17 March, 2011 — Return of the Public
I am going to talk for between twenty minutes and half an hour and then we’ll have a fair amount of time for questions and discussion. It is always disappointing when you go to a talk and hear someone talking at great length about the need for free and open debate for 58 minutes, leaving 2 minutes for questions.
So – tonight I want to make and try to defend two, related claims about the performance of the English-language mass media. First I am going to argue that mainstream media coverage is badly flawed.
Media coverage does not conform to a rationally defensible order of priorities – it focuses neurotically on the inconsequential and ignores matters of pressing common concern. Furthermore what coverage there is of important matters is disastrously inadequate.
Secondly I am going argue that these problems are structural in nature. They are unlikely to be solved by the efforts of heroic individuals or by a change of personnel. Rather the failures of mainstream coverage are the product of the power relations that exist within broadcasters and publishers and the power relations between those institutions and other powerful interests – the state, other companies, the market.
As a result the media cannot be relied to provide us with accurate, relevant and timely information when doing so would cause problems for powerful established interests.
(By the way, I am using the term ‘mainstream media’ to refer to those channels that provide most people with most of their information – the broadcast networks, newspapers and their websites, large book publishers. Despite the rise of alternative networks, a relative handful of institutions produce most of the data about current events that most of us rely on. Anyone who thinks that the new media will change that fundamentally should reflect for a moment on the fact that AOL has just bought the Huffington Post.)
Finally I am going to sketch reforms of the underlying structure of power in the media – reforms that democratise the process by which information is gathered and shared.
The reforms I have in mind render publicity public for the first time. They make the creation of the news agenda transparent and they make it something that the public collaborate to produce themselves.
As such they are anathema to those who currently control the general field of what is widely known.
The Major Media Are Failing
So media coverage doesn’t conform to a rationally defensible order of priorities. Furthermore, when it does notice matters of pressing public interest, it is often hopelessly inadequate.
If one considers coverage in quantitative terms, mainstream media treatment of subjects makes little sense. Consider one example. In January 2008 the global economy was still struggling to cope with the fallout from the collapse of the US real estate market. In the offices of Associated Press in Los Angeles the assistant bureau chief summed up the prevailing wisdom in much of the commercial media:
Now and for the foreseeable future, virtually everything involving Britney is a big deal.
The AP archive has more than 1800 stories about Britney Spears in its archive. Everything involving Britney was a big deal. To take another word beginning with B at random, the same archive has included the word ‘Bilderberg’ in five articles in the last decade.
This focus on celebrity is sometimes explained with reference to market forces. People want to know about Britney, so the news operations hasten to oblige.
But when the major media do notice consequential matters they are often unreliable or downright deceptive.
Let’s take two examples. First the invasion of Iraq.
US government claims before the war were often dubious, as in the case of Iraqi weapons programs. Sometimes they were demonstrably untrue, as in the conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington.
Nevertheless, American media passed these claims on, and embellished them, in such a way that very many people were profoundly misinformed. The irrationality here resides in the decision to take claims on faith from sources that had a clear reason to be unreliable. At critical moments the much-vaunted analytical rigour of the major media gives way to a kind of stenography.
And the media’s failure to challenge state misinformation had profound consequences.
Reviewing the polling data from the year before the invasion of Iraq 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.
Their research 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.
This is a polite way of saying that the Bush administration was able to secure support for the war it wanted by feeding the population with the fantasies it thought would be appealing.
The media were unable to prevent them. Indeed the media often collaborated enthusiastically. Though individual news outlets often performed admirably, the general tenor of coverage left the key public hopelessly in the dark.
Writing in the early years of the 20th century, J.A. Hobson described how 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, 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. Constant repetition 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
The marriage of state propaganda and commercial promotion that Hobson described is still in place. The techniques – demographic segmentation, market testing and so on – have become more sophisticated since his time, but the principles are much the same. Consider the answer of the White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in September 2003 when he was asked why he was suddenly talking about Iraq.
He explained that –
From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.
Second example. In the generation before the financial crisis began in 2007 the major media came to accept the idea that private actors in free markets could be trusted to act in ways that didn’t create systemic risk. They shared Alan Greenspan’s delusion, that:
… the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.
Like Greenspan the media mostly assumed that there was no alternative to a financial system dominated by private banks that operated under an effective public guarantee. They thought that rising levels of debt were sustainable. Either income inequality didn’t matter, or it was a myth put about by knock-kneed leftists.
There was little need for the state to regulate. There was little need for journalists to investigate. And needless to say there was no reason to consider financial sector reform. The newspapers and the broadcasters could take what financiers said on trust. As a result, as the former editor of the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, acknowledged in December 2008, ‘precious few journalists gave any hints at all of what was to come’.
This is not the same as saying that the crisis was unpredictable, of course.
Back in 1998 Peter Warburton had warned in a book called Debt and Delusion that ‘the credit and capital markets have grown too rapidly, with too little transparency and accountability. Prepare for an explosion that will rock the roots of the western financial system to its foundations.’ In 2006 Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy described the course of financialization followed by the United States and warned of the dangers of then-obscure acronyms like CDOs, the collateralized debt obligations that would become famous once it was too late to do anything about them. And in 2006 Ann Pettifor published The Coming First World Debt Crisis – a moment of prescience that surely deserves some kind of prize. Plenty of people could see that a crash was coming.
But people trying to plan for the future would have benefited little from a clear-eyed appreciation of what was really happening in the economy. The media printed the legend – that modern risk management had done away with financial market failure, that crises would be rare and peripheral. Life in Britain and America became a kind of dream-world – a dream-world of debt-backed consumption, property speculation and rumours of war. It was a dream-world whose scenery and backdrop were provided by journalists and broadcasters.
And now as we try to find a way out of the crisis the media breathlessly relay the views and insights of those directly responsible for it. Mervyn King, not Ann Pettifor, is the preferred source for journalists.
The Failings in the Media are Structural in Nature
So the media’s coverage of consequential matters is sparing at best, when compared with their billboard-sized intrusions into the private lives of the famous. An what coverage there is often misleads. It calls to mind a joke Woody Allen tells. Two women in a restaurant. One says ‘The food here is terrible’. ‘I know’, her friend says, ‘And the portions are tiny.’
Given the fare on offer, it is hardly surprising if people prefer to read about Britney.
That’s the first claim. In quantitative and qualitative terms the media are failing.
The second claim I want to make tonight is this – that the major media fail for structural reasons.
Now the adequacy of media coverage often only becomes apparent some time after the event. This allows the defenders of the current system to claim that lessons have been learned and that it is time to move on.
This is, after all, what they said after the Savings and Loans crisis, after the Asian crisis, the Dot.com collapse and the accounting scandals of the early years of the century. They announced that lessons had been learned, that the profession had repented of its former dependence on official sources, that they would no longer succumb to the usual bribes and threats.
Doubtless they will say much the same after the next failure to report – having spent the intervening years worrying that the media are too confrontational, too suspicious.
This sense of living in newly sober times after a period of unfortunate and inexplicable delirium is, it seems, the default in the reporting profession. I’ve been around long enough to hear enough of their morning-after repentance. They are like addicts whose last binge is definitely their last.
We learn something about the plausibility of the idea when we look at the apologies that follow from failures that can’t be ignored.
In May 2004 the New York Times examined its reporting in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and found ‘a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been’. This, they claimed, was because the paper’s editors and journalists ‘sometimes fell for misinformation’ from Iraqi exiles. The authors of the piece go on to say that they had been re-examining ‘the failings of American and allied intelligence’, and ‘allegations of official gullibility and hype’. So this is what is being claimed –
The newspaper and the government both made the mistake of trusting some wily orientals; the intelligence agencies were guilty of unspecified lapses from their usual high standards of conduct; and the government overstated its case. The possibility that the US and allied intelligence agencies might have been brilliantly successful in securing domestic support for a war of aggression does not feature in their soul-searching.
This is not a confession. It is a cover-up.
And for all the mea culpas, the mainstream still fails to describe reality in key respects – most notably in its reporting of public opinion. Newspapers are happy to report that 71% of Americans believe that their government is covering up evidence of UFOs. Ho, ho, ho, those wacky Americans. They are much less likely to mention that – that 71% of Americans think that big business had too much power.
The fact is that the shortcomings in the current media system are structural in nature – power relations within media institution and power relations between the media and other institutions cause them.
These power relations encourage some kinds of activity and they discourage others. Pierre Bourdieu once remarked that ‘journalism is a very powerful profession make up of very fragile individuals’. If they are to build successful careers journalists and editors must develop a sophisticated understanding of what constitutes an acceptable line of inquiry – they must learn what Caesar called the ABC of power. Ideally they should internalise this understanding as a kind of professional common sense – cheap cynicism plays less well than impassioned independence of mind combined with an unfeigned lack of interest in the kinds of subjects that end promising careers.
There is much more to be said about the ways in which the structure of incentives and threats in media institutions leads to what we might call reliable patterns of unreliability.
The point to emphasize is that incentives and threats bear down on a small number of editorial decision-makers who determine both what is investigated and what prominence is given to the results of investigation. Their actions are not usually open to public scrutiny. They cannot appeal to the public in the event that they are fired or sidelined.
To be effective reform must change the incentives and threats to which journalists and editors are subject. It is the relations of power that matter. To imagine anything else is a kind of wishful thinking.
A Program of Reform
So the media system isn’t working. And its failures undermine our claims to be free citizens of a democracy.
Tocqueville once said that in a democracy public opinion is sovereign. But if public opinion is subject to manipulation by unaccountable actors, what difference does it make that public opinion is sovereign? If we rely on a fictional account of the world when making decisions then the authors of the fiction have a better claim to be in charge than we do.
So far, so familiar.
The question is what, if anything we should do about it? Some people argue that a mixture of new technology, citizen journalism and foundation funding will bring about the change we need.
I don’t want to downplay the achievements of citizen journalism, or to deny that social network software can be extremely useful in circulating information. The most successful publishing operation of the last year has arguably been the UK Uncut movement. They’ve made extensive and creative use of new technology as well as the age-old trick of turning up. In the process they have done more than all the conventional media to open up debate about tax evasion and avoidance, and about the deep structure of the British economy. To some extent they’ve driven tax onto the mainstream agenda, but the debate has been conducted on the mainstream’s terms. Cue Jeremy Paxman asking why on earth people were demonstrating against something that was perfectly legal – a point that would have been familiar to the defenders of slavery in the nineteenth century.
More importantly – the most significant program of direct action in my lifetime has barely featured on the 10 o’clock news.
New technologies are not a substitute for the mass media, however important they might be. Access to large audiences still depends on the decisions of editors in a few organizations. As I was writing this yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet from someone called @StarSparkle_UK:
I’ve not heard it mentioned once in British media … How much airtime, if any have BBC given to the protests in Wisconsin?
It’s a good question. Not much is the answer. Similarly, during the student demonstrations incredibly rich information networks sprang up among the students themselves.
But mainstream coverage largely kept to its own version of what was going on. What seemed to me at any rate to be the beginnings of a wide-ranging rejection of the cuts agenda supported by all the major political parties was presented on the BBC as the usual mix of narrow self-interest and violent extremism. The events of the Autumn of 2010 will come to seem far more significant than those of 1968, say – in part because the students were able to communicate among themselves. The major media missed it and kept the bulk of the population quite innocent of what was happening.
As for citizen journalism, for all its successes, investigations are often expensive and time-consuming – do we really imagine that we can leave the steady provision of difficult-to-find information to unpaid volunteers? UK Uncut itself began in response to an article in Private Eye magazine.
The Wikileaks organization originally thought that citizen volunteers would trawl through large amounts of data and find the newsworthy material. In the event they were forced to enter a more or less unhappy partnership with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.
However admirable the work of organizations like Pro Publica and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism might be, it is reckless to think that foundation funding alone will make up for deficiencies in existing investigative journalism.
The foundations retain an unaccountable decision-making structure and in the past they have tended to reflect the attitudes and biases found in other powerful institutions. The result, in the words of one researcher, has been a culture of sophisticated conservatism. Decisions about what is in the public interest to investigate are taken in private by people whose self-image and market value both depend on their belief that they know better than the public what the public interest is. Like conventional editors and journalists they are what Mikhail Bakunin called ‘aristocrats of intelligence’, and all too prone to find that ‘there are truths which should not be told to the people’.
The problems in mainstream provision are structural – in the sense that they are the product of existing power relations. Reform, if it is to be effective, must be structural in nature. And it must aim to make the creation of public opinion a public matter.
I propose that we open up two points of decision in news production to democratic participation.
Firstly we should democratize the distribution of material support to journalists and researchers.
Secondly, we should democratize decisions about the amount of prominence given to the results of particular investigations.
How would we do this? Well, we would set aside a sum of public money and distribute it to the regions and the devolved nations. Journalists and researchers would post proposals for projects to an agreed format. Everyone interested in current affairs in a given area would be free to vote on the projects they wanted to see funded. When a project reached a certain threshold of support the funds would be released to the researchers.
The results of the investigation would be published online but they would be voted on again to determine how much prominence they were given on, say, the broadcast news. As we know local newspapers and regional television news are struggling in the face of competition from the internet, from cable and satellite television, and so on. Public money controlled directly by the public could be used to subsidise local and regional news media – so long as the publishing agenda was open to democratic decision-making.
People wring their hands about the decline of civic journalism. This approach will strengthen local and regional news provision. But it will do so without subsidizing unaccountable and demonstrably unsafe news organizations.
The reforms I propose would have a number of important effects.
First, they would widen the realm of civic equality, the realm in which market relations are suspended or heavily qualified. And so they would allow individuals otherwise silenced or excluded to address others on matters of common concern. The very uneven distribution of the power to describe and to deliberate 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 them. Ethnic minorities, women, the young, and the poor should have the power to determine for themselves what kinds of information they need.
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. In the book I sketch how media reform can be expected to support a wider social transformation.
Third, and most importantly, by giving the general population the means to inquire into the nature of social arrangements, public commissioning can provide the facts, and the publicity for those facts, that constitute the only sure basis for political change. Public commissioning has the potential – if people wish to use it – to explore matters that are currently ignored or grossly distorted in mainstream coverage.
The system of public commissioning I propose reforms the information system at its two points of maximum vulnerability. At the moment intelligent and often well-meaning but always ambitious and vulnerable individuals monopolise decisions about what gets investigated in the first place and whether the information uncovered then reaches the general field of publicity. Their decisions are opaque and even their existence is not much discussed. As a result the news agenda appears to be no more than a reflection of what is happening in the world, rather than the collective achievement of a relative handful of people.
To a large extent these few individuals are free to determine the common stock of things that are widely known and widely known to be widely known. I don’t propose that we do away with them entirely, only that we end their monopoly.
The events in Middle East have, I think, thrown down a challenge. The subjects of murderous autocrats are rising up and demanding freedom and democracy of the kind that we preen ourselves on enjoying in the English-speaking West. It is past time we gave substance to this formal democracy of ours, and began to discover the world as it is.
We must be told everything.
And we will only be told everything if we have the power to secure and share the knowledge we want. Absent that power we will be at the mercy of those who decide what we should and shouldn’t know. We have tried that now for centuries – we have put our faith in tribunes and representatives and campaigning journalists. It is time we took on burden on ourselves. I believe we are ready.
Media reform is not a marginal matter. Journalists and editors do not want to discuss it, except in terms that leave their prerogatives intact.
They are happy to apologize for past misdeeds and promise to do better in future. They are ask how they can be more inclusive and responsive – to worry whether they have got the balance just right before concluding that, yes, they have.
Public commissioning of the kind I describe is the one thing they don’t want to address. But we now have the power to make it impossible to maintain their silence about the substance of their power.
But first we must be clear about what we want.
In what I have said today, in what I have written in The Return of the Public I have tried to establish this one organizing insight – that the road to freedom passes through a clarified system of knowledge.
It is up to you to take the first step.
Thank you very much.