In 2010 I published a book about the role of the media in politics, The Return of the Public. I argued that the current organisation of the media, in which states cooperate with a handful of large private companies to manage national systems of knowledge, leads to persistent and serious failures to describe actuality. When the White House wanted to invade Iraq, and invented pretexts for doing so, the country’s major media understood the limits of responsible dissent. Their job was to discuss the practicalities of the mission, not its morality or legality. In Britain, too, the country’s state broadcaster refrained from asking awkward questions until some time after the occupation was in place.
The repeated failures of the media derive from the institutional design of the system of communications in the broad sense
Similarly, while a lively and talkative underground of economists and financiers knew full well that the global financial system was heading for collapse, the media on the whole were content to repackage stories from the City and Wall Street about the brave new world of sophisticated risk management. The expansion of credit was fuelling an increasingly profligate bonus culture in both London and New York. But politicians and civil servants in the central banks were unperturbed, and so for the most part the media went along for the ride. Even as it moved to the centre of our lives, finance remained a mystery.
The failure of the media to describe what happening was, as the saying goes, a feature not a glitch. For all that media operations spend an increasing amount of their time apologising for past failures and promising to do better next time, they are structurally unable to describe reality when doing so would present serious problems for powerful actors. It isn’t a matter of individuals not trying hard enough.
It is rather that the institutions they work for are exquisitely vulnerable to pressure from both the state and from advertisers and owners. For journalists this plays out as an arrangement of incentives and threats that makes it difficult for even the most independent-minded to break publicly with a consensus that their colleagues share with politicians, accredited experts and the working rich. Even when journalists know that something is badly amiss, they also know that they are unlikely to prosper if they don’t recycle the approved narrative.
To add to the confusion, the media themselves enjoy considerable freedom to describe, and to criticise, themselves along lines that they find gratifying or expedient. While the reality is one of accommodation to the dominant interests in the state and the wider society, the approved version stresses their heroic defiance and, perhaps, on occasion, an excess of confrontational zeal. The media love to berate themselves for being too liberal, too quick to suspect the motives of the powerful, too damned brave. Power comes in many forms. The power to choose how you are criticised is a particularly gratifying one.
The repeated failures of the media derive from the institutional design of the system of communications in the broad sense. In each country print, broadcast and, increasingly, digital media are embedded in what the scholars Michael Delli Carpini and Bruce Williams call “regimes” of law, subsidy and customary practice. Taken as a whole each communications regime is an achievement of state coordination and initiatives in civil society, where the interests of the wealthy tend to predominate. There are intriguing signs that the settlement most of us grew up with is being disrupted by new technology. The Manning-Wikileaks revelations have started nerves jangling in the White House and elsewhere. The Snowden-Guardian follow-up only makes matters worse.
Traditional information management techniques are breaking down and new ones are being devised. The British government, always keen innovators in the field of population control, is calling for Google and the other big digital companies to face up to their responsibilities as publishers. I suspect that the desire to push “esoteric material” to the margins of the web through the use of default filters reflects an ambition to recreate the conditions of broadcast. If I am right, when Cameron says esoteric material he means classified files.
But in this transitional moment between broadcast and digital, an intriguing possibility emerges – a media regime designed to serve the workings of a democratic constitution. Such a regime would work to establish equality in speech by distributing the power to affect the sum of widely shared descriptions. If we can each take part in the shaping of the general field of communications then what we believe becomes subject to a constant test of evidence. The claims of the powerful no longer pass as an unchallengeable common sense.
On a larger scale and as a permanent feature of media production public commissioning has an enormous, almost unimaginable, potential to transform our societies. What would a media system in which we were able to test our prejudices against the evidence be like? What would we become?
Without this power to describe the world, and to challenge the descriptions of others, most of us will remain objects of manipulation. We mouth scripts written for us rather than acting as the authors of our own lives and co-producers of the great drama into which we are thrown. Public opinion will exist as the creature of private calculation.
The current privatisation of the public sphere can be undone if we take the very considerable existing subsidies for journalism and direct them towards research projects that secure an agreed threshold of popular support. Once commissioned these stories would be given a place in easily accessible media. In this way, subjects that tend to be downplayed, ignored or misrepresented in the mainstream would become objects of general or at least widespread scrutiny. This process – what I call public commissioning – would make the field of generally shared descriptions a shared property. We would draw information from it, but we would also contribute to it, as directors and active assessors of its content. Crucially, the process of deliberation would itself be an object of curiosity – an opportunity for us to discover much more about our fellow citizens.
This is the argument I made at some length in The Return of the Public. For a while nothing much happened. This wasn’t entirely a surprise. Editors and broadcasters aren’t overly keen on discussing how they might be made more accountable to their publics. The fact that they receive considerable public subsidies is something that they like to keep quiet. And handing over control of these subsidies goes against every instinct they have.
But at the end of last year I received an email from Boris Postnikov of the Croatian Ministry of Culture. Somehow copies of the book had found their way to the Ministry. They were interested in public commissioning, and were planning a pilot of the idea, using funds from the country’s national lottery earmarked to promote media plurality.
The trial is now under way. Journalists have been invited to submit anonymous proposals via a sponsoring, non-profit publisher. Proposals that meet certain minimal criteria – they have to be compatible the European Convention on Human Rights, basically – will be published. The public will then choose which projects they want to fund. A total of £28,000 will be distributed, enough to give fifteen journalists a month’s salary and three journalists three months’ salary to work for commissioning publics.
Milan Zivkovic, the head of media policy at the Ministry, points out that the public’s commissioning in a brief trial might not differ radically from that of commercial and public service editors. But the fact that this pilot is happening at all is nevertheless a breakthrough. For perhaps the first time in history, public subsidies for journalism will be made subject to meaningful public oversight and control. For a few months, in one country, citizens will have some degree of access to the media commissioning process. And, as Milan says, “there’s no better way into political maturity than political maturity itself”.
This experiment has huge implications for public service broadcasters and their audiences. In Britain the BBC has an annual income of around £3.4bn. The budget from a single game show would be more than enough to start creating a culture of general participation in the commissioning of journalism and the dissemination of its findings. Now that the Croatian precedent exists, perhaps the BBC will acknowledge that its core responsibility to “sustain citizenship and civil society” can be better achieved by democratising the media than by broadcasting shows like I Love My Country, “in which well-known British faces from the worlds of sport, entertainment and music battle it out in a bid to prove who knows Great Britain best”. In a similar way, the normally overlooked subsidies to the American broadcast networks could also be used to fund news operations that are structurally vulnerable not to advertisers or elected politicians, but to audiences who are also the citizens of a republic.
So, there’s a story here. A state institution is trying out a new way of organizing the public sphere. In it each person can have an audible voice in the proceedings. This won’t be welcome to those who benefit from the current arrangements and they will do their best to ensure that the experiment passes by unnoticed by the wider world. After all, on a larger scale and as a permanent feature of media production public commissioning has an enormous, almost unimaginable, potential to transform our societies. What would a media system in which we were able to test our prejudices against the evidence be like? What would we become?
We have a choice to make, whether we are journalists or citizens. We can cling to the idea that there is no alternative to the current mix of state and private media with all the pathologies they bring with them, in the form of racism, sexism, war-mongering and mystification. Or we can register the significance of the Croatian initiative and explore its potential together. I hope we make the right choice.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason.
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