The Return of the Public provides a welcome set of proposals to democratise public debate through a system of citizen-led editorial commissioning, but the focus on the mass media ignores the potential of other more democratic channels of information.
Dan Hind, The Return of the Public, (Verso, 2010)
It is becoming a cliché to say that we live in a time of crisis. Whether it’s catastrophic climate change, financial meltdown or collapse of trust in our political representatives, disaster is already upon us and the state seems powerless to construct a meaningful response.
According to Dan Hind’s new book, underlying our inability to tackle these crises is yet another crisis – a crisis of publicity. In his view, the make up of the ‘public’ – "the informed autonomous body capable of initiating policy and driving legislative changes" – now excludes the vast majority of people. Instead, the state bends itself to an elite public dominated by those who control (though not own) the vast capital flows of major corporations and the financial markets which connect them.
The key to the exclusion of most of us from the effective public is the atrophy of our means of understanding the world. As citizens, our knowledge of issues which extend beyond our own experience is necessarily received through the mass media. Yet the institutions which should be our eyes and ears instead act as our blinkers.
To illustrate his argument, Hind draws on the history of the build-up to the Iraq war as an example of how the media can rule certain views in- and out-of-bounds. While a succession of retired generals and spooks were given room to expound on the threat from Baghdad, those who believed, quite rightly, that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction were treated as extremists. And while breast-beating apologies in the media may have portrayed this as a singular lapse in judgment, Hind argues that this is symptomatic of a wider tendency for mainstream news sources to exclude challenging viewpoints.
Hind’s critique of our mass media is tied to a demanding vision of citizenship. Drawing from thinkers in the republican tradition from Rome, to the English civil-war era to America’s founding fathers, he paints a picture of a freedom as collective self governance which is only present in the moment it is being exercised. As he puts it “When citizens do not hold power[…] when they do not together constitute the public and so together determine the public interest – they cannot be free” (p20).
In setting out this vision he rejects notions of ‘public service’ as a differing form of elitism – at best a benevolent dictatorship. Where a professional caste claim the authority to define and pursue the public interest and serve it without reference to the public will, this cannot serve the interests of real republican freedom.
Hind’s response to the crisis is an attractive one: a recreation of our ecosystem of information, from the broadcast media to academia to form a ‘commonwealth of descriptions’ where the means to understand the world are a form of public property. The specific reform which he sees as the first step down this road is the creation of a system for the public commissioning of journalism. Hind argues that commissioning editors exert a wealth of scarcely examined political power. By allocating resources to different journalistic investigations they effectively define the limits of what the mainstream media can examine. And yet, they are acutely subject to pressure, both from media owners and powerful external forces.
His proposal is that a public fund, which in the UK could come from part of a top-sliced license fee, should be allocated to local public commissioning forums. These would invite journalists to submit proposals for investigations and then choose between them using open deliberative processes. Broadcasters and local media who were in receipt of the license fee or other state subsidies would be required to carry the outputs of these investigations.
There is much to like about this proposal: as Hind rightly notes, it has the potential to act as a ‘democracy school’, giving citizens experience of taking genuinely influential political decisions. And many of the negative outcomes which could be projected for this type of decision making – from populist, even fascist choices of topic, to the difficulty of being able to predict in advance which projects will produce valuable results – apply equally (or even more so) to our current media infrastructure.
It is, however, hard to feel that Hind’s solution to the crisis of publicity is one which leads us in the right direction. By retaining, even strengthening, the role of the professional journalist he fails to provide the public with the means to observe and reflect on their own existence. Arguably, the model of the mass media is at odds with republican citizenship. After all, it concentrates power in the hands of a journalistic elite. However they are governed, this elite will always have its own distinctive culture, interests, and privileges and therefore its own perspective. A real commonwealth of information might go beyond offering citizens the chance to define the limits of the mainstream political conversation and actually give them the tools to contribute to it.
Indeed, as trust in journalists declines, and newspapers continue to lose readers, it’s hard not to feel that by focussing on the mass media, Hind is backing a losing horse. Perhaps another remedy can be found in an area which Hind largely discounts: social media. Hind suggests that to have impact beyond the individual, social media events must pass through the ‘editorial filter’ into the mainstream media. This picture, however, is incomplete. The impact of social media may be diffuse and difficult to measure, but this does not make it negligible. As the mainstream media crumbles, our understanding of the world is increasingly informed by the news shared with us by our peers. And though online campaigning organisations like Avaaz may not have succeeded in building the community they hoped for, their reach rivals the largest mainstream news sources.
But even if social networks are increasingly taking on the role of news disseminators, the technology for citizen-led news gathering is lagging behind. While crowdsourcing techniques like Ushahidi can draw on the observations of thousands of people to build a detailed picture of a complex situation, they cannot yet – and most likely never will be able to – undertake the detailed analysis required to draw lessons from this picture or tell its stories.
Perhaps, then, what we need are new approaches which democratise news-gathering in the same way as social media has democratised news distribution. But while news distribution is highly dependent on technology, news gathering requires time, skills and commitment. Therefore, rather than top-slicing the license fee to pay for investigative journalism, we should be funding schools for citizen journalists, teaching them the skills they need to create their own accounts of the world.
As in so many other areas, our relationship to information about the world has become primarily that of a consumer. Hind correctly identifies that the market for news has not delivered media which is genuinely accountable to its consumers. But rather than attempting to change the way we control it, we must instead change the way we produce it. New technology offers us the tools to become producers of our own information. Now we must find ways to widen access to the skills and resources which will make that possible.
Stephen Whitehead is a project manager on the New Economics Foundation’s Democracy and Participation Programme. He tweets as @steveistall
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