Global Pushback against 'Titanic' Culture ; A Proposed UN Treaty Would Protect Nations' Arts

Article excerpt

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. …