Kings Place Talk, October 25, 2010

1. Introduction

Thank you very much. So. The argument in the book. In around ten minutes. The argument has two parts.

Firstly, I argue that there is a crisis in the media, that this crisis is structural in nature, and that it amounts to a crisis of legitimacy.

Secondly, I argue that we need to do something quite specific if we are serious about addressing this crisis. I call what we need to do public commissioning.

Now a crisis in the media might not seem like the most pressing problem we have to face at the moment. In the developing world there are ongoing human welfare crises – catastrophic levels of infant and child mortality, violent conflict and criminality. We face an environmental crisis – or rather a collection of environmental crises. At home we are in the midst of an economic crisis that is beginning to resemble the Great Depression in very troubling ways.

But our capacity to deal with these problems is intimately connected to our ability to understand them. Whatever you doing to do to make the world less violent, less unjust or more habitable, media reform should be the second thing on your agenda.

2. The Crisis in the Media

So, what is the crisis in the media that I talk about in the book. Very bluntly –

The major media groups do not provide us with accurate and timely information about matters of crucial importance. Two examples that I explore in more detail in the book.

In the year and a half before the invasion of Iraq, the American media embellished and passed on a vast number of untrue claims about Iraq’s weapons program, about the levels of international support for a US attack, and about Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.  All the evidence suggests that these claims played an important part in securing popular support for government policy.

Second example. In the generation before the financial crisis began in 2007 the major media came to accept the idea that private actors in free markets could be trusted to act in ways that didn’t create systemic risk. They shared Alan Greenspan’s delusion, that:

… the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

The media assumed that there was no alternative to a financial system dominated by private banks that themselves operated under an effective public guarantee. They thought that rising levels of debt were sustainable. Either income inequality didn’t matter, or it was a myth put about by knock-kneed leftists.

There was little need for the state to regulate. There was no need for journalists to investigate. And needless to say there was no reason to consider financial sector reform. The newspapers and the broadcasters could take what financiers said on trust. As a result, as the former editor of the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, acknowledged in December 2008, ‘precious few journalists gave any hints at all of what was to come’.

As in the case of the preamble to Iraq, there were critical voices. In Britain William Keegan, Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott were consistently critical of the notion that a debt bubble could inflate forever. But the overwhelming bulk of coverage assumed that the system was sound and that there was no alternative.

We could talk all night about exactly why the media failed in these particular instances. In the book I show how they are part of a much more extensive failure to provide the population with an accurate description of the world when doing so poses a threat to powerful interests.

3. Addressing the Crisis

So we have a crisis in the media. What do we do about it?

So far the overwhelming response – in the media major media at any rate – has been to hope the problem will go away. Mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, but it is time to move on. The New York Times tells its readers that it was too credulous when dealing with claims from Iraqi exiles but that it will be more careful in future. Other newspapers have issued similarly evasive or inadequate confessions about the financial crisis. Sometimes a journalist say that the profession must try harder.

But the problems in the media are structural – they are created by the power relationships that exist within media institutions and between the media and other institutions.  These power relations encourage some kinds of activity by individuals and discourage other kinds. As a result the media are unsafe in key respects – most notably, I think, in matters of peace and war and political economy.

Reform must therefore be structural – the patterns of incentive that govern journalism and broadcasting must be altered if widely publicised information is to be become a secure basis for democratic decision-making.

What I propose is this, that we democratize two links in the chain of media production.

Firstly. We democratise the distribution of material support to journalists and researchers.

Secondly. We democratise decisions about what is granted access to a general audience.

Why do we need to do this? At the moment a small number of highly privileged and extremely vulnerable individuals in state-owned and commercial institutions control both kinds of decision – what gets investigated and how much exposure is given to the results.

It is time to break that monopoly and see what happens when everyone has some power to commission and publicise research. Not because the current commissioners are drawn from an unrepresentative elite, though they are. Nor because the stock of widely shared information and opinion is distorted by hidden subsidy and covert manipulation. Though it is. But because a public worthy of the name is a public that can discover its own opinions.

This is the difference between a population and a public.

How would such a system of public commissioning work? Well, we could take a sum of money from general taxation or from the television license fee and distribute it to the regions and the devolved nations. Journalists and researchers could post proposals for investigations and projects and those who live in the area could register and vote for the projects they wanted to see funded.

Last year the government was talking about taking some £120 million from the BBC’s digital switchover funds and using it to subsidise ITV news.  This money could have funded a replacement for the existing news network and still left £80 million to fund research in the public interest. The existence of a publicly funded ITV news network would give each regional public the means to ensure that stories it deemed important found their way to a larger audience via broadcast.

The BBC has taken quite a beating in the recent spending review. But there are other sources of funds. Given the role of the financial sector in populating the field of publicity with disastrous fictions in the period before 2007, a levy on the banks could usefully provide the means to prevent a re-run of their takeover of the public sphere.

I prefer the idea that people pay for public commissioning themselves, on an equal basis. Rest assured that such a system will soon prove very expensive for the banks. But the source of the money matters less than the mechanism used to convert it first into knowledge and then into general awareness.

£80 million would be enough to pay 3,000 investigative journalists £24,000 a year to work full-time on matters of interest and concern to the voting population – with some money left over for administration. Presently there are at most 100 investigative journalists in Britain as a whole.

It is the creation of a patronage relationship between journalists and their audiences that holds out the prospect of a more critical, and therefore more reliable, media system. The reforms I propose will change the incentive structure for the intellectual classes broadly defined by ending technocratic insulation. Expertise – in economics, in political planning, in debates about the future direction of the country – will be publicly contested.

Why does this matter? Injustice must rely on claims that are untrue.

The Return of the Public is published by Verso.


2 thoughts on “Kings Place Talk, October 25, 2010”

  1. Dan,

    Thanks for The Return of the Public, and more specifically for your detailed exploration of structural remedies based on the best diagnosis of the crisis in journalism I have encountered.

    During our entire lifetimes the only news we’ve witnessed is the perishable kind, shaped by the need for recurring ratings. Replacing it with some other approach will be hard but that’s where I find simple ideas like your public commissioning so valuable. They can work as lifelines when are about to become lost in the concrete details of a situation. The needed structural change really is as simple as establishing a patronage relationship between journalists and readers, because that’s what will motivate journalists to learn about their readers and seek information they’d be willing to pay for. Short term, some journalists likely will produce garbage for some readers but longer term, collective reason will prevail.

    In the 1980s I almost wrote a dissertation on Father Charles Coughlin, a 1920s-30s radio evangelist in the U.S. I sought out his case because I was looking for an instance of engagement with a mass audience that was not based on the sale of attention. He financed his broadcasts (an hour each week on Sunday mornings) through listener contributions, which he never solicited directly. Instead he asked for letters. Estimates were that during his peak years, after the stock market collapse in 1929 to about 1937, he received an average of 80,000 letters per week from listeners. From my own research I learned that he had as many as 100 employees processing those letters and contributions. Coughlin was arguably the second most important political figure in the U.S. after FDR (who averaged 4,000 letters per week from citizens). Coughlin was the first to articulate the fear and suffering generally felt from the loss of jobs. FDR courted him hard for help in his 1932 presidential campaign.

    That story remains to be told as I ended up writing a different dissertation, but until I read your recommendations about public commissioning, I had not seen a call for a more direct financial link between journalists and readers. It has its tricky aspects but it would work, probably tremendously.

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