The Big Four

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The big four
United Press International, Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse - the 'big four' news agencies - provide over 90 per cent of foreign news printed by the world's newspapers. The coverage they provide is cheaper and more comprehensive than a sparse network of 'own correspondents'. But the agencies have their faults. Alternative News and Features investigates.

SURINAM is Brazil's next door neighbour. Its capital Paramaribo is within 2,000 kms of Peru and Ecuador in the west and Panama in the north. Yet, when Surinam became an independent republic on 25 November 1975, there was not one reporter from any of its four South American neighbours to cover the news. The South American papers preferred to buy a report of the occasion from United Press International (UPI) a giant news agency with its headquarters more than 5,000 kms away in New York. To cap it all, Brazil's leading paper 0 Estado shunted the Surinam report to an inside page and chose the news of a jewel robbery in New York as one of its lead stories. Fifty per cent of all news published in the papers of South America comes from the two US agencies - UPI and AP (Associated Press) and a further ten per cent from Reuters and AFP (Agence France Presse).

The case of South American newspapers is not an isolated one. Newspapers in Asia, Africa and Latin America who cannot afford to maintain their own correspondents in foreign capitals depend heavily for their foreign news on the 'big four' - Reuters, UPI, AP and AFP. Each has carved out its sphere of influence from the old colonial empires. AFP in Paris is strong throughout French speaking Africa. AP and UPI, both US based, have extensive operations in Latin America and are widely used in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines - the areas of US control in the post-war period. And the British have maintained considerable influence in the English-speaking Commonwealth countries through Reuters. According to its Chairman Sir Roderick Jones in 1930: 'No other single factor has contributed so much to the maintenance of British prestige...'

Between them, the big four send out 34 million words a day and provide 90 per cent of the entire foreign news output of the world's newspapers. The Third World, which represents over two-thirds of the world's population and area, accounts for only 25 per cent of reports from the four agencies.

Since these agencies are based in the West, the major part of their news package is about events in the industrialised countries. Publisher of the Fiji Sun, Philip Harkness, complains about his editors being snowed under with British football results and other unusable material originating from the Western agencies.

Running against the fast current of this broad river of news from the West is a trickle of information from the Third World which barely manages to reach the doors of the readers in New York, London or Paris. This counterflow from the developing countries is also controlled by the 'big four'.

The exchange of news between the West and Asia is typical of the imbalance. AP sends out from New York to Asia an average of 90,000 words daily. In return AP takes in 19,000 words either from its correspondents or from the national news agencies of Asia. Reuters and UPI also send out four or five times more than they take from that continent.

The news-gathering priorities of the news agencies are reflected in the postings of their own correspondents. Some 34 per cent are confined to the US while a further 28 per cent are based in European capitals. Only 17 per cent are in Asia and Australia, 11 per cent in Latin America, 6 per cent in the Middle East and 4 per cent in Africa. A reporter posted to Delhi is expected to cover events from Kabul in the west to Rangoon in the east - a land mass sprawling over five and a half million square kilometres.

Besides complaining about the imbalance in the flow of news between the First and the Third Worlds, politicians of the developing countries also allege that there is a Western bias to the news that is printed about their countries. People from the Third World seem to make news in Europe and the USA only when they die of starvation or kill each other. Riots, gory deaths, the marriage scandals of an Idi Amin or a Soekarno hit the headlines of the Western press, while positive news about development projects or industrial growth are ignored. Even the language used in reports is heavily loaded in favour of the Western establishment. Guerillas fighting racist regimes in Africa or military dictatorships in Latin America are described as 'terrorists'. Not till the last years of the war in Vietnam did the Western news agencies explain that the National Liberation Front enjoyed widespread popularity, and was fighting what the Vietnamese people considered an occupying army. Likewise the names of many independent minded nationalist leaders of the Third World - like Mossadeq or Allende - are invariably prefixed by terms like 'Leftist' or 'Marxist', but a Reagan or a Pinochet is hardly described as a 'Rightist' or 'capitalist'. The effects of the constant use of terminology should not be underated. It tends to reinforce stereotypes that have been built up over generations - the Far East as an area constantly ablaze with revolts and carnage, the Middle East seething with Sheikhs and their harems and Africa teeming with strange animals prowling through the bungle. Such a bias moulds public opinion to the point where Western military intervention in Vietnam or El Salvador is made quite acceptable.

Tailoring news to meet Western self interest often means cultivating the idea of a threat from without. Reporting on a meeting of Third World bauxite producers a UPI despatch added that 'Some experts feel this could be the first step in the establishment of a series of international cartels for controlling raw materials essential to the industrialised nations, which could set United States' economy back more than 40 years.' Such alarmist reports create the feeling that the industrialised countries must defend themselves by obstructing such organisations of producers from the Third World.

With agencies like UPI getting 80 per cent of the revenue from Western newspapers it is not surprising that they look at the globe in terms of the West's needs. Vietnam continued to be front page news as long as American soldiers were killed but receded after a US withdrawal until events like last year's famine barely got a mention. When Kissinger attended a conference of Latin American Ministers in Mexico, UPI devoted 64 per cent of its coverage to Kissinger's speeches. But newspaper subscribers to the UPI wire service in Ecuador or Guatemala had to look elsewhere for reports of their delegates' contributions.

Superior technology and professional expertise have enabled Western news agencies and journalists to provide information efficiently. When combined with the best in a humanitarian liberal tradition, these have produced some remarkable journalism. Exposures of US army brutalities in Vietnam or the suppression of human rights in Uganda have had a powerful influence on public opinion. But such examples are a few silver linings in an otherwise dark and menacing cloud. It is the overwhelming trend of sensationalising poverty and civil wars, damning and distorting the aspirations of ordinary people and ignoring the historical and social context of Third World problems that has marked Western reporting about developing countries.

An agency guide

Associated Press

The AP was created in 1848 by six New York dailies. It fought a long battle to break the monopoly of the British Reuters which was once accused by AP's Executive Manager of 'denigrating the US in reporting American news to the world' - a curious parallel to the charge levelled today by the Third World against Western news agencies. After the end of the Second World War, with increasing American economic power, AP expanded not only into Europe and Latin American, but also in the Far East when American economic interests were developing. Today it is the biggest news agency, sending out 17 million words a day.

Agence France Presse

Of the major four world agencies, Paris-based AFP is the only one which depends on subsidy from the government of its company - usually through official subscriptions by government offices. As a result it is often regarded as the voice of the French government. Its network is spread over 167 countries. It is particularly strong in Francophone Africa - based on the French colonial government subscriptions of the past, a tradition that has been maintained.


When Baron Julius de Reuter in 1828 thought of sending pigeons to carry economic intelligence faster than the mail train from Brussels to Aachen, he could not imagine that less than 140 years later his successors in the Reuters office in London would be using computers to hook investment brokers into stock market prices. It has the highest income among the 'Big Four'. And internationally it is also the most popular - more than 80 per cent of income comes from foreign subscribers compared to 20 per cent for AP.

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1. Non-aligned News Pool

On a warm April day in 1973 two Yugoslav journalists and their colleagues from Arab news agencies met over breakfast in a Baghdad coffee house. Concerned that the flow of information from Third World countries was being controlled by a few Western news agencies, they came up with the idea of a Third World News Pool.

Today, 50 of the 92 non-aligned countries are participating and the volume of news handled by the Pool's exchange system is estimated at 50,000 words a day, distributed in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. The project is self financing with each broadcaster footing its own transmission bill.

It seems an impressive set-up. But the tenor of the News Pool's operations was set at its inaugural meeting held in India during Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency rule. Hosted by a regime that imprisoned its own journalists, attended by delegates from governments with similarly repressive reputations, the pledge of the Conference of non-aligned countries to 'provide objective and authentic information' could not help but sound empty.

Most member agencies are government controlled and restricted to releasing news deemed favourable by their Ministries of Information. Official handouts about high agricultural production or speeches from heads of state dominate the non-aligned airways. The Press Trust of India (PTS) now estimates that only 15 per cent of the Pool's material is suitable for publication.

Technological hurdles also stand in the way of the smooth operation of the Pool. Only 18 member countries can be reached directly from India by telegram, telephone or telex. And costs are high. PTI spends over $120,000 a year on telex bills alone.

An earlier pledge by News Pool members to avoid criticising each other has also undermined its credibility. Conflicts between member nations have sometimes escalated into armed warfare and still not been reported. However in Managua (Nicaragua) at last year's meeting of the Pool's Co-ordinating Committee, some members called for broader coverage and less whitewash. But as news reports continue to be filtered through the hands of government officials, it is unlikely that the call will be heeded.

2. Inter Press Service

'If Reagan meets the President of Brazil this is international news, but not if the President of Brazil meets with the President of Paraguay', says Roberto Savio, the Director General of Inter Press Service (IPS), 'UPI, AP, Reuters and AFP would cover the story very simply. Our coverage is different. We would try to get a reaction from countries in the region about how it would affect them - it would be a debate not relevant to the North'.

IPS began in 1964 as a small co-operative of journalists writing about problems in Latin America and distributing handouts to embassies. Today the agency has grown into a five-million-dollar international enterprise offering 100,000 words a day in three languages. Helped by a high technology satellite and computer system based in Rome and Buenos Aires, 200 journalists in 50 countries around the world, and a 30 per cent grant from UNESCO, it has established a fast efficient service with a degree of independence that must be the envy of the officially-straight-jacketed Non-aligned News Pool. 26 national agencies and 400 publications in 36 countries now subscribe to what Savio describes as IPS's 'analysis within a global perspective'.

The service is an attempt to 'decolonise' the world's press both by supplying an alternative news coverage and by making its editorial and transmitting facilities available to other agencies in the Third World.

With its emphasis on analysis, the West suspects IPS of getting most of its funding from left-wing governments and is accordingly mistrustful of its coverage. But Savio points out that the one-third of their budget coming from foreign press contracts includes agreements with agencies in countries as disparate as the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Mexico and Libya.

Perhaps a more justified criticism of IPS concerns the extent to which its reliance on the UN restricts its activities. Asked last year whether he would refuse to transmit ideological material from Iraq, Savio admitted 'Yes, and as everybody knows, we lost a contract with Libya because we edited Libyan material as we thought necessary.

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