Public Ownership of the Public Sphere

by Tom Mills and Dan Hind

On February 15th the Sun ran a front page story, ‘Corbyn and the Commie Spy’. The source of the story, a former Czech spy Jan Sarkocy, told Murdoch’s finest that the Labour leader was listed by the Czechoslovakian secret police as an agent or informant during the 1980s and had passed secrets to the Eastern Bloc state. The Mail, the Express and the Telegraph then ran similar stories in the days that followed, during which the story dominated the news agenda.

Corbyn responded with a video posted to social media that has now been viewed more than a million times. In it he said that ‘a free press is essential for democracy and we don’t want to close it down, we want to open it up. At the moment, much of our press isn’t very free at all. In fact it’s controlled by billionaire tax exiles, who are determined to dodge paying their fair share for our vital public services.’ He concluded his statement with the words, ‘Change is coming.’

Corbyn didn’t give much in the way of detail about what change might look like. But Labour sources told Paul Waugh at the Huffington Post that ‘the party in government would take action on tax dodging, higher taxes on the richest, implement “Leveson Two” on media regulation and review the plurality of newspaper ownership.’ In other words, Corbyn was threatening the free press with exactly what had been promised the electorate in the 2017 manifesto.

Corbyn’s statement was denounced as a threat to liberty, of course. Isabel Hardman in the Spectator bravely passed over the fact that she is employed by billionaire tax exiles and built a rickety bridge of words from Corbyn’s video to Russia, Venezuela and Donald Trump.

Such reactions are to be expected. Whilst the liberal-left are always wary of government regulation, favouring voluntary professionalism and civility, the reactionary press will paint even the mildest regulatory proposals as at best a patronising attempt by elites to determine what people should think, or more likely as yet more evidence of sinister left authoritarianism.

This shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But to the extent that Labour appears to be endorsing top-down political solutions to the questions of media bias and plurality, it will be vulnerable to such narratives. More importantly though, it seems to us unlikely that the moderate reforms being proposed by the Labour leadership around regulation and ownership will in any case open up the media system as much as is hoped.

Is there an alternative?

The outlines of a more radical approach – more promising both in terms of short term political strategy and longer-term efficacy in opening up the media system – can be seen if we consider Labour’s recent thinking around new models of ownership in the provision of services. Here the aim is to develop 21st century alternatives to the old model of nationalisation in which the state reproduced a corporate hierarchy and the public were kept far from the centres of decision-making. The particular interest is in the development of decentralised systems of cooperatives that will deliver more effective and responsive public services, whilst building a more equal and just political economy.

So far the focus has been on key public services and privatised utilities. Relatively little attention has been paid to these ideas in the context of media policy. This is surprising, since of all our social infrastructure, the media surely has the greatest need for a more effective, responsive and participatory structure. Democratisation and decentralisation may not necessarily be the right model in every instance. In the case of energy or water, alternative models of ownership may well yield social benefits. But these might be cases where a national command and control structure could deliver an efficient and cost-effective service. When it comes to contemporary systems of media and communications, however, democratisation and participation is not merely a means to ensure a more effective service delivery, it touches on its very public purpose. Moreover, we have in the BBC a public media institution that could be easily reformed so as to better serve popular constituencies.

Our current media system combines a partisan plutocracy in the print media, a mixed economy of well-regulated commercial and public organisations in broadcasting, and a digital sector dominated by a few tech giants, along with some more established media organisations. Whilst this is not the homogenous corporate media system some critics imagine, the problems are well known. The BBC, which is at the heart of our current media system, upholds much more professional standards than the reactionary press, but it overwhelmingly reflects elite and small ‘c’ conservative opinion.

Media workers will only reflect the interests of audiences when they are incentivised to engage with them in the way they currently engage with eccentric offshore billionaires and Oxbridge-educated commissioners and editors. And such public engagement need not be mediated by the market. The same technologies now being captured by corporations that rely on the monetisation of mass surveillance, can be effectively repurposed for democratic and egalitarian ends.

Social media is now a taken-for-granted feature of our lives, and a certain level of public participation when it comes to publicity is very much the norm. Although we operate on platforms we don’t understand or control, we are nevertheless used to promoting, and challenging, descriptions and ideas in a way that others can respond to in their turn.

Furthermore, we all have some experience of deciding what kind of content we want to buy. It is a short step from that to deciding what kind of content we want to fund, for our own benefit and in the general interest. We don’t know what an egalitarian and democratic communications system looks like in detail. But the broad point is clear: general participation is possible and could be effectively integrated into a modern public media system.

A new public media system

A system where funding and editorial decisions are brought more under the control of citizens themselves would address the familiar problems of plutocratic control and elitist editorial culture, whilst having the advantage of neutralising the anti-elitism that gives the right so much of its mass appeal. If Labour promised, for example, to give each viewer of the BBC a defined say in what it investigates and makes widely known, even the most talented propagandist for the oligarchy would struggle to explain why this will lead to the Gulag.

There is another reason why the wider renovation and restoration of the public sector needs to include the media. Public service provision is a process fraught with potential for petty and grand corruption. Only fiercely independent oversight by bodies infused with a public service ethos can keep public institutions honest and explain their workings to the people who fund them, and on whose support they will rely. In this sense, a more pluralistic and responsive media system can be seen as a necessary precondition for a more pluralistic and responsive political economy.

Under a current Government-BBC scheme, licence fee payers subsidise ‘local democracy reporters’ employed in the private sector. In the interest of plural and responsive coverage, the government could make such funds available for a network of co-operatively owned and run media organisations with a mandate to spend a set proportion of their time and resources reporting on the conduct of public institutions more broadly, including public service providers, local government, private contractors and regulated financial institutions.

Such organisations would form part of a wider network of regional media cooperatives responsible for publishing public interest journalism online and in print form, and for producing regular programming for broadcast via the BBC and other platforms. These new media coops would also have scope to investigate other topics, as appropriate. Their mandate would ensure that they kept at least an eye on planning and the land economy, on public health and corruption and criminality in public office. The executive officers of these regional co-operatives would serve limited, non-consecutive terms, with juries appointed by lot overseeing their activities. Such a system – which could run in parallel with other initiatives like a crowd funding platform in which each citizen would have a sum of money to spend on journalism – would not only facilitate more effective reporting on key issues, it would also open up the media system to a wider pool of experts and knowledge workers who are currently ill-served by our media system: trade unionists, public and ‘third sector’ workers and academics.

All this can be achieved without expropriating the oligarchs, whilst the cost could be met by general taxation, by a general levy on advertising platforms like Google and Facebook, or by a reordering of the external commissioning system at the BBC, which is currently subsidising media multinationals. This is best seen as the first instalment of a programme of media reform that will come to encompass print, broadcast and digital media. In concert with publicly owned and democratically governed social networks, these new sources of accountable content would contribute to a media system in which each citizen enjoys substantive powers to engage in politically consequential speech, as both commissioners and contributors.

At the moment editors are free to pronounce on what the public are really interested in, and what is unforgivably dull. And if their prejudices don’t align with those of their owners or superiors they will find themselves consigned to the darkness. They enjoy arbitrary power even as they are subject to it. Inevitably their eyes turn upwards, to the wealthy owners and the mountaineers of hierarchy.

We can put an end to all this through the creation of an accountable system of knowledge production, in which we are not passive consumers, but active partners. By creating institutions along the lines described, an incoming Labour government can help ensure the success of its wider reform agenda. It can also create pockets of popular engagement and mutual education that can challenge the rest of the media when it slips from reasoned criticism into hysterical scaremongering.

Media reform can sometimes seem like a marginal concern. But bodies that generate and disseminate reliable knowledge of contemporary circumstances, and act as venues where we discuss its significance, should be seen as core elements of a revived public sector, and as necessary precursors to a post-capitalist social settlement.

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