The Media, the crisis, and the crisis in media

The financial crisis and a series of aggressive wars have demonstrated beyond doubt how prevailing forms of media ownership in the west serve to buttress the power of elites and marginalise alternatives to the status quo. A system of public commissioning, which gives citizens the power to decide which issues are the subject of journalistic investigation, has the potential to reframe the terms of debate and make policy-making more democratic and accountable.
Dan Hind
25 October 2010

The financial crisis and a series of aggressive wars have demonstrated beyond doubt how prevailing forms of media ownership in the west serve to buttress the power of elites and marginalise alternatives to the status quo. In his new book, The Return of the Public, Dan Hind argues that a system of public commissioning, which gives citizens the power to decide which issues are the subject of journalistic investigation, has the potential to reframe the terms of debate and make policy-making more democratic and accountable.

Writing in the early days of the twentieth century the great anti-imperialist J.A. Hobson complained that a ‘small body of men’ had secured popular support for an aggressive war in South Africa ‘by the simple device of securing all important avenues of intelligence and using them to inject into the public mind a continuous stream of false and distorted information’. In The Psychology of Jingoism (1901), Hobson explains how those who relied on the media for their information about South Africa were subjected to something like an advertising campaign for the necessity and nobility of war.

In their efforts to win over an indifferent and pacific people, the advocates of war didn’t hesitate to inflame racial prejudice, to the point of encouraging a kind of genocidal fervour. One paper – the Indian Planter’s Gazette aptly caught the imperial mood:

Not only should the Boer be slain but slain with the same ruthlessness that they slay a plague-infected rat.

The Boers, in modern parlance, were terrorists. They relied on sinister foreign subsidies, flouted the rules of civilized warfare and deserved everything they got. At one point the Daily Telegraph was calling on the military to shoot any armed Boer not wearing a uniform. There were specious tales of a Dutch conspiracy against British power in South Africa. Constant repetition, rather than a careful assessment of the facts, secured general assent. Hobson writes:

Many persons are convinced that there was a Boer conspiracy, and can even tell you what it was and what it aimed at, in the same manner as they are convinced that Colman’s is the best mustard, and Bryant and May’s the best matches.

When it looked as though people might start to see the connections between imperial policy and the interests of a few mining magnates, the press suddenly discovered a keen humanitarian concern for the people of South Africa. The press dealt in emotion – sometimes pity, sometimes righteous fury. The content of the emotion mattered less than its capacity to engage the readers’ attention without the need to offer rational and morally defensible explanations for what was going on.

The system Hobson describes is recognisably the system of modern warfare. Small numbers of men, and they are still mostly men, can secure popular support for war through the steady injection of false and distorted information into the major avenues of intelligence. Atrocities – real and imagined – serve as cues for campaigns of misinformation on a grand scale.

Reviewing the polling data from the year before the invasion of Iraq, three academics, Evan Lewis, Clay Ramsay and Steven Kull found that popular support for the war in the United States correlated closely with false beliefs – about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, about his involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and about the levels of international support for a US assault on the country (see Media Power in Politics, ed. Doris A Graber, 2007). They concluded -

… the administration, by giving incorrect information, can gain support for policies that might not be consistent with the preferences held by the majority of Americans.

Voltaire put it somewhat more succinctly -

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Humanitarian concern remains a useful auxiliary, especially when dealing with pesky liberals. The suffering of women and minorities in countries declared hostile by the West becomes a matter of sudden, pressing concern. The suffering of women and minorities in countries that do what they are told remains an under-reported fact of life, a cultural matter – not something that sophisticated people waste time on.

In modern times terrorism and the threat of terrorism have become extremely important as background justifications for military intervention around the world. The spectacular attacks on New York and Washington ushered in the current era of war, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. But nothing about the attacks themselves made the events that followed inevitable. The administration could have treated them as a crime and sought to bring the culprits to justice through the institutions of law. Such a response would have differed in important respects from the administration’s preferred course.

As it is, senior figures in the US administration disagreed about the use they could make of the attacks. While a consensus rapidly cohered around an attack on Afghanistan in partnership with the Northern Alliance, Donald Rumsfeld wanted to widen the immediate response to include Iraq. On the afternoon of 9/11 he wrote that he wanted ‘best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL’. The notes continued

         Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.

The following day Rumsfeld still wanted to attack Iraq. According to Richard Clarke he was to be heard complaining in a meeting at the White House that ‘there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq’. An unnerving insight into military planning in the era of humanitarian intervention.

The meaning of a terrorist event does not establish itself automatically. Nothing speaks for itself. The decision to treat the 9/11 attacks as a military event was not inscribed in the attacks – it was a matter of deliberate choice. Rumsfeld wanted to go further. But his desire to use 9/11 as a chance to blow things up in Iraq was closely related to the desire of others in the administration to start projecting American power more directly in Central Asia. The invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan and later Iraq were made politically possible by 9/11 – it was not an inevitable result of 9/11. As Rumsfeld demanded, the administration did eventually sweep it all up, things unrelated and not.

Indeed the declaration of a Global War on Terror by the American administration in 2001 should be understood as part of a decision to shape and exploit popular sentiment in order to pursue a set of long-desired outcomes at home and in the wider world.

Now the ability of the American administration to use 9/11 as it did – as a justification for attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan – depended crucially on the status of what Hobson called ‘the important avenues of intelligence’ and what we would call the mainstream media. And as we have seen in recent years, the ability of powerful interests to mislead the great bulk of the population, including many of those who pride themselves on their critical independence, remains largely undiminished.

The silence and dissimulation that surround decisions about peace and war can be broken, to be sure. Thanks to the efforts of independent researchers and publishers it is possible to understand more of what is going on behind the veil of official secrecy than ever before.

A few of us have the time and independence of mind to make full use of these new opportunities. Many more of us have some sense that the Afghan regime we are supporting is profoundly corrupt. We have a notion of the ways in which foreign occupation radicalises people. We know that it is irrational to seek military solutions to Islamic militancy – militancy driven in no small part by Western patterns of intervention and accommodation in the region. We might even know that the West usually supports the biggest drug dealers in Asia it can find.

Yet for all the virtues of the alternative media, and of elements of the mainstream press, the established powers can still exert enormous influence over what much of the population believe for much of the time. Indeed political leaders are often able to dismiss well-founded challenges to their policies without engaging with them seriously. As Jodi Dean points out, ‘criticism doesn’t require an answer because it doesn’t stick as criticism’ (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, 2009).  Attempts to challenge the widely broadcast and published version of events can be brushed aside as just more bits of wackiness on the web. Even when many people find the views of the alternative media persuasive, they have precious little reason to believe that other people share their point of view.

And so new technology, and the new publishers seeking to use it to challenge official mendacity, do not seriously disrupt the placid recycling of American and British justifications for invasion and occupation in the mass media. At the moment the possibility of Mumbai-style terror attacks in Europe is being used as a reason to increase the number of drone attacks in Northwest Pakistan. Perhaps the threat is genuine – few of us are able to judge. But to imagine that yet more, supposedly targeted, killings, with all their collateral carnage, will deliver lasting security is to do no more than to accept a claim on the basis of frequent repetition.


War as a Media Event

Ever since governments have relied on public support for legitimacy, war has been closely linked to the news and entertainment business. It is veterans from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to persuade the American people to join the Allies in World War I who create the modern public relations industry (See Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin). Since then the masters of the information dark arts have constantly flitted between government and the worlds of private wealth, seeking to make public perceptions safe for the established powers.

If we want to challenge war effectively – if we want to set aside arbitrary violence and take up justice as the means by which we resolve disputes – then we must start to think much more carefully about the structure of information provision.

It is easy to notice the power of owners in this context. Among the fiercely independent men and women who edit News International’s 170 newspapers not one took the view that the invasion of Iraq would be illegal or even ill-advised. Hobson again had the measure of editorial independence in 1901:

Mr Garrett is indignant when the impartiality and independence of his position have been called into question: he has had an absolutely free hand and this was a condition of his employment. The same is the case with Mr Moneypenny . . . What is the real worth of the protestations of these gentlemen? The answer is plain. When these editors were appointed, it was ascertained that they favoured the policy of the proprietors, and that they would likely work vigorously along the desired lines; if they departed from those lines they would be dismissed from their post and other editors appointed who would write what was wanted.

Mr Garrett and Mr Moneypenny are now long forgotten but their indignation can still be heard when senior journalists insist that no one tells them what to write. And their heirs are as right as they were – no one does tell them what to write. They owe their position precisely to the fact that no one has to.

But the obvious and demeaning power exerted by Rupert Murdoch’s New International in both Britain and the United States should not however blind us to the wider problem in the media. There are, after all, still alternatives to Fox News and The Sun.

We should be clear about the shortcomings of almost all the existing sources of information. The institutions that represent reality to the population are themselves profoundly unrepresentative. And while claiming to hold power to account they are themselves profoundly unaccountable.

And this is true of public service broadcasters, as well as private media conglomerates. Certainly the BBC strives to maintain a balance between different points of view. But it takes its cue from the distribution of seats in the House of Parliament, not from any objective assessment of reality. The BBC cannot simply promote fantastical ideas that confirm the wacky prejudices of an eccentric owner. But if the institutions of established power have come to a settled consensus then the BBC cannot be trusted to challenge that consensus with any energy or tenacity.

So, when the government and the opposition agreed to support America’s invasion of Iraq, the BBC proved markedly less likely to broadcast dissenting opinions than the commercial networks. This is Professor Justin Lewis's summary of his research into media coverage before and during the war. He writes:

… we asked which of the four channels was most likely to use the British government as a source. The answer, it turns out, is the BBC - where the proportion of government sources was twice that of ITN and Channel 4 News. The BBC was also a little more likely to use British military sources in its coverage than the other three channels.

When it comes to reporting the other side, on the other hand, the BBC was much more cautious. Sky and Channel 4 were both much more likely than the BBC to quote official Iraqi sources. The BBC was also less likely than the other three channels to use independent sources like the Red Cross - many of whom were critical of the war effort (Channel 4 used such sources three times more often than the BBC, Sky twice as often).

It would be a mistake, too, to imagine that British coverage of the war and its preamble were somehow more balanced than that provided by the American mass media. In another study Mark Ward concluded that:

… the BBC gave least airtime to anti-war views with just 2% of airtime given over to opponents of the war. By contrast the American ABC gave 7% of airtime over to anti-war views. (Quoted in Lost in Cyberspace, William Bowles)

When governments depend on mass support in order to wage war, the domestic communications system becomes central to the military-strategic effort. As it is currently organized the communications systems in Britain and the United States are intensely vulnerable to manipulation by powerful interests – this is true in many fields, not least in matters of war and peace. If we want to see an end to wars of aggression, then we must act to reduce this vulnerability.


The Current Structure of the Media

At present the media can be divided up as follows -

1.) Commercial media companies in broadcasting, newspaper and book publishing (mostly large corporations, though there is one trust-controlled player, the Guardian group).

2.) A public service broadcaster and communications operator, the BBC in the UK. National Public Radio and PBS in the United States.  

3.) Public interest journalism supported by foundations – for example the Center for Public Integrity and the Nation Institute in the United States, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism in the UK.

4.) Social media, blogs and online publishing by companies, NGOs, and individuals.

This media ecology has changed greatly in recent years, in ways that are difficult to summarise. On the one hand there has been considerable consolidation in the traditional media, on the other hand the internet has greatly enhanced the ability of individuals and organizations to communicate directly with an audience. Citizen journalists and bloggers have repeatedly broken stories missed by the mainstream media. Rumsfeld’s notes immediately after the 9/11 attacks, for example, were made public after a blogger successfully secured them through the Freedom of Information Act.

But it remains the case that the overwhelming bulk of media power – that is, the power to direct resources towards particular investigations and the power to reach audiences with the results of these investigations – the bulk of media power is in the hands of the owners and senior employees of private companies subject to market forces and in the hands of individuals working for the state broadcaster.

What is clear is that the current arrangements have not been able to prevent the population as a whole from being exposed to – and quite often persuaded by – claims that are not true. Any tally of media failures has to include Iraq, of course. It should also include the coverage of the financial sector over the last 30 years or so. Financialization, deregulation, and the reorganization of the enterprise have all taken place to a background of steady applause from the major media. In the face of escalating criminality – most glaringly in the mortgage markets - the same media maintained a dignified silence.

As far as I can tell, to the extent that anyone acknowledges this, commentators offer three responses.

One is to say that journalists just have to try harder.  They have to be more suspicious of official claims, less willing to take things on trust. Given how hard journalists already work – how understaffed newsrooms now are, and how much pressure individuals are under to churn press releases into publishable copy, it seems borderline cruel to offer this up as a serious response to the problems in the media. It is important to note too that resistance to powerful interests has serious consequences – that’s what being powerful means. Anyone can dismiss the claims of an individual or a small NGO. Refusing to accept official guidance on matters of peace and war is a different matter.

Still, ‘must try harder’ is the considered view of the head of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – John Lloyd – so I guess it is close to what other senior figures in the industry think. Everything will be fine if journalists take their jobs just a little bit more seriously.

The second response is to say that the online media have changed – or are changing – everything. I am skeptical about this, too. While online publishing makes it possible for informed commentators and citizen journalists to reach a public without having to make it through various editorial filters – and this is a major advance for individuals who want to develop a more sophisticated understanding of controversial topics – this kind of publishing depends overwhelmingly on unpaid labour. Given the costs of serious investigative journalism, the notion that one can rely on volunteers is flattering, perhaps, but it is unrealistic.

Furthermore, access to a mass audience still largely depends on support from conventional media operations. Consider the Parliamentary expenses scandal – a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke, was pursuing the story for years but it was the Telegraph’s decision to buy the data and splash the contents on successive front pages that drove the issue on to the national agenda.

The final suggested response is to rely more on foundation funding to do the heavy investigative work. This is a doubtful proposition for an interesting reason. At the moment, as I say, the overwhelming bulk of media power is in the hands of employees and owners. Foundation funding doesn’t change this in any fundamental sense. The individuals responsible for directing investigative resources will still be beholden to their employers and, ultimately, to those providing the funds. As I outline in The Return of the Public, the major foundations in the United States have proven very successful in promoting a kind of ‘sophisticated conservatism’ in social science. There is no reason to think that they will not do the same in journalism. 


Reform in the Shape of Public Commissioning

Clearly the media are in crisis. But if the current system doesn’t work, and the widely circulated proposals for reform won’t make a significant difference, what should we do? In The Return of the Public I make the case for a system of public commissioning. Instead of relying exclusively on professional commissioning editors all citizens take some responsibility for directing journalistic inquiry ourselves. 

In a system of public commissioning citizens would, collectively and equally, make decisions about the allocation of resources to journalists and researchers. Each of us would be able to provide a certain amount of material support for projects that we wanted to see funded.

The details of how this is organized hold the potential for a tremendous amount of mischief, of course, and I talk about some of the possible pitfalls in the book; but the principle is clear.

Each citizen should have an equal say in how public money is used to support journalism in the public interest. There is no need for a separate group of editorial decision-makers to stand between the commissioning audience and the investigating journalist.

Public commissioning of this kind will have four important effects -

First, it would widen the realm of civic equality, in which market relations are suspended or heavily qualified, and allow individuals otherwise silenced or excluded to address others on matters of common concern as fellow citizens.

Second, civic action in conditions of equality – the process of securing greater popular control over the climate of opinion – will make further participation seem less daunting or pointless. The practice of debate and deliberation, and the experience of changing the field of publicity, will provide us all with an education in self-government.

Third, the very uneven distribution of the power to describe constitutes an important source of distress. Social disparagement takes place through images and stories, and public commissioning would give everyone the power to challenge the claims made about minorities, women, the young, and the poor. Face to face assembly, on the other hand, builds trust and encourages solidarity.

Fourth, and most importantly, by giving the general population the means to inquire into the nature of social arrangements, public commissioning could provide the facts, and the publicity for those facts, that constitute the only sure basis for political change. Public commissioning could be a device for exploring matters that are currently ignored or grossly distorted in mainstream coverage.

The most important areas are, to my mind, the nature of conflict worldwide and the structure of global political economy and its impact on human welfare and security. At the moment the coverage of these matters is demonstrably inadequate. If those who are already concerned about them can organize to support inquiry into them the content of widely held beliefs about peace and war, for example, will change quite rapidly.

To fund this system of public commissioning a sum of money could be taken from tax revenues or from licence fees and allocated to regional trusts. Journalists, academics and citizen researchers would post proposals for funding with these trusts. These proposals would be made available online and in print in libraries and elsewhere. Applicants would outline the purposes of the inquiry, the time frame and the resources needed. The public would then vote for the proposals that it wanted to support. These proposals might range from the hyper-local to the transnational in scope. Each citizen would have the same power to allocate resources. Each round of voting would be preceded by a series of public meetings, at which those seeking support would be free to make their case and to answer questions from the interested population. Those pitching for funds would make the case for the investigations they wanted to conduct, giving as much detail as they thought consistent with their objectives. These formal presentations could be supplemented by meetings of ‘unofficial publics’ where those seeking to raise awareness of particular concerns might prepare proposals. Meetings would also be held to discuss the content of reports once they are completed and to assess the prominence they should be given in subsequent forms of publication.

The results of inquiries could also be made available to commercial and state-owned broadcasters and publishers. But the public that commissioned the stories would also determine how much and what kinds of publicity each received in the channels of communication it controlled. The key point would be that the decision to investigate, and the decision to publicize the findings of investigations, would no longer be in the exclusive control of employees and private owners. Instead the general population would decide on the basis of a series of votes. In this way, the means would finally be made available for individuals to initiate investigations that touch on matters of deep general concern but that cannot secure support in the existing commissioning institutions.

The requirement that journalists set out the terms of the investigations they want to pursue promotes a discussion among citizens about the kinds of new information they would value. The citizen body comes into being through the conversation among equals; it is not the more or less idealised object of the professional editor’s imaginings or calculations.

At the moment enormous effort goes into more or less sincere efforts to figure out what the existing readership or audience of a particular publication will find engaging. The aim of public commissioning is not to satisfy defined demographics but to provide the conditions for a general transformation. The act of deliberation, as much as the eventual product of that deliberation, promotes this transformation by allowing us to orientate the private world of sentiment with the public world of fact.

All that sounds kind of abstract. How would it work in practice?

In Britain the population pays an annual licence to receive broadcast television. This raises some £3.4 billion annually. The BBC currently sets aside 3.5 per cent of this to cover the costs of the transfer to digital provision. In 2009 the Labour government proposed that this 3.5 per cent of license fee revenue, amounting to around £120 million per year, be used to provide a replacement for commercial television’s regional news service. However, the head of Ofcom, Ed Richards, has previously indicated that a ‘straight replacement’ for ITV regional news would cost between £40 and £60 million annually. My proposal then, is that the balance of the money, some £80 million, should be controlled by the population as a whole, through a system of participatory commissioning. This would give the population enough money to pay the equivalent of 3,000 journalists and researchers a basic annual salary of £24,000 to work full-time on matters of interest and concern to the general population.

In the system of public commissioning I propose, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and each English region would have a statutory body that holds and disperses the funds to researchers and publishes the results. They would also organize open meetings at which applicants could make presentations and answer questions both before and after investigations. The companies providing regional news on the independent television networks could be mandated to publish the results of publicly funded research, according to priorities established by those active in the commissioning process and in the process of debate following each round of inquiry.

Newspapers currently published by local government could also be required to carry stories, in line with a vote by the relevant publics. Where large-scale commercial operators or the BBC make extensive use of publicly generated material, they would be charged and the resulting income shared between the journalists and researchers responsible and the public commissioning bodies that sponsored their original work. Small-scale private publishers could use the same material at very low cost or for free. Publicly generated material would in this way support a rich network of community-run news outlets, employee-owned ventures and private start-ups.

There are between 75 and 100 full-time investigative researchers working in Britain. At the moment they are all dependent on professional commissioning editors for their income and for their access to an audience. The system I propose would make it possible for the population to support around 250 full-time investigative journalists and researchers in each region and devolved nation.

These journalists would be motivated not to please editors but to build working bases of support for themselves. Some might concentrate on particular geographical areas, some on particular kinds of inquiry. But all would have a direct incentive to work closely with people who could provide support for their applications for further work. Reputations would be established on the basis of service to the general population. Investigative skills would migrate towards matters where substantial numbers of people expressed interest. Journalists working throughout Britain would have an opportunity to develop national and global, as well as regional, fields of expertise. National institutions, the EU and institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Bank of International Settlements would all become available to sustained scrutiny from non-metropolitan researchers and their sponsoring audiences. Journalists working at a regional level would be able to follow a story nationally, transnationally and offshore.

Not only that, successful and energetic investigators already working as citizen journalists could secure the means to support themselves. A track record of success would provide the grounds for securing funds. This in turn would enable people to build their reputations and to expand the scope and ambition of their operations.

The media themselves would become objects of sustained inquiry, if the general population so wished. At the moment a few wealthy foundations complain noisily about liberal bias in the mainstream media. This causes some thoughtful journalists to worry that maybe they are too reflexively leftwing and too ready to reject conservative ideas and analysis. The scrutiny that exists largely pushes journalists away from a sober assessment of their own ideological commitments and towards a romantic fantasy in which they are too adversarial, too freethinking, too damned brave for their own good.

To repeat – those areas that are currently under-researched would be available to independent inquiry in a way that is not possible in the current system. Environmental groups, campaigning NGOs and movements in civil society would have the motive and the means to develop an investigative agenda and to share the results of their work through mainstream news channels.


The Implications of Public Commissioning

The public do not have the means to form their own opinions. They rely on unaccountable professionals to provide them with the information they need for democratic citizenship. This reliance led directly to a series of financial crises that most of us still don’t understand, and to a series of foreign wars that also remain mysterious.

Public commissioning gives us a motive to cooperate with others to develop and promote and investigative agenda – we can act with a degree of confidence that the information we uncover will find a wider public. It also gives us the means to do so, by giving each of us some degree of commissioning and publishing power that we can aggregate with others as we wish.

We can all see that there are major problems with the general state of opinion. Most of us have only the haziest idea of what powerful institutions and individuals are up to. We have our suspicions about the way things are organized but we have precious little incentive to find out more – if we do manage to gain a better grasp of the nature of the state we find ourselves estranged from generally accepted assumptions and vulnerable to all kinds of accusations. We will sound paranoid – we might even make ourselves paranoid. Isolation and political research are not a great combination.

The aim of a revived politics is to make power permeable to truth. At present the power of truth is little more than the power to derail the individual.

Once we create the means to connect free inquiry with social engagement – once we open up the possibility of aligning general opinion with an accurate account of the world – then the possibilities multiply. Our current arrangements, from the distribution of wealth to the objectives of scientific research, all currently rest on current levels of popular engagement and understanding. As we all begin to understand the world more clearly, and as we establish the means to share that understanding, we begin to change the scope of acceptable controversy, we shift what it is possible to assert without evidence, we make new kinds of collective action possible.

The intellectual culture will be transformed by investigation that is answerable only to a sponsoring public. Writing after the Iraq invasion, the late Tony Judt marveled at the collapse of mainstream liberal culture in the United States and the willingness of influential centrists to support President Bush’s foreign adventures. When leftists complained that they hadn’t been taken in, Judt pointed out that he was only talking about ‘intellectuals with significant public influence or readership, i.e. those who mattered’. At a critical moment the intellectuals who mattered were made to accept the definitions of reality imposed by a state hellbent on war. It is time to ensure that the intellectuals who matter are the ones who keep faith with the truth – public commissioning gives us the means to do that.

The world stands ready to be transformed. It must only be understood.

Dan Hind's The Return of the Public is published by Verso. Dan Hind will be talking about the ideas in his new book on Monday, 25 October at King's Place, London

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