Entering the secret castle: A small step towards democratic public media?

Last week the BBC gave a representative audience panel control of its Brexit output for one day. Could this ‘citizens juries’ type approach begin to transform our media?

Dan Hind Tom Mills
8 March 2019, 10.28am
BBC presenter Nick Robinson interviewing Theresa May

It didn’t receive much attention, but last week the BBC tried something interesting. For one day, Friday 1st March, its Brexit-related output was overseen by a representative audience panel that would, as the BBC put it, ‘control’ coverage ‘across a range of BBC News outlets’. The initiative, branded Brexit: Your Stories, was intended, the BBC said, to reflect ‘how Britain really feels about Brexit’. Kamal Ahmed, the editorial director of BBC News, was quoted as saying:

Not only will it be a very different and thought-provoking way of reporting the news that day, but it will help inform how we shape our news coverage in the future. We want our news rooms across the UK to be less a set of secret castles where, to the public, mysterious things happen. We want to open up the process and this first day is just the start.

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Does this unusual step from the BBC signal a genuine interest in organisational change? Will it be a first step in democratising its output, as the statement put it? Or was Friday’s experiment more an exercise in PR?

Time will tell. But the rather narrow focus suggests a significant motivation was to help the BBC navigate the choppy waters of Brexit reporting, which has presented enormous challenges for the broadcaster.

Impartiality in practice

As on any other contentious issue, the BBC is obliged to exercise due impartiality on Brexit. This means not taking sides, and ensuring that it represents a range of opinion across its programmes. How successful the BBC has been in its Brexit coverage is a question for future research, but on other issues its coverage has tended to be skewed towards the interests of more powerful groups and institutions. There are a number of reasons.

One is that whilst journalists and academics often claim that the BBC is independent, this is not really the case. Rather, it is best understood as a quasi-state broadcaster that enjoys editorial autonomy, whilst ultimately operating under the power of governments, which periodically renew its Charter, set the rate of the licence fee and appoint board members. This not only makes the BBC especially vulnerable to governmental pressure, it also fosters a risk averse and small ‘c’ conservative editorial and managerial culture.

The ties that bind the BBC to the state undergird a routine orientation towards powerful individuals and institutions that is typical across the news media. Large news organisations tend to develop symbiotic relationships with the people and institutions on which they report. This is evident not just in the journalist-source relations revealed in academic research, but in the movement of personnel from journalism into politics and public relations. The Prime Minister’s current Head of Communications, Robbie Gibb for example – reportedly a longstanding Brexit supporter – was recruited from the BBC where he oversaw some of its most significant political programmes.

The tendency towards convergence between news organisations and the people and institutions on which they report is probably helped by congruent class and educational backgrounds, and exacerbated by economic pressures. Whilst independent reporting – and investigative reporting in particular – is good for prestige, it is much more expensive and risky than relying on a combination of routine information flows and occasional ‘scoops’ based on leaks from, and about, intra-elite conflicts. In the case of the BBC, its size and resources should, in theory at least, compensate somewhat for such pressures. But in recent years its funding has been severely cut.

What all this means for ‘due impartiality’ is that the BBC tends to reflect opinion amongst politicians, large businesses, corporate funded think tank and other news organisations and journalists, whilst civil society organisations, like trade unions and NGOs, academic experts and the public more broadly, remain fairly marginal. This is the usual state of affairs, and is not generally recognised as a problem by the BBC or political commentators.

Brexit, however, has been different because the BBC’s usual barometer for routine, partial reporting has gone haywire. The referendum split the UK news media, the political elite and the public, whilst experts, big businesses and the broader Establishment were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. Now, with just days until Britain is due to leave the EU, there still exists no coherent government strategy and no clear consensus in Parliament on how to proceed; the usual reference points for BBC reporting. Neither does opinion polling offer any obvious route out of the impasse.

This has been dangerous ground for the BBC, which, given its geographical location, the hostility of the right-wing press and the class composition of its staff, has always felt vulnerable to the charge of elitism – not, it should be said, without good reason. It looks like concerns about perceived elitism were a significant motivation behind last week’s editorial experiment. Publicity for the initiative stated that the BBC ‘does not want its newsrooms to be seen as places of media control and conspiracy, cut off from the British people.’

Citizen juries

The tradition of public service broadcasting, pioneered by the BBC, has long been attacked for its elitist patrician ethos. Could audience panels somewhat like the one convened to inform Brexit reporting help create a more democratic system that doesn’t rely on editors and journalists as the sole arbiters of the public interest?

The idea that groups of citizens selected more or less at random – juries, mini-publics, and citizens’ assemblies, what Hélène Landemore calls ‘lottocracy’ – can play a valuable role in the conduct of public business, has made impressive gains in recent years. In large part this increased respectability derives from the achievements of the Republic of Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution and Citizens’ Assembly between 2013 and 2018. The Convention on the Constitution was made up of an appointed chairperson, 66 citizens ‘randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society’ and 33 professional politicians. The Citizens’ Assembly was more radically ‘lottocratic’ in its make-up. All of its 100 members, apart from the chairperson, were appointed by the same kind of qualified lot, although its terms of reference were more tightly circumscribed.

Far from reproducing the ‘common sense’ of an uninformed mass, citizens in both cases proved capable of high levels of sophistication and helped end decades of paralysis in the debate on social policy. They are credited with opening up a dialogue that later led to the establishment of marriage equality and the legalisation of abortion in the Republic.

It is important to stress, though, that citizen assemblies can do much more than act as a deliberative supplement when elites are fearful of taking a lead. In Ireland, after a long process of consultation, the Convention on the Constitution called for stronger protections for economic, social and cultural rights that would be enforceable in the courts. Their Eighth Report in 2014 noted, for example, that ‘it is an anomaly in the Irish Constitution that, while the right to property is protected (Art 40.3.2), no similar protection exists for the right to a home.’ So far, however, the Irish legislature has not introduced the right to a home or any of the other enhanced rights recommended by the Convention and its Eighth Report has not been much discussed outside of Ireland. But we should nevertheless register the ability of citizens convened in this way to develop an agenda that exceeds the limits of a given parliamentary consensus.

This wider impact of this autonomous power depends on the extent to which a randomly selected body is able to communicate its workings and conclusions to the wider public. Hence the particular significance of random selection in the media system broadly defined.

A step in the right direction

The BBC’s experiment was of course far less ambitious. Kamal Ahmed told Newswatch that a news conference was held the previous week to prepare some pieces and that the representative 12-person audience panel was then involved in editorial decision making on the allotted day, Friday 1st March. In the short clip released by the BBC, members of the panel are seen attending the BBC’s editorial meeting. They seemed interested and broadly satisfied with the experience, but there wasn’t much evidence in that clip of editorial oversight, and looking at news output that evening, there were no striking differences in the BBC’s reporting.

This isn’t entirely surprising. The group was small, had little time and little leeway. Its influence was limited to Brexit reporting, which meant that the overall structure of the bulletins, and the majority of the news output, remained untouched. The influence of such a panel will anyway always be somewhat limited if powers are based on the compilation of news output, which is the final stage in the production process. Arguably more significant would be to afford such panels the resources to direct reportage – to discover and uncover new information, stories and perspectives that can then find their way into news bulletins.

The potential of lottocratic bodies in a state broadcaster like the BBC can hardly be overstated. Given adequate time and resources, mini-publics could do a great deal to make discussion about matters of general concern more engaging and more serious. They would allow the public to develop new lines of inquiry and new kinds of knowledge, in a kind of partnership between a randomly selected few and the observing many.

This would give us a chance to see our fellow citizens as thoughtful, civic-minded equals, who are more than capable of weighing expert advice and developing a shared agenda. As Oliver Dowlen and Graham Smith have pointed out, in the past random selected bodies have provided a democratic check on oligarchic corruption in the state. Indeed, it is the extensive use of random selection in Athens, along with the absence of a property qualification, that made its state distinctively democratic – at least from the perspective of its male citizens.

As the BBC and the British state struggle to win back public trust, they might have no choice but to introduce the citizen body into their operations in this way so that it can effectively challenge collusion and the more subtle operations of elite self-interest.

Randomly selected bodies are not a panacea, and might not always be as sober and sensible as the ones in Ireland and elsewhere have been. By their nature they must leave something to chance. But if we want public media that is independent from politicians and the state, yet responsive to the public, they look like an invaluable component of any 21st century reform agenda. This is something we look at in more detail in our piece, ‘Media Democracy’, which can be found in openDemocracyUK’s free eBook, New Thinking for the British Economy.

Kemal Ahmed has said that ‘we really want the audience to be involved in the editorial decisions we make.’ This is to be welcomed. We hope that this recent initiative was not just a one off exercise to assist in reporting on a particularly challenging topic, and that a substantive commitment to public participation will be institutionalised across the BBC to ‘broaden, demystify and democratise’ coverage more generally.

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