The Web Estate: a response to Alan Rusbridger

The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger has published an important online overview of the ‘Fourth Estate’, and invited this response from Anthony Barnett, whose latest thoughts on the press, public service broadcasting and the BBC, the future of the web, Rupert Murdoch and democracy, argue the need for an underview
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
5 November 2010

The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger has published an important online overview of the ‘Fourth Estate’. It marks an innovation for Comment is Free. Natalie Hanman, who edits its pages describes this piece as a “long-form blog” - in which a writer is given space to explore a subject in depth.

She says this is a response both to Nick Carr’s The Shallows, which argues that the internet is driving down attention spans and human intelligence, and to contrary evidence that longer web pieces garner more readers. My first reaction was, “Déjà vu”: we started openDemocracy nearly ten years ago to run debates at length precisely to counter the superficiality of the web. We soon discovered that long, stronger pieces could gather the highest readerships. Having got that off my chest, I truly welcome the competition! If such pieces start to interlink, a new sinuous, independent culture can develop.

Alan kindly asked me to respond to his piece - a draft for a lecture he wanted to give. I cheerfully said yes only to discover that it is about: a) the press, b) public service broadcasting and the BBC, c) the future of the web, d) Rupert Murdoch and democracy. i.e. Much of my life opened up before me! So, happily stimulated, my response itself has become ‘long form’ rather than a comment. Here it is.

Alan sees a threefold division of today’s fourth estate between the press, public service broadcasters and the digital sphere. He’s not sure what to call the latter. He thinks this three-fold division of the fourth estate (he doesn’t talk about the second coming) works “quite well”. But he worries that the growth of new technology. Rightly, he sees as having originally increased pluralism. Now, he fears its expansion is threatening to destroy it. If so, should we seek government intervention to shape the outcome? Or step back and let the “digital whirlwind” do whatever it will? The dark shadow of Rupert Murdoch lies across this hugely important choice, especially in Britain where his bid for the complete ownership of BSkyB and its massive future revenues is on the table. His is the shadow of power itself – who will shape the rules, and with them our democracy?

I see it differently. Alan’s clear threefold distinction does not hold, I feel, and prompts another overview. More important I think we need an underview. Then we can get to Murdoch.

1.     The MSM

What Alan calls the press I see as the MSM, the main-stream media. (I’m only talking here about the North Atlantic experience, not, for example, India where there is a very lively press, media and blogosphere.) The MSM includes the BBC. To be sure, it is a special case within it, but it cannot be regarded as somehow a sacred or holy provider separate from the MSM. The distinguishing feature of the MSM is that they have capital, hundreds of millions. Of course, ownership of this matters, and the more open it is the better. This demands competition not oligopoly. But competition for revenues does not necessarily lead to openness. The big question about the MSM is how honest it is, how pornographic, how much it investigates and uncovers as well as entertains. These factors apply to TV and radio as much as to newspapers. 

Never forget, when it comes to the MSM in the UK that The Times was once the country’s ‘paper of record’. It was Britain’s hegemonic intelligence, its editorials ‘led’ official opinion not just the day’s paper. Its standards reinforced a culture of honour, integrity and monarchy. To be sure, in 1830 Cobbett denounced The Times for its support of the crushing of the labourers’ revolt (“the bloody old Times newspaper, which is the organ… of this hellish crew”) and so it went for a hundred years. In September 1938 it argued elegantly for appeasing Hitler. I don’t say The Times was right. Just that it was the organ of self-belief for society that believed in itself, its self-interest (naturally) and it had standards. Then it was sold to Rupert. When he was told that his expensive scoop of Hitler’s Diaries was a forgery his response was “after all, we are in the entertainment business”. Self-belief was replaced by becoming an amusement for the corporate lounge or latrine. Alas, many employed right across the MSM now believe this to be ‘where it is at’.

2.    The BBC and PSB

A subsection of the MSM is public service broadcasting or PSB. This is coverage that is subsidised in one way or another; either directly by the public (e.g. the license fee) or from regulated revenues, with a remit of providing high quality coverage irrespective of commercial returns. In the UK, public broadcasting of this kind is now almost monopolised by the BBC. Alan concedes this by heading his section on PSB simply ‘The BBC’. But they are not the same. Exceptions are Channel 4’s News and its Dispatches programme, and one could add, Sky News as it does not make money.

It is against the public interest for PSB to be utterly dominated by one large supplier. For a start it gives that supplier the illusion that it itself is the public interest.

This was the surprising and disturbing conclusion for me of the Public Service Broadcasting Forum that we ran in openDemocracy this year (strictly speaking in its UK section, OurKingdom, that I co-edit). In June the Forum held a one-day seminar at City University. We were reliably informed it had a direct impact on the BBC governors insisting on a top executive pay cut after a line of questioning from Tessa Jowell. It led me to conclude that we need a lively UK and local public service broadcasting not just because we don’t want it all to be commercial in the vulgar sense, but because we need broadcasting that has a democratic remit and is not solely owned by those linked to the interests of global corporations.

But this means we need an open, competitive (in the good sense) PSB with different providers and models getting public subsidy and justifying it. Alan writes, “the BBC represents a broader idea of ‘public space’ that is currently not very fashionable”. If so, I too am against the “fashion”. We certainly need a broad public space. But the BBC should only be a part of it, if a major one. The space and its main institution must not be one and the same. The BBC should not be its sole ‘representative’. We badly need more PSB, I agree. But it is a colossal mistake to put it into the hands of a single institution as this exposes the idea to continuous attack, thanks to the distortions of it being monopolised.

I declare an interest, at least on behalf of the team now running openDemocracy. As a not-for-profit space for public debate on global affairs with a decent track-record, openDemocracy should also qualify for some PSB support.

3.     The Web

Alan suggests that the digital sphere needs a better name than “social media”. Well, yes, it is called the web. Unless there is a massive nuclear war or accident and/or a vast sunspot electric storm, in the next fifteen to twenty years the web will become the publishing medium of everything. Everything: news, magazines, books, advertising, articles, video, music, movies, TV, shopping, education, diaries, maps, thoughts, votes, prayers, branding and ‘facetime’. You name it, the web will publish, broadcast or deliver it and in the process mash it, creating new combinations. The web will deliver to the flat screen you roll up and put in your backpack, back pocket or purse, to the watch on your wrist, to your phone, television, radio, tablet and computer.

I am not saying there will be nothing but the web, or that life will become one damn screen after another. On the contrary, life is tangible and, from paintings and paper to holding hands and body hair, it will remain stubbornly physical as well as magical. But our inhabiting the web will alter the imaginative community within which we identify ourselves and our experience of who we are. The web will be the all around, inescapable, hippodrome and forum of modern life, the venue for what Todd Gitlin rightly termed “the media torrent”, which surrounds us and carries us onwards, like it or not, with all its narcissism and pathologies.

The questions is what forms will be developed within the web? Will the MSM be able to find some that can reassert their domination online? Will new web corporations like Google gain irreversible full-spectrum dominance? Will its revenues, this is the killer question, be shared or oligopolised?

So far as state regulation is concerned the government should do the opposite and provide high speed broadband as inexpensively as possible. Our cities should have free Wi-Fi. Let citizen communicate with citizen! Trust us.

What do I mean by saying that it will be the forms within the web that will matter commercially and democratically? Hitherto, the web was a dissolvent. Users often just surf ‘the web’ and its pages. Its aggregators and feeds and now twitter and facebook, reinforced the homogenisation which this creates, by taking you directly to a page you are interested in, so that most users are often oblivious of the actual content provider. Now, however, apps give you a discreet website in a new form where you can ‘turn its pages’ easily. When I bought the Guardian app it was the first time I paid for its online content. Of course, I could have read it for free on the web from my phone. But for ease and speed, its app is better. The new ‘form’ has returned me to paying for content online in a way that feels open and not as a barrier. I think this is because I know it is freely available everywhere in the world. I am simply paying for the much more convenient form, assured that it is not closed to any member of the global public who can go on line. 

I am not predicting how far this change will go. It could be, for example, that publishers create a stable form of controlled streaming that prevents downloading altogether. I am simply illustrating that the forms invented and developed within the web will be decisive in terms of revenue, even if we don’t yet know what these will be.

Which means that the coming ubiquity and domination of the web as the combined medium of all publishing and broadcasting certainly does not mean that less plurality is inevitable, as Alan suggests. It could well mean there will be more. I believe there could be more. The battle, however, will be fought out on its virtual terrain. There will be no other that matters.

The Underview

Along with his predecessor Peter Preston, Alan Rusbridger has overseen the transformation of a provincial English newspaper into a major national one and now, with a brilliant web version, into a world site in the English language. With the BBC going clumsily downmarket with its redesign of its website, chasing views rather than providing an authoritative public resource, if Rusbridger’s team hold their nerve and go up market, (e.g. with long-form blogs) they may deservedly become a world leader for online current affairs. This is an extraordinary achievement for a group that is big but not huge in a brutally competitive environment.

Nonetheless, it ensures that Alan looks at the media from the point of view of a provider. His view is, so to speak, from above. There is another perspective: the viewpoint of a citizen who wants to have an influence and deserves to. How can they have their voice heard or their interest expressed in a way that maximises its potential influence? For example, their judgment might be right (as when, for example, the majority of British public opinion judged the invasion of Iraq to be misconceived and were right, even though almost the whole MSM wrongly supported the government).

How can users make sure that the media and the use of the web is honest and open, combats vested interests and does not prevent self-government? Will the web belong to us or to them?

There are three things I want to say about this here: it allows me to reflect on the experience of openDemocracy; to defend bloggers and social media from attack; and third, to raise the need for organisation.


We started planning openDemocracy in late 1999 when the insufferable closure of Blair’s Britain and his embrace of corporate populism and the ‘Washington consensus’ was…. insufferable. We launched, without the funds we needed, in May 2001 and when 9/11 happened we gained a significant, genuinely global readership, which may have churned but which openDemocracy has never lost.

One way of describing what openDemocracy is trying to do is that it seeks to provide a democratic counterpoint to the Economist. The Economist is a world current affairs magazine that also takes both nations and international issues seriously. But its style is to tell you what to think and its role is to support the global regime of finance and corporate capital from an intelligent perspective. It is also very well marketed.

openDemocracy wants its readers to think for themselves, in a critical way that connects to the issues that are reshaping our world. Take a recent article by Michael Edwards on knowledge and change. Here is a quote:

“The new game in town”, says the Washington Monthly “is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which decisions are made, which means funding everything from think tanks to issue ads to phoney grassroots pressure groups.” Once that is accomplished, ideology can be turned into knowledge, and knowledge that challenges ideology can be discounted. You can use the same frame to interpret any current hot-button debate, for and against the second ‘Green Revolution in Africa’, for example, or the costs and benefits of market-based strategies for poverty-reduction.

It is a long article. Over 3,000 people have read it on openDemocracy, which isn’t bad.  It will be reproduced elsewhere as oD publishes in Creative Commons. It was also a keynote at a Knowledge and Change Conference at the Hague. But it has not yet generated the kind of debate I feel it deserves. The web makes it possible to create unconventional centres of publishing. But can they be influential? openDemocracy has achieved the distinction of becoming a small but respected world brand - but not yet an influential one.

The point I am trying to make, perhaps clumsily, emerges from Alan’s sweeping Cudlipp Lecture in January. This sets out how the Guardian’s influence has been turbocharged by the web. The example of how Alan turned to Twitter to sweep away without legal costs Carter Ruck’s injunction over Transfigura’s toxic assault on the Ivory Coast, is particularly sweet. Especially as it was an attempt to prevent quoting a speech in Parliament. But this kind of appeal to the web and its mobilisation rests on the Guardian being open and not behind a paywall. The investigation itself, however, cost money. Revenues are essential, without them there would be no original story. Here is the opportunity-problem for the MSM in the age of the web. For those who are not part of the MSM there is the added issue of how to be influential when you deserve to be. The web on its own will rarely deliver this. You need capital in the first place to exercise influence.

One form of capital is the pre-existence of a real-life community. You can see this in the international networks and e-lists of global specialisms, from motorbike fanciers to academics. The web has greatly increased the intensity and extended the reach of such communities of choice and made them more open to originality and newcomers. Within them, relative outsiders can exercise deserved influence as hierarchy is dissolved. But there isn’t a global public or ‘community’ in the way that there are specialist and national ones. Millions work on issues that are global and even share wider planetary preoccupations. But they have other primary identities before they think of themselves as citizens of the world. Perhaps now that protectionist forces are once again gathering strength, people may start to feel the shared need for global publications like openDemocracy to strengthen international culture. But oD presumed a natural ‘global’ community that could shape its influence, and as James Curran and Tamara Witschge have argued in New Media, Old News, it is the national that has predominated.

I wrestled with this as the first Editor of openDemocracy. I organised it in the only way I knew, by transferring a traditional, centralised print model of a magazine onto the web. We sought to make this viable and the Ford Foundation made a generous loan, though oD remained undercapitalised. As many others have found, content could not generate the revenue to cover costs, the business model didn’t wash. In 2007 Tony Curzon Price took over from me as Chief Executive and Editor-in-Chief. He shredded costs by building the web into the way openDemocracy itself is published while throwing it open to a federal model of independent sections (Susan Richards, one of my fellow founders, now co-edits the Russia section, for example). He introduced rotating front-page editors who may be anywhere in the world. He made openDemocracy, in Emily Bell’s phrase “of the web not simply on the web”, transforming the internal organisation of its publishing process as well – using the internet to do much more than revolutionise the transmission of content.

openDemocracy is not yet financially viable but thanks to Tony it is no longer doomed. Thanks to the web, forms and cultures (including donations) may develop to ensure its financial independence. I suspect that only when it can pay its way and pay contributors will it become a recognised centre of influence.

Social Media

Which brings me to social media. Alan quotes Gladwell’s patronising views on Twitter as generating only “weak” communities that won’t create lasting change. Unlike….? Social networking can be stupid and it can also be smart (see Iran). It isn’t a substitute for human organisation and face-to-face meetings but it can help to achieve them. It is accelerating politics and popular movements, not replacing them (see Guy Aitchison on the promise of the recent Vodafone mobilisations).

Most critiques of the web, like Gladwell’s, commit synecdoche time after time. One little part is blown out of proportion and then the whole condemned for having an inflated idea of itself. Thus Andrew Marr, now a doyen of the mainstream media and a one-man vested interest, assaults bloggers with unhinged vituperation.  I agree that, for example, many blog comments are as horrid as Marr’s self-indulgent explosion. They fail to listen, distinguish and engage. Anonymous commenting is a huge driver of this. Mariam Cook made the best possible support of it in CiF. Saying anonymity 

gives us the freedom to know what people really think, for better or for worse. It is the essence of democracy for us to be able to conduct the difficult debates out in the open,

I disagree. It gives people unaccountable ability to not think at all, while polluting public discourse. But crude anonymous commentators are the pimples and bottom rash on a fast growing baby. The web itself will find ways of marginalising them.

There is another kind of blogger that riles MSM figures like Marr, exemplified by Guido Fawkes aka Paul Staines. He is no admirer of the kind of politics I like but he surely demonstrates the positive potential of the web. Even if he hoovers up material from the Red Top news desks they dare not publish, he works hard and does his research. Take, for example, his scoop on 15 October when he published the bondholders in the Anglo Irish Bank, including Goldman Sachs, and demanding to know why the Irish state stepped into save “a bank that was basically run by crooks lending to property speculators. The Irish people are taking losses that should rightly have been shouldered by bondholders.”

This post was a public service and a very big story. It got a small but well deserved follow up in the Financial Times and should have got much wider coverage (for the larger meaning see the introduction to Fintan O’Toole’s gripping Enough is Enough).

The debate that matters about the web and social media is taking place on the web itself and within its social networks. It is about standards, openness, protocols, integrity and trust as well as innovation, exposure and investigation. The problem with outside critics is that they don’t see the web as the home of the extraordinary learning experience that it is.

The need for organisation

The physical world is what matters. If we want influence then we have to organise. No one seriously expects the spontaneous overthrow of vested interests thanks to massed virtual chirping. Especially as those interests are themselves spending hard to ensure domination over the web. The micro-chip is altering what it means to be human as our identity takes on a digital form and expression. But the emphasis here is on altering. This is not the same as replacing and the old and fundamental battles will continue – fought out in the new media as it finds ways of organising on the ground.

Rupert Murdoch

Which brings me to Rupert Murdoch and my conclusion. I agree that Murdoch should be prevented from buying all of BSkyB in the UK. I think it will be good for us to say “boo” even though it will make little difference to him. David Elstein, who is the Chair of the openDemocracy board, has argued convincingly that there is no technical reason why Murdoch should be stopped. He agrees with the Guardian’s Peter Preston on this. It does not affect plurality of opinion. Sky News could always be shut down anyway as it is a money loser. But there is a larger issue. Nick Davies’s revelations over Coulson’s role in the News of the World phone tapping scandal, now followed up by the New York Times and the Dispatches exposure of the intimidation of a parliamentary committee by the News of the World, reveal a form of gangster behaviour which must be stopped. Drawing a line now will help to achieve this. It matters less where the line is than demonstrating that a potential monopolistic predator can’t have it all his own way.

But at the same time I am very reluctant to agree with the newspaper proprietors and the Director General of the BBC who have signed a joint letter opposing the takeover. There is a ‘bogy- isation’ of Murdoch. It projects onto him faults that lie with the accusers. He has often got where he has because of the feebleness of the British establishment. Opponents of the Australian-American tycoon should not line up in support of the status quo as the only alternative to him. Instead we need to go on the offensive over the baleful influence of page 3, assert the need for public standards in private media, and condemn the BBC for its cashing in on private sector salaries and expenses, its regressive and incompetent license fee funding and its broken spirit after Greg Dyke was purged for questioning the Iraq war. Instead of the Corporation caving in to a lifetime of underfunding as it seems to have, while Sky expands (whether not Murdoch owns 100 per cent), we should call for its trustees to be elected by its real funders, the public. Its independence should be in the hands of those who really want its standards to be protected: its listeners and viewers.

Alan asks if we need a wider public service media. Of course we do, but it needs to be a democratic one, mixing private initiative with citizen support, drawing on varieties of public funding not just one. The government should serve the public in this way, not seek to define or regulate us while remaining permissive of corporate power. The web is an ideal medium for moving in this direction. 


This piece was originally published as comments in the Guardian's Comment is Free, on November 5, 2010

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