There seems to be a return to the trend in the UN these days to
hire consultants to lend legitimacy to ideas and proposals that
would not otherwise fly. That way, if the trial balloon gets shot
down those who floated it can pin the blame on the outsiders for
any negative fallout, while taking credit for having the brilliance
and foresight to appoint such consultants if all goes well.
Consider, if you will, the current case of the News and Media
Division of the Department of Public Information (DPI). A Mr.
Stephen Claypole, chairman of a London-based consulting firm,
who is described as "a very eminent broadcast executive who is
renowned in the television news world", made his entrance several
months back, to review the Division's operations and make recommendations
which would help it meet the agreed goals. The results of his
"one month of intensive research" of the Division are contained
in a report entitled "The Digital Future of the UN News and Media
According to the Claypole report, the information disseminating
arms of the UN continue to be dysfunctional and poorly coordinated,
and the largest of these arms, DPI, is totally out of the loop
on the regular strategic deliberations of the Secretary-General's
office. There are, says the report, "geologic layers of half-solved
problems in the area of public information". The News and Media
Division is referred to as "a highly fragmented news operation"
in which TV, radio, print and Internet teams produce "discrete
programming", thereby undermining the declared goal of creating
a fully integrated multimedia United Nations News Service.
While not arguing with some of the report's criticisms, one can
readily take issue with many of its proposals: that the Division
should package and present its materials on a daily basis in a
way that engages the 24-hour global news cycle; that it shift
the major part of its effort to providing daily services, acting
more like a news agency within the UN system and presenting daily
packages of materials in multimedia forms; that the Division should
"turn itself inside out and make its Internet service, the UN
News Centre, the core of its daily activities"; that the UN News
Centre should take the lead in future for this Service rather
than the Press operation.
Other recommendations include: four restructured units within
the Division, to be called Broadcast News, Online Services, Documentary
Features and Media Relations; improving the UN corporate image
by more "branding" and "dressing" of locations to be used for
the Secretary-General and leading personalities; abandoning the
"World Chronicle" programme in favour of major projects like the
Secretary-General's Millennium Report (how often are occasions
of such significance launched to warrant such drastic action?);
the Division should move to a "digital environment" as quickly
as possible and fund this technical upheaval in one felt swoop
rather than over several biennia (try getting that past the ACABQ
and Fifth Committee!).
Issue 1: The idea that the Division can "engage the 24-hour global
news cycle" and act more "like a news agency within the UN system"
is fanciful thinking. The UN does not generate enough news in
any given day to make such an undertaking viable - unless the
plan is to usurp and report anything - trivial or otherwise -
just to feed the 24-hour news cycle "monster" mentioned in the
report, which states, quite bluntly, that the cost of servicing
24-hour routines is heavy. Where will the money come from? From
an Organization that is perennially strapped for cash, and in
a Department which is the first to be targeted for budget and
other cost-cutting exercises? (Ambassador Holbrooke's recent remarks
about a bloated DPI versus a resource-strapped Department of Peacekeeping
Operations comes readily to mind.) Bear in mind that, at the end
of the day, UN staff go home; with zero funds to pay for overtime,
News and Media Division staff are gone by 7 p.m. unless there
is a Security Council meeting. Who, then, will be supplying news
to feed this global news cycle? Anyone who knows the inside operation
knows that the Division, by nature, mandate and set-up, is not
a news agency, and any suggestion to establish an operation that
could compete with the major news organizations like the BBC or
CNN would only come from a different planet.
Issue 2: Many in the News and Media Division recall how, from
his first meetings with staff, the Director spoke at length about
creating a UN news centre, one that would cater to the needs of
the world media by providing them, at their request, with up-to-the-minute
UN news via the Internet, email and faxes. The News Services and
Editorial Section has always been, for this Director, the Division's
core service. Small wonder, then, that that idea should become
the keystone, and main recommendation, of the Claypole report.
But did the Division need to hire a consultant to put in writing
what the Director had intended all along?
Issue 3: The proposed structure for the Division displays a fundamental
lack of understanding of what many components of the Division
actually do. The suggestion, for example, that Meetings Coverage
- the Section that is creative, that reports all the Headquarters
news - can be led by the UN News Centre which merely redisseminates
received information, brings to mind the image of the tail wagging
the dog! But isn't that the sign of the times.
At a meeting held to discuss the report, in the presence of its
author, a senior officer spoke, as is his wont, eloquently and
with great insight. It was a well-thought-out report, he said
tactfully, but one that presented "structural challenges". It
contained proposals that "go to the depth of the structure". He
pointed out that even though the report was addressed to the News
and Media Division, there were other players not only in DPI but
also in the Secretariat on whom such proposals would impact, if
implemented. He saw the document as a "discussion paper", which
contained "positive and feasible elements".
Those comments go to the heart of the matter, namely that the
News and Media Division does not exist in a vacuum from the rest
of the Department, or the Secretariat or the entire UN system,
but is a sum/part of the whole. As such, any recommendations to
restructure one Division would need to look at the total picture,
not merely one part, in isolation.
The word around is that the self-same consultant is interested
in the post of Chief of the Radio and Television Service when
the incumbent retires at the end of August. That rumour is given
credence because the report itself states that, with some key
senior retirements now taking place, major opportunities exist
to effect change and modernize the Division. It adds that success
will depend on how expeditiously the UN is able to tackle the
challenge of re-equipping the base operations of UNTV and Radio,
recruiting new executives accustomed to the digital environment
(emphasis added) and retraining staff. This may give the impression
that not only is the consultant interested in getting the job,
but he has already decided whom to fire.
The Claypole report contains numerous proposals, which will no
doubt be debated in the coming weeks. These preliminary observations,
it is hoped, will contribute to, and stimulate, that discussion.
All concerned should remember that the decisions that flow from
this exercise will impact on the Division, and the rest of DPI,
long after its initiators have left the scene. It is crucial,
therefore to get any restructuring right. Goodness knows DPI has
had more than its share of those!