Big Food and the Politics of Diabesity

“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. “They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they’d have been ill.”

“So they were,” said the Dormouse, “very ill.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

 

1. The Word of the Day is Diabesity

The UK is in the midst of a public health crisis. According to the NHS’ most recent Health Survey for England 24% of men and 27% of women are obese; 41 percent of men and 31 percent of women are overweight. Obesity has increased markedly over the last twenty years. In 1996 only about 15 percent of the population was classified as obese. The change over fifty years is even more alarming. In the 1960s obesity rates were at 1 and 2 percent for men and women respectively. Since then they have increased by 1150%.

Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of a number of diseases, most notably diabetes. According to Diabetes UK there are currently 3.5 million people diagnosed with the disease, up from 1.4 million in 1996. Another 0.5 million are currently believed to be living with the disease undiagnosed, although recent research suggest that there might be many more than that. In 2014 a University of Leicester / University of Florida study estimated that a full third of the UK population has abnormally high blood sugar levels.

Such is the scale of the problem that politicians have slowly come to acknowledge it. Wherever possible they talk about the need to exercise more and leave it at that. But recently there has been talk of taxing unhealthy foods, particular foods with high sugar content.

The previous Chancellor George Osborne went as far as to announce a levy on sugary drinks. The latest government plan for action on childhood obesity tells us that they “have given producers and importers two years to lower the sugar in their drinks so that they won’t face the levy if they take action.” Meanwhile, “HM Treasury are consulting on the technical detail of the soft drinks industry levy over the summer, and will legislate in the Finance Bill 2017.” So the details haven’t been worked out yet, and where all know who lives in the details

 

2. Big Food

For years now the major producers of sugary and highly caloric processed food – Big Food – have fought to keep their business model safe from state intervention. They need to sell more and more product to keep their shareholders happy. Sweet foods, particularly sweet foods that artfully integrate salt and fat, are cheap and taste good. As an added bonus, sugar in the form of fructose also seems to stimulate our appetite.

At the level of health policy, Big Food has fiercely opposed the publication of clear and authoritative recommendations  on sugar consumption. There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, they say. Everything has its place in a sensible diet, even if only as an occasional treat. True, they can only hit their financial targets if we can’t control ourselves. But it isn’t their fault if we eat too many of these moreish-by-design confections.

Big Food is on the side of proverbial wisdom; everything in moderation, nothing in excess. The important thing is that we shouldn’t get fixated on a sector that, after all, provides jobs and investment. Besides, political interference with what people choose to put in their mouths is a dangerous affront to individual liberty.

This note of world-weary reasonableness is one that Big Food hits whenever it can. Critics are paranoid and guilty of myth-making. The comparison between sugar and tobacco is hysterical and unworthy of anyone who wants to be taken seriously. Besides, the data is nowhere near as clear cut as the industry’s critics make out. It’s true that people weigh more on average, but in the UK surveys tell us that we are eating far fewer calories now than in the 1970s, when obesity scarcely registered as an issue. The tight focus on diet as a driver of obesity is therefore deeply unhelpful. If only people would exercise more!

(For examples of this style of Big Food apologetics, see these two articles by Christopher Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs –  “One fact the sugar tax report misses out: our consumption has been falling for years” and “Don’t dismiss the data: a fatter Britain really is consuming fewer calories”.)

3. Breaking the Spell of Big Food

Big Food’s resistance has been very successful at slowing down or preventing reform of the food economy. Worrying about sugar and processed food is one more flypaper for our age’s buzzing anxieties – not something that winners waste time on. Eat your salad and mind your own business is the message tirelessly conveyed to the fit and healthy. Meanwhile, the unhealthy are told with an indulgent wink that this or that treat should be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Meanwhile we are gaining weight. And as we gain weight we become less healthy. Millions of us end up diabetic. In some instances this might be because, although we are eating less, we are also exercising much less. But in some cases we are gaining weight because we are eating more calories in absolute terms than people did in the past. And many of those calories are coming to us via the ingenuity of Big Food.

The discussion in its current form focuses for the most part on individual behaviour, which is how Big Food likes it. Almost all of us could eat less sugar and refined food with no ill effects. Many of us would benefit greatly from losing some weight, and the simplest way to do that is to cut down, or cut out, sugar consumption. This puts the common good at odds with the interests of a powerful industrial sector. Some of us will be able to see through the fog of misleading information and advice generated by this industry and overcome our own reluctance to forego the pleasures afforded by the technicians of mouthfeel. But, unaided, most of us will not.

Only collective action in the public interest stands a chance of improving our diet. For a start, the public must have access to clear and evidence-based guidelines on what to eat. This could be achieved by including a health advisory notice on high-sugar (including high fructose) food and drink based on NHS England’s 3og /7 sugar cubes daily limit. By all means eat a Mars bar, but you are entitled to know that, at 35g of sugar, it contains more sugar than the NHS thinks you should eat in a day. A Mars a day … is bad for you.

Much more can be done. The state needs now to take steps to reorganize the food economy so that it favours local, diverse and energy efficient production. This is not a matter of dictating to others. It is a chance for us to redesign the production and distribution of food so that stressed and time-poor people in particular have a shot at eating well. Cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food is possible. We need only begin to take the politics of food more seriously and think through how together we can change the structure of incentives that help determine what we end up eating.

At the moment the food economy is geared towards the industrial production of a small number of commodity crops. These commodities are processed into a range of branded, and often unhealthy, product lines. The apparent variety on the supermarket shelves is achieved through the ingenuity of food scientists and packaging designers, rather than at the level of the crops themselves. Non-standard items are imported, even when it would be almost farcically easy to produce them domestically.  All this is not a natural outcome of market forces. It is a feature of the current subsidy regime and the extant patterns of land ownership and control.  Large scale agriculture is energy intensive, environmentally damaging and supports a national diet that is killing us in large numbers.

A new food economy would bring suitable land, especially in and near residential areas, back under the control of  people who live nearby, especially those who are poorly served by the current system. There would be a presumption in favour of using land rather than leaving it vacant and the tax and subsidy regime would encourage its efficient use. Users of the land would pay rent to a co-operative in which they were also voting members. These tenancies would be supplemented by common pool resources – public tool stores, market places, grazing meadows, libraries etc – as well as businesses such as fish farms, apiaries and orchards. Where necessary the regulations and subsidies that structure the food economy would be changed to remove the obstacles to small scale, diverse and highly productive farming. Everyone would be free to carry on eating junk, but they would also have greatly increased access to fresh, locally produced food at much lower prices.

None of this is particularly radical. The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act required local authorities to provide land for allotments where demand existed, by compulsory purchase if necessary. There are plenty of food deserts – areas where it is difficult to find affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables – next to prime agricultural land in this country. At the moment these fields are eyed hungrily by developers who want to plant car-dependent McMansions on them.

Defenders of the existing food economy have been adept at mobilising a kind of class warfare against its critics. When a book called Fast Food Nation became a bestseller there was a flurry of books and films that explored the iniquities of Big Food. One response was to argue that these critics were middle class snobs who wanted to meddle with the food choices of the working class. In a 2004 Spiked piece Brendan O’Neill claimed that while the ostensible target of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me might be McDonald’s:

Its real target is the people who eat in McDonald’s – the apparently stupid, fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a nutritional and calorie breakdown first. Spurlock and his ilk might hate McDonald’s, but they seem to loathe the McMasses even more.

It’s true that there is a long and inglorious history of bien pensant attempts by the rich to regulate the eating habits of the poor. We are told that one Edwardian evangelist for better living through thoughtful eating showed a roomful of East End women how to make a delicious and nutritious soup out of fish heads. At the end of the demonstration she asked whether there were any questions. “Yes,” one of the audience asked, “who ate all the fish?”

Wealthy people are sensitive to accusations of snobbery and high-handedness, not least because they are often guilty of both. It is up to mass constituencies to secure control of both food production and the common sense that shapes our diet.

A sugar tax would be yet another imposition on the poor, goes the reasoning, another attempt to reform their morals from on high. But the tax might attract greater support if the money raised was distributed back to wards and parishes in proportion, say, to the numbers of fast food outlets and off licences in them. The people who paid the most sugar tax could do what they wanted with it, having consulted with public health professionals as well as all manner of do-gooders and cranks. The people debate, publicly and privately, and then they vote. We might use the money to buy land and create an intensive, sustainable food production sector. But that would be up to us. Importantly, the collective control of a regular income stream would provide us with an experience of real and immediate self-government, for which there is a healthy and growing appetite.

*

If you want to lose weight and change your eating habits, I can personally recommend Michael Moseley’s The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet: Lose weight fast and reprogramme your body. In July it prompted me to take a long hard look at myself and since then I have lost about a stone of weight, by eating fewer calories, much less sugar, while exercising a little bit.

The classic text on Big Food and its discontents remains Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal is Doing to the World.

(If you buy either book from Amazon.co.uk via the links above I receive a modest commission.)

Sanders on the Media

In his recent MSNBC Bernie Sanders here mentions the possibility of the Democratic Party funding an alternative to Fox News.

Here’s what I wrote in The Public and the Mass:

“The lessons from Scotland are clear. We can cease to fund media operations that do not serve our interests. We can fund new, public-oriented media with some of the money we thereby save. We can begin forming publics where they don’t exist and we can restore the public character of existing institutions by participating in them energetically and without illusions. Indeed, these lessons are so clear that millions of people who know little or nothing about the politics of the independence referendum are applying them in Bernie Sanders’ attempt to capture the Democratic party and in Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to reform the Labour party.

The threat to the existing order in Scotland revealed biases in the communications fabric and prompted the creation of an alternative. The attempt to save the economic system that collapsed in 2007-8 has revealed similar structural biases in the Anglo-American mass media that compromise their attempts to describe and explain contemporary reality. The brute facts of the economic system, never mind the inequality and injustice they generate, cannot be treated adequately in the existing communications order and the need for a new one is becoming increasingly obvious. A fraction of the millions Bernie Sanders has raised for his campaign would be enough to put this alternative into beta.”

An actually fair and balanced description of current conditions would make highly effective propaganda for social democratic and socialist politics. Combined with proposals for practical reform and some Charlie Chaplin clips it would be pretty much unstoppable.

What Does it Mean to Publish?

On Tuesday Mark Fisher invited me to talk with some MA students at Goldsmiths about publishing, publicity and the public. As is usually the case I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until slightly after I had stopped talking, so I am leaving a couple of notes here.

In the morning session Federico Campagna (who works at Verso, but was there speaking in a personal capacity) talked, among other things, about how a book publisher does more than present individual books to the public. He or she acts as the organizer and articulator of a world-view. And this is a useful place to start.

Publishers are actors in time. They make good on editorial decisions through the market and media relations that they carry from project to project. Most of their books might lose money, some of them will wildly underperform, but the occasional successes subsidise the failures and mean that shops will continue to give them shelf space. Similarly, the publisher might, as it were, mis-speak, publish a book that sits uneasily with the rest of the list. But for the most part the books, taken together, are part of a unified proposition, a way of approaching the world.

The publishers I have met, those who were serious about what they did, were up to something with the books they published. None of the books were exactly right in themselves – the publisher knew that the books belonged to the authors and, ordinary commercial hypocrisy aside, they didn’t go along with everything in any of them – but the individual books were pieces in something larger and more mysterious that they, the publishers, were making. Together they were a self-effacing monument to a publisher’s taste, to their acumen, to their ambition to make the world a little different.

A book publisher, a fully realised book publisher, is in the world-view business. He or she is always one among many in the same line of work, and far from the most important. Nowadays they find themselves inside media conglomerates with limited room for manoeuvre. Even at their most powerful and autonomous they barely registered when compared with the state and the mass media. The development and propagation of world-views is a deadly serious thing. It’s what lies at the heart of the relationship between Google and the NSA, just as it lay at the heart of the relationship between the CIA and the networks, between MI5 and the BBC.

And it’s the world-view business I want all of us to take an interest in. Not because I think we should all be book editors. I don’t want to be a book editor most of the time, and I am a book editor. But because the decision to test our ideas against the best evidence is the decision to become adult. And this is only possible if we are commissioning as well as consuming the information on which we rely.*

An audience that cannot reflect on what is presented to it, that cannot take a view on the sum of cultural output, and that is kept innocent of the material conditions of political reporting, such an audience cannot call itself adult. It cannot function as a governing public.

That’s what I wanted to explain on Tuesday.

*The social media campaign to persuade the BBC to discuss questions about Conservative campaigning in the 2o15 election is perhaps a kind of embryonic public commissioning.

The Public and the Mass

In 1956 the American sociologist C. Wright Mills set out to describe the difference between a ‘community of publics’ and a ‘mass society’. It was a difference that derived from the forms of communication found in each. Egalitarian communications that connects to the conduct of the state fosters a public culture and effective democracy; centralised and concentrated media power underpins the enigmatic and unaccountable rule of elites.

A new ebook from Commonwealth, The Public and the Mass revives Mills’ account and explores its relevance in the age of social media and mass surveillance. We can already see the outlines of a new communications structure, in which the corporate sector and the state ensure that the majority are denied the means to deliberate on the basis of the best available information. Technology that could reinvigorate popular participation is being made safe for domination by manipulation.

This is not inevitable. The data leaks from Manning, Snowden and others have alerted us to the need for root and branch reform of the media as a preliminary to a revived democratic culture. So far the emphasis has been on restoring online privacy. But, as Mills pointed out sixty years ago, there is more to a public system of communications than privacy.

The debate about media reform has been delayed long enough. If we want to live in democracies we need to change the way we communicate with one another and with the state. Mills’ public/mass distinction remains an excellent place to start.

Democratic Media Fund Paper, #1

(Buying The Public and the Mass via the Commonwealth site will mean that you receive DMF Papers as they are published over the summer. It is also available as a Kindle.)

The Eye That Cannot See Itself

Keeping one eye on the fallout from the John Whittingdale story, it is striking how secondary (ie non-Cusick/Jukes) coverage has stayed away from the obvious implication of the documented facts.

On Newsnight, for example, Evan Davis set out the issue as follows:

The media’s been playing ‘what’s the scandal’ today. Is it the fact that an important MP, John Whittingdale, went out with a dominatrix, the fact the papers didn’t report it, the fact the BBC did report it, albeit after some smaller outlets already had, or was it that John Whittingdale didn’t report it himself, or, finally, that he had to oversee the press knowing they had something on him, a potential conflict of interest.

Following this outline, Davis interviewed Andrew Mitchell who insisted that there was no conflict of interest. He later asked Nick Clegg the same question, to which the answer was again a resounding no.

There is certainly no evidence that Whittingdale has changed his position on press regulation or the BBC. But absolutely none of the original reporting suggested that. It suggested that the press kept a lid on the story in order to preserve the value of an ‘asset’ in Parliament and now in government. A senior editor at the Independent told Cusick that ‘we’ve got no choice. We can’t take an asset away from the Mail.’ The suggestion is that newspapers decided against publication to protect and promote their interests. At first sight there is something to this. A series of papers looked at the story and devoted considerable resources to it, only to decide to keep it under wraps.

This touches on a dynamic in the media-politics relationship that is both obvious and rarely stated: news outlets know more than they publish. They can leave some players on the board or remove them, as they see fit. The Whittingdale story should prompt a debate about this dynamic. Evan Davis should be asking journalists whether the media decide to keep viable stories from the public, and why.

If this is isn’t a well-understood aspect of the game insiders play then the Cusick interpretation of events becomes less plausible. If it is, then the public have a keen interest in knowing about it.*

Much of the coverage seems hellbent on missing the point, so that the actual relationship between the media and the politicians remains obscure. ‘Some smaller outlets’ like Byline.com and openDemocracy have shed a little light, and they have raised some money to do so. But the media giants remain committed to their mission to misrepresent.

If only there was some way that we could discuss politics, and the role of the media in politics, without the distorting filter of elite reticence, self-deception and outright deceit.**

*It is.

**There is.

A Spotlight on Editorial Power

The movie Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigation into the Catholic Church’s protection of paedophile priests. A film that casts a former Batman and the current Incredible Hulk as journalists was always going to have a bit of a head start with newspaper reviewers but it’s a film that tells us a good deal about how the media operate.

First off, Spotlight shows how the investigation did not present itself in the form of a tipoff from a trusted source or a journalist’s hunch. It began when the Globe‘s new editor, Martin Baron, pushed the paper’s Spotlight team to dig deeper into a story the paper was already covering. Baron, a Jew from Florida, hadn’t internalised any local understandings in Boston about what was and wasn’t a suitable subject for public discussion. His centre of gravity was outside the social world he was working in.

(While much is made of the Spotlight team’s independence, it is clear that the signals a determined editor sends can be extremely influential in the minds of those who work for him or her. Journalists are not puppets but they have jobs, which they want to keep. An editor, especially an editor like Baron with a reputation for cost-cutting, isn’t someone you want to antagonise.)

Second, stories do not speak for themselves. They are shaped by the assumptions of those working on them, as well as by the resources and the time available. Baron insists that the story isn’t about any number of abusive priests. It is about the systemic response of the Church. The institution covered up the crimes of individuals and made it possible for them to offend repeatedly. One of the Spotlight team says that that means they are going after Cardinal Bernard Law, a powerful individual in the city’s establishment. (Law, by the way, was on good terms with the politician Billy Bulger, the brother of one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters, Whitey Bulger). No, Baron explains, they are going after the system.

An editor or journalist can look, if he or she chooses, at patterns, at cultures, at the spoken and unspoken laws that govern behaviour as well as at the workings of personality. This ability to intercut the close ups of an investigation with the panning shots of social survey begins to get at the nature of editorial power. It is the power to shape how we, the audience, make sense of the facts presented. An editor can make the narrative about a few (or many) bad apples or about the  structural properties of power in a particular context.

We know that the abuse of relatively powerless people is widespread. Collusion by those adjacent to this abuse is also widespread. But for the most part we have only a vague sense that an entire structure of power might somehow be involved. Editorial power is not usually used to place individual acts of abuse in their wider enabling context. Spotlight describes the exception, rather than the rule.

The film is also illuminating about the ways that the media interact with other institutions in society. Senior journalists move in the same circles as other professionals. They have a shared sense that society works, more or less. They are part of why it works. To call into question the commanding heights of that society is to call into question their own life narrative. Why are they successful journalists, after all, and not suicidal alcoholics? Is it just luck, as Michael Keaton’s character Robby Robinson wonders out loud, that he didn’t meet a predatory priest at school? And what if career progression depends not on fearless iconoclasm but on acceptance of prevailing social norms about what constitute acceptable lines of inquiry, about who should be listened to, about what a story is?

Getting at the way society really works works requires listening to people who are outside the circuits of polite speech. Victims, of course, but also whistleblowers and maverick lawyers. These people are normally excluded for a reason. They say things that other people – people of consequence – don’t want to hear. And so editorial power is exercised in the service of a kind of analgesia. The wrongdoers have been dealt with, lessons have been learned, senior managers didn’t know. The headache goes away.

Editorial power does not only belong to editors and journalists. Media owners have, to a greater or lesser extent, the means to make their preferences clear to those who work for them, quite obviously. But the authors of official inquiries also have considerable opportunity to interpret their briefs. The public relations industry is increasingly influential in the contest to establish the meaning of events. Individual politicians as well as parties have some power to reframe private problems as public issues or to substitute hallucination for analysis.

The Spotlight team broke the silence about abuse and coverup in the Catholic church because someone who approached the issue from outside prompted them to do so. It is possible to approach the politics of a medium-sized city from outside, and from above. But how do we treat the political and economic directorate from outside? The answer is obvious and yet somehow repellent. We can only do so by democratising decisions about how investigative journalists are employed and how their work is interpreted. Instead of relying on elite-run and opaque institutions we rely instead on ourselves. We take part in the editorial process of deciding which events matter in the first place, and what they mean. This requires accepting the possibility of error and the discomfort of being corrected. We are no longer granted the luxury of outraged innocence. But that seems like a reasonable price to pay for becoming the co-authors of public speech.

With that in mind I am setting up a Democratic Media Fund, which will pay for me (and hopefully others) to look at ways to make the media safe for democracy. The first project this Spring will look at emerging funding models for journalism and how they relate to the output. It will be based around a trip to meet the Bristol Cable people and learn more about their work.

If you want to contribute to what I am grandiosely calling the DMF, you can buy a copy of Common Sense on pdf. I’ll send everyone who kicks in 99 pence a note in April about the Bristol trip, and about the DMF’s plans for the rest of the year. Together we can change story about the media, as a prelude to changing the world.

Delusions of Guardiandeur

Last week the Guardian ran an article by John Harris on the Bristol Cable, a news cooperative launched in 2014. The Cable is committed to producing high quality journalism. In this it isn’t exactly unusual. But it is different from most other startups in one very big way. Rather than spend dollars on production and receive back pennies in revenue from Google and the other info-monsters, the Cable has sought to establish itself as a co-operative venture with its readers.

The Cable, constituted as a community benefit society, has somewhere around 600 members.* These people are “legal shareholders” of the Cable. That means that they “participate in strategic decisions, workshops and events” and they pay a minimum of £1 a month each to support the organization.

It is important not to be starry-eyed about this model. 600 supporting members in a population of 440,000 is useful, and tantalizingly close to break even, but it is not overwhelming. But, crucially, membership means engaging with issues of funding, and hence of power. This isn’t just a vague aspiration. The Cable has just received a £40,000 grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the members have been debating how the money should be spent. The members are not being asked to pay for a good thing while remaining excluded from consequential decisions.

This carries with it huge potential. Instead of a core of professionals who control the editorial and production process and intermediate between the state and other institutions and a consuming audience, the Bristol Cable model implies a degree of fluidity between the role of producer and consumer – readers learn how journalism is made by making it. The members also share in conversations about how resources are spent. If it moves into regular surplus it can regularise these conversations, so that the journalism remains connected to the needs of members.

There are tensions between participation and the publishing objectives of the organization, which the Cable is keenly aware of. But nevertheless, the membership already discovers itself through collective decision-making. As such, isn’t an object to be manipulated (or “enlightened”) by professionals. Nor is it a mutually oblivious and endlessly divisible mass that can be served up to advertisers.

So, the membership could very easily become a point of origin for economic cooperation. Instead of being advertised at, individuals could use meetings to discover and articulate shared economic as well as journalistic needs. The model could also be used to develop a different kind of political subjectivity. Instead of a newspaper endorsing a candidate to readers who only have the newspaper in common, members would develop a nuanced understanding of what other people think, and hence of the horizon of political possibility at any given time. In other words, the Cable is closing in on the emancipatory possibility of democratic media to remake both economic and political life along egalitarian lines.

Contrast all this with the Guardian‘s own membership scheme. At its inception several people, myself included, argued that it would only flourish if members were given some degree of power over the future direction of the paper, if members could communicate with one another as equals in decisions about what the Guardian was for, how best it could serve its readers and members. The possibilities were enticing. The contents of the website and the paper would no longer have been shaped in black box isolation by insiders. They would have come to reflect the wishes of the paper’s supporters as well as the pressure of events, the operations of sophisticated lobbies and the editors’ amour propre. And supporters would have come to know one another better, as they associated on the basis of shared political and economic interests and geographical proximity.

This would not have meant abandoning journalistic standards, or printing feelgood pabulum that the members wanted to read. It would have meant that journalists worked as partners with members to develop a better understanding of the world. And, similarly, the members would have been able to capture the political and economic benefits of scale for themselves, rather than seeing them captured by corporate oligopolies and a electoral duopoly. (This dynamic would have helped establish the Guardian as a paying proposition in the United States, too.)

At the time the Guardian decided against all this. The one meeting I attended there in 2012 had plenty of network entrepreneurs and advertising types. They spoke highly of the Guardian‘s brand. They talked up the possibilities of attracting an upscale audience to real-world events, about social hubs and about “monetizing” members. In a very polite showdown between exclusivity and participation, exclusivity won. Hence the membership model adopted. The opportunity to shape the nature of the Guardian over time in collaboration with others has been rejected. Instead, being a partner means a 20% discount on tickets and being a patron means, what else, “exclusive behind-the-scenes functions” for only £599 a year.

It is easy to see why the advocates of exclusivity were so persuasive. For one thing they knew how to sell, while the democratisers weren’t as slick. But more importantly. members in this approach are invited to look up, at the marvels of the Guardian, not at one another. Power and glamour remain at the centre. Rubbing shoulders with well-heeled people who think you ever so glamorous is much more appealing to editors and executives than the hassle of having to do what members tell them to do.

Membership was meant to be a way of shoring up the paper’s finances and guaranteeing free access to the website’s content. But in January the paper reported that it expected operating losses of £53 million in the year to March 2016.

It isn’t too late for the paper to stop pretending that it is a high-value brand experience or a coffee shop. It could still adapt to, and help articulate, the kinds of progressive energy so visible in the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns, not to mention Occupy and UK Uncut. People want power over their own lives and have less and less in common with those who cling to the top of steep hierarchies. Yes, there will be coordination at the centre, and yes, there will always be a tension between what people want to believe and what people can honestly report. But these difficulties and ambiguities can no longer be obscured by professional condescension in the service of a manipulation.

There are signs that the editor Katharine Viner grasps this. In the Guardian she is quoted saying that “over the next three years, a growing and far deeper set of relationships with our audience will result in a reimagining of our journalism, a sustainable business model and a newly-focused digital organisation that reflects our independence and our mission.” Quite what she means by “a growing and far deeper set of relationships with our audience” I don’t know. I do know it sounds a lot less disgusting than “exclusive behind the scenes functions”.

More tellingly, perhaps, the Financial Times reports that the Guardian‘s has shelved plans to open an “an events hub” in Kings Cross.

[One thing is for sure, the Guardian aren’t about to pay me for this piece, so if you appreciate it you can buy a copy of The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society. Half the proceeds go to the Tax Justice Network, and half go to the publisher, which is me. Or you can go and watch a Justin Bieber video. Either way, we’re done here.]

*[Update: the Bristol Cable now has 750 supporting members.]

[Update 2: I am setting up a Democratic Media Fund, which will pay for me to look at ways to make the media safe for democracy. The first project this Spring will look at emerging funding models for journalism and how they relate to the output. It will be based around a trip to meet the Bristol Cable people and learn more about their work.

If you want to contribute to what I am grandiosely calling the DMF, you can buy a copy of Common Sense on pdf. I’ll send everyone who kicks in 99 pence a note in April about the Bristol trip, and about the DMF’s plans for the rest of the year. Together we can change story about the media, as a prelude to changing the world.]