Democracy needs informed debate: how do we get it?

Democracy requires informed debate. Gavin Barker sets out a proposal for how Assemblies for Democracy and other citizen groups can help to improve citizens' access to high quality information.

Gavin Barker
19 August 2015

“A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.”

So said Peter Oborne, the former chief political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, on his resignation from that paper following its fraudulent coverage of the recent HSBC tax dodging scandal. As Oborne, pointed out, the biggest losers were the Telegraph readers:  a leading UK newspaper had abdicated its responsibility to tell the truth about an issue of vital public concern.  He added: “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril”.

Nor has the State been any less successful in cowing a ‘free’ press to do its bidding. The current government has intimidated sections of the media to either downplay or spin the whole issue of mass surveillance by GCHQ.  With the exception of the Guardian, an otherwise spineless British mainstream media has either ignored or even followed a government line that positions the human right to privacy - and human rights in general - as serving only to protect terrorists and criminals. The whistle blower Edward Snowden has rightly called the UK mainstream media’s coverage of the GCHQ story “a disservice to the public.”[i]

The increasing role of corporate PR in the production of news

While these two recent examples stand out as two of the most blatant acts of press failure to publish real news, there is another less dramatic, more insidious shift in news reporting that has been taking place.

A study done by the Cardiff School of Journalism in 2006 exposed the degree to which the quality and independence of British journalism is being compromised by its increasing reliance on ‘pre-packaged news’ provided by PR and wire services: 19% of newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories were verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material, while less than half the stories they looked at appeared to be entirely independent of traceable PR.[ii] The main source of PR is the corporate/ business world, which the report states is “more than three times more successful than NGOs, charities and civic groups at getting material into the news”.  Consumer, business and entertainment stories score high on PR content but the greatest volume of PR generated material is health, particularly from health and pharmaceutical industries.[iii]

Agency or wire services accounted for 47% of the press stories but here too, corporate PR material was evident in the content provided to newspapers. 

As journalists are required to do more with less time,‘ready-made’ news comes to replace independent journalism with little effort made to contextualise and verify the main source of information.  The research found that in less than one in five cases was this done meaningfully.[iv] Broadcast news does better, with 42% of cases involving thorough contextualisation or verification.

Although this study is dated, it is unlikely that the corporate PR machine is any less effective in its efforts to shape the press and TV media coverage of the news we receive - and we have not even touched on Sky News owned by Rupert Murdoch!

At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, there is a growing public distrust in mainstream media revealed by a YouGov  poll in August 2014. This showed that only 45% of British people trusted upmarket newspapers such as the Times, Telegraph and Guardian, with less than half that (22%) for the Mail and Express and only 13% trusting the red topped tabloid newspapers the Sun and Mirror. BBC journalism scores 61% but it is Wikipedia that topped the list with 64% trusting it to tell the truth “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.  

The internet, social media and ‘an epidemic of ignorance’

Wikipedia’s success notwithstanding, too much credence is placed on the internet and social media as allowing us to circumvent information roadblocks at the click of a mouse. Internet search affords almost instantaneous access to vast amounts of information but separating the wheat from the chaff, myth from fact, balanced information from sheer digital drivel, is onerous work. And what credence can we put on Facebook’s efforts to position itself as a main source of news for the tens  of millions of ‘friends’ who think that Facebook is the internet and who never pick up a paper or listen to radio? Our multimedia rich society, far from informing and educating us has, through the commercialisation of the internet and ‘big data’ mining of personal  information,  created new global powers and vastly extended the impact of advertising to create new wants and a new economy of endless distraction.

Whether it is editorial policy, or a Facebook algorithm, increasingly we are being served ‘junk news’ that filters out the real issues of the day, leading to what Dr Jonathan Sachs has called an ‘epidemic of ignorance’, a collapse of the public’s basic knowledge about key issues we confront such as climate change.  His research in the U.S chimes with a separate YouGov study in July 2014 which showed that that only 36% of UK adults could identify Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary while only 28% recognised Jeremy Hunt as secretary of state for health – despite the fact that the NHS was and still is one of the key issues that the public most cares about. And a separate Ipsos Mori poll in 2013 highlighted the scale of public misperceptions on some of the most important issues of the day: the proportion of Muslims in England and Wales was perceived to be 24%, in reality it is 5%; the proportion of immigrants was estimated at 31%, in reality it is 13%; and more people think Job Seekers Allowance and Foreign Aid tops the list of government expenditure when in fact it is pensions, education and the NHS -  we spend 15 times more on pensions than JSA (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).

As Dr Sachs points out, “a poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvres of special interest groups that pull the strings in Washington.”  As in Washington, so in London.

What can be done?

In the face of misinformation by print and broadcasting media on the one hand and information overload on the other, there is an urgent need to rescue key facts and data on the most pressing  challenges of our time. This is not about curating information but about building a set of basic guides on issues from climate change to inequality that have been written, peer reviewed and fact checked by subject matter experts.

The guides would not pretend to be the last word on a given subject nor be a substitute for related news and in-depth articles. Their sole purpose would be to present a simple, global overview of a given subject in no more than 4 to 7 pages. That might seem far too short given the complexity of issues such as climate change  and the heated disagreements  to which they give rise; but we are here trying to address an absence of basic factual knowledge by a sizeable section of the population and we are trying to do it for several subjects at once. There is therefore no point in writing twenty page tracts of dense factual analysis which will never be read.

The greater challenge will be to keep these ever before the public eye in the face of   the torrent of ephemeral 24 hour news that ultimately serves more to distract than inform. Yet the  high trust assigned to Wikipedia suggests there is real public hunger for trusted, balanced information. 

Beyond that the guides are trying to impart a sense of civic involvement that encourages active reflection and a response – that what you do or don’t do, as voter, citizen or member of your community will count towards the sum total of opinions and actions that shape our society and take us in one direction or another.

As a set of next steps, I sketch out how this might work.

1.    Use Wikipedia as a model

The guides would be modelled on Wikipedia with several subject matter experts working on a single document but importantly they would be backed up by a group of non-experts – members of the public and community activists who are themselves social hubs at the centre of their communities and are drawn from all parts of the UK. Their role is to act as copy editor and challenge experts where their language leads to lengthy and turgid analysis instead of clear cut simple English.

Where it differs from the Wikipedia model is that such a co-operative enterprise could not be completely open to anyone. It will need some sort of moderation and co-ordination, if only to avoid the abuses that Wikipedia has been subject to with occasional instances of contributors motivated by a hidden political agenda who deliberately set out to misinform  readers.

2. Make the guides short

The guides would be no more than 4-7 pages long and divided into three broad sections:

What? (descriptive): describes the issue or challenge, its various dimensions together with its impact.

  • Why?(analytical): Why is this happening? What are the drivers and conditions to which this gives rise? 

How? (creative): What are the current policy responses by the government? What are the alternative policy responses? What do ordinary people think and how can we engage voters and ordinary citizens to co-produce social or political innovations, in other words to harness the wisdom of crowds?

3.    Publish  under a ‘new commons of information’

Let’s call it the New Commons Publishing company, a not-for-profit  community interest company with a diverse ownership that includes charities, campaign groups,  individuals, subject matter experts, social enterprises and local community groups, but chiefly local Assemblies for Democracy.It would be largely volunteer run and its sole purpose would be to publish the guides in an accessible format including PDF and slideshows using Slideshare and YouTube, allowing the content to be embedded in any blog or website.

Importantly, final editorial decisions would be made by community activists prior to publishing, not professional publishers or subject matter experts – for reasons touched on above. This is not just about reflecting  the democratic values of Assemblies for Democracy: community activists are actually those most closely connected to their communities and therefore most likely to understand whether and how such information will be  understood and used.

4.    Make it interactive and crowdsource solutions

While it starts with existing policy responses by the present government, it should open up discussion by including a comment forum and links to a dedicated e-democracy platform such as Loomio  and D-Cent. It would also include links to more detailed subject matter for those who wanted a more in-depth grasp of an issue.


[i] Guardian: A court managed what the complicit UK press couldn't: force GCHQ to tell the truth 7-feb 2015

[ii] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006)

[iii] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006) (page 21)

[iv] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006)

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