Maybe Chamberlain, Maybe Baldwin

The outlines of Theresa May’s response to the Brexit vote could be glimpsed briefly in July. In her one major speech before she entered Downing Street she committed to worker representation on the boards of companies, something that successive Labour government neglected to do. She also talked of the need to improve productivity and to make houses more affordable. She talked about unscrupulous bosses and about insecurity at work. The debt to Labour’s left turn was as obvious as it was unremarked upon.

In the same speech she insisted that “yes, some have found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration.” But there were other signs that she had been paying attention to the language that had given Leave its majority and that she was determined to make it her own:

Talk to almost any ordinary member of the public, and the frustration they feel about the loss of control over their day-to-day lives is obvious.

The 52% wanted to take back control, and May wasn’t going to stand in their way.

As she entered Downing Street, there was more on the One Nation theme, and again an emphasis on addressing the needs of those outside the, increasingly hated, “Westminster bubble”:

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

After the Conservative Party conference the May approach to government is even clearer. The aim is to combine right-wing populism on immigration with a more interventionist state. Laissez-faire, which is French for letting the City sell everything that isn’t nailed down, will be put back in its box. On Brexit May has made it clear that she will not give up control of immigration in order to trade freely with the EU. Meanwhile, her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was giving us the heavy stuff on immigration. Landlords will be in trouble if they rent to illegal immigrants. Firms will have to publish lists of foreign workers. All sorts. And this from someone with at least one foot offshore.

What’s going on here? Is it just a tactical mistake? If the rest of the EU insist that the free movement of capital, labour and goods are indivisible will the markets and pressure from the City push her into line? Nick Pearce has likened May to Joseph Chamberlain, who tried to combine protectionism (“Imperial Preference”) and social reform before the First World War. Chamberlain ran into opposition from the City of London and he never became Prime Minister. As someone who has written about Britain’s interstitial offshore empire it is tempting for me to agree with Pearce. The City – or most of it – wants to be in Europe and May will have to do what she is told. Either this talk about social justice for the native and nativist British is a rhetorical flourish that will join compassionate conservatism and the march of the makers on the bonfire of things that the Money Power doesn’t want, or she will find herself out of a job.

Certainly there are signs that this approach is going to face strong opposition. Amber Rudd has already dropped the idea of publishing lists of foreign workers. Stocks of Marmite are running dangerously low. The pound is falling, as is the appetite for sterling debt. But where else can the City and its allies turn? The whole point of UKIP is to stop free movement, whatever the real world consequences. And while I am sure there are plenty of Labour MPs who would love to return to Blair’s project of combining social liberalism with the liberalisation of the trade in services, the pesky members won’t let them. They could split and join up with the Liberal Democrats, but that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that successful careerists would contemplate.

May and her people are probably hoping that her approach has more in common with Stanley Baldwin’s successful marriage of Imperial Preference with Conservative domination in the 1930s. In September 1931 a National Government, nominally led by Ramsey Macdonald but run by Lord President of the Council Stanley Baldwin, took Britain off the Gold Standard. A year later the government signed a free trade deal with rest of the Empire and put tariffs on goods from everywhere else. For the rest of the decade the country experienced modest growth and a degree of industrial recovery. The City of London weren’t happy about the dumping of gold or the imposition of tariffs. It was the end of almost a century of free trade and “sound money.” The (previously Labour) Chancellor Philip Snowden was openly baffled when he was informed of the option of leaving the Gold Standard in the new administration. He is said to have admitted that “they didn’t tell us we could do that.” Snowden had thought, like the architects of New Labour, that the regulation of the currency was a matter best left to experts. Baldwin knew that it was the supreme matter of politics. He also knew that the City would have to put up with the move, if the bankers didn’t want an as-yet untamed Labour Party back in Downing Street.

Similarly, perhaps the City of London will have no choice but to accept that the glory days when the offshore empire could operate with all the benefits of full EU membership are over for the time being. The party of the propertied can only remain the natural party of government if it pays close attention to the popular mood. And the people want change. The Brexit vote was the latest sign that something serious is stirring out there in Not-Westminster-Land. But the long howl of UKIP’s rise and the resurgence of the Labour Left made it obvious long before then.

Cameron conceded a referendum in the 2015 Conservative manifesto in order to head off the electoral threat from UKIP. It is now being reimagined as a moment of Neronian carelessness. But, absent his referendum pledge, it isn’t clear that he would have secured an outright majority, however slender. Yes, Cameron was willing to put Britain’s grand strategy of European membership and military-intelligence integration with the US at risk for the sake of narrow electoral calculation. Of course he was. And his successor seems to be working on the assumption that, if the Conservatives concede free movement, working class Toryism in England will defect to UKIP.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a left-wing economic programme under Corbyn-McDonnell spells trouble for the wealthy. Its implementation would spell disaster. For all their faults, those two aren’t kidding around and if they reach Downing Street a Hard Brexit will look like a walk in the park and an ice cream by comparison.

Hence May is combining One Nation rhetoric and talk of an activist, developmental state with opposition to free movement. If this means the City has to tweak its business model, then so be it. Even if it means the offshore empire is over, then that’s the cost of doing business in a country that is still run by and for a dazzlingly narrow set of interests. The Big End of Town sometimes has to take one for the team. And the Conservative Party’s job is to give them the news, keep the process obscure, and harvest the ensuing political capital.

Everyone knows that protectionism is bad, and that money is best looked after by neutral experts (who are also known as bankers), so the 1930s never happened, as far as the national memory is concerned. Similarly, we all know that the Labour Party’s is unelectable and that its ideas are moonshine. Its threat to the Conservative Party therefore doesn’t exist, even though, as a matter of boring old fact, it does. And so what if immigration isn’t really the cause of the problems that face the ordinary working class families of Mays’ political imaginary? They think it is, and the Conservative Party is not about to disenchant people of fantasies that incline them against voting Labour. Indeed, they cannot do so without disowning the evasions and untruths that have dragged public attention away from the collapse of a finance-led economic model.  The parade of welfare scroungers, conniving foreigners and effete left-wing spendthrifts cannot stop. Anthony Barnett is right in this regard, May has no choice but to adopt Dacreism wholesale.

Empire is always something of a confidence trick. It relies on an uneven distribution of knowledge even more than it relies on brute force. If even I can see that London is the world capital of money laundering and tax evasion perhaps this particular twist on the English way of making a killing has had its day. Besides, as any Conservative worth a damn knows, some things are more important than money.  Control of the state, for instance. Great fun in and of itself, and the only really sure way to keep the money you have, and to make even more in the future.


Big Food and the Politics of Diabesity

“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. “They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they’d have been ill.”

“So they were,” said the Dormouse, “very ill.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


1. The Word of the Day is Diabesity

The UK is in the midst of a public health crisis. According to the NHS’ most recent Health Survey for England 24% of men and 27% of women are obese; 41 percent of men and 31 percent of women are overweight. Obesity has increased markedly over the last twenty years. In 1996 only about 15 percent of the population was classified as obese. The change over fifty years is even more alarming. In the 1960s obesity rates were at 1 and 2 percent for men and women respectively. Since then they have increased by 1150%.

Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of a number of diseases, most notably diabetes. According to Diabetes UK there are currently 3.5 million people diagnosed with the disease, up from 1.4 million in 1996. Another 0.5 million are currently believed to be living with the disease undiagnosed, although recent research suggest that there might be many more than that. In 2014 a University of Leicester / University of Florida study estimated that a full third of the UK population has abnormally high blood sugar levels.

Such is the scale of the problem that politicians have slowly come to acknowledge it. Wherever possible they talk about the need to exercise more and leave it at that. But recently there has been talk of taxing unhealthy foods, particular foods with high sugar content.

The previous Chancellor George Osborne went as far as to announce a levy on sugary drinks. The latest government plan for action on childhood obesity tells us that they “have given producers and importers two years to lower the sugar in their drinks so that they won’t face the levy if they take action.” Meanwhile, “HM Treasury are consulting on the technical detail of the soft drinks industry levy over the summer, and will legislate in the Finance Bill 2017.” So the details haven’t been worked out yet, and where all know who lives in the details


2. Big Food

For years now the major producers of sugary and highly caloric processed food – Big Food – have fought to keep their business model safe from state intervention. They need to sell more and more product to keep their shareholders happy. Sweet foods, particularly sweet foods that artfully integrate salt and fat, are cheap and taste good. As an added bonus, sugar in the form of fructose also seems to stimulate our appetite.

At the level of health policy, Big Food has fiercely opposed the publication of clear and authoritative recommendations  on sugar consumption. There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, they say. Everything has its place in a sensible diet, even if only as an occasional treat. True, they can only hit their financial targets if we can’t control ourselves. But it isn’t their fault if we eat too many of these moreish-by-design confections.

Big Food is on the side of proverbial wisdom; everything in moderation, nothing in excess. The important thing is that we shouldn’t get fixated on a sector that, after all, provides jobs and investment. Besides, political interference with what people choose to put in their mouths is a dangerous affront to individual liberty.

This note of world-weary reasonableness is one that Big Food hits whenever it can. Critics are paranoid and guilty of myth-making. The comparison between sugar and tobacco is hysterical and unworthy of anyone who wants to be taken seriously. Besides, the data is nowhere near as clear cut as the industry’s critics make out. It’s true that people weigh more on average, but in the UK surveys tell us that we are eating far fewer calories now than in the 1970s, when obesity scarcely registered as an issue. The tight focus on diet as a driver of obesity is therefore deeply unhelpful. If only people would exercise more!

(For examples of this style of Big Food apologetics, see these two articles by Christopher Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs –  “One fact the sugar tax report misses out: our consumption has been falling for years” and “Don’t dismiss the data: a fatter Britain really is consuming fewer calories”.)

3. Breaking the Spell of Big Food

Big Food’s resistance has been very successful at slowing down or preventing reform of the food economy. Worrying about sugar and processed food is one more flypaper for our age’s buzzing anxieties – not something that winners waste time on. Eat your salad and mind your own business is the message tirelessly conveyed to the fit and healthy. Meanwhile, the unhealthy are told with an indulgent wink that this or that treat should be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Meanwhile we are gaining weight. And as we gain weight we become less healthy. Millions of us end up diabetic. In some instances this might be because, although we are eating less, we are also exercising much less. But in some cases we are gaining weight because we are eating more calories in absolute terms than people did in the past. And many of those calories are coming to us via the ingenuity of Big Food.

The discussion in its current form focuses for the most part on individual behaviour, which is how Big Food likes it. Almost all of us could eat less sugar and refined food with no ill effects. Many of us would benefit greatly from losing some weight, and the simplest way to do that is to cut down, or cut out, sugar consumption. This puts the common good at odds with the interests of a powerful industrial sector. Some of us will be able to see through the fog of misleading information and advice generated by this industry and overcome our own reluctance to forego the pleasures afforded by the technicians of mouthfeel. But, unaided, most of us will not.

Only collective action in the public interest stands a chance of improving our diet. For a start, the public must have access to clear and evidence-based guidelines on what to eat. This could be achieved by including a health advisory notice on high-sugar (including high fructose) food and drink based on NHS England’s 3og /7 sugar cubes daily limit. By all means eat a Mars bar, but you are entitled to know that, at 35g of sugar, it contains more sugar than the NHS thinks you should eat in a day. A Mars a day … is bad for you.

Much more can be done. The state needs now to take steps to reorganize the food economy so that it favours local, diverse and energy efficient production. This is not a matter of dictating to others. It is a chance for us to redesign the production and distribution of food so that stressed and time-poor people in particular have a shot at eating well. Cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food is possible. We need only begin to take the politics of food more seriously and think through how together we can change the structure of incentives that help determine what we end up eating.

At the moment the food economy is geared towards the industrial production of a small number of commodity crops. These commodities are processed into a range of branded, and often unhealthy, product lines. The apparent variety on the supermarket shelves is achieved through the ingenuity of food scientists and packaging designers, rather than at the level of the crops themselves. Non-standard items are imported, even when it would be almost farcically easy to produce them domestically.  All this is not a natural outcome of market forces. It is a feature of the current subsidy regime and the extant patterns of land ownership and control.  Large scale agriculture is energy intensive, environmentally damaging and supports a national diet that is killing us in large numbers.

A new food economy would bring suitable land, especially in and near residential areas, back under the control of  people who live nearby, especially those who are poorly served by the current system. There would be a presumption in favour of using land rather than leaving it vacant and the tax and subsidy regime would encourage its efficient use. Users of the land would pay rent to a co-operative in which they were also voting members. These tenancies would be supplemented by common pool resources – public tool stores, market places, grazing meadows, libraries etc – as well as businesses such as fish farms, apiaries and orchards. Where necessary the regulations and subsidies that structure the food economy would be changed to remove the obstacles to small scale, diverse and highly productive farming. Everyone would be free to carry on eating junk, but they would also have greatly increased access to fresh, locally produced food at much lower prices.

None of this is particularly radical. The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act required local authorities to provide land for allotments where demand existed, by compulsory purchase if necessary. There are plenty of food deserts – areas where it is difficult to find affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables – next to prime agricultural land in this country. At the moment these fields are eyed hungrily by developers who want to plant car-dependent McMansions on them.

Defenders of the existing food economy have been adept at mobilising a kind of class warfare against its critics. When a book called Fast Food Nation became a bestseller there was a flurry of books and films that explored the iniquities of Big Food. One response was to argue that these critics were middle class snobs who wanted to meddle with the food choices of the working class. In a 2004 Spiked piece Brendan O’Neill claimed that while the ostensible target of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me might be McDonald’s:

Its real target is the people who eat in McDonald’s – the apparently stupid, fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a nutritional and calorie breakdown first. Spurlock and his ilk might hate McDonald’s, but they seem to loathe the McMasses even more.

It’s true that there is a long and inglorious history of bien pensant attempts by the rich to regulate the eating habits of the poor. We are told that one Edwardian evangelist for better living through thoughtful eating showed a roomful of East End women how to make a delicious and nutritious soup out of fish heads. At the end of the demonstration she asked whether there were any questions. “Yes,” one of the audience asked, “who ate all the fish?”

Wealthy people are sensitive to accusations of snobbery and high-handedness, not least because they are often guilty of both. It is up to mass constituencies to secure control of both food production and the common sense that shapes our diet.

A sugar tax would be yet another imposition on the poor, goes the reasoning, another attempt to reform their morals from on high. But the tax might attract greater support if the money raised was distributed back to wards and parishes in proportion, say, to the numbers of fast food outlets and off licences in them. The people who paid the most sugar tax could do what they wanted with it, having consulted with public health professionals as well as all manner of do-gooders and cranks. The people debate, publicly and privately, and then they vote. We might use the money to buy land and create an intensive, sustainable food production sector. But that would be up to us. Importantly, the collective control of a regular income stream would provide us with an experience of real and immediate self-government, for which there is a healthy and growing appetite.


If you want to lose weight and change your eating habits, I can personally recommend Michael Moseley’s The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet: Lose weight fast and reprogramme your body. In July it prompted me to take a long hard look at myself and since then I have lost about a stone of weight, by eating fewer calories, much less sugar, while exercising a little bit.

The classic text on Big Food and its discontents remains Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal is Doing to the World.

(If you buy either book from via the links above I receive a modest commission.)

Sanders on the Media

In his recent MSNBC Bernie Sanders here mentions the possibility of the Democratic Party funding an alternative to Fox News.

Here’s what I wrote in The Public and the Mass:

“The lessons from Scotland are clear. We can cease to fund media operations that do not serve our interests. We can fund new, public-oriented media with some of the money we thereby save. We can begin forming publics where they don’t exist and we can restore the public character of existing institutions by participating in them energetically and without illusions. Indeed, these lessons are so clear that millions of people who know little or nothing about the politics of the independence referendum are applying them in Bernie Sanders’ attempt to capture the Democratic party and in Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to reform the Labour party.

The threat to the existing order in Scotland revealed biases in the communications fabric and prompted the creation of an alternative. The attempt to save the economic system that collapsed in 2007-8 has revealed similar structural biases in the Anglo-American mass media that compromise their attempts to describe and explain contemporary reality. The brute facts of the economic system, never mind the inequality and injustice they generate, cannot be treated adequately in the existing communications order and the need for a new one is becoming increasingly obvious. A fraction of the millions Bernie Sanders has raised for his campaign would be enough to put this alternative into beta.”

An actually fair and balanced description of current conditions would make highly effective propaganda for social democratic and socialist politics. Combined with proposals for practical reform and some Charlie Chaplin clips it would be pretty much unstoppable.

What Does it Mean to Publish?

On Tuesday Mark Fisher invited me to talk with some MA students at Goldsmiths about publishing, publicity and the public. As is usually the case I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until slightly after I had stopped talking, so I am leaving a couple of notes here.

In the morning session Federico Campagna (who works at Verso, but was there speaking in a personal capacity) talked, among other things, about how a book publisher does more than present individual books to the public. He or she acts as the organizer and articulator of a world-view. And this is a useful place to start.

Publishers are actors in time. They make good on editorial decisions through the market and media relations that they carry from project to project. Most of their books might lose money, some of them will wildly underperform, but the occasional successes subsidise the failures and mean that shops will continue to give them shelf space. Similarly, the publisher might, as it were, mis-speak, publish a book that sits uneasily with the rest of the list. But for the most part the books, taken together, are part of a unified proposition, a way of approaching the world.

The publishers I have met, those who were serious about what they did, were up to something with the books they published. None of the books were exactly right in themselves – the publisher knew that the books belonged to the authors and, ordinary commercial hypocrisy aside, they didn’t go along with everything in any of them – but the individual books were pieces in something larger and more mysterious that they, the publishers, were making. Together they were a self-effacing monument to a publisher’s taste, to their acumen, to their ambition to make the world a little different.

A book publisher, a fully realised book publisher, is in the world-view business. He or she is always one among many in the same line of work, and far from the most important. Nowadays they find themselves inside media conglomerates with limited room for manoeuvre. Even at their most powerful and autonomous they barely registered when compared with the state and the mass media. The development and propagation of world-views is a deadly serious thing. It’s what lies at the heart of the relationship between Google and the NSA, just as it lay at the heart of the relationship between the CIA and the networks, between MI5 and the BBC.

And it’s the world-view business I want all of us to take an interest in. Not because I think we should all be book editors. I don’t want to be a book editor most of the time, and I am a book editor. But because the decision to test our ideas against the best evidence is the decision to become adult. And this is only possible if we are commissioning as well as consuming the information on which we rely.*

An audience that cannot reflect on what is presented to it, that cannot take a view on the sum of cultural output, and that is kept innocent of the material conditions of political reporting, such an audience cannot call itself adult. It cannot function as a governing public.

That’s what I wanted to explain on Tuesday.

*The social media campaign to persuade the BBC to discuss questions about Conservative campaigning in the 2o15 election is perhaps a kind of embryonic public commissioning.

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 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.