Media Saturation

Someone in Lewes is paying attention.

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.

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.

Investigative Journalism at the BBC

I’ve written a piece about the BBC’s record in investigative journalism for the Power and the Media strand over at Open Democracy. You can read it here.

And another thing, don’t you think it’s about time you bought my book, hmmm?

It really is exceptionally good.

The Sovereign Public

The public now is everything to me – my preoccupation, my sovereign and my friend. Henceforth I belong to it alone. I wish to place myself before this tribunal and no other. It is the only thing I fear and respect. A feeling of greatness comes over me with the idea that the only fetter I wear is the verdict of the world – and that the only throne I shall appeal to is the human soul.

Friedrich Schiller

Flattr this?

Why I am on Flattr

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?

Remarks on Energy

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 undertakingto 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?

The media must be reformed, obviously.


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