Exit Murdoch, Enter The Public?
Beyond the popular revulsion over the last fortnight at the criminal behaviour attributed to News International, there has also been a widespread sense that this is not how things are supposed to work in a liberal democracy. Under the balanced, pluralist system, politicians are supposed to represent the general public without fear or favour from vested interests. The police are supposed to identify acts of criminality, hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. And the press is supposed to inform the public, facilitate an open national conversation and hold centres of power to account in the name of truth and transparency. Instead, we see the police allowing a multinational corporation to operate above the law, apparently in exchange for various perks. We see the press covertly operating a parallel surveillance state, crossed with a protection racket, on behalf of that same corporation. And we see politicians either cowed into fearful submission by, or willingly grovelling before, a billionaire media tycoon. We also see a country in which it takes the revelation of acts of previously unthinkable depravity to compel the political class to deal with state of affairs whose essence had continued broadly unremarked upon, and in plain view, for several years.
Over recent years, instances of systemic malfunction have acquired an air of grim familiarity. Members of Parliament are supposed to dedicate themselves to public service, not personal enrichment at public expense. The financial system is supposed to allocate resources efficiently in an open, free market, not generate speculative bubbles through obscure practices which leech off and then devastate the real economy. The people are supposed to share in the benefits of the national wealth, not pay with their jobs and livelihoods for the malpractice of an economic elite. Western military power is supposed to liberate and protect, not invade, torture and precipitate bloodbaths. When our expectations are so frequently and comprehensively confounded, the suspicion must eventually arise that those expectations were, in fact, wrong. The search must then begin for better explanations of how our societies work, which must necessarily take the form of fundamental critiques both of the material status quo and of conventional wisdom.
This is what Dan Hind has provided with his book, “The Return of the Public”, published late last year. Billed as a critique of the media, it is in fact rather more than this. Stripping aside the veil of liberal pluralism, Hind’s analysis reveals a media located squarely within a hierarchical system where power resides in a state-corporate nexus and where the public are effectively excluded from discourse and decision-making. Politicians may be hounded by journalists for their personal indiscretions, but when launching imperial wars for transparently bogus reasons, or when dismantling protections against the dangerous excesses of speculative capitalism, the crusading free press is exposed as incapable of holding them to account.
Incapable, or more accurately, unwilling. Because a media owned by billionaires and multinational corporations, dependent on the same for advertising revenue, and staffed overwhelmingly by members of higher socio-economic classes, is a media which is bound to share the same commitments as the power structures it is ostensibly tasked with shedding light upon. The atomised system of checks and balances is, in reality, a deeply interconnected system of mutually reinforcing concentrations of power, dedicated to the pursuit of its broad class interest and to the thwarting of any public interference in politics. If these concentrations of power see it as being in their general interest to effect privatisations, financial deregulation, the dismantling of rights in the workplace or the pursuit of military power in the energy heartlands of the planet, then one would expect a corporate and class dominated media to play a broadly supportive role. And this is what in fact takes place. The media’s pathological inability during the first decade of the twenty-first century to warn the public of the coming financial crisis or to challenge the neo-imperialism of Blair and Bush – that is to say, its deep implication in the two great public-policy disasters of the last ten years – stands, as far as Hind is concerned, not only as testament to its abject failure to perform the task assigned to it by liberal pluralist theory, but to its real nature and role in a deeply unequal society. What is required, as the first stage in an effort to challenge and perhaps eventually dismantle this system of power, is for the public to force its way onto the media’s territory and into political discourse.
Hind begins by describing how the concepts of republicanism and of the public have evolved over time, the latter being understood not just to mean people or the population, but as that active body of persons which is informed, which deliberates and which decides together the course that society should take. Who should be included in that “public” is a question that has been debated and a battle that has been fought throughout the ages. The Parliamentary Republicans at the time of the English Civil War dismissed the demand of their soldiers that the post-monarchical English government should enfranchise the population as a whole. Only those who had a legitimate stake in the nation, by which was meant property, would have the right to deliberate and decide the nations affairs. Were such rights to be extended to the masses, then the right to enjoy one’s property would soon find itself subordinated to the right of the majority to eat, to survive, and other such inconsequential trivia. This was to be avoided above all. And so it was that the polity which emerged from the Civil War, whose basic premise survived the Restoration, and whose nature was firmly established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, set the scene for the government of property, by property and in the interests of property, that was to bind and remake the world in its image, in a process once called Western imperialism but now presented to us as the benign, natural force of “globalisation”.
With the emergence both of the big state and the big corporation in the early twentieth century came a new form of elite managerialism. The renowned US intellectual Walter Lippman was one amongst many articulating the view that rational thought within the body politic ought to be left to a qualified, enlightened minority, “men who” says Hind, “doubtless considered themselves neutral and rational, but whose elevation had [necessarily] depended on their exquisite sensitivity to very particular interests”, namely those with money and power. Edward Bernays echoed Lippman’s view, stating that “Ours must be a leadership democracy, administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses”.
The emergence of the American New Deal after the Wall Street crash, and the British Welfare State in the 1940s represented a relative low point for these socio-economic elites, as the 1914-45 era of crisis provoked a backlash amongst an increasingly conscious and organised populace which the governing class could only pacify with meaningful concessions. But as time wore on, and the inadequacies of the new settlement began to show themselves, elite power manoeuvred itself into a position where the crises of the late sixties and seventies could be taken advantage of by the political right, whereupon the process of dismantling previous popular gains and liberating the forces of wealth was set in motion by Thatcher and Reagan, and continued under their successors.
By the time of New Labour, corporate power was firmly in the drivers’ seat, with the governments of Blair and Brown vastly extending the involvement of private contractors in public service provision. As Hind notes:
“By 2007, the state was passing £68 billion to private sector companies, some 20% of current expenditure. In 2006 it had spent £2 billion on management consultants alone. It drafted businessmen and women into government and into the civil service. The state turned to private investors to fund the building of new hospitals and schools, which the government then leased. By 2009 the government had signed more than 900 private finance contracts for assets worth £72 billion”
The public realm, in other words, had become a private racket. By now, power was concentrated within a relatively tiny elite, living in a separate world, with their business done offshore, exempt from taxation and scrutiny, and with their deliberations conducted at places like Davos, far from the prying eyes and unwelcome voices of the general public. Through their power over financial and capital investment, and over the value of currencies and commodities, this elite became able to impose what Hind calls a “permanent audit” of the behaviour of supposedly democratic countries, rewarding those who provide the right services and punishing those who transgress, giving the thumbs up or down when new personnel are appointed to senior positions in government, and generally sitting in judgement on the serfs toiling below. The media are deeply integrated into this system, performing their role of policing the political agenda, with a range of tactics employed, such as diversions into gossipy trivia, the generation of hypocritical moral panics and the exclusion or mockery of dissenting views.
Alienation is a recurring theme in Hind’s analysis. In the broadest sense, the nature of today’s political economy reflects the fact that it is not shaped by common endeavour. It is a product of the public’s alienation. But there is also a more profound form of alienation occurring at the level of the individual, in the sense that to deny people the ability to participate meaningfully in the running of their society is to deny them an important part of what it is to be human. As social animals, the importance to us of being part of an active “public”- that informed body of persons empowered both to deliberate freely and to act upon those deliberations – is not something that we ought to underestimate. Opportunities for social participation represent important avenues for common fulfilment, now increasingly closed off to us by private power. In one tremendous chapter, Hind discusses the way in which a culture of consumerist self-help and self-improvement represents a poor substitute for the collective journey that we are being prevented from taking in free, social engagement with each other. Always we find the more backward elements of the state, together with corporate power and the media, inserting themselves between us, isolating us, and rendering us impotent as a public.
If what is lacking above all is a fully-functioning public, then what is paramount, Hind argues, is that we set about creating that public as the first stage in a general effort to dismantle the concentrations of power that divide and suppress us. As a modest, practical step in that direction, Hind suggests specific measures that can be taken to create an open, participatory, democratic media. The existing budget surplus in licence-fee funded local broadcast news could – were a successful campaign to be mounted - be allocated instead to a system of publically commissioned journalism. The £80 million available could pay 3,000 journalists and researchers a basic annual salary of £24, 000 to pursue subjects chosen by the public. Through open debate, discussion and voting, the public could choose which stories were worth investigating (be they local, national or transnational), and which journalists had the best proposals and abilities to pursue those stories.
Hind sets out his ideas in detail, anticipating objections and discussing them fairly and thoughtfully. The book as a whole, it must be said, is beautifully written, in an engaging, flowing and natural style which those of us who spend most of our time in the non-fiction section will find particularly refreshing. From the reader’s point of view, Hind is great company: intellectually stimulating, sharply insightful, and often wryly amusing. The influence of thinkers such as C.Wright Mills and Noam Chomsky, which is both clear and acknowledged, might have resulted in a derivative and uninteresting book in the hands of a lesser author. Instead, Hind’s adaptation and development of these ideas is both fresh and, above all, relevant, particularly in the current circumstances.
In recent days, a number of commentators have expressed concern that the backlash against News International over phone hacking might begin to have a chilling effect on press freedom. This is odd, given that no-one is suggesting any measures that might have prevented Nick Davies and his team at the Guardian from carrying out what has arguably been the most important piece of investigative journalism in living memory. More fundamentally, it is hard to see how propaganda sheets run by hierarchically structured corporations owned by unelected billionaires in any way constitute what might seriously be described as a “free press”. It should be reasonably clear by now, even to the most slavish devotees of the status quo, that such arrangements contribute to a closed society where power is concentrated and democracy is undermined. Anyone with a real interest in seeing the emergence of a genuinely free press – one which operates free from the control of both state and private power – will need to consider innovative approaches similar to those suggested by Hind.
Constructing a publically owned, publically controlled media capable of empowering active public engagement in political discourse, would be a vital step on the road to dismantling the various concentrations of power – social, economic and political – whose destructive effect on our society is becoming more obvious and alarming by the day. The hacking scandal emphasises for us the importance of this task. Hind’s excellent book suggests a way in which it might be undertaken.
· “The Return of the Public”, by Dan Hind. Verso, 2010
David Wearing is a post-graduate researcher in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London, and co-editor of the New Left Project.