Creating a Public Sphere
Dan Hind was a journalist and publisher until 2009, when he left publishing to focus on campaigning for media reform. He is the author of The Threat to Reason and, most recently, The Return of the Public. He spoke to Samuel Grove about his proposals for popular participation in the process of commissioning and publishing the information on which substantively democratic political activity depends – in short, for the creation of a genuine public sphere.
Why don’t you start by explaining what the central thesis of your new book is?
OK, here goes.
At present the content of public opinion largely derives from the products of state-owned and commercial institutions. Our knowledge of the world, and our knowledge of others’ opinions – our knowledge of ourselves, even – all comes from institutions that have been demonstrably unreliable in recent years. And this unreliability stems from their structure; it emerges from the pressures and incentives that decision-makers within them face. We have relied on a few acutely vulnerable and necessarily unrepresentative individuals to keep us informed and they have failed to do so.
If we want to have an account of the world that is broadly accurate, and that can therefore provide a basis for rational decision-making, we need to create mechanisms in which each citizen has some commissioning power and some publishing power. Only if we have the means to combine and support inquiry without relying on institutional decision-makers can we hope to shed light on areas that the existing institutions have failed to illuminate - I am thinking of political economy, foreign policy, and the media themselves, for example. But I am sure we can all think of others.
The field of publicity - the sum of things that are well known - will only serve the public interest if we the public have some direct hand in creating it.
There are reasons why we think the current system is adequate, and reasons why we think that there is no alternative, which I also explore. The nature of the media and the system of government are intimately linked, it turns out, and always have been, and I go into some detail about the connections. The heart of the book is an argument for a specific set of reforms to the media. But changes to the structure of decision-making in the media have profound constitutional implications.
What sort of constitutional implications?
The philosopher David Hume once remarked that ‘as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion’. Commonly held opinions about the legitimacy of current arrangements rest on widely available descriptions of these arrangements. Similarly, proposals for political reform are judged in the light of commonly held opinions about what is necessary and possible - and again these rest on descriptions of the world.
If we establish a method for generating accurate and timely descriptions that is driven by a popular vote, then we have given the public the means to create public opinion. Once we can direct inquiry in ways that seem desirable to us as citizens, then the patterns of silence, vagueness and dissimulation that support the current constitutional order are made available to investigation.
To put it another way, if we change the content of what is widely known and understood, we change people’s opinions about what is just and unjust, reasonable and unreasonable. To follow Hume, if opinions change then the foundations of government change.
You say the problem lies with the state owned and commercial institutions. However defenders of the commercial media in particular often maintain that the tabloid press, for example, concentrates on celebrity gossip, personal scandal and titillation because that is what the public wants. How would you respond to this argument?
People enjoy these things, that’s true, and there has been a proliferation of print and online publications that deal in the currency of soap opera, reality television and Hollywood. To some extent there is a greater emphasis on gossip than there was in the past, perhaps - although crime and sensation have always been part of the mass media. At any rate, media commentators like to wring their hands about the lack of popular engagement in political coverage - why don’t people care about serious matters? How can we make them sit still and pay attention to what we want to tell them about politics and economics? This presumes that the current treatment of politics is adequate and that the audience is somehow letting itself down by being preoccupied with tittle-tattle.
In fact supposedly serious coverage has been hopelessly bad at telling the general population what is going on in the economy, for example. Look at what the Financial Times was saying about the financial system before 2007. The paper prides itself on being a serious guide to what is happening in the economy. They more or less blew it completely – a few journalists saw that there were problems brewing, but the most part the paper was way off. One article in February in 2007 was complaining, for example, that the Alliance and Leicester had ‘taken an overly cautious view of the mortgage market’, for example.
It is hardly surprising that lots of people preferred to read Heat. At least Heat wasn’t peddling fairy tales about the enhanced resilience that derivatives and securitisation brought to the market.
The point can be made with equal force about the coverage of foreign policy – especially in the period directly before the invasion of Iraq.
In an early review of The Return of the Public in the Financial Times John Lloyd claimed that I greatly overestimate ‘the appetite for information and revelation’. But the currently available range of information and revelation - what powerful people say, who’s up and who’s down in Westminster, why massive cuts to public services are inevitable - is not terribly appetising. Let everyone have a say in what is investigated and discussed and we will see what people turn out to be interested in. The results will perhaps surprise John Lloyd - and me, for that matter.
You write in The Return of the Public that ‘everything flows from a reformed system of publicity’. However it is one thing to become aware of the urgent problems (political, economic, ecological, etc.) that surround us. It is quite another thing to form an organised movement that can begin to address them; particularly when any such movement faces threats of repression. You emphasise that your reforms of systems of publicity would leave intact the fundamental power relationships of capitalism; in your words ’the interests of managers and workers will continue to clash’. However are significant reforms of institutions responsible for public information possible without an overhaul of capitalist economic arrangements? In other words without some sort of revolutionary process that a reform of the system of publicity is, in part, designed to bring about?
Profound changes take place when quite large numbers of people start to think that there is, in fact, an alternative to the existing way of doing things. That isn’t going to happen without new forms of information.
Now, you are right that at the level of the individual there is a huge gap between becoming aware of the need for change and making these changes happen. In fact at the moment an accurate understanding of the world probably makes the individual less politically effective. If you or I had spent the years before 2007 warning of imminent financial catastrophe, a lot people would have thought we were annoying cranks. And, furthermore, individuals and small groups are vulnerable to various kinds of pressure - people get sued, they lose their jobs, and so on. Worse things happen, occasionally - more often in other parts of the world.
But I am arguing for reform that changes the sum of things that are widely known - for reform of the general field of publicity. I don’t want to suggest that it is enough for individuals to try harder to understand what is going on - to educate themselves in the difference between understanding and changing the world. Rather I want to create the means by which we can gain and share knowledge without the mediating interference of state or commercial institutions (or non-profit institutions, for that matter). If we get the structures right, then the process of finding out for ourselves is inseparable from informing others.
As what is generally known changes, the political realm changes. Not because politicians become suddenly virtuous, but because what they claim is necessary and possible becomes subject to more serious scrutiny. Claims about a fiscal crisis become less plausible if most people know how much money UK companies and citizens have parked offshore. You or I might know. Doesn’t make a vast difference. If most people know, then politicians have to take that into account or get voted out.
The best argument for public commissioning is that it will allow us to understand the world better. If we know more about each other, and about the world, then I think most people will be motivated to want to change things that currently strike them as inevitable or natural. That’s my argument for media reform. Now, it might turn out that I am wrong, that once people have access to a new system of communications they will conclude that things are fine as they are. I am really keen to find out.
Can we institute reform along these lines in a capitalist society? Maybe, maybe not. The concrete proposals I make don’t seem outlandishly difficult from a technical point of view. They’re not very expensive. Will they face resistance from the established powers? Probably. But on what grounds? That they are afraid of what will happen if people have a better understanding of how the world works? It can be funded in ways that don’t offend against private property rights. So that particular objection doesn’t really bite.
If you want to shake unaccountable and unjust power, media reform looks like a really good fight to pick.
By the way, I don’t think that ‘reforms of systems of publicity would leave intact the fundamental power relationships of capitalism’. I think - alright, I hope - that we can reform the media without having a revolution first, certainly. But what the political implications of reform turn out to be, I can’t say for sure. As it happens I think that people will want to radically reform capitalism once they understand it better. But, like I say, I can’t say for sure.
I think that there will always be conflicts between different groups in society (and between individuals) and that ’the interests of managers and workers will continue to clash’. But that doesn’t mean that capitalism is the only way to manage – or mismanage - these conflicts. Anyway, that’s kind of a separate issue.
The aim of the book is to identify media reform as the focus of effort in progressive politics. From reform along the lines I propose comes social change that is widely understood and democratically legitimate. We have to make rapid changes in the years ahead, to address environmental crisis and economic breakdown. Can we really trust the existing media to tell us what is possible and necessary? Or do we want to wait for a heroic revolutionary to decide what is to be done?
I choose neither of the above. I choose public commissioning.
I think what you say about creating the "the means by which we gain and share knowledge" is crucial in this regard. On the one hand technology such as the internet (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) provides these means. However on the other hand they are quite isolating and individuating (and in this respect potentially politically pacifying). Presumably you see public commissioning as a fully collective endeavour?
Facebook, Twitter, blogs, our email address books even, they have all given us means to share information - they provide each of us with some degree of publishing power. That is quite a big change, and it is in many ways very positive. On the other hand, having a blog or a Twitter account doesn’t mean that we have the material means to pursue investigations - nor does it suddenly mean that we understand the law as it relates to journalism, and so on. Furthermore the new media don’t always ensure that important journalistic discoveries become generally well known - broadcasters remain very important in terms of reaching large numbers of people reliably and thereby shaping public opinion.
So, media reform needs to provide money to journalists and researchers, so that they can build stories and reputations over time. It also needs to provide a mechanism whereby everyone’s sense of what matters has some impact on what everyone else is exposed to. For that reason, I think public commissioning needs a broadcast component.
As for public commissioning being a collective endeavour, well, it would provide a motive for people to meet and discuss proposals. As I said, civil society groups would have a reason to confer amongst themselves and to link with other groups to develop an investigative agenda, formally or informally. Journalists seeking support for future projects would have a good reason to give an account of what they have figured out so far, perhaps in partnership with others. The line between audience and journalist will blur. Activists might take on journalistic work; journalists will become more like activists. If a publicly funded inquiry discovered something of great importance to a particular community, again, there would be a sound professional reason for those responsible to engage with their audiences directly. This would start to give substance to the public as the sovereign body in a democracy. Certainly real world contact is far more likely to build trust and solidarity than pointing and clicking. It is still true that, in John Dewey’s words, ‘the local community is the medium in which a vast and dormant intelligence can be made articulate and intelligible’. In some sense public commissioning is an attempt to flesh out Dewey’s notion of a ‘Great Community’.
Face to face publics that gather to understand the world are only a little way from changing it.
For many respected intellectuals (many of whom you cite in your book—Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays, Samuel Huntington, etc.) the public don’t just lack interest in political affairs, they are positively incapable of participating in the political realm. Indeed the system of publicity was partly designed in such a way as to channel the public’s “irrational desires” in safer directions—shopping, home entertainment, sports and so on. However in The Return of the Public, you identify ‘the public’ as the only ‘legitimate organisers of society’. Why should we have such confidence in the public?
Not necessarily respected by me…
I am a democrat. I think we all have a right to participate in political life on the basis of civic equality.
Political civilization has always been tied up with attempts to exclude various groups from decision-making. Women were excluded from the assemblies in the Mesopotamian cities, I believe. Hannah Arendt has written about how classical Greece rested on a division between the household and the agora. Women, slaves and children were confined to the household. Male citizens - usually property-owners - left the household to achieve public glory. Everyone knew that women were inherently irrational, that slaves were more like animals than human beings, and so on.
There are still plenty of people who want to keep the majority out of public sphere. They don’t rely on overt sexism or racism or arguments about natural slavery in the way they used to. They don’t usually say out loud that those who have no property have no right to a political status. They mostly try to avoid stating plainly why they should be in charge and other people should keep quiet. They might mention intelligence or education, if they have to. Neo-conservatism was an attempt to use classical civilization as the basis of an aristocracy of intelligence. People - mostly men - who really get Plato, should run the world. All this takes place against the background of a studied refusal to examine what people are actually capable of.
Why do I have confidence in the public? Why should we? The evidence, which I touch on in the book, suggests that most people are perfectly able to understand public issues. When they think about policies they usually reason disinterestedly, rather than selfishly. Given reliable information, most people are not obviously incapable of thinking politically. We are tolerably smart and tolerably well intentioned. We could all improve with practice, I am sure. But I find anti-democratic claims unpersuasive, to put it mildly.
Feminism showed that assumptions about the infirmity and irrationality of women - assumptions that had been the conventional wisdom for millennia in much of Europe - were so much wishful thinking. The civil rights movement did something similar to explode the myths of racism. I think that elite claims about the majority’s mental resources will go the same way as misogyny and racial prejudice.
I think your summary justification for public commissioning ("that it will allow us to understand the world better") is in some ways self-evidently valid. Nonetheless, in this current era, it might be quite radical. It takes for granted that there is a world out there to know, and concomitantly that some interpretations are better than others. All the while "truth", or at the very least a "resemblance of the truth", are treated with quite a lot of scepticism; both within intellectual circles (among postmodernists who regard as a political task to challenge "truth" itself) and the wider population that is (perhaps quite rightly) deeply suspicious of what it is told by the media. In the latter case in particular, this can manifest itself in an amplified suspicion towards any account of the world that departs markedly from the mainstream. Do you agree with this assessment and do you see it as being a problem?
Well, as you say that are two kinds of scepticism at work. On the one hand, some postmodernists want to problematise the concept of truth. Now truth and power are inextricably linked, to be sure. Truth is itself a kind of power. Postmodernism at its best is alive to that, and it makes us think more carefully about how we are implicated in what we want to believe about the world; how we are the product of the things we notice or ignore. But I do take it for granted that there is a world out there to know. I don’t really understand what it would mean to believe, to really believe, that there isn’t. People can say that there isn’t, that there is nothing outside the text, and so on. And maybe it is illuminating to explore the possibility. But acting as though there are no facts about the world? I don’t know what that would be like.
I talk about truth and politics - and about the impact of postmodernism - in a little more detail in my first book, The Threat to Reason. For now, I would say that political engagement requires that we deal in truth. White House claims about Iraq in the months before the invasion were wrong. Those who doubted these claims were right.
On the other hand, plenty of people think that the media account of the world is unreliable - that it fails to do justice to a truth that is really out there. Suspicion of this kind is not necessarily leftwing, by the way. Plenty of people think that the BBC is a nest of Bolsheviks, or that CNN is a dangerous pinko operation. Those working in the media often quite like thinking that they are more progressive than the population at large, which complicates the picture further. At any rate, once you doubt the main sources of information a kind of vertigo can creep in - you can end up believing all kinds of exotic things. As you say, we can also end up doubting everything beyond our immediate experience - if the mainstream version is a pack of lies, why believe any other version? I think quite a lot of people are at that point now.
So I think people are right to be sceptical in this straightforward sense about mainstream coverage. I don’t necessarily agree with them about what is really going on. Public commissioning offers us a way to decide between varied and sometimes inconsistent accounts. It would allow quite small numbers of people to assemble and refine a world-view. Furthermore, it would allow them to set their version of how things are against competing versions. Kind of like Robot Wars, but with world-views. Maybe people still won’t be interested, maybe most people will end up pretty much unaffected, I don’t know. A lot of the frustration people feel comes from a sense that they can’t challenge the mainstream consensus effectively when it is factually inadequate. Public commissioning would give us a chance to answer back in a way that would have some prospect of changing the sum of what most people know about the world.
There are experiments in democratic media underway in other countries (for example community media in Venezuela and Democracy Now! and The Real News Network in the United States). Are there any organisations we should know about in the UK that are pushing for the reforms you advocate?
There are plenty of efforts around the world to give publicity to a range of points of view. Community broadcasting is one very good example of that - there are interesting experiments in Britain in this area, too. In Norway and Sweden governments subsidise the print media in such a way that small publications find it easier to remain commercially viable
As far as public commissioning is concerned, John Nichols and Robert McChesney advocate something rather similar in The Death and Life of American Journalism, drawing on the ideas of Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The idea of public commissioning is starting to be picked up by some civil society groups in the UK. The New Economics Foundation has taken an interest in it, for example.
As a rule, NGOs, charities and campaigning groups - even political parties - don’t tend to think much about media reform. They try to secure publicity in the existing structure of reporting and comment. I think all civil society organizations should be pushing for something like public commissioning - if Oxfam or Friends of the Earth worked with their members to establish an investigative agenda, they could make quite an impact on mainstream views, one would think. So I am hopeful that NGOs and trade unions in particular will see the possibilities of the system I propose. The trade union movement peaks as a driver of political and social change in the 1940s at the exact moment that the TUC is the publisher of the most popular newspaper in the country, the Daily Herald.
Nothing speaks for itself. That’s the problem that public commissioning seeks to address.
And finally what do you think we can do as individuals to promote media reform?
Well, as I say, anyone who wants to bring about change in the world should want to change the media so that the truth will out more often, to more people. We can encourage the groups to which we belong to look more closely at the media and encourage them to develop a positive program of media reform. That’s what I am trying to do with the National Union of Journalists, for example. Media reform is a second order concern, perhaps, but it is a second order concern for everyone.
There is one other thing. We all have some degree of publishing power, thanks to the internet. We can each of us pass on the idea of public commissioning to the people we know - if we forward a link to this interview to people we think might be interested, then there is a chance that it will spread quite widely and unpredictably. If more people are encouraged to think about the media in structural terms - to think about who controls the distribution of the resources needed to discover and publicise information - then there is a much greater likelihood that reform will eventually take place along lines that promote democracy. Politicians, broadcasters and senior journalists are many things but they are not stupid. If they sense that there is a growing consensus in favour of media reform they will address it. That is, after all, their job. If they think media reform only interests a few malcontents, they’ll ignore it, of course. If they think that talk of reform is a brief flurry in the social media, then again they will ignore it. But if they think that the general population has cottoned on to the fact that the current system doesn’t work, and that they want something done, then something will be done.
Stopping them from bodging the job to maintain their position at the top of the pile, that is another matter. But we can do quite a lot to drive media reform onto the agenda at this point. The opposition in Britain needs to stitch together some kind of progressive program over the next couple of years. If they think that there are votes in media reform, it will concentrate their minds.
And buying The Return of the Public would be a good idea, too.
So push media reform onto the agenda of the institutions to which we belong, argue for it ourselves, buy my book. That’s my three-point plan.
Samuel Grove is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering politics, media and culture in Latin America. He is the associate producer of the feature-length documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). He is also is one of the founders of Level Ground, an organisation that challenges elite opinion and showcases alternatives (see www.levelground.info). He has published articles on global politics for magazines such as ‘Red Pepper’ in the UK and websites such as ‘Monthly Review Online’ and ‘Upside Down World’. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University in the UK.