A friend in Sussex sends evidence that wholesale media reform is imminent in Tom Paine’s former home town … This is the scene that greets visitors to Lewes Library.
The Future of Investigative Journalism
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.
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.
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 inexhaustible novelty of how we feel serves to protect the old order from what we think.
C. Wright Mills begins his esssay The Sociological Imagination by drawing a contrast between the ‘everyday worlds’ that ordinary people are aware of, where ‘their visions and their powers are limited by the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood’, and the ‘structure of continent-wide societies’. The two worlds – the visible, tangible and emotionally coloured world of milieu and the abstract world of structure – are inextricably connected –
The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women … When classes rise and fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.
But for all that we do not seek to make sense of our own lives in structural terms –
Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction.
Mills wanted to find the means by which ‘the personal uneasiness of individuals’ might be ‘focused upon explicit troubles’ and ‘the indifference of publics’ might be ‘transformed into involvement with public issues’. To this end he argues for the development of a ‘sociological imagination’ –
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.
So The Sociological Imagination is an argument about the methods and assumptions of social science, an attempt to persuade his peers (‘journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors’) ‘to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening in themselves’. It is a call to reconcile the registers of biography and history, since –
No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within a society, has completed its intellectual journey.
He goes on to suggest that –
Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure’.
Mills’ distinction between structure and milieu, and his insistence on the need to explore their connections, remain of the utmost importance. But he was mistaken when he wrote that the sociological imagination was becoming ‘the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature’.
Far from working to make reasoned sense of the relationship between milieu and structure, those who together hold the power to shape our shared understanding have tended, in one way or another, to confuse the two, or to disparage one in favour the other. Over the last generation the cultural community – Wright’s ‘journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors’ who together determine the field of things that are widely discussed – this community has concentrated on milieu at the expense of structure, even as the structures in which it operates have become more colossal, global rather than continent-wide.
And milieu has changed, too. For many people in Anglo-America, it has become ever more cluttered with cultural products that seek to reproduce the world of affect. Matters of structure have become a peculiar and unsatisfying subset of things that might, somehow, occasionally be brought into this well-lit world.
Such political coverage as there is tends to focus on personal rivalries or the vices and virtues of individuals. A handful of journalists try their best to give due attention to institutional factors – they therefore retain some capacity to think structurally. Most are discouraged from doing so, working as they do in structurally significant institutions that don’t like to be described. What is left is milieu.
Recently the campaigner for tax justice, John Christensen, described how attempts to reach large television audiences with descriptions of offshore finance – perhaps the most radically under-reported and consequential structure in the world – repeatedly founder on the broadcasters’ desire to re-frame the issue in terms of milieu:
The important part – when I talk to the journalists – and you can spend hours and hours talking to them, you say ‘look this is systemic’ and we will spend way more time talking about it for a documentary. Several weeks or months into the process, and I find that the whole thing’s been turned on its head: you’ve moved from the systemic to the individual. ‘Let’s focus on the Royal Family.’ or ‘let’s focus on the Cayman Islands.’ That’s the problem all the time – and that’s been over ten years’ experience.
All the time we say: ‘don’t focus on the islands, or on the companies, but focus on global financial architecture issues.’ The BBC isn’t engaging in its mission to inform properly — it is only engaging in the most superficial stuff.
(quoted from Nick Shaxson’s Treasure Islands blog)
The islands can be filmed. They exist in the world. The Royal Family excites envy or admiration, it is part of a landscape of shared emotional resources. Structural matters are only thought to become accessible once they are represented in the familiar terms of milieu – recognisably personal tales of wrong-doing, or the impassioned crusader’s search for justice.
Perhaps audiences can be made to feel indignant about money launderers or crooked financiers? So that becomes the way to approach the subject. What is particular to the thing itself, its nature, loses definition as it is made to conform with the demands of narrative. As it blurs we lose yet another chance to understand what is going on around us.
Offshore finance, a system that must be understood in its own terms if hundreds of millions of people are to make sense of their lives, vanishes in the effort to make it seem like another feature of the close-up world. It ceases to be a matter that must be weighed and considered alongside other structural features – the state, the corporation, the system of communications. It becomes another opportunity for sentiment, for outrage, perhaps, or self-satisfied worldliness. Structure collapses into milieu and our intelligence is insulted in the process. The patient work of relating structure and milieu – of showing how tax evasion contributes to fiscal crisis, and so to attacks on ‘unaffordable’ public services – all that is skipped in favour of the sentimental, the luridly coloured, the emotionally accessible.
When the public fails to be interested in the results, which have to be misleading because they are, in a quite specific sense, deranged, the cultural community feels free to dispense with structure altogether and to experiment instead with ways of refining and mass producing affect. They can concentrate on reality television, lottery results, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous – the cultural forms that reproduce in cartoon form ‘the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood’.
Efforts to describe the world according to a rational order of priorities give way to the sobbing contestant, the blind and mistreated donkey, the nasty one in the house. What is important is obscured by what feels significant.
The same process is at work in the debate about the financial crisis. Politicians assure the public that they, too, are angry with bankers. Nick Clegg tells us:
I am like anybody else: you want to wring the neck of these wretched people who behaved so irresponsibly and then we are now having to bail them out.
And so the private language of sentiment substitutes for a public language of structural description.
(Attempts to challenge the facts of structural power have, more or less successfully, and more or less honourably, sought to work within this concerted moral and intellectual myopia. NGOs who opposed genetically modified foods did so for structural reasons – they were concerned about food security and about the very real human costs of corporate control of the food chain. But their concerns were often framed in terms of ‘Frankenstein foods’. The structure of the food economy was crowded out by what looms large in our individual relationship with food – in this case the fear of contamination.
Similarly, critics of corporate power focused on the practices of companies that had sought to become objects in the private worlds of milieu – brands like McDonalds or Nike, say. They aimed to create relationships with their customers, and so they became vulnerable. In the process the structural similarities between corporations could be lost.)
What then is to be done? Those who benefit from the existing structures aren’t that keen to see them described accurately. They would rather we didn’t see clearly how present structures connect with what happens in our lives. People lose their jobs, their benefits, their footing in close-up, day-to-day world. Let them blame themselves, or find consolation in racial prejudice or interactive entertainment. Let them do what they want, so long as they do not seek the cause of their private troubles in public issues. Above all, keep them away from the idea that they have the means to change the structures within which their visible lives take place.
C. Wright Mills put his faith in experts, in the hope that the joy of knowing how the world is in fact, and the joy of creating lucid summations of this knowledge, would outweigh other considerations. Instead social science, insofar as it tried to explore the relationship between structure and milieu, all but vanished from our shared life. Economists took centre stage with elaborate fantasies about anarchic markets in which atomised individuals sought to satisfy their preferences. The facts of structure vanished in a concerted act of professional make-believe.
Journalists reveled in the endlessly rewarding inanity of their intrusions into the intimate lives of the well-known or the merely unlucky. Denied a public life we were encouraged to look on as their victims (their subjects?) learnt what happens when the structural demands of a competitive media system meet the ordinarily deceptive and faithless conditions of our close-up worlds.
Adam Curtis has noticed how the personal world of affect has crowded out discussions of what is the case, and of what might be done. My own book includes a discussion of the phenomenon, as well as an account of why it has become more complete over the last thirty years – more of a trap, to use a word from Mills (‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.’).
The solution is not to be found simply by restating the problem – though there are elegant and entertaining ways of doing that.
We will only restore a proper balance between structure and milieu when we have some power to determine the objectives of social science. There are always good reasons for individuals to avoid certain subjects. Powerful individuals and institutions will seek to shape the way they are described. In large part their ability to do so is what we mean when we say that they are powerful. If we leave decisions about what is investigated in the hands of a few editors, researchers and journalists, then they will come under irresistible pressure to concentrate on some matters and to neglect others.
Those who understand a complex matter for the most part benefit from their understanding and from our ignorance. We need independent means to fund expertise and to reward service to the common good. We need to have, in virtue of our being citizens, the power to commission investigations into the facts of structure, and the power to commission attempts to make these facts meaningful – to relate them to the conditions of our lives.
That is the project I outline in The Return of the Public.
The print edition of the Observer newspaper in Britain carries a supplement of articles from the New York Times. I’ve never seen an explanation as to why this is. But it is.
This week the lead article in the section is headlined ‘Tilting Away From Strict Islam’. In it Tim Arango explores the relationship between Islam and democracy. The country, he tells us, is ‘a volatile laboratory for testing how Islamic a democracy can be, and vice versa‘. The struggle between social liberals and strict Islamists over bar culture provides him with his theme:
In January, bars and clubs, including the Writers Union, were raided in what many Iraqis saw as a government move toward a stricter interpretation of Islamic law. But soon after, as protests for reform began about other issues, the boozy haunts were allowed to reopen.
The reader might reasonably wonder what these other issues were, but the article, at least in its British incarnation, was remarkably unforthcoming. Arango tells us later that ‘inspired by uprisings by Arabs elsewhere, Iraqis held their own protests in Tahrir Square’ in late February. The authorities attacked the protesters and the protests did not ‘blossom nationally’. But apparently the government did decide to ‘dial back the crackdown on night-life’.
But why were the protesters taking to the streets in Iraq? The New York Times doesn’t give us much of a clue. But the Guardian, the Observer‘s sister paper in London, published a piece by Sami Ramadani that sheds light on their grievances. Ramadani quoted some of the slogans:
“Nouri al-Maliki is a liar.” … “The people’s oil is for the people not for the thieves”; “We want dignity, jobs and services”; “No to terrorism, no to Saddam’s dictatorship, and no to the dictatorship of thieves”; “No to the occupation”; “We are not Ba’athists, repression is Ba’athist”; … “Sunnis and Shia, this homeland we shall never sell”.
Thanks to government repression it is not easy to establish a clear picture of the protesters’ concerns. Amnesty International has ‘found disturbing evidence of targeted attacks on political activists, torture and other ill-treatment of people arrested in connection with the protests, and attacks or threats against journalists, media outlets, government critics, academics and students’. But for the New York Times to be so vague about the grievances of the Iraqi people in a country that is, after all, still occupied by 50,000 American troops seems to me to be extraordinary.
My guess is that Tim Arango could give us a pretty good idea of what these ‘other issues’ are. He is based in Baghdad and I am sure he is a diligent journalist. Perhaps the paper’s editors will allow him to do his job.
And if it refuses to publish stories that explain what is going on in Iraq, it can hardly be surprised if its writers seek solace in the Writers Union.
Superstition and mystery are useful to the holders of financial power.
In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote that the financier needs ‘unintelligent respect on the part of the general public’ if he or she is to remain ‘unfettered by the democracy’. He went on to note the many advantages that the plutocrat enjoys in his efforts to maintain his effective freedom from democratic control:
Being immensely rich, he can endow universities, and secure that the most influential part of academic opinion shall be subservient to him. Being at the head of the plutocracy, he is the natural leader of all those whose political thought is dominated by fear of Communism. Being the possessor of economic power, he can distribute prosperity or ruin to whole nations as he chooses.
But Russell thought that it is superstition above all that explains the supremacy of finance:
But I doubt whether any of these weapons would suffice without the aid of superstition. It is a remarkable fact that, in spite of the importance of economics to every man, woman, and child, the subject is almost never taught in schools and even in universities is learnt by a minority. Moreover, that minority do not learn the subject as it would be learnt if no political interests were at stake. There are a few institutions which teach it without plutocratic bias, but they are very few; as a rule, the subject is so taught as to glorify the economic status quo. All this, I fancy, is connected with the fact that superstition and mystery are useful to the holders of financial power.
And there was, Russell argued, a further problem in the distribution of understanding:
Finance, like war, suffers from the fact that almost all those who have technical competence also have a bias which is contrary to the interest of the community. When Disarmament Conferences take place, the naval and military experts are the chief obstacle to their success. It is not that these men are dishonest, but that their habitual preoccupations prevent them from seeing questions concerning armaments in their proper perspective.
Exactly the same thing applies to finance. Hardly anybody knows about it in detail except those who are engaged in making money out of the present system, who naturally cannot take wholly impartial views.
Recent history appears to lend weight to Russell’s assertions. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown appointed investment bankers to the business councils that advised him. They assured him that the light-touch regulation of the City was a wonder of the world. And efforts to learn the lessons of the financial have again relied heavily on the expertise of people who profited from the unreformed system. The Independent Commission on Banking set up by Britain’s Coalition government has five members: its chairman, Sir John Vickers, Claire Spottiswoode, Martin Wolf, Martin Taylor and Bill Winters. Vickers himself has not worked in the private sector as a banker, but he is a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Three of his four colleagues have worked in the financial sector, broadly defined – Spottiswoode at the insurance company Aviva, Taylor at Barclays and Winters at J.P. Morgan. Martin Wolf is a journalist at the Financial Times. In the early eighties he was a keen supporter of the government’s attempts to reinvigorate the economy by favouring capital at the expense of labour.
The members of the Commission are doubtless honest and independent-minded people. But they are also human beings. It is silly to imagine that they can be left in technocratic isolation to devise a reformed system of banking. They are being asked to judge a system that has given them wealth and status. Though the financial turn has failed in its publicly stated aims, it has made them private successes.
Russell thought that our reliance on experts who struggle to take wholly impartial views would only end if democratic publics became aware of the importance of finance and were able to understand its workings. He thought that it was a matter of ‘simplifying the principles of finance so that they can be widely understood’. In fact, as Ann Pettifor shows in her ebook Just Money, finance is fairly easy to grasp in its essentials. Indeed, as J.K. Galbraith once observed, its very simplicity repels the mind.
It requires only a little determination to put away the comforting superstition that finance is a complex matter, best left in the hands of financiers. It is not complexity that daunts us, it is the thought of living without superstition and mystery. But the substance of Enlightenment is found in our resolving to do so. Something to bear in mind the next time you hear someone wittering on about the wickedness of religious faith.
It is not God who controls our currency but men – by methods that we currently choose not to understand. And this is the willed immaturity of mind that should most urgently concern us.
Update: Commonwealth Publishing, my imprint, published Just Money: How Society Can Break The Despotic Power of Finance on January 13th, 2014.
On April 26th the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, will announce whether or not he is willing to allow News Corporation’s purchase of BSkyB to go ahead.
In recent months Hunt has sought to give the impression that he is tightly constrained by the provisions of the Communications Act and he has made it known that he is required to make a ‘quasi-judicial decision’.
Hunt has claimed that he cannot take into account the accumulating evidence of criminal activity at another News Corporation company, the News of the World. Even though the company has admitted liability ‘in cases meeting specific criteria’, the Secretary of State has suggested that the phone hacking affair can have no bearing on his decision. Indeed some informed commentators have even suggested that he will approve the takeover.
The plurality of views expressed in the media have, potentially, been affected very seriously by the surveillance conducted by individuals working for News Corporation. The company’s inability to restrain the criminality of its employees led to a situation where many people in positions of power might well have feared that embarrassing aspects of their private lives were an open book. And this in turn might well have had an inhibiting effect on public discourse. There is much that is uncertain at present about the affair. But we can say this for certain. The notion that a plurality of views is consistent with widespread illegal surveillance is exotic at best. At worst it is flat-out perverse.
There is certainly no way that Jeremy Hunt can responsibly approve this takeover before the police’s inquiry has been concluded, Parliament has taken a view on the implications of what has been happening at the News of the World and elsewhere, and the public has had a chance to discuss the matter fully.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered:
Who knew about the illegal activity at the News of the World? When did they know about it?
What bearing does this have on the company’s claims over the years to have assisted the police with their inquiries?
How did the evidence of wrong-doing referred to in the company’s apology finally come to light? Why was it unknown to senior managers for so long?
Have employees of the News of the World, or of other media institutions, been engaged in other illegal acts? Have they been making corrupt payments to police officers or other public servants?
I am sure that, in his quasi-judicial reflections on the matter, Hunt has come to appreciate all this and will delay approval until justice is done and seen to be done. If he presses ahead and permits the takeover the public will struggle to avoid concluding that the political establishment to which he belongs has become the creature of an unaccountable and private system of power, that the media institutions are operating as a vast machinery of implicit blackmail, and that there is nothing for it but to sweep the whole edifice away and build something new.
To help Jeremy Hunt do the right thing, you might want to consider contacting your MP and asking her or him to set out their views on the relationship between open and honest public discourse and widespread criminality in the news media.
Or you could just tell them that you won’t vote for them again if they permit Rupert Murdoch to wield any more power.
You can find your MP here. Emailing them is pretty straightforward. Let me know how you get on, if you like – thereturnofthepublic[at]gmail.com.
Flattr is a micro-payments system that allows its users to give small sums of money to bloggers, musicians, free software authors, and anyone else whose work they value. You create an account and distribute a minimum of two euros per month (less a 10% commission taken by Flattr) to sites you value. The money is divided equally among all the sites you flattr in a given month. You can also opt to give individual sites more. If you don’t flattr anyone your monthly sum goes to charity.
Now the system is by no means perfect. It depends on large numbers of people signing up, of course. And so there is a danger that it will seek to secure monopoly rents if and when it becomes the standard means to delivering micro-payments. Furthermore, the commission is at the moment quite steep, though the company assures us that they will endeavour to bring it down as the volume increases.
But it strikes me to be a promising approach to solving a real problem: how do we create an internet ecology that supports independent producers? This is a serious and highly consequential issue in political writing, where large corporations and wealthy individuals have traditionally subsidised content creation.
Much of this money has come in the form of advertising – this gives rich companies important leverage in their relationship with the media they support. Journalists sometimes insist that advertising pressure has no bearing on their work and in a narrow sense this might be true. But the Daily Herald, Britain’s bestselling and most loved newspaper in the 1930s and 1940s was eventually strangled by its inability to generate advertising revenues commensurate with its vast circulation. If you think that such things don’t matter and that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, then allow me to introduce you to the Sun, the paper that the Daily Herald became once it was sold off and re-branded. The paper that helped build the British postwar consensus later helped destroy it – advertiser pressure played an important role in achieving this turnaround.
Rich individuals and institutions also spend money with the express intention of creating and maintaining a favourable climate of opinion. Think tanks, foundations, and individuals receive all manner of direct and indirect support from the powerful. And the powerful expect their money to be put to good use. They want to see it being translated into media coverage that suits them. The large foundations created by American industrialists, for example, have supported academics and groups in civil society that accepted the essential soundness of the existing political and economic settlement. This in turn has been crucial in establishing the limits of responsible reform. This amounts to promoting what one of their critics, Donald Fischer, once called ‘an ideology of sophisticated conservatism’.
The state, too, spends considerable sums in order to influence the ways in which it is perceived. The Pentagon alone manages a vast public relations budget, which it uses to establish leverage over myriad media outlets, from Hollywood movie producers to newspaper journalists and broadcasters.
So both market forces and the direct intervention of wealthy patrons – patrons which include the state – skew media coverage in important, though rarely discussed, ways.
This needs to change. Or rather it needs to be challenged systematically in ways that reach the great majority of the population. In my view the best solution would be a system of public commissioning. Each citizen would have some power to support inquiry and to secure wider exposure for the results of inquiry. The news agenda is too important to be left in the hands of individuals who depend on the support of powerful and opaque institutions. To put it another way, the road to freedom passes through democratic reform of the media. To rely on the media we have at present is to evade the responsibilities and satisfactions of self-government. Media reform, by delivering us from a state of intellectual tutelage, is the very stuff of enlightenment.
But public commissioning is some way off. The existing media don’t want it. States don’t want it. The rich certainly don’t want it. The public, for the most part, haven’t even heard of it. Indeed they are rarely invited to contemplate the deep structure of the systems of information that surround them and orient them in the world. Furthermore there is no shortage of noisy competition from people with proposals for reform and demands for revolution. Though media reform should be central to the politics of any mature capitalist society it scarcely exists in the public sphere. Indeed the forces that prevent meaningful discussion of the media are the forces that prevent capitalist society from evolving into something different.
Flattr provides private individuals with the means to support independent voices in the media. It is direct and it is reasonably efficient. There are transaction costs but they are much smaller than any other method I am aware of. Those who currently try to present an alternative frame of reference to that provided by the paid media do so with little expectation that they will be paid for their work. This is difficult for them. But if a genuinely accountable and transparent media is to be established – one that can not only comment on but also challenge mainstream claims and assumptions, then we will have to do more than make encouraging noises about citizen journalism.
And if people who are conscious of the need for media reform adopt it then it could become a staging post on the way to more fundamental changes in the politics of communication. It is little more than a toy at the moment – it will make a few euros a month at most for most of its users. But it is the best way you can support this site.
And that has to be something of world-historical importance.
Alright, so, enough about Flattr and the sordid demands of self-promotion – have you read my book yet?
The release of radiation at the Fukushima power station in Japan once again raises questions about the wisdom of including nuclear power in the energy infrastructure. The defenders of nuclear power point out that modern stations are far safer than Fukushima. Its opponents point out that, no matter how safe a plant’s operations are, the problems of long-term storage have yet to be addressed.
However, power stations that use uranium will never be safe. Perfectly designed stations and a 100% secure system of waste storage will not change that. Uranium is an extremely dangerous substance – massively poisonous in itself, and the raw material for apocalyptic weaponry. Refining uranium ore and storing it in one place will always present a pose a threat to human security. And so it will always have to be guarded by the state from all manner of potential threats – from terrorists, from maniacs, from terrorist maniacs, and so on. In Britain the industry has its own police force, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. With the qualified exceptions the City of London Police, ‘a bespoke police force’ for ‘the world’s leading business and financial centre’, according to its website, and British Transport Police, this is the only police force specifically tasked with protecting a business sector.
The need for state security institutions to protect the nuclear industry parallels the military-intelligence needs of the global oil and gas industry. In November 2010 NATO member states reaffirmed their commitment to the organization. Among the commitments they made was an undertaking ‘to develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical energy infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning’. [emphasis added] The oil and gas industry constitutes the critical energy infrastructure at present. It and its transit areas and lines are one of the core concerns of the Western military establishment. The need to maintain the flow of oil and gas legitimate the projection of force on a vast scale by the NATO powers and by America in particular. Renewable energy threatens the rationale of NATO’s interventionist stance in the world by making energy security a matter of making sure that children don’t muck about with solar panels.
The forms of energy generation adopted in the coming decades will have profound implications for the wider structure of political economy. If we embrace technologies like nuclear that lend themselves to concentrated ownership and control, and that require the security offered by central state, then we will recreate the political economy of oil and gas, in which a small number of owners, managers and state players tend to extract rents from the rest of ths population. And we will replace the security doctrines that govern the production of, and international trade in, fossil fuels with an expanded role for the security state in national energy infrastructures.
Those who worry about the lobbying power of the Koch family’s private companies or the vast program of reaction organized and funded by the Saudi monarchy should look closely at current debates about energy policy. The aim must be to ensure that the forms of energy production adopted to replace hydrocarbons do not leave power and control in the hands of a few private owners and the creepier elements of the national security administration. It is this consideration that leads one to view nuclear with considerable suspicion. Nuclear power needs strong and secretive central states.
If we are not careful semi-criminal rackets in the defense and intelligence nexus will continue to share the spoils of the energy sector with politicians who can be trusted to keep democratic ownership and control off the agenda. We will remain in a world of permanent emergency and, perhaps, low-level war as the institutions that justify their existence through their claims to keep us safe find ways to keep themselves busy and distract our attention from the alternative.
Forms of energy generation that can be funded and effectively overseen by medium-sized communities of users offer the best hope for an escape from the concentrations of power that we find in the current mix of oil, gas, coal and nuclear. While it would be pleasant to think that individuals and families could provide for their own energy needs, this is at present the politics of the hobby farm. A few rich individuals, George W. Bush in Crawford, David Cameron in Notting Hill, for example, can kit themselves out with windmills. But somewhat larger scale projects will be needed if we are to replace hydrocarbons completely.
I am not about to pronounce on the relative merits of wind, tidal, geothermal, and solar power. Nor do I want to detract attention from the need for greater energy efficiency. But I want to stress that the legislative environment and the framework of subsidies in which new investment in the energy infrastructure takes place should aim to create energy capacity that is owned and controlled by the citizens who pay for it and use it. New investment in energy technology offers us a chance to create small and medium sized plants that deliver very cheap energy and that can be managed by the people who use them. The political implications of an energy infrastructure that is subject to participatory control can hardly be exaggerated.
The military-intelligence functions of Western states could be scaled back. Central states would become more accountable to their citizens as their need for secrecy declined. The real costs of energy would fall as it became a public good as well as a privately traded commodity. We could ensure that no one dies of cold, for example, and we could end the ruinously expensive and uncompetitive cartels that currently dominate the industry in much of the English-speaking world.
Those who love the state and the exercise of secret power understand this. Those who currently profit from control of fossil fuels understand this. How can the public as a whole be made to grasp the central importance of decisions about energy policy that are being made now, often far from the glare of publicity?
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