Role of media in society

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne delivered a speech at the Academy of Journalism and Communication in Hanoi on 6 April during his visit to Vietnam.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Jeremy Browne

Jeremy Browne MP visits Vietnam

“Thank you very much. Hello and good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here, in Vietnam and at this Academy. Delighted too to have been welcomed by Vice Minister of Information and Communications Doan, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the UK last October, when we discussed the development of the media sector in Vietnam and further UK-Vietnam cooperation in this field.

This is my first visit to Vietnam, though not to the South East Asia region.

I first visited the region as a student, twenty-two years ago when I was 18 years old.

On my return to the region, it has changed more rapidly than anyone twenty years ago could have imagined.

On Monday, I was at the top of the fourth highest building in the world when I visited Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

On Tuesday, I was visiting a campus of my own university that I attended, Nottingham University, but this time the campus was in Malaysia.

And it is particularly true of Vietnam. I have already been struck by the dynamism and energy of Vietnam and its people. This country is on the rise and developing rapidly.

Yesterday, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and met representatives from British business and Vietnamese entrepreneurs who together have helped to increase bilateral trade to £1.4 billion in 2010, an increase of 15% on 2009. And on the drive into Hanoi from the airport I had a chance to see the Thang Long Industrial Park, a visible sign of economic growth.

Central to that rise and development are Vietnam’s young people. So I am extremely pleased to see so many young faces here, who are keen to become the next top journalists of Vietnam.

As journalists, you will have a central role to play in this country’s development.

And in my remarks today, I would like to focus on how central the media is - and therefore how important you will be - to social and political development and economic opportunity, both in developing countries such as Vietnam and developed countries such as Britain.

Media in Vietnam

I have already referred to changes that have taken place since I first visited this region. It is worth looking at the statistics. For Vietnam, they are particularly impressive.

In the 1990s there were fewer than 400 newspapers and 70 TV channels. Today, there are 728 media organisations nationwide, publishing nearly 1000 publications and online newspapers.

Internet use has grown rapidly. In November 2010 the number of internet users reached 26.8 million, as the Minister said, over 30% of the population, double the number in 2006 and ten times more than in 2003.

The number of personal blogs stands at 1.5 million - maybe some of those bloggers are in this room today.

And the way people are consuming their media is changing in Vietnam too, like the rest of the world. There are now more than 150 million mobile phones in use in Vietnam - almost double the population of the country.

But these are more than just statistics. They are evidence of a profound and dramatic shift in the world over the last two decades.

As media students today, and journalists tomorrow, you will be at the forefront of that change.

First, new media

As I mentioned, the way we all access the media in today’s world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. We now expect, and even demand, to have the latest information at the tips of our fingers wherever we are.

The internet, with its incredible connective power, has created opportunity on a vast and growing scale; unlocking potential, revolutionising access to information and transforming people’s lives.

The explosion of social media has also changed the way individuals and groups share information and ideas.

Facebook and Twitter may have started out as a way of keeping in contact with friends and family. But their outreach is now phenomenal.

One of the key lessons from recent events in North Africa is that governments that try to restrict the media actually risk being destabilised by it. Enabling the media to become more open, more effective and more independent actually serves to improve the environment for social political stability.

A responsible government might therefore work hard to improve the professionalism, accountability and freedom of the media. I am proud that the UK has been working with the Vietnamese Government to build professionalism and accountability in the media sector.

This has included training for government spokespersons to give them the opportunity to learn about international experience of encouraging transparency and enhancing communications between government officials and the media.

And new media can also play a crucial role in times of crisis, such as the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan where people were able to find missing relatives and keep in contact through Facebook and Twitter. And much of the devastation we saw was from mobile phone footage that was uploaded onto the internet.

New media, old messages

But while the way we all access the media may have changed, it still, I believe, undertakes fundamentally the same role.

In democracies, the media is fundamental to political life.

It provides facts to allow us to be better informed about the issues that matter to us.

It provides criticism and debate to ensure that that information is tested and examined from all points of view.

And it provides investigation and examination to ensure that power is checked and decision-makers are held accountable.

All that applies from small-scale local media to the biggest issues of the day. Whether it is domestic or international news, financial advice or even match reports of the latest English Premier League football games.

This flow of information and ideas will then lead to debate and discussion, crucial in any society if it is to grow and flourish, both socially and economically.

There are examples here in Vietnam of the media playing an active role in promoting issues of concern. In the case of Thi, media reporting not only highlighted the issue, but also forced the manufacturer to stop polluting the Thi Vai river and to pay compensation to the affected local residents and businesses.

The media is also a driver of economic growth. Investors look to establish themselves in countries where there is a free media so they have unhindered access to reliable and credible sources of information, which in turn allow them to make informed decisions.

This will be absolutely vital if Vietnam is to establish itself as a regional or even global financial centre. This aspiration was highlighted by the Chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee during the recent visit of the Lord Mayor of London.

Through the media, the public get to hear directly from people who hold different views from the government. That can be difficult at times. But we believe that the better informed the British public are about issues affecting our society the easier it is for the British government to come to sensible decisions and to develop robust policies that command the confidence of our people.

The media also has a vital role to play in promoting transparency and accountability. Whether it is scrutiny of the performance of the government, unearthing corruption or reporting crimes, the media has to be able to cover these important issues in an open and balanced way.

Here in Vietnam, Vinashin is one example where the media helped the public to gain a better understanding of the poor performance of State Owned Enterprises and to promote calls for the government to take action to improve standards.

Responsibility of the media

Of course, with this important role comes responsibility. The media must operate in an ethical and responsible way.

Media organisations, journalists and individuals must be accountable for their output and it is therefore vital that the boundaries that they operate within are clear and unambiguous.

The code of ethics for journalists must be implemented fairly and consistently. This will be an important test for the revised press law, which is being drafted here in Vietnam.

In this context, I know that the Ambassador and his colleagues here in Hanoi have been working closely with Vice Minister Doan and the Ministry of Information and Communication to support the development of an effective system to deal with press complaints, drawing on the experience of the British Press Complaints Commission, an independent self-regulatory body which deals with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers, magazines and their websites.

The media also has a responsibility to provide high-quality output. As I said earlier, we are all impressed by the increased number of news outlets and internet users. However, the figure has little meaning if it does not also represent an increase in quality.

We need to ensure that encouraging media development in Vietnam is measured by the quality of coverage and reporting as well as the quantity of outlets. We must encourage the development of the highest professional standards among journalists.

Rights of the media

The media must be able to operate in an environment free of fear. One in which they can investigate important national issues and express informed opinion without fear of prosecution.

In order for the media to function effectively, journalists, bloggers, media organisations and individuals must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely and safely within international standards.

I have met representatives from Facebook and Google to discuss how to uphold international freedom of expression standards on the internet. I have also met Global Network Initiative and fully support their work to develop voluntary principles for companies.

UK support to the media sector in Vietnam

The UK government is one of the most active international partners working in the media sector in Vietnam. As stated clearly in the Memorandum of Understanding signed between our two governments last year, we are working towards a shared objective: to create an enabling and professional working environment for the local media to support Vietnam’s development.

This is exactly why the British Embassy and British Council, working with the expertise of City University in London, have supported the development of journalistic standards through MediaPro for the last two years.

MediaPro is an innovative project that has helped three of the key academic institutions for journalism, including the Academy of Journalism and Communication, to revise and update their curriculum for students.

At the same time, MediaPro has supported the Vietnamese Journalists Association in the re-drafting of its code of ethics.

I look forward to hearing about the impact of our support, how it benefits the students in this room and future generations of journalists in Vietnam.

A number of UK media outlets are already represented in Vietnam, including Reuters and the Financial Times, who opened their bureau in Hanoi last year. BBC Vietnamese may not have a bureau here, but it is providing in depth coverage and analysis of domestic and international news in Vietnamese. They are all playing their part in demonstrating quality journalism.

Rapid technological advances are dramatically changing the way we all access the media. But its role remains to provide information.

Freedom of the media can help to support a country’s socio-economic development. And the more professional, objective and open the media can be, the stronger its impact on stable economic growth and positive international engagement.

We are proud to be supporting Vietnam towards this goal.

Thank you very much.”

Updates to this page

Published 7 April 2011