Britain won’t have a good society until we revive the ‘public interest’

The pressure group Compass is taking action to place the public interest back at the heart of Britain. Joe Cox of the group's campaigns team reports on their latest event, a citizen's assembly.
Joe Cox
3 February 2012

The pressure group Compass is taking action to place the public interest back at the heart of Britain. Joe Cox of the group's campaigns team reports on their latest event: a citizen's assembly organised with the economics think-tank nef.

When complex events occur the framing of the issue often determines which lessons we learn. When the News of the World phone hacking scandal erupted we at Compass wanted to help ensure that the UK learnt the right lessons in the right way. We, amongst others, argued that the scandal was not an isolated event. It was the third crisis in quick succession. First, the bankers and their bonuses; then some politicians and their expenses; and then the press, profiting from peoples’ pain, grief and private lives. We launched a petition calling for the Government to hold a new Public Jury that would explore possible reforms to banking, politics, media and the police, to enable us to put the public interest back into the heart of the system. (The idea is discussed here on OurKingdom.)

The backdrop to the campaign was a concern that despite the cataclysmic implosion of global capitalism and the morbid symptoms that flow from this crisis there does not seem to be any genuine, radical and sustained citizen-led discussions about the necessary and feasible alternatives to what can be crudely called ‘neoliberalism’. Don’t get me wrong, there are brave and inspiring signs of life. First, we had UK Uncut; secondly, the student uprisings; thirdly, and perhaps most radically, has been the Occupy movement. Primarily a response to an out of control class of financiers and their political representatives, Occupy aims to be a prefigurative ‘good society’. Based on consensus and democratic allocation of labour, Occupy is creating spaces where alternatives can be re-imagined. Yet despite all these innovative movements, the dominant mood in the UK seems still to be one of cynicism and helplessness.

That is why Compass has continued to try to have this conversation and earlier this week organised a citizens’ assembly with nef at the South Bank Centre (London) called In The Public Interest. Set in the Clore Ballroom, a fantastic open space where hundreds assembled, we debated some of the ideas that could restore the notion of the public interest to the UK.

There were scores of inputs from the floor as well as short interventions from the panel of speakers: Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, Jude Kelly of the Southbank Centre, Danni Paffard of and sociologist Richard Sennett. Despite the very fluid nature of the discussion there were a few themes that emerged.

Firstly, space. Unsurprisingly with the rise of the Occupy movement the notion that appropriation of physical space was important to restore civic life was reaffirmed time and again. Debating arenas that were free from media or political party filters as well as commercial pressures were deemed as important. Jude Kelly called on public spaces to become open arenas for conversation.

Richard Sennett argued that it was important not merely to use designated existing civic spaces but to appropriate new private spaces and turn them into open spaces. He noted that that was why Zuccotti Park was chosen as a target for the original New York occupation.
One of the most impassioned interventions came from a man who announced that ‘my pet hate is big city atriums’ to the laughter of many. I think it took a few seconds for most of us to realise he might have had a point.  

Secondly, public services. There were passionate defences of the public services with one woman imploring us all to do what we can to stop the Health and Social Care Bill. The creeping privatisation and marketisation of public services was a particular concern as this was seen as the appropriation of public resources by groups of individuals for private gain (the example cited most was education).

Whilst there was overwhelming support for public services there was an acknowledgement that existing public spaces could be used more imaginatively to foster civic debate. One obvious suggestion being that public libraries should be used for more evening social and educational activities.

Thirdly, the media. Alan Rusbridger made the observation that certain sections of the media have used the public interest defence for their intrusive reporting yet they have been defining the public interest on our behalf. Absurdly, he added, the public hasn't yet been allowed to contribute to the Leveson enquiry as it attempts to define what is in the public interest.

Rusbridger also raised the dilemma of the financial pressures that are currently faced by media outlets. One can only see this pressure growing as the number of those that seek out ‘unfiltered news’ through social media grows. It is for that reason that one of the timeliest interventions from the floor was a plea for a more deliberative citizen led decisions on how the BBC spends its money.

As with all articles based on event write-ups I’m sure people will have different interpretations of what was most important or prescient about the debate and I would urge as many comments as possible from those that were present (and of course from those that were not present). There were numerous useful suggestions such as from Danni Paffard’s new campaign encouraging people to move their bank accounts to ‘better banks’, for a bolder defence of trade unions, a role for randomocracy but the overwhelming feeling I got from this discussion was that this was about defending the public and celebrating the intrinsic good that came from civic debate.

If there was one thing that almost everyone agreed on it was that this conversation needs to be repeated up and down the country and even perhaps in spaces where we don’t have permission to.

Joe Cox is Campaigns Organiser for Compass.

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