A Public System of Communications

Remarks at the Co-Operatives UK/NUJ/Goldsmiths Conference ‘Can the Media be Co-operative?’

Where are we now?

New technology has left the traditional media in disarray. Total newspaper circulation overall has fallen by more than 25% since 2007. Other media are also struggling. Book sales in Britain fell by 3.2% in 2010 against the previous year – the first annual decline since World War II.

Corporations are sweating existing assets and reducing the quality of their output. The drive for short-term super-profits is, from the point of view of shareholder value, rational. The newspaper groups see no growth potential in their traditional print products and are not therefore investing in journalism. Still, there is mileage to made from flogging a dying horse. And managers must have their bonuses somehow.

We’ve heard from Sion Whellens about the impact of new technologies on people who work in the communications business  and in the wider economy. Increasing numbers of people are working for free or for very little, in the, often vain, hope that they will eventually secure full-time employment. The rewards for creativity and innovation are being shared ever more unequally.

As Natalie Fenton pointed out the corporate organization of journalism is making fewer journalists do more in less time. As a result corporate press releases increasingly crowd out original, independent inquiry. What we might call civic journalism loses out to soft news about lifestyle and celebrity. Investigative journalism, always marginal, has almost disappeared altogether.

Why does it matter?

This matters because, as Professor Fenton has already said today, democracy and news are inextricably linked. Indeed, I would argue that meaningful democracy depends on reliable and pertinent information.

The media we have, however, are unreliable and impertinent. They consistently misunderstand or ignore developments of vast public significance, for example, while insisting on their right to publish the minutiae of people’s private lives.

They are too busy suffocating sprats to notice the monster approaching the boat.

Consider coverage of the financial sector in the period before the crash of 2007-8. If newspapers had spent a small fraction of the time and energy that they lavished on the antics of professional footballers and actors investigating the state of Britain’s banks we might have been better prepared for what was about to happen.

As it was, to pick up Granville Williams’s phrase, the media that most people relied on was in tune with the music of our time – a traditional 19th century air arranged by Alan Greenspan, Gordon Brown and others entitled ‘Markets Rule’.

This music has drowned out other tunes – including the music of industrial democracy and of the common good.

Give people want they want at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible price. Ignore the possibility that there might be more to the public interest than what the public happen to be interested in at the moment they make a purchase.

And Hilary Wainwright is right; any movement serious about addressing what is a deepening social and political crisis must start thinking about the structural organization of the media. Both the unions and the co-operatives need to break the noise and misinformation that surrounds them. Otherwise they will continue to be drowned out.

The failings of the media in the last decade will not come as any surprise to those like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom who have long pointed out the pressures that bear down on reporters. Indeed a mixture of legislation and market pressures has decisively shaped news content since the 1840s, as Professors Curran and Seaton have described.

So I don’t want to argue for a return to a golden age of journalism – there has never been such a thing. Things are certainly worse for working journalists. Standards have clearly declined. But it isn’t enough to resist the increasing intensity of market forces or even to call for the restoration of the social democratic media economy that existed after the Second World War. The mix of public service and market values that prevailed until 1979 failed to give people the information they needed for self-government and it didn’t stop the Daily Herald from being strangled.

But right now the commercial crisis runs alongside, and is in part driven by, a crisis of plausibility that is unprecedented in scale. And this crisis of plausibility goes some way to explaining patterns of consumption. If supposedly serious coverage is so often nonsensical, then why not gravitate towards celebrity? Brad Pitt is better looking than Jeremy Paxman and is about as likely to tell audiences what they need to know about the British economy.

Paying for Public Interest Journalism

Infotainment can look after itself. But public interest journalism, broadly defined, has never been funded by simple market mechanisms. There have been three kinds of subsidy at work:

1.) Direct state subsidy. The television license fee – not the BBC license, note – most notably, but also differential VAT rates and other forms of support.

2.) Publicly mandated subsidy within private companies – the ITV regulators require a public service commitment from broadcasters. So, classically, Grenada took profits from, say, Coronation Street and used it to pay for World in Action.

3.) Cross subsidy within private companies. Harold Evans’ use of revenue from the Sunday Times‘ colour magazine to pay for the Insight team’s investigations has been mentioned. But think also of Peter Cook’s enlightened ownership of Private Eye.

These last two depend on high and stable rates of profit. One can only redistribute surpluses that exist, after all. In their absence we are left with public subsidies.

Historically, public subsidies have been massive, as Aidan White pointed out earlier. But they have been little discussed.

So let’s change that.

Public subsidies have been organized top-down. In the case of the license fee a sum of money is taken from a large number of people and given to a central organization, the BBC. Managers there determine how the money is used. Not surprisingly they spend  fortunes on market research and other, more or less useful, efforts to discern and preempt the public mood. They become savants of public opinion, exquisitely attuned to the stated wishes and feelings of the British people. That is their edge, the knowledge that justifies their salaries.

This man is spending your licence fee.

In my book, The Return of the Public, I argue instead for the bottom-up organization of public subsidy. We can avoid ‘political control’ in the sense of control by bureaucrats and elected representatives by bringing in ‘political control’ that is egalitarian and participatory.

In the model I propose we no longer rely exclusively on unaccountable professionals to set the editorial agenda, i.e. to determine how public funds are spent on reporting as in the current BBC. Instead, in virtue of our being license-fee payers or, more properly, citizens, we have some power to commission journalism and research – and some power to determine the prominence given to particular discoveries and analysis.

The issue of trust

Journalistic co-ops and non-profits would be well-placed to compete for public funds in this system, to the extent that they were, to use an loaded term, embedded in communities – by which I mean both communities of location and communities of interest and knowledge.

But, note, I am arguing a publicly funded co-operative model, in which users of the media have a direct say in the direction and dissemination of inquiry. That’s the best way I can see to direct funds to organizations that regularly and reliably serve the public interest. It’s how worker co-ops of journalists that wanted to challenge the dominant assumptions of our time could be funded.

Indeed, it’s the only way I can see, for this reason.

Other approaches will run into the patronage problem – more or less well-meaning intermediaries will decide what should and should not be reported. Vested interests will make strenuous efforts to manage these intermediaries, to shape their perceptions about what is, and what is not, ‘newsworthy’.

Only an open cry system, where funds can flow to projects through the support of motivated fractions of the population, and then reach large numbers audiences, will address the pressures and constraints that currently shape coverage. The system also motivates people to engage in the communications process – challenging the music of our times ceases to be a minority pursuit.

What is true stands some chance of being widely shared, no matter how uncomfortable it is to particular interests.

(There are a number of objections to public commissioning along the lines I propose – I deal with them in the book)

It’s a long way from here to there

What I propose is deeply unpopular with those who currently control editorial decisions in the private media. I am arguing explicitly for an end to their monopoly control over day-to-day decisions about what gets investigated and widely discussed. They have so far tried desperately to avoid any open and public discussion of the structure of the media, even as they angle for more public subsidy.

Senior managers in the public service media do not like what I propose, either. I want to replace the lucrative and engrossing theology of research about diversity and inclusion with a system of production that is, in its nature, diverse and inclusive.

The Coalition will, as in other areas, use the language of crisis to justify a further concessions to the corporate and financial sectors. They will doubtless seek to demand less public interest material from broadcasters, to permit more consolidation and so on. They will develop policy that serves the interests of large media corporations and debate will be limited to those issues where companies feel the need to argue among themselves.

The response of the unions, the co-operative movement and other elements in civil society cannot limit itself to attempts to defend the status quo. The status quo failed to prevent the turn towards financialised capitalism after 1979. Defending it is boring and depressing, at a time when people around the world are waking up to the need for direct participation in the political process.

That game is rigged. The major media will ignore civil society when contemplating their own interests, to the extent that they can. Calling on them to be fair and balanced might be necessary – but it is not sufficient. If it absorbs too much of our limited resources and attention then pretending that the media can be impartial judges in their own case will be disastrous.

It is time, instead, to articulate an alternative model of communications that is egalitarian and that also rewards the skills and labour needed to assemble and present information in the public interest. The case can be made in the abstract. But it also needs to be made through material action in the world.

There are a number of steps we can and should take to prefigure a larger system of publicly supported and democratically governed news production. Both the union movement and the co-ops could engage with their members about the kinds of information they want to see more of – the principle of public commissioning could be tried and tested in smaller, defined publics in ways that lent support to the case for greater democratization and helped break through the misinformation about them that I mentioned earlier.

If trade unions and co-operative organizations went into the communications business in a serious way I have no doubt that they could compete effectively with a corporate sector and that is bloated, incompetent and only intermittently in touch with reality. It is, I must add, the one thing that your opponents most fear you will do and do well.

It need not be a loss-making proposition, so long as people felt the money, time and effort they spent informing themselves were contributing to a wider social transformation. That much abused word progressive is relevant here. Informing oneself of the ills of the world will always be a minority pursuit, absent a sense that conditions are going to change, for the better, and soon.

There are other things that might be considered.

The Co-operative Bank, for example, could create a micro-payments system that is tailored to the needs of independent producers and creators. Such a system would be trusted by users and it would have the added benefit of improving communications between co-operative businesses and their customers, social enterprises and other public spirited groups in civil society. And if the bank committed explicitly to a low-commission model it would be well placed to overcome consumer reluctance to grant network dominance, and hence super-profits, to a single provider.

(The creation of a popular micro-payments system would be an excellent business opportunity for the Bank, notwithstanding. What better way to break inertia about changing bank accounts than such a web-based system? Producers could transfer balances held on the system into a new bank account, for example.)

Both the co-operative and trade union movement have enormous, currently largely latent, powers to communicate. They can, and often do, provide a venue for democratic discussion and debate. They can play a much greater role in both describing and enacting the kind of society we want. If they embrace the principle that communication is a conversation of equals rather than something that an unaccountable elite do to a passive audience then their values will, I believe, prevail. 


We have financial crisis and war. Workers are receiving a declining share of the wealth they produce. There is plenty of work to do, but unemployment is high and rising. We need far-reaching change. Reform that acknowledges the constitutional significance of information is central to achieving that. Indeed I would argue that it is the necessary first step.

So the fact that the unions and the co-operative movement have met here to discuss the structure of the media is extremely good news.

I hope it is a sign that things are about to change. The music of our times turned shrill and discordant in 2007. The political classes and most of the media have responded by playing it louder.

We need new songs.

I was not paid to present or transcribe this talk. If you would like to support my work you can do so via Flattr.

The Return of the Public is the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize. You can buy it here.


2 thoughts on “A Public System of Communications”

  1. I found the points that you made at the conference to be quite persuasive. I often think that the most appropriate metaphor (an old, longstanding one) is that of the body and air. The inextricable link between journalism and democracy is the link between oxygen and the body, with the media (platforms) acting as the circulatory system that enables news, information, ideas and analysis to reach the public/s throughout the body politic. And, if that air or oxygen is contaminated than so will be the body politic as it is affected (adversely) by misinformation, lies and deception. Unfortunately, the current set-up of ‘bottom-line media’ has undermined the credibility of mass journalism, but most people remain unaware of bottom-up efforts via grassroots outlets and professional journalists trying to act in the public interest.

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