Kettle’s Rationalism

This article on the September independence referendum by Martin Kettle is really quite extraordinary.

Kettle, who describes himself “as a rationalist not a nationalist” claims that
“the UK government would have every possible incentive to drive a hard bargain with Scotland … and it would be backed by public opinion.” He asserts this without evidence, in a daring departure from the norms of rational debate.

He goes on to warn that “Nationalist opinion could become more militant if the talks become bogged down. Even acts of violence are not inconceivable in certain circumstances or places, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Irish treaty of 1921 will grasp.” And it isn’t only the Scots who haunt his imagination: “the psychological impact in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of Scotland’s rejection of the union, meanwhile, could be very unpredictable, and possibly nastily so.”

Kettle assures us that he does “want any of these things to happen”, which is good of him. But why does he claim that “the possibility that some of them may happen has moved a bit closer with the shift in the Scottish polls this spring”? Why on earth is independence such a threat?

This is rationalism of a very peculiar kind.

A Debate about the BBC

Until recently pointing out the shortcomings of the BBC was a quick way to lose friends among self-defined liberals and left-wingers. Doing so was seen as giving comfort to its enemies in News International and the Conservative party.

In debates about the media in the media you can either be in favour of market forces or public service, or you can favour a judicious blend of the two – the moderate and sensible position that is also conservative of the status quo, funnily enough. If you reject both as organizing principles in the communications field you can soon find yourself on your own. The debate has a structure and it is balanced between two extremes. To reject the terms of the debate is to be come inaudible.

But public service, for all its merits, is another legitimation for elite control. I could never bring myself to pretend otherwise, which is one of the many reasons why my calls for democratic reform of the media, um, failed to resonate.

So I am glad to see that Owen Jones has written a piece arguing that the BBC is more hospitable to right-wing speakers and ideas than its friends and enemies would like to admit. I don’t agree with everything he says. His claim that “the BBC’s bruising battle with New Labour over the Iraq war … left the BBC supine and fearful” might be true. But it obscures the extent to which the BBC was supine about government claims before the invasion. The BBC has always been unable to mount an effective challenge to the state on matters of fact when the state is united. This inability is built into the design of the institution. The BBC supports the existing constitutional (or quasi-constitutional) order.

And Jones’ suggested remedy – that the left complain more loudly about right-wing bias – is less appealing than thoroughgoing democratic reform of the BBC.

If the public have the power to raise issues and direct journalistic resources towards particular topics we will be able to discover what we think about matters of common concern through an iterative process of investigation and debate. We will be able to engage with each other as citizens, which is more interesting and productive than complaining about things, I would have thought.

There are other paths to democracy, of course. But one way or another the public must establish control over the production of public opinion if it wants to be self-governing. The BBC is as good a route as any we have to hand.

From Agenda to Action

Owen Jones yesterday set out nine policy proposals that together offer an ‘Agenda for Hope’, a program to ‘break the gentleman’s agreement of British politics’. It is a welcome move. We do need to stop thinking that critique is enough. The crisis that began in 2007 and continues in 2014 has put an end to the old common sense. Our governors, and many of their rivals for power, continue to mouth exhausted platitudes about finance, markets, and money. These platitudes once lent an air of inevitability to a social order in which the power of decision and direction was in the hands of a few. Now they are evidence only of intellectual bankruptcy.

It is up to us now to describe the world we want, to claim our share of the future. What Jones has written is as good a place as any. Personally, I would have liked some more there about media reform but that would have taken the total to ten, and no one wants to be seen coming down from the mountain with ten of anything inscribed on tablets. It might be a column that has its moment of attention and then fades away. It might even capture the attention of the team writing the Labour manifesto. But if we really want something like it to inform the actions of the next government then we have to accept that there is no substitute for action.

Each of us lives in a constituency. If we assemble (online or in person, or both) and sign up to something like this 9-point plan in sufficient numbers we can then ask the candidates for election in 2015 whether they will agree to be bound by its provisions. If they refuse then everyone will go into the next election knowing who they are voting for, regardless of party labels. What are sufficient numbers? It depends. In a tight race a few hundred will be enough to catch the attention of the candidates. If you live in a safe seat then you’ll need thousands to put the frighteners on those who profit from a dominant position.

I wouldn’t change a word of what Owen has written. Alright, I would. But I would vote for a candidate who accepted it or something very much like it. It is up to each assembly in each constituency to decide exactly what they want. But once decided we can ask those who aspire to lead us to tell us whether they agree with us.

Elections are supposed to be about our choosing. Let’s turn that on its head and have the candidates choose.

They can either accept that the world has changed and commit themselves to policies that their own leaders shrink from. Or they can stick to the old script, about market forces and merit rewarded, and middle aged men who know best.

Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?

Stefano Maffei (David Icke) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stefano Maffei (David Icke) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In November 2013 David Icke and others began broadcasting The People’s Voice after a crowd-funding appeal raised £300,000. The ability of a relatively small number of people – albeit with an established following – to secure start-up funding for a broadcast operation suggests that there is considerable appetite for an alternative to the mainstream media in Britain.

But the launch also prompts a question. If David Icke and his associates can launch a broadcast operation, why can’t the left, broadly defined, operate successfully as an independent player in the media field? We hear a lot about the weakness of the British left, but weakness is relative. Almost six million people are still trade union members. The Co-operative Group has around seven million members (there is bound to be a considerable overlap, of course).  UK Uncut and Occupy enjoyed considerable popular support. Many thousands participate in demonstrations and protests when they think that they might make a difference. Owen Jones has 60% more Twitter followers than David Icke.

The near-absence of the organized left in the main currents of the media is even more striking when one considers that most of the country is somewhere to the left of all the mainstream political parties. This is true even though this majority has few opportunities to hear its position articulated in the media.

(I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which the left is excluded, There are some left-wing Labour MPs and some Labour-supporting journalists who are given an occasional public platform – Jones most notably. But academic studies suggest that analysis and discussion of key economic issues on the BBC and elsewhere skews heavily towards the interests of what we used to call capital. Mike Berry at Cadiff and Aeron Davis at Goldsmiths have both looked into this and come to broadly similar conclusions. Davis argues that ‘financial journalism, like financial regulation, over recent decades has been “captured” or neutralised by those it is meant to hold to account’. For Berry the evidence shows that ‘the BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda’.)

So the state and corporate media tend to privilege the rich and the powerful. This isn’t surprising. But it is strange that institutions founded to promote the interests of popular constituencies have been content to leave the media status quo unchallenged. Trade unionists I have talked to about this point out the huge costs of running a national newspaper and fall into an embarrassed silence when it is pointed out that the media landscape has changed somewhat since the launch of the union-backed News on Sunday in 1987.

(Actually the exchange usually goes like this:

“Why don’t the unions do something to get their message across without having to rely on a broadly hostile or unreceptive media system?”

“Ah, well, we did try. We launched a newspaper in the eighties and lost a fortune.”

“Yes, but now there’s the internet, and cable television. You don’t need to have a national newspaper to reach large audiences. Individuals and small groups like the Artist Taxi Driver and Novara Media show what’s possible.”

Long pause.

“We launched a national newspaper in the eighties and lost a fortune.”)

So, how much would it cost for the popular institutions and their allies on the extra-parliamentary left to create a news and analysis operation capable of challenging the mainstream? It would certainly cost something. Goodwill and enthusiasm can only carry one so far.

But the sums are not prohibitive. In 2011 Resonance FM in London was putting out an impressive 24 hour schedule for around £200,000 a year. The money paid for full-time technical, administrative and commissioning staff, as well as offices and broadcast facilities in central London. This, together with in-kind contributions from volunteers, has enabled Resonance to build an audience of somewhere close to two million.

Let’s say that we add television broadcast and budget for £100,000 for three more full-time staff. We’re looking at staff and office costs of £300,000. and we still haven’t got to the cost of content.

In 2011 Ofcom estimated that the contributions from volunteers at Resonance were worth a further £510,000.

There’s a lot of content available online and much of the original coverage will be commentary in-studio and interviews conducted via Skype. Organizations and individuals that stand to benefit from stronger coverage from a popular perspective will also want to contribute their time as interviewees etc. I am not a fan of volunteerism in itself and people who work should be paid. But paid trade union comms people could be expected to contribute their time, just as they would appear on the BBC as part of their job, if anyone ever asked them. NGOs, academics and others who are paid to conduct research are also keen to demonstrate public impact. Some would be happy to contribute.

Still, as a minimum you’d also need a news staff that can prepare early morning, mid-day and evening news reports and provide context and rebuttal for the other media’s selection and treatment of issues. In other words, you need to challenge the Today Programme as the dominant framer of the national conversation and continue to present an alternative take on the news through the day. This would be expensive, but it would be crucial to the station’s overall success. Say £100,000 for that.

(As for overheads, I can’t believe that the trade unions and the co-operatives haven’t got some commercial space in London they aren’t using, so we might save some money there.)

Anyway, let’s say a bare bones media operation costs around £400,000 a year to run. I am guessing, but it is not going to be vastly more than that. It wouldn’t be 24 hours, nor would it be heavily reliant on original programming, especially in the early days. But it would have enough money to run cheap talk-based commentary, interviews with experts, documentary specials, coverage of demonstrations and assemblies, and a spine of news coverage. At that level it would be a point of opposition that could challenge media (mis)representation elsewhere and provide its own perspectives on current affairs.

£400,000 a year isn’t chicken feed. How could such a thing be sustainable? Well, as I say, I am not a fan of volunteerism for its own sake and enthusiasm is liable to wane if viewers are subjected to constant appeals for money. But a popular news and analysis service would create opportunities to raise revenues. The Co-operative group would presumably want to support programming that in turn supports the co-operative principle. It would seem to make more sense than advertising in the Daily Mail as it currently does. And popular programming would give the unions a chance to build their membership – an expenditure that would pay for itself. A book programme could do deals with publishers so that the station took a cut from discounted sales. Magazines and publishers could also run their own programmes. (Deep Green Drive Time in Association with the Ecologist, insert your own jokes here.) There are lessons to be learned from alternative media and NPR in the United States.

Audiences are also commercial opportunities in their own right. In the States, successful right-wing media support a vibrant cottage industry of water purifier manufacturers and supplement distributors selling this this kind of thing … Credit unions, utility co-ops and similar enterprises could make their own use of a compatible media environment. If a cooperatively owned business doesn’t exist in a market where the station attracts considerable numbers of potential purchasers, then the station can work with existing co-op incubators to create one. It would be great if, as the audience grew, the co-operative sector were to benefit at the same time.

£400,000 is a start, and a combination of contributions from the unions and the co-operative movement, annual crowd funding drives and commercial revenues could probably cover that. It would be a threadbare offering at that level, but it would be enough to be starting with. Remember, David Icke raised 3/4 of that with only a 100,000 followers on Twitter. If you take Owen Jones and all the trade union feeds, you’re looking at, what, twice that?

A media group like this would want to raise more money to pay for investigations etc, either produced in house or contracted out to operations like Exaro and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It would be an opportunity to give a mass audience a chance to participate in shaping the content of the public sphere, too. But all it this can be done over time, as the audience is established and begins to see itself as a group with a stake in the production process. Once up and running, the organization could even seek to secure public funds and access to the BBC network, in the event that the state broadcaster becomes democratic. It could apply meaningful pressure for just such a process of reform.

Popular institutions are not entrepreneurial businesses and I don’t want to suggest that they should be. But they are suffering acutely from their weakness in the sphere of communications. Of course the challenges are considerable. The operation would need editorial integrity and a genuine pluralism. The temptation to make it the rote deliverer of a trade union or Labour Party line would have to be resisted. But surely no one could deny that the need for an alternative space for deliberation and debate is very pressing. The risk of losing some money is there, of course, but the risks of doing nothing are much more serious.

Perhaps we could draft Owen Jones as the network’s first director of programmes? True, he’s no David Icke, but we have to work with what we’ve got.

Public Participation at the BBC

The Media Show on Radio 4 ran an interview last week with the BBC’s outgoing head of strategy, John Tate.

Tate says that ‘the public can play a greater role in running the BBC. Ways to find concrete expression to that should be part of the debate to come’.

He is interviewed from about 6 mins 30 in. It’s worth listening to what he says in full.

Tate is giving a TEDx talk in Oxford on Sunday. I am curious to know what else he says about public participation in the governance of the BBC.

Personally I don’t think it will work because they’ll just want stories about Rihanna.

Much better to leave oversight to elected politicians who, as elected representatives in a heavily mediated system, have no conflicts of interest in matters of, um, media representation.

Praise for The Finance Curse

“Nicholas  Shaxson wrote Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (London: 2011), He is the author, with John Christensen, of The Finance Curse: How Oversized Financial Sectors Attack Democracy and Corrupt Economies. This is a wonderful piece of work which, inter alia, critiques in great detail the various claims made about the significance of the financial services sector to the British economy and examines the negative effects for the rest of us of having what is essentially an unregulated global casino in our midst. That this country is now set on a course of absolute decline is largely down to the City’s dominance of the economic conversation in the country since the 1970s (and the gullibility of the politicians who believed what they were told).”

Robin Ramsay, editor, Lobster Magazine

Superstition and Mystery are Useful, Part 2

A while back I posted a note from Bertrand Russell about the mythical thinking that bedevils the public understanding of finance. Very few people learn about economics, despite its universal relevance in an industrialised society. Those who do tend to learn a version that glorifies the economic status quo. Russell speculated that the subject is so little understood because ‘superstition and mystery are useful to the holders of financial power’.

Recently I happened across a remark from Paul Samuelson that gives confirmation of a sort to Russell’s speculation. Samuelson is one of the most influential figures in postwar economics. He was the first American winner of the Nobel Prize and his textbook Economics: An Introductory Analysis is the bestselling title in the discipline. Most people who know about Keynes, for example, know what Samuelson told them in Economics.

In an interview for a film about Keynes, Samuelson is quite frank about the need for superstition and mystery:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘uh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

Quoted in L. Randall Wray, Modern Money Theory (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), p.200

Samuelson frames the need for superstition in terms of the threat from ‘anarchistic chaos and inefficiency’ that would break out if people realised that you didn’t have maintain ‘discipline in the allocation of resources’. In this view the citizen body is a child that cannot reason for itself and must be kept in line with useful lies of various kinds – tidy your room or the monster under the bed will get you, balance the budget or the bond vigilantes will get you.

Since Samuelson made those remarks in 1995 the old time religious conviction that budgets have to balance has been largely rehabilitated. Politicians spend a lot of time telling us that there’s no more money, that we have to tighten our belts, and so on.

Of course there are limits on the amount of currency a state can sensibly issue. But as Ann Pettifor points out in Just Money, we can afford what we can do. We could do a lot more than we are currently doing  but we are hampered by various misconceptions and finance and money. If we are capable of reason then we won’t behave like children in an ice cream parlour, but like citizens in a democracy. There won’t be anarchistic chaos, there’ll be substantial public control over the economy through decisions about the allocation of credit.

No wonder superstition and mystery are proving so persistent.

Ann Pettifor’s new book, Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance, published this week by my imprint Commonwealth, sets out to demolish the myths that surround and protect the current monetary-political settlement. It is available on Kindle and via Paypal from the Prime Economics website.