Comment: Back in Unesco thanks to Clare

This was, I have to tell you, the week I switched briefly from being an inveterate poacher to become something more like a gamekeeper. After a quarter of a century of reporting international conferences, I found myself on the British delegation to one.

When Britain rejoined Unesco, the International Development Secretary Clare Short decided that the delegation should include independent "experts" as well as the usual range of ministers and civil servants. And so I ended up at Unesco's headquarters in Paris representing the country on the freedom of the press, the Internet, and "communications and information" generally.

There I was, alphabetically perched between Romania and Rwanda - the man from Royaume Uni. It was, admittedly, not the first time I had sat in the official government seat - on one occasion I gatecrashed an ozone conference to annoy the current Environment Secretary - but I was there legally.

As an independent, I could say what I liked. So I enjoyed calling on the Government to bring in speedily a proper Freedom of Information Act, lamenting the increasing hegemony of Anglo-Saxon culture, and chiding Unesco for spending more on its staff than on its activities in this area. The speech seemed to go down OK, and we had to run off extra copies to give to the delegates who came up to ask for them.

There were, of course, limits. As I arrived, the civil servant responsible for my area had to leave, and for one moment it looked as if I would be entirely in charge of making up British policy on the hoof. But, wisely, someone was quickly found to "look after me".

And well looked after I was. For once, the civil service machine was working for me. An official would keep my seat warm, rising respectfully when I returned. And the slightest practical suggestion was immediately and efficiently carried out.

A fella could get a taste for this kind of thing. But worry not. I'd still sooner be a poacher.

IT WAS, of course, a historic moment. Britain was rejoining an organisation it had done its best to try to kill, under Mrs Thatcher, 12 years ago. When we withdrew with the US (and, as it happens, Singapore), Unesco lost a third of its income overnight.

The pretext was a nasty little proposal from East Germany, called the New World Information Order, to try to ensure that journalists only reported good news from member countries. It soon died, despite our absence, so perhaps it was not quite the threat it was made out to be. The catalyst was an autocratic Director General, Amadou M'bow, who probably beats a strong field as the most disastrous recent head of a UN agency. But the real reason was ideological. Ministers acknowledged at the time that Unesco was improving, and that Britain could best reform it from within. But, as I was told, "one member of the Government disagreed - and, as usual, she got her way".

The agency, under a new Director General, has changed quite a lot, and our return was a triumph. Clare Short got a standing ovation, and Britain was immediately, if narrowly, elected to Unesco's 58-nation governing body. The Italians, who had remained in the organisation throughout but were booted out to make way for the returned Prodigals, were understandably miffed.

ONE OF the wackier suggestions came from a Lithuanian minister who proposed that within five years "access to the Internet" should be established as "a human right". One might have thought that, say, freedom of speech or relief from hunger were more vital, but he was straining at an important point all the same.

There's much talk of cyberspace expanding everyone's horizons, but in fact the information superhighway will bypass most of the world's people. Half the population of the globe has never used a telephone, let alone a modem. Information being power, the Internet threatens to strengthen the rich and deepen the deprivation of the poor.

Figures presented at the conference show that 88 per cent of Internet users are white, and 94 per cent of its communications are in the English language. The average income of on-line households is pounds 40,000 a year.

INDEED, the biggest row - setting industrialised against developing countries and even creating tensions within the European union - was about the Declaration of Human Rights. It took place, I kid you not, in a session devoted to "The Culture of Peace".