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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.]

Why Did New Labour Die?

Peter Hyman’s article about the failure of New Labour is fascinating mostly for what it cannot bring itself to say. The financial collapse of 2007-8 merits one mention:

“Far from the economic crisis destroying Brown’s premiership, it actually saved it. It gave him a purpose. Without it, having achieved his life’s ambition, his premiership would have fizzled out before it had started; a sparkler with no sparkle.”

Note the choice of words here. In Hyman’s piece the smoothly technical ‘economic crisis’ hyperlinks to ‘financial crisis’ on the Guardian site, a form of words that comes dangerously close to describing what happened.

More seriously, Hyman doesn’t seem to realise the extent to which the crash destroyed New Labour’s pretensions to economic competence. To say that it saved Brown’s premiership by giving him something to do is, to put it politely, to confuse a detail with the big picture.