BristolCable. Norberto Soriano. All rights reserved.“Sinclair gave advice to the President – sometimes more than once a day – on how to regulate the meat packing industry through legislation” writes Thomas C Leonard in The Power of the Press. After Upton Sinclair published his groundbreaking novel The Jungle in 1906 on Chicago’s meat industry, the socialist author met the president in confidence to advise Roosevelt on government strategy. This wasn’t an unusual move for the President who used to regularly invite investigative journalists – or muckrakers – to the White House and work closely with them on developing government policy.
As spelt out in the Journalism of Outrage, “The connection between muckrakers and policymakers may have been less remote and adversarial than the conventional wisdom mandates”. Sinclair’s closed-door meetings with Roosevelt, no matter how progressive in their cause on this occasion, point to a proximity between press and politics which over decades has morphed and eroded public trust in the media.
Collapsing trust and viability
Fast forward to 2017, and it was recently reported that the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, was to address the Conservative party conference; strongly suggesting a bias on her part towards the centre-right party. The report went viral, although it was entirely inaccurate. It was a moment which highlighted how the public were ready to believe that our media isn’t impartial and is far too close to policymakers and big business.
However incorrect on this occasion, that distrust has been compounded by endless genuine exposés of relationships which are a tad too cosy, and revolving doors between politics and press. The phone hacking scandal involving former news of the world editor Andy Coulson – who was communications director for former Prime Minister David Cameron – is the emblematic example of the symbiosis between traditional press and politics among countless others. The repercussions for legacy publishers are huge, not only journalistically, but also commercially, as they scramble to resuscitate flailing business models and restore trust.
Biting the hand that feeds
Rescuing and evolving the media model is a tall order for publishers. Stretched to limits and pressed to churn out content, too many news reporters depend on press releases, and feeding from government staffers and business representatives for their bread and butter news stories. This sharing of information is of course an exchange and not a no strings attached donation. While this “access journalism” can turn up crucial scoops and inside stories, it also compromises a crucial function of journalism – that of the watchdog, by creating a dependency relationship that cannot be upset if it is to continue.
This dynamic pans out between reporters, businesses and government on all levels. The upshot is an understanding that critical reporting is costly; it may result in lines of communication being closed down or threats to advertising revenue. President Trump’s closed-door meetings, with cherry-picked invitations for certain publishers, is a less subtle demonstration of a relationship that has been central to mainstream political reporting over generations.
This gulf between citizens and traditional publishers relates in part to the fact that impartiality in journalism has always been a problematic concept.
Despite this, within certain forums, hyper-partisanship is discussed as a modern phenomenon confined to new media actors, who are blamed for giving rise to populism and unsavoury political choices by electorates, such as Brexit or Corbyn. And increasingly, these new publishers – which are very diverse – often command huge audiences. But we must ask ourselves, why have so many abandoned legacy publishers to access news from elsewhere? And who can point to this golden era for an example of genuinely impartial journalism?
Arguably, the much-touted closeness between the ‘metropolitan’ elites in politics and media came at the expense of citizenry at large, with reporters losing touch with much of the public. Clear examples of this mismatch was the groupthink, (and concurrent bafflement) present around Brexit and the General Election 2017.
This distance is exacerbated when most people are not demographically represented – let alone politically – in the media which purports to serve the public interest.
British journalism is reported to be 94% white and 55% male, and 51% of the UK’s ‘top 100’ journalists educated and working in the UK in 2015 attended a private school. When reading statistics such as these, one must ask: is impartiality an outdated myth, a fig leaf that maintains political balances of power and accepted parameters of debate, whether that be the BBC’s polite society or the boys club behind the tabloids.
Crisis and opportunity
The fallout from the closeness between press and politics has presented a political and commercial opportunity for new media publishers to fill. The Bristol Cable is the UK’s only citywide media co-operative, with now 1900 paying members. As we were establishing in 2014, we asked ourselves (and many others), how could we create a media which tackles the issues of representation while holding power to account? A democratic co-operative model was our answer. Each of our 1900 members owns an equal share in the co-operative, exercising democratic member rights to steer the direction of their media, and informing the small team of staff who manage the day to day running. Unlike the majority of local and national media, the proprietors of the Bristol Cable are not barons or hedge-funds, but ordinary folk in the city who want a stake in their media.
While on track and making ground, The Cable is some distance from proving our model will prevail as an answer to the business model crisis facing journalism. However, unlike the majority of local and national media, the proprietors of the Bristol Cable are not barons or hedge-funds, but ordinary folk in the city who want a stake in their media. When we publish challenging, evidenced-based investigations, be it on immigration, farming or policing, we don’t fear that our financial taps will be closed. In fact, we record increased membership signups, with local readers actively supporting a media that is adversarial and independent.
Crucially, new models must consider the challenges of not just what is covered, but by whom and through what processes. Though we have a lot more to do, we regularly feature powerful voices, foreign language sections, forgotten histories and solutions-oriented conversations on how to address micro and macro issues in our city and society. The producers (and co-owners) of the Cable’s media are for the most part not formally trained or well connected. They come from all walks of life, bringing rich and diverse experience, and are guided through a collaborative editorial process as well as intensive media training programmes to produce high quality journalism that has achieved widespread renown.
Every month these members are invited to hear from a Cable journalist and engage in (and question) the key practical and ethical questions arising from our journalism, and other strategic challenges facing the co-op.
It is our opinion that if journalism is to be produced in the public interest, then publishers must understand what that ‘interest’ is and what part of the ‘public’ those interests represent. The practises of the publication must be constitutionally and commercially tied into serving that interest. And to get closer to determining this, we publishers must get closer to the public(s) themselves.
However, “free” media isn't free to produce. In order for a business model like the Cable’s to work we have to persuade people to pay for it; by making the case that free at the point of access quality media is a public good.
This is why the Bristol Cable has incorporated as a non-profit cooperative, and is driven to serve the community interest rather than by maximising shareholder returns.
And now is the time to test new models and approaches. As with many mainstream political parties, mainstream media’s declining power is creating a vacuum. This space will be filled by whoever offers legitimacy and authenticity, genuine or perceived. It is for all of us to decide whether it will be the former or the latter.
Bristol Cable is the UK’s only citywide media co-operative, with 1900 paying members in Bristol, UK. It focuses on investigative journalism, media training and local reporting. It prints 30,000 copies quarterly and publishes daily online. It is a member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Follow us on Twitter: @thebristolcable