New Zealand.

    New Zealand enjoys of course an enviable record, in international terms, in matters of freedom of expression. It would be ridiculous to claim that a New Zealand government might pose a direct threat – through censorship or the abuse of executive power – to our press and broadcast media and their freedom to publish what they wish.

    But threats to press freedom can come in much more insidious forms – and two recent instances make the point very clearly.

    Many will recall the extraordinary episode of the Prime Minister’s conversation over a cup of tea with John Banks during the recent election campaign. The Prime Minister was clearly very keen that the contents of that conversation should not be made public.

    When it became clear that a record of that conversation was in the hands of the media, and that they saw no legal problem in publishing it, the Prime Minister’s reaction was very instructive.

    He did not go to court to seek an injunction and assert his right to privacy. Instead, he laid a complaint with the police and asked them to investigate what he maintained might be a criminal offence.

    The police were quick to comply. They not only initiated an investigation but also warned the media that they, too, could be criminally liable if they published the recording. This warning was sufficient to frighten the media into silence.

    Two months later, we are still waiting for the outcome of the police investigation. No criminal offence, it seems, has yet been established. The only legal outcome so far is that the Attorney General, acting for the government, has declared his intention to seek substantial costs from the cameraman who had the temerity to try to establish that he had committed no offence.

    The police investigation, while so far inconclusive on the issue of criminality, has nevertheless been successful in another respect; it has fully met the Prime Minister’s requirements by keeping the conversation secret till beyond – well beyond – the election.

    The message is clear. The police will support threats issued by the executive to deter the media from publishing material that as far as we know was lawfully obtained and that was of substantial public interest. And just to make sure, the Attorney General’s threat to the cameraman is a warning to others that they cross the executive at their peril.

    Some of the same features are shown by the issue that became public last week. New Zealand On Air has expressed concern that a programme on child poverty it had funded was broadcast in the days leading up to the election. It has announced that it may seek legal advice on obtaining a law change that would give it the power to delay until after an election a broadcast that might embarrass politicians.

    What is worrying about this episode is that an expression of concern from the Prime Minister (in this case, through his electorate chairman who is an NZOA board member) about a perfectly lawful broadcast was enough to induce the body that has a public duty to fund such programmes to seek to limit the freedom of the broadcasters.

    Again, it is not any direct threat or interference that is of concern; rather, it is the threat that the executive is ready to act against anything that displeases the Prime Minister. Who can doubt that broadcasters will in future make sure that their programmes do not attract Prime Ministerial displeasure and risk losing the necessary funding? And others in the media will also learn the lesson – if they want to get on, they must stay on the right side of the Prime Minister.

    To make these points is not to attack the Prime Minister. He is doing what many politicians in government around the world would do if they could get away with it. It is, rather, a clarion call to journalists and to the public they serve to stand up for press freedom and the independence of the media.

    The threat is always there, and it is particularly acute in the case of this Prime Minister – not because he is especially unprincipled or autocratic, but because his very popularity might encourage him to think that he can get away with more than he should.

    We are entering dangerous territory if the flow of information and opinion can be turned off or diverted by the mere expression of Prime Ministerial concern. It was Thomas Jefferson who warned that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” That vigilance must be alert to the subtle nature of today’s threats to press freedom.

    Bryan Gould

    19 January 2012

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 23 January.

  • UNESCO – A Missed Opportunity

    The decision this week by the UNESCO General Conference to admit Palestine to full membership has cast an unaccustomed light on an organisation that usually flies pretty much under the radar.

    The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was the first UN agency to be established. It was set up immediately after the Second World War to strengthen the international bonds of mind and spirit in the hope that this would help to create a world that would be free from hatred and war.

    New Zealand was just the second country to step forward and put its signature to the UNESCO constitution. In the early years of the organisation, our country played a leading role; luminaries such as Doctor Clarence Beeby were rightly regarded as among the most significant of its founding fathers.

    Sadly, over recent years, New Zealand’s commitment to UNESCO has faded – and this at a time when, in the light of the global financial crisis and the consequent recession, UNESCO’s message that there is more to international relations than trade and the bottom line, and that international peace and progress depend on better mutual understanding, was surely needed more than ever.

    We have, however, turned our backs on our distinguished heritage as a consistent and valued member of this important agency. It is a process which I have observed with increasing dismay as the departing Chair of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. As my three-year term ends, I can only regret and deplore the neglect (I wish I could say it was benign) shown by our government towards this important aspect of our international relationships.

    Our formal commitment to UNESCO and its Paris headquarters has now been downgraded to just 5% of the time of a single diplomat in our Paris Embassy. Our own NZ National Commission (a body comprising experts in their fields who give much of their time on a voluntary basis) has been allowed to languish, with the terms of four of its five members lapsing and no replacements being appointed – thereby negating one of the greatest assets of UNESCO, its ability to use experts across the globe to extend its message far beyond what would normally be possible with its own meagre resources.

    The small secretariat which has for decades been the executive arm of the National Commission has been merged into the Ministry of Education and required to undertake further duties. The result? Our capacity to draw on UNESCO’s expertise to improve our performance in the fields of education, science and culture, not only in New Zealand but throughout the Pacific, has been sadly diminished.

    New Zealand’s National Commission has been regarded for decades as a model of its kind, providing leadership to smaller Pacific states which have the will but lack the resource and expertise to play a full part.

    The puzzle is that the government continues to pay our (modest) membership subscription to UNESCO but seems determined to extract only the minimum value from our membership. This is seen at its most inexplicable in the refusal to take up a seat on UNESCO’s Executive Board.

    Membership of the Executive Board would give us a voice in establishing the direction the organisation should take. Members are elected to the Board, and New Zealand – historically – has been keen to fulfil the responsibilities that go with membership and has been seen as a valued member of the Board. Despite the fact that a seat is virtually guaranteed to us, so that there would be no need to go to the expense of running a campaign for support, we have declined the opportunity – much to the disappointment of many friendly countries who insist that they would value our contribution to the Board’s business.

    As Chair, I found this so inexplicable that I wrote to the Prime Minister with a detailed proposal, showing that we could – by utilising the possibilities of modern electronic communication – meet our responsibilities in this regard at no additional cost; we might even have saved some money since the cost of any travel to Paris as Executive Board members would be met by UNESCO. The proposal was dismissed out of hand.

    To be fair to the Prime Minister, he was no doubt acting on advice. That advice would have come from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, who has often demonstrated his lack of interest in international engagement.

    The decision was, however, all the more paradoxical given the Prime Minister’s declared intention to seek a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2014. One might have thought that uppermost in the minds of those voting on candidates for that seat would be the question of which of the contenders had shown itself to be the best UN citizen. Our cavalier disregard of both the opportunities and responsibilities of UNESCO membership cannot be expected to improve our chances.

    As I leave the National Commission, I am proud of what has been achieved, but disappointed at missed opportunities. I can only wish my successor as Chair, my friend Neil Walter, better luck than I have had. The National Commission, and UNESCO itself, deserve it.

    Bryan Gould

    1 November 2011

  • Bryan Gould Speaks to UNESCO

    Speech to the UNESCO General Conference By the Chair of the New Zealand National Commission Mr Bryan Gould

    Tena koutou katoa kua huihui mai nei i tenei ra.

    (English translation: Greetings to all who have gathered here today).

    Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen

    In 1946, when UNESCO’s Constitution came into force, New Zealand was the second country to step forward to sign it. We did so, in the aftermath of a tragic conflict, so that the instinct for peace should take hold in the minds of new generations. So, with other founder members, we signed up for a future built on the life of the mind and the heart and the spirit – on education, culture, the sciences, and the free exchange of information and ideas.

    Sixty three years later, New Zealand continues to support UNESCO’s goals. Both at home, in managing our own affairs, and in offering an example internationally and particularly in the Pacific sub-region, we try to demonstrate through our actions the value of UNESCO’s agenda for progress.

    So, we are strong supporters of education for sustainable development and we have an active network of ASPnet schools committed to UNESCO’s values. In science, we focus on waiora, the Maori word for our sustainable fresh-water resources. The bicultural foundation of our country – Maori and pakeha – gives us a strong base to take advantage of the growing cultural diversity that enriches our society. And we continue to enjoy, and encourage others to emulate our commitment to, a free press and the free exchange of ideas.

    What we seek is to lead by example, to cast new light on old problems, to think strategically, to change attitudes, to open minds, to know and understand more of ourselves and of others.

    We like to think that New Zealand lives UNESCO’s ideals. We do so at what is another critical moment in the world’s affairs. The global recession may not be a disaster on quite the scale of the Second World War, but it should lead us nevertheless to re-affirm the great value and importance of what UNESCO stands for. The recession, after all, was the end result of a doctrine that said that all that really mattered was the maximisation of profits for the masters of the global economy.

    We now know that we cannot entrust human progress to the tender care of the bottom line. That way lies not just economic crisis, but ecological degradation, social disintegration, and international conflict. Man is not just an economic animal. The lessons of the recession should teach us that the way forward lies – not with ever faster and less responsible consumption of material things by a small fraction of the world’s population – but with learning more about and responding better to our relationships with each other and with our planet.

    A General Conference is inevitably concerned with budgets, elections, resolutions, organisational structures and processes. But we must never lose sight of UNESCO’s true purposes, and each of our individual decisions should be judged according to whether it advances or hinders the achievement of those goals. So, New Zealand, from our vantage-point in the Pacific sub-region – the sub-region most distant from Paris and covering the greatest number of countries and the largest geographical area, but a sub-region challenged not only by immediate dangers of which last week’s tsunami is a sad and destructive example, but also by longer-term threats such as climate change – has naturally been a consistent advocate for decentralisation. We welcome the report of the second task force review. But modalities are less important than people. We continue to be concerned at the damaging delays in recruiting professional staff to the UNESCO Office for the Pacific in Apia. There is no point in changing the structure if we cannot commit the resources to make it work. Similarly, we are concerned about the performance indicators proposed in the draft 35C/5. We are not convinced that these largely quantitative performance indicators will provide a meaningful assessment of the Organisation’s effectiveness. They may be easily measured but they tell us little about our real achievements; at worst, their adoption could lead to a diversionary goal displacement. We strongly encourage the Organisation to undertake further work on this issue. We continue to believe that working across sectors and themes is the way UNESCO should operate. The next Medium-Term Strategy UNESCO programme should, we believe, be organised around these intersectoral themes with a Secretariat that mirrors this structure. Two years ago, my predecessor delivered her speech to the General Conference while wearing a Maori cloak or korowai. I am similarly privileged today. The cloak that I wear has been gifted by the National Commission to UNESCO as a taonga or cultural treasure. It is a work reflecting the great skill of a traditional weaver who has brought together a range of materials to produce something of significance, value and beauty. It is, we like to think, a suitable metaphor for the role that UNESCO should and must play in tomorrow’s world.No reira, tena koutou katoa.(English translation: In conclusion, greetings to you all).

  • Step Forward Unesco

    April in Paris is guaranteed to put a spring in the step of those fortunate enough to be here. Some may think, however, that attending the 181st session of Unesco’s Executive Board is not the best way to take advantage of the world’s most beautiful city.

    But, while it is true that Unesco meetings are afflicted by the endless wrangling over procedure and drafting changes that characterise most international organisations, springtime may well be just round the corner – for Unesco, as well as for Paris. While the air is thick with warnings about the impact of the global economic crisis on Unesco projects, particularly in the developing world, there is good reason to think that that same crisis might propel Unesco – representing a quite different view of what is now needed – to the forefront of the global response.

    We have, after all, witnessed the sudden demise of a set of beliefs which had placed huge emphasis on man as a purely economic being. For thirty years, we have increasingly handed control of our societies and economies over to those who insisted that all that really mattered was the bottom line, market forces, the profit motive. Economic man was, it was argued, all there was. The only way to extract maximum benefit for and from economic man was to entrust his future and wellbeing to the high priests of economic science – those lords of creation who alone understood the arcane secrets of what made economies tick and who required a heavy tribute, as bankers, financiers, and market manipulators, to reward them for their scarce and valuable skills.

    We now know the outcomes produced by the exercise of those skills. The world’s economies have been laid waste by the global crisis – so much for that famed and hugely rewarded expertise – but the crisis itself was preceded by a growing recognition of the price to be paid for letting markets rip. Global warming, pollution, the threat to natural resources, a growing gap between rich and poor, have all been forerunners and storm signals of what is now revealed as the collapse of the era of economic man.

    The time has come, surely, to recognise that our future as a species – perhaps even the future of our planet – now depends on more than the narrow, market-driven measurement of GDP. Economic recovery is certainly a priority, but it is a necessary rather than sufficient condition for a better future. We must now pay attention to wider questions – what is important to us as individuals and in our communities, what makes us who we are, what it means to be human. We need a new and more respectful relationship with the natural world in which we live and a greater hunger to understand and live harmoniously with our neighbours.

    Step forward Unesco. The oldest UN agency, during the era of economic man, has been pushed to the sidelines. Its emphasis on education, on the physical, human and social sciences, on culture and language, on the sustainable use of natural resources, as the mainsprings of human development and wellbeing, has seemed quaintly old-fashioned in an era of aggressive profit-seeking. But a re-statement of those goals and values is now overdue. We can now assert, amidst the wreckage created by economic man, that we are more than economic agents, and that Unesco’s preoccupations point the way to a more complete and empowering sense of where our future lies.

    It is after all the world’s billions who will pay for the current mess with their jobs, their homes, their taxes, perhaps even their lives. It is their interests – not those of banks and financial institutions – that should take centre stage. The focus of governments around the world on shoring up those institutions with taxpayers’ money may well be necessary in the short term, but an agenda based on the integrated wellbeing of people and societies will be needed if we are to restore the life chances of those ravaged by economic crisis.

    There are, in other words, better ways of spending our money. If we want a decisive break with the mistakes of the immediate past, we should be investing for more than a short-term financial return. Our focus should be on strategically planned programmes for education in countries where schooling is still at a premium, in the strengthening of cultural identities to give people confidence to understand who they are and how they can play a constructive role in the world, in projects to protect and develop sustainable supplies of fresh water.

    An agency like Unesco has never been funded to undertake these activities itself. Its current budget is pathetically small, and – in the current crisis – likely to get smaller. But, with proper financing, Unesco can provide the intellectual leadership and strategic direction to ensure that skills and capabilities that are at present scattered and fragmented across the globe can be linked and coordinated, so that we get the maximum benefit from what we already have. Unesco’s role is to help us to do better than merely learn what not to do. Agencies like Unesco can help us move forward by providing outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts.

    If these efforts are not made, we will be slower out of crisis and less confident of our future than we should be. With all the talk of trillions being spent on the economic agenda, a tiny fraction of that sum spent on the human agenda would pay rich dividends. That should be the real lesson learned from the demise of economic man.

    Bryan Gould

    26 April 2009

    Bryan Gould chairs the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 28 April.