Owen Jones vs the British Media

On Friday morning Owen Jones tweeted that:

The main thing I’ve learned from working in the British media is that much of it is a cult. Afflicted by a suffocating groupthink, intolerant of critics, hounds internal dissenters, full of people who made it because of connections and/or personal background rather than merit.

The response of the British media was illuminating. ‘Much of it’ presented potted autobiographies showing how they had made it despite coming from a comprehensive school, without connections or a helpful background. To say that they hadn’t addressed Jones’ point is to understate things. The British media is clearly dominated by people from privileged backgrounds. All the evidence supports this. It is not a closed system, however, and it is still possible to progress in it without family connections, despite increasing inequality.

Not only that, the frantically autobiographical nature of the responses distracts us from the wider point. There is a remarkable unanimity in the British media on subjects of vital concern to those who own the country and those who run the state. This is perhaps most consequential in the related matters of political economy and foreign policy. Setting aside foreign policy, most journalists default to an account of the economy derived from what we might call the City-Treasury-BoE view. Whatever its merits, this view is taken as uncontroversial and sensible. Politicians gain a reputation for gravitas to the extent that they can work within it. Any deviations from it are treated with intense suspicion.

We now have an official opposition that challenges this account in important ways. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, given that the City, the central bank and the finance ministry have delivered crisis and stagnation for more than a decade. But much of the media can only process Labour’s defection from the status quo as grounds for its disqualification from serious consideration. The rump of the old Labour establishment, on the other hand, remains faithful to it and is therefore worth quoting, even though they do not control the Party and are unlikely to for the foreseeable future.

The key question is this: how do we introduce a true plurality of views in coverage of political economy? I don’t mean simply broadening the spectrum of commentators. A true plurality would allow the public to decide for itself whether the current consensual account is adequate, or whether it needs to be revised or replaced. Different approaches would be given resources to make their case. Over months and years the terrain of political debate would be changed by this reconstitution of publicly accessible speech.

We could wait for the senior managers in print and broadcast to accept that their world-view needs to be exposed to the potentially terminal experience of informed challenge, or we could create a media system in which democratic participation is the starting point. Such a system is described in outline by Tom Mills’ working paper on BBC reform for the Media Reform Coalition, here.

Democratic media would allow journalists working in their communities to build support for their reporting and analysis. It would be possible to build a career by serving the public directly and accountably. Trade union members and political activists could commission journalists and researchers to develop bodies of knowledge and understanding that could then take their chances in a wider field of debate. Professions could break the strangleholds of gerontocracy and the money power. Academics could take time off from teaching and research in universities to bring important news to the public in forms that are comprehensible and relevant.

The advantages enjoyed by people from wealthy backgrounds wouldn’t disappear. But success would depend much more than it does now on making a demonstrable contribution to the general understanding. Plutocrats could continue to fund loss-making newspapers but the claims of their sponsored commentators would be open to refutation from a wider system where professional success doesn’t depend on wealthy patrons or bureaucratic guile.

Much of the British media is as Owen Jones describes. We cannot wait for someone to save us. It is up to us to devise a new model in which we all achieve some degree of control. This is not a matter of making the media repeat things we like the sound of. This is about convening a debate about matters of consequence to which we can contribute in defined ways as civic equals, and from which we can derive an improved understanding of the world.

We have a chance with the current Labour Party to put a reforming administration in power. If they use that power to establish equality in speech, the change will be profound. But the need is not self-evident. It requires steady thought from thousands  of people, in the face of hysterical distractions from those who are committed to, and profit from, the existing order of things.

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