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.]

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