Submission to the House of Lord Communications Select Committee

The Future of Investigative Journalism

1. Summary

Two kinds of institution have, to a very large extent, funded and directed journalism, including investigative journalism, in Britain; commercial media groups and the publicly funded BBC.

This combination of market and public service provision has failed to keep the general population tolerably well informed about matters of deep common concern for long periods of time. Investigative journalists have tended to concentrate on private or marginal matters and as a result comment and analysis have been starved of relevant information and democratic decision-making has been severely impaired.

It is necessary to introduce another mechanism for directing and funding investigative journalism. I propose that we each – in virtue of our being citizens – are given some power to allocate public money to journalists and some power to determine the publicity afforded to their findings.

This joint power, to commission and to publicise, is currently in the hands of owners, managers and employees of large institutions. They have not been able to use this power responsibly and can no longer claim the exclusive right to direct journalism.

2. The Economics and Politics of Investigative Journalism

In the marketplace investigative journalism is usually a low profit or loss-making proposition. It also carries significant legal, economic and political risks. Market institutions have usually had to cross-subsidise investigative journalism with other kinds of content. Executives and editors at the BBC also keep a careful eye on their investigative journalists, being mindful of their need to maintain the appearance of political impartiality and to avoid attacks from commercial rivals.

Effective investigations can disrupt important external relationships and present significant conflicts of interest. In both commercial media operations and in the BBC, investigations are subject to close supervision by editors and executives who make essentially unaccountable decisions about the level and duration of support given to particular lines of inquiry. Often it seems that newspapers in particular use investigative journalism to prosecute vendettas rather than to serve the public interest.

Journalists are often reluctant to talk about the pressures with which they work and sometimes prefer to insist in public that no such pressures exist. Many of their colleagues would disagree. More importantly, the major media repeatedly fail to describe reality when doing so threatens their own interests or the interests of those who have the power to help or harm them. Their track record should count for more than the arguments of their apologists.

Neither market forces nor the principles of public service have succeeded in delivering adequate investigative journalism in recent years. Governments have presented essentially fictitious rationales for war, banks have misrepresented their financial position, and media companies themselves have been hosts to widespread and prolonged criminality.

The state, the financial sector and the media have operated for long periods without fear of exposure by a free press. Institutional arrangements that have repeatedly failed us must now be changed.

3. Public commissioning – the Democratic Principle

There is another way of directing journalism that has not yet been tried on any significant scale. Money raised from the general public could be distributed to journalists on the basis of a vote. Journalists would post proposals for projects that would be costed according an agreed scale. Each of us would have an opportunity to review these proposals and to vote for the ones we supported.

Once an investigation was complete we would vote to determine how much publicity was afforded to what was discovered. The broadcasters could be required to summarise information from investigations in their news bulletins. They could also provide space in the schedules for stand-alone documentaries written and produced by publicly funded journalists.

Rather than relying on market forces or the principles of public service, we would make decisions for ourselves about what we wanted to know more about. Different voting mechanisms would deliver different outcomes but the principle – that each citizen should have some power to shape the investigative agenda – is clear, and clearly now necessary, given that every other method for securing journalism in the public interest has failed.

This power to shape the content of what is widely known and therefore politically relevant would encourage citizens to engage with one another as citizens; it would provide an effective means for marginalised and excluded groups to speak back to their fellow citizens, to correct stereotypes, and to introduce new perspectives in a media landscape dominated by privilege, complacency and demagoguery.

Most importantly, the system of public commissioning I propose would provide support for journalists who want to investigate those aspects of the social, economic and political settlement that are currently ignored or inadequately described in the media on which most people rely. Vested interests that can, to a considerable extent, shape the ways in which they are described would be subject to effective challenge. Problems that cannot now be sensibly discussed would become available as objects of democratic deliberation. We could discuss the economic crisis, for example, without relying on the dubious expertise of financiers and their favoured economists. Once the general public are able inquire for themselves the mystifications and evasions that pass for economic debate will give way to reasoned debate between civic equals.

4. Establishing the Principle of Public Commissioning

If the Committee wishes to support investigative journalism it should recommend that a series of pilots be run in the devolved nations and the English regions. The pilots would test out various models for public commissioning that use existing municipal resources (libraries, schools and colleges, and so on) that and develop new ones, online in particular. The pilots would enable people to exercise power in their own interests, to discover what is currently hidden, and to take an active part in the public conversation.

These pilots would surely find support among those who campaign against social exclusion, environmental degradation and a host of other ills. Public commissioning would be particularly appealing to the many, sincere supporters of the idea of a ‘Big Society’. The opportunity to collaborate in this way will surely create new forms of political sociability that challenge the deadening control of both state and corporate bureaucracy.

Those who currently control journalism in Britain might object and say that no possible system could perform better than the one over which they preside. They too should welcome and encourage the pilots. If they are right then public commissioning will fail. People will find the power they have been given repellent and will demand that they return to their former state of innocence. Editors, executives and owners will then take back the monopoly they currently enjoy with an easy conscience. If they are wrong, they will surely acknowledge that their loss of unaccountable and indefensible power is outweighed by the vast public benefit.

The money for these pilots could come from existing BBC revenues (perhaps from its marketing and public relations budget) and from lottery funds. It could be taken from new levies on the communications industry that ensure that News International, for example, pays a level of tax comparable with that of other companies. There is no lack of public money for journalism. The BBC’s revenues, for example, are somewhat greater than £3 billion annually.

The next round of quantitative easing might also be worth considering as a source of funds. Scarcely anyone understands how money is created or why it matters. It therefore seems apt that some fraction of the billions that would otherwise be handed over to the banks is used to create a system that allows citizens to understand what is going on in the economy.

5. Note on the author

I worked in book publishing from 1998 to 2009, at Penguin, Constable and Robinson, Duckworth and Random House. In my time as an editor I commissioned a number of books on matters of general concern, including the pharmaceutical industry (The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsch), the financial sector (The Gods that Failed by Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott and Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson) and the US-UK invasion of Iraq (Fuel on the Fire by Greg Muttitt).  I was also responsible for the UK publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation and Sheldon Rampton and James Stauber’s Weapons of Mass Deception.

I have written two books, The Threat to Reason (2007) and The Return of the Public (2010). The Return of the Public, an argument for democratic reform of the media, was the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize.

I am submitting the above on an individual basis.

A Public System of Communications

Remarks at the Co-Operatives UK/NUJ/Goldsmiths Conference ‘Can the Media be Co-operative?’

Where are we now?

New technology has left the traditional media in disarray. Total newspaper circulation overall has fallen by more than 25% since 2007. Other media are also struggling. Book sales in Britain fell by 3.2% in 2010 against the previous year – the first annual decline since World War II.

Corporations are sweating existing assets and reducing the quality of their output. The drive for short-term super-profits is, from the point of view of shareholder value, rational. The newspaper groups see no growth potential in their traditional print products and are not therefore investing in journalism. Still, there is mileage to made from flogging a dying horse. And managers must have their bonuses somehow.

We’ve heard from Sion Whellens about the impact of new technologies on people who work in the communications business  and in the wider economy. Increasing numbers of people are working for free or for very little, in the, often vain, hope that they will eventually secure full-time employment. The rewards for creativity and innovation are being shared ever more unequally.

As Natalie Fenton pointed out the corporate organization of journalism is making fewer journalists do more in less time. As a result corporate press releases increasingly crowd out original, independent inquiry. What we might call civic journalism loses out to soft news about lifestyle and celebrity. Investigative journalism, always marginal, has almost disappeared altogether.

Why does it matter?

This matters because, as Professor Fenton has already said today, democracy and news are inextricably linked. Indeed, I would argue that meaningful democracy depends on reliable and pertinent information.

The media we have, however, are unreliable and impertinent. They consistently misunderstand or ignore developments of vast public significance, for example, while insisting on their right to publish the minutiae of people’s private lives.

They are too busy suffocating sprats to notice the monster approaching the boat.

Consider coverage of the financial sector in the period before the crash of 2007-8. If newspapers had spent a small fraction of the time and energy that they lavished on the antics of professional footballers and actors investigating the state of Britain’s banks we might have been better prepared for what was about to happen.

As it was, to pick up Granville Williams’s phrase, the media that most people relied on was in tune with the music of our time – a traditional 19th century air arranged by Alan Greenspan, Gordon Brown and others entitled ‘Markets Rule’.

This music has drowned out other tunes – including the music of industrial democracy and of the common good.

Give people want they want at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible price. Ignore the possibility that there might be more to the public interest than what the public happen to be interested in at the moment they make a purchase.

And Hilary Wainwright is right; any movement serious about addressing what is a deepening social and political crisis must start thinking about the structural organization of the media. Both the unions and the co-operatives need to break the noise and misinformation that surrounds them. Otherwise they will continue to be drowned out.

The failings of the media in the last decade will not come as any surprise to those like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom who have long pointed out the pressures that bear down on reporters. Indeed a mixture of legislation and market pressures has decisively shaped news content since the 1840s, as Professors Curran and Seaton have described.

So I don’t want to argue for a return to a golden age of journalism – there has never been such a thing. Things are certainly worse for working journalists. Standards have clearly declined. But it isn’t enough to resist the increasing intensity of market forces or even to call for the restoration of the social democratic media economy that existed after the Second World War. The mix of public service and market values that prevailed until 1979 failed to give people the information they needed for self-government and it didn’t stop the Daily Herald from being strangled.

But right now the commercial crisis runs alongside, and is in part driven by, a crisis of plausibility that is unprecedented in scale. And this crisis of plausibility goes some way to explaining patterns of consumption. If supposedly serious coverage is so often nonsensical, then why not gravitate towards celebrity? Brad Pitt is better looking than Jeremy Paxman and is about as likely to tell audiences what they need to know about the British economy.

Paying for Public Interest Journalism

Infotainment can look after itself. But public interest journalism, broadly defined, has never been funded by simple market mechanisms. There have been three kinds of subsidy at work:

1.) Direct state subsidy. The television license fee – not the BBC license, note – most notably, but also differential VAT rates and other forms of support.

2.) Publicly mandated subsidy within private companies – the ITV regulators require a public service commitment from broadcasters. So, classically, Grenada took profits from, say, Coronation Street and used it to pay for World in Action.

3.) Cross subsidy within private companies. Harold Evans’ use of revenue from the Sunday Times‘ colour magazine to pay for the Insight team’s investigations has been mentioned. But think also of Peter Cook’s enlightened ownership of Private Eye.

These last two depend on high and stable rates of profit. One can only redistribute surpluses that exist, after all. In their absence we are left with public subsidies.

Historically, public subsidies have been massive, as Aidan White pointed out earlier. But they have been little discussed.

So let’s change that.

Public subsidies have been organized top-down. In the case of the license fee a sum of money is taken from a large number of people and given to a central organization, the BBC. Managers there determine how the money is used. Not surprisingly they spend  fortunes on market research and other, more or less useful, efforts to discern and preempt the public mood. They become savants of public opinion, exquisitely attuned to the stated wishes and feelings of the British people. That is their edge, the knowledge that justifies their salaries.

This man is spending your licence fee.

In my book, The Return of the Public, I argue instead for the bottom-up organization of public subsidy. We can avoid ‘political control’ in the sense of control by bureaucrats and elected representatives by bringing in ‘political control’ that is egalitarian and participatory.

In the model I propose we no longer rely exclusively on unaccountable professionals to set the editorial agenda, i.e. to determine how public funds are spent on reporting as in the current BBC. Instead, in virtue of our being license-fee payers or, more properly, citizens, we have some power to commission journalism and research – and some power to determine the prominence given to particular discoveries and analysis.

The issue of trust

Journalistic co-ops and non-profits would be well-placed to compete for public funds in this system, to the extent that they were, to use an loaded term, embedded in communities – by which I mean both communities of location and communities of interest and knowledge.

But, note, I am arguing a publicly funded co-operative model, in which users of the media have a direct say in the direction and dissemination of inquiry. That’s the best way I can see to direct funds to organizations that regularly and reliably serve the public interest. It’s how worker co-ops of journalists that wanted to challenge the dominant assumptions of our time could be funded.

Indeed, it’s the only way I can see, for this reason.

Other approaches will run into the patronage problem – more or less well-meaning intermediaries will decide what should and should not be reported. Vested interests will make strenuous efforts to manage these intermediaries, to shape their perceptions about what is, and what is not, ‘newsworthy’.

Only an open cry system, where funds can flow to projects through the support of motivated fractions of the population, and then reach large numbers audiences, will address the pressures and constraints that currently shape coverage. The system also motivates people to engage in the communications process – challenging the music of our times ceases to be a minority pursuit.

What is true stands some chance of being widely shared, no matter how uncomfortable it is to particular interests.

(There are a number of objections to public commissioning along the lines I propose – I deal with them in the book)

It’s a long way from here to there

What I propose is deeply unpopular with those who currently control editorial decisions in the private media. I am arguing explicitly for an end to their monopoly control over day-to-day decisions about what gets investigated and widely discussed. They have so far tried desperately to avoid any open and public discussion of the structure of the media, even as they angle for more public subsidy.

Senior managers in the public service media do not like what I propose, either. I want to replace the lucrative and engrossing theology of research about diversity and inclusion with a system of production that is, in its nature, diverse and inclusive.

The Coalition will, as in other areas, use the language of crisis to justify a further concessions to the corporate and financial sectors. They will doubtless seek to demand less public interest material from broadcasters, to permit more consolidation and so on. They will develop policy that serves the interests of large media corporations and debate will be limited to those issues where companies feel the need to argue among themselves.

The response of the unions, the co-operative movement and other elements in civil society cannot limit itself to attempts to defend the status quo. The status quo failed to prevent the turn towards financialised capitalism after 1979. Defending it is boring and depressing, at a time when people around the world are waking up to the need for direct participation in the political process.

That game is rigged. The major media will ignore civil society when contemplating their own interests, to the extent that they can. Calling on them to be fair and balanced might be necessary – but it is not sufficient. If it absorbs too much of our limited resources and attention then pretending that the media can be impartial judges in their own case will be disastrous.

It is time, instead, to articulate an alternative model of communications that is egalitarian and that also rewards the skills and labour needed to assemble and present information in the public interest. The case can be made in the abstract. But it also needs to be made through material action in the world.

There are a number of steps we can and should take to prefigure a larger system of publicly supported and democratically governed news production. Both the union movement and the co-ops could engage with their members about the kinds of information they want to see more of – the principle of public commissioning could be tried and tested in smaller, defined publics in ways that lent support to the case for greater democratization and helped break through the misinformation about them that I mentioned earlier.

If trade unions and co-operative organizations went into the communications business in a serious way I have no doubt that they could compete effectively with a corporate sector and that is bloated, incompetent and only intermittently in touch with reality. It is, I must add, the one thing that your opponents most fear you will do and do well.

It need not be a loss-making proposition, so long as people felt the money, time and effort they spent informing themselves were contributing to a wider social transformation. That much abused word progressive is relevant here. Informing oneself of the ills of the world will always be a minority pursuit, absent a sense that conditions are going to change, for the better, and soon.

There are other things that might be considered.

The Co-operative Bank, for example, could create a micro-payments system that is tailored to the needs of independent producers and creators. Such a system would be trusted by users and it would have the added benefit of improving communications between co-operative businesses and their customers, social enterprises and other public spirited groups in civil society. And if the bank committed explicitly to a low-commission model it would be well placed to overcome consumer reluctance to grant network dominance, and hence super-profits, to a single provider.

(The creation of a popular micro-payments system would be an excellent business opportunity for the Bank, notwithstanding. What better way to break inertia about changing bank accounts than such a web-based system? Producers could transfer balances held on the system into a new bank account, for example.)

Both the co-operative and trade union movement have enormous, currently largely latent, powers to communicate. They can, and often do, provide a venue for democratic discussion and debate. They can play a much greater role in both describing and enacting the kind of society we want. If they embrace the principle that communication is a conversation of equals rather than something that an unaccountable elite do to a passive audience then their values will, I believe, prevail. 


We have financial crisis and war. Workers are receiving a declining share of the wealth they produce. There is plenty of work to do, but unemployment is high and rising. We need far-reaching change. Reform that acknowledges the constitutional significance of information is central to achieving that. Indeed I would argue that it is the necessary first step.

So the fact that the unions and the co-operative movement have met here to discuss the structure of the media is extremely good news.

I hope it is a sign that things are about to change. The music of our times turned shrill and discordant in 2007. The political classes and most of the media have responded by playing it louder.

We need new songs.

I was not paid to present or transcribe this talk. If you would like to support my work you can do so via Flattr.

The Return of the Public is the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize. You can buy it here.