Media Reform in Britain

Speech at the Rebellious Media Conference, London, 9th October, 2011

1. Something is Wrong

We are here because we know that there is something profoundly wrong in the communications sector. It has been obvious for a long time that much of the media are incapable of describing the world when doing so would disrupt the interests of powerful institutions and individuals.

Now one could say that the mainstream isn’t at all dysfunctional, that it is doing what it is supposed to do – keeping the great majority ill-informed and therefore open to manipulation. But note what the media themselves say – they say that their job is to report the facts, to provide us with the information we need to engage in political discussion and so on.

And in this respect the media is clearly failing – the evidence from recent years is overwhelming.

We’ve seen it in coverage of US-UK foreign policy, in coverage of the financial markets, and in countless other contexts.

This much is familiar.

The question I want to address this morning is this – what do we do about it?

2. The Current Context

It’s important to appreciate the context in Britain right now. The people who own and run the media have finally become implicated in a wider crisis in the governing order. Finance and the free market flim-flam that underpinned it are now held in deep suspicion. MPs have been badly discredited by the expenses scandal.

The public has become aware of something that the media suppressed for years – that newsgathering in Britain had become a criminal enterprise. People are far more willing to entertain the idea that the media are failing and that the failure matters. We can use this moment to push for changes to the mainstream.

The political class broadly defined, which is to say the party leaders and their crews and the senior managers of the major media, have been forced to great lengths to contain and control the fallout from the Milly Dowler scandal that broke in early July.

They know something that they can’t admit – that they are in danger of losing control. This knowledge is leading them to take the extraordinary risk of discussing the media in public. They are hoping to shape the debate in ways that leave their power unexamined. We don’t have to let them.

3. The Opportunity

This then is the opportunity we have. We can join a conversation about the political economy of the mass media with some reasonable expectation of being heard by our fellow citizens.

Technology enables us to communicate on our own account. If what we say is appealing it becomes increasingly difficult for the mass media to ignore us without losing yet more credibility.

People don’t want to be deceived. They are being deceived. This is an opportunity to talk about how we can all stop being deceived.

4. The Alternative Media – an Alternative to Reform?

Now we might say that there is no need to discuss what to do about the media. An alternative it being built online. Organizations like Wikileaks are making the old media gatekeepers irrelevant.

But while it has never been easier to access alternative reporting and analysis, the major media, the media that most people rely on most of the time, remain substantially impervious to the democratizing energy found elsewhere.

On a recent edition of Any Questions, Radio 4’s flagship political discussion program, three quarters of the panellists were the sons of men who had previously appeared on the programme. The presenter’s father was another famous broadcaster. The format itself – similar to BBC 1’s Question Time, presented by another son of the same famous father – could have been designed to enforce the distinction between those who speak and those who listen.

Indeed, the format that seems natural to broadcasters, where professionals of speech representing a balanced spectrum of opinion dominate discussion, builds into it an assumption that public debate is staged for the benefit of an audience that features only as an audience – a few will ask questions decided on by the producers beforehand, the majority will listen in silence, far from the studio.

Most people – whether they are licensed to speak in public or expected to listen – still don’t understand how the economy works, or the nature of the scam being run on them by the banks and other market operators. Most people still don’t understand the state, or the collusive nature of the political system. We are as poorly informed about our communities as we are about the national scene.

And we have few incentives to discover just how poorly informed we are. In order to join the conversation staged in the major media it all we often have to sign up to a series of claims that are obviously and ludicrously untrue.

5. The Politics of Reform

So the mainstream is the problem. To some extent it can be made subject to pressure from outside. It cannot ignore criticisms of its performance entirely.

But to date it has not had to deal with a programme of reform that escapes its terms of reference. It can promise to try harder, to beef up self-regulation and so on, secure in the knowledge that there is no alternative approach to reform that makes sense to the wider public.

That what I want us to do – to present the outlines of a programme of media reform that will deliver what the established powers always say they want –

Journalism that informs the citizens of a democracy and a plural public sphere in which open debate takes place in a context where all the relevant facts can be made available.

My interest is in changing the mainstream, as a prelude to wider social change.

If you want anything else to change, and if you are democrat, then this must, surely, be the priority.

I am very happy to be sharing a panel with Ruth and Michael – they have both hugely creative and constructive in their proposals for change. My overriding concern is to establish conditions in which their ideas can contend with others in a debate that includes the bulk of the citizens of the country.

I think they are both substantially right – that a just economic and political settlement would be one in which their proposals carried considerable weight. But what I think doesn’t matter very much. What matters is what most people think.

And at the moment most people haven’t heard of either of them.

6. The Points of Decision

So how do we create a media system that allows Michael and Ruth’s ideas to take their chances alongside the nonsense that passes for economic analysis in the mainstream?

How do we create a media system that allows us to secure reliable information about matters that powerful people are keen to keep obscure?

How do we arrange things so that we have a mainstream that provides a factually adequate account of offshore finance, terrorism, famine, the drugs trade and grand corruption? More than that, how do we arrange things so that the general public understands how offshore finance, famine, terrorism, the drugs trade and grand corruption are intimately connected?

That’s the question that I try to answer in The Return of the Public.

The answer in a nutshell is this –

There are two crucial powers that are currently held by employees and owners that should now be made open to democratic deliberation.

The first is the power to fund investigation and research.

The second is the power to give publicity to the results of investigation and research.

7. Maintaining Social Silence

Those who enjoy these powers almost never discuss them. As Walter Karp once wrote, ‘usurped power is only secure as long as it remains unregarded’. So the powerful do all they can to marginalise attempts to discuss their power.

But those who work in the industry know that it is in the editors’ hands that power resides – that editors and ultimately owners are the patrons of journalists, and that the journalism we end up with is the journalism that suits editors, executives and owners. The door-stepping journalist is a figure of contempt. But he or she is an employee. If a journalist refuses to do what they do someone more amenable would replace them.

As Pierre Bourdieu once remarked – journalism is a very powerful profession made up of very vulnerable individuals.

There is a certain squalid symmetry in the fact that the people who know firsthand how the system works have such a pressing interest in keeping quiet.

8. Public Commissioning in Practice

So how to break the monopoly of editors and owners over the agenda?

I propose that we take some of the public money that is currently used to subsidise journalism and we give it to regional holding funds.

These funds would publish proposals from journalists of all kinds. Those proposals that received an agreed level of public support would receive the funds requested.

Once the investigations were complete the results would be published in full by the regional bodies and by anyone else interested in them, be they newspapers, broadcasters, websites, whatever.

Once published, the public would have an opportunity to allocate regional or national air-time to investigations that they considered particularly important.

The agenda of the media on which most people rely would become subject to meaningful oversight by most people. Journalists would no longer have to rely on the goodwill of editors and managers, they could appeal directly to their audience.

9. The Impact

Making this kind of power available to citizens in virtue of their being citizens would encourage the formation of groups dedicated to open and reasoned deliberation. It would generalise the habit of democratic association.

Their power would become visible to them, too. They first build support for an investigation that matters to them, and then they see the investigation conducted and its findings made public. At times they will see that issues that they thought few people cared about are in fact matters of much more general concern.

Journalists – established and new – would have a new patron, a patron who isn’t beholden to a Murdoch or a Desmond. They would look, realistically, to the public to support them when they sought to serve the public interest.

What is currently the career path of the hero or the fool would become something that ordinary working people could choose. The more they were able to achieve, in terms of holding unaccountable power to account and serving their readers, the more renown they would enjoy.

Prestige would no longer be in the hands of a few editors and owners. The temptation to serve unaccountable and indefensible power would no longer be so overwhelming.

And note that the ability to pitch stories to the public would have an effect on the organizational structure of news operations. Those that were hierarchical and undemocratic in their internal practices would risk losing journalists who could calculate that they could flourish on their own. Democratic workplaces, where rewards were shared equitably would have a competitive advantage over tyrannical corporations.

10. Objections

There are objections to the system I propose. Earlier this week an academic told me in no uncertain terms that ‘people will only want stories about Rihanna’.

I think she is wrong – but there’s only one way to find out –

We have to give people the power that well-meaning liberals are frantic to keep from them.

But what about fascism? Won’t fascists hijack the system I propose?

Those who want to promote a hateful vision of society will be subject to factual challenge. Fascists are at a disadvantage because they believe – or pretend to believe – things that aren’t true. That makes them vulnerable in the system I propose.

Fascists will also find it harder to cooperate than groups that commit to, well, to cooperative principles. At the moment much of the popular press peddles quasi-fascistic fantasies. Public commissioning of the sort I propose would provide an effective means to challenge these fantasies.

Of course patterns of support will, at the outset, reflect existing patterns of opinion. But while the media industry tries to sell what people will buy, people will, in the end, prefer truth to lies.

The great reluctance of the media to discuss their own operations sensibly is the best evidence for what might sound like naivete on my part. The owners of tabloid newspapers are desperate that their readers misunderstand them – they strive endlessly to sound like they are on their side, that they are the people’s champion.

When too much daylight enters the crypt, the most profitable newspaper in Britain suddenly closes down.

11. The Principle Re-Stated

There’s a good deal more to say about the mechanics of what I propose. I am sure that there are problems with it, and it can certainly be improved.

But I urge you to at least consider the underlying principle – that public money used to support journalism should be subject to meaningful public control.

We are already patrons of the media on the grand scale. We are compelled to pay a TV licence fee. We give VAT exemptions to book and newspaper publishers. We allow the ITV companies to pay less than the market rate for their franchises in exchange for some public service programming.

It seems incredible that we have no direct say in the media we so handsomely subsidise. Information about public life, debates about that information, definitions of the political, orders of priority, and so on, they all come to us as a fait accompli. The media decide whether even to register their role in determining the field of things deemed worthy of publicity, whether to acknowledge the pressures exerted on them.

I am not suggesting that other forms of editorial decision-making be swept away. Rather, I am suggesting that they become subject to the first time to democratic challenge. At the moment we have to plead with the media to cover our campaigns, to give our ideas a hearing, even to mention the glaringly obvious.

It is time we had an opportunity to make our case to a public of our peers. None of us is infallible, none of us has the right to decide in secret what is and what is not admissible in the public sphere.

Yet that is the situation we have at present. The creation of public opinion is a private affair. At the heart of democratic decision-making there is a zone of unregarded and usurped power.

12. Conclusion

We – those of us in this room right now – can change that. We can begin to have the conversation the powers are desperate for us not to have – a conversation about the location and substance of media power. We can start demanding a media system that gives Michael and Ruth a fair chance of reaching a general audience.

We can demand that power relations change, so that people trying to make a living can also dedicate themselves to informing the general public of the world beyond their direct experience, they can, imperfectly to be sure, become agents of effectual freedom.

If you think that economic democracy is an idea worth trying, if you really want things to change – then ask yourself how you can get Parecon on Newsnight? How you can get the full enormity of the environmental crisis front and centre in the national debate? How you can get corporate tax evasion on the Ten O’Clock News every night?

So, I urge you to take up the cause of media reform along the lines I propose.

It is a simple, mild administrative change – an unassuming collaboration between the BBC and the library service, perhaps – it is also the route to radical social transformation, to economic justice, and to another world.

The stakes are very high. But there has never been a better time.

Thank you.

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