Two parallel articles in the papers today. Here’s George Monbiot in this morning’s Guardian:

The real problem is not that working-class voters have switched their voting preferences but that they are not voting at all because there’s too little at stake, [so] the correct political prescription is to do the opposite [of New Labour]: to swing further to the left and to emphasise not “order and national greatness” but care and economic justice.

And here’s Philip Johnston in today’s Telegraph:

[Focus groups might show that people have liberal social attitudes but] that is only because voters are not being offered a coherent and convincing alternative world view on which to make a considered judgment. When decisive action is taken that does not conform to the way things have been done for years, the voter response is telling. It is no coincidence that the one time the Conservative vote rose above 40 per cent in the past year was when David Cameron opted out of the EU fiscal pact agreed last December.

That’s what a siren song sounds like – the idea that there are lots of voters out there who would respond to a harder, more ideological line, whether right or left. To be fair to George Monbiot, there’s a little more analysis in his article, which is based on various studies including this 2006 report from the IPPR, but both articles are political wish-fulfilment fantasies.

I doubt most, or even many, non-voters can be turned into voters by stronger ideological lines from the parties. Left and right can point to opinion polls on Europe, or social attitudes, or spending cuts, that appear to show that the people are on their side, but people really have a mass of conflicting and interlocking opinions that opinion polling can never reflect.

The consistent pattern in non-voting is not hatred or Europe or love of tax-and-spend, but dissatisfaction with the way in which politics and government works, and a belief that voting is not a civic duty. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that the dissatisfied are just waiting to be wooed by the old Tory or Labour songs, rather their attitude is “a plague on both their houses“.

The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensington High...
The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensington High Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a series of posts from contributors on the topic of media regulation and democracy. On 25 April, the contributors and others gathered at the RSA to discuss their pieces and the issues that were raised, and this is a rough record of the discussion. These are multiple contributors’ views rather than Demsoc’s, and we haven’t attributed them, but the authors will be revising their contributions following this discussion for publication in a pamphlet early next month. Thanks as ever to our partners the Carnegie UK Trust for the sponsorship for this work.

We started off by asking this question: More regulation for the media appears to be the direction that is favoured by the Leveson Inquiry. What should the reformed media regulatory environment be like?

Should newspapers be regulated at all? Should it not just be left to the law as with other commercial organisations? Should we stop claiming they are guarantors of democracy and should be fair and representative (which they aren’t) and just see them as businesses like any other?

Yet industries like the food industry are not left totally without regulation. Newspapers are capable of great harm, and the powerless, in particular, need help with redress and protection from that harm. They also sometimes break the law ‘in the public interest’ and with this comes some responsibility – and regulation. What would a media regulation regime look that that provides protection primarily to those without power and redresses the harm caused to ordinary citizens? Different models were discussed but something similar to the Local Government Ombudsman is a useful model.

The concentration of media power, rather than the nature of the media, has led to the problems that we have seen. This should be dealt with under competition law. But there has been a lack of checks and balances and that has allowed the breaches of the law that we have seen. Media power has been collected in the hands of a few and the citizen’s voice has been lost. It has also led to a lack of diversity in the coverage that we see. The media is unable to provide an effective challenge to power on crucial issues. It was for example hard to hear the voices challenging neoliberal economics before the current economic crisis. The media misdescribed this situation with disastrous consequences. Reports such as this one produced by Chatham House, show how the Icelandic ash cloud story was dominated by certain stories such as the disruption to travel rather than others such as the difficulties with transporting organs for transplant. But how do we hear minority views and choose which minority views to listen to? The MMR vaccination scare is an example where one view was informed by a body of validated research and the other (minority view) was factually wrong.

It is important to protect the truth and accuracy but it is not always clear what the truth is. There is some very poor coverage of factual issues, highlighted here by Ben Goldarcre in the Guardian, but a large grey area. We also need to protect the right of people to have an opinion. What mechanisms can we bring in to protect truth and protect freedom of expression? How do we know who is harmed by inaccurate reporting? The current Press Complaints Commission code does state that newspapers should take care not to publish inaccurate information (including pictures.) Maybe these guidelines should be made statutory, as it is with broadcast media?

If we could see how many transgressions of the truth there are, and the biases that a newspaper was showing then there would be transparency. The Daily Show in the United States does this in an accessible, interesting way. There could be an index, like the Cook Index in the US with newspapers given a rolling average of truthfulness or bias, perhaps with a system of ‘notices to improve’, ‘special measures’ and issue ‘accuracy display certificates’. But who would rule on this? Perhaps crowdsourcing – there are people who would do this for a greater societal good and bringing the public in is a powerful methodology.

We can bring citizens into the media to create a more challenging and disputatious public sphere. If we have citizens in possession of power and with the information that they need then they can start and join debates. Citizens’ panels would allow people to come together and their views would be heard. Currently the only relationship between readers and journalists is a financial one, the only power is to buy or not. Currently the readers’ view of what they consider news and what is in ‘the public interest’ is not heard. And readers can’t reach and discuss thing with each other. Is it possible that readers’ juries could form part of any new regulatory regime, to help inform news editors?

But is a stakeholder or citizen space possible or desirable? Currently we have a public space where people can come together to debate around certain principles. Papers such as the Guardian and Daily Mail are not as far apart as their brands suggest. A national public sphere is important to prevent us having rock pools of opinion but citizens need to be in control of it, rather than oligarchs. Individuals could control the means of media production as media now has lower barriers to entry and the public could be commissioners of stories and investigations. Everyone could have a cash value that they could put towards investigations and the communication of results – a ‘citizen’s journalism voucher’. There is already a version of this running in the United States called Spotus with match funding for investigations.

But how would we get a wide group of people involved in media regulation? To ensure that it was not leaving the media to be run by the same group of people and that power would remain in the same hands? Many of those who are currently marginalised don’t have the confidence to engage. If we leave it to self-selection it we will just have people with loud voices and axes to grind. But if we make it representative then it is expensive. And the question of how to fund media regulation is a difficult one. The Leveson Inquiry seems to be arguing for stronger, and therefore more expensive regulation but would the public pay for this? And if it funded by the papers then what incentive is there to enter into it?

We are getting information now from a much wider selection of sources. More primary sources than ever are available to us than ever before. We don’t need the print media, we can go directly to the source. The role of print media is to get access to hard to get information or to interpret or comment on that information.

The print media is an antiquated and dying model and we are looking at the wrong problem. The media is an essential part of democracy, giving voters the information they need to hold politicians in check. But newspapers have been the same for generations. The format has been the same; the content has been the same and they have served the same vested interests. Rather than regulate this dying model, let’s ask the questions of what do we want our media to be? We need something that is owned by people to keep democracy in check. We need practical solutions and something that is commercially viable. Are we may be reaching today for a regulation solution for yesterday’s problem?

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On 25 April, Demsoc is holding a discussion event on media regulation and new democracy at the RSA in London. This contribution to the debate comes from Dave Boyle. If you would like to attend, numbers are limited, but a few free tickets are left.

In his famous mea culpa, Alan Greenspan told the US Congress that there was a flaw at the heart of his vision of capitalism, which was that he hadn’t expected shareholders of companies to be unable to ensure their own interests were protected; in his world, such self-interest would serve to provide the wider interest in true neo-liberal fashion.

One can quibble how long it took Greenspan’s to alight on his flaw, but at least he was able to spot a problem. Not so the debate on media regulation in the UK, which continues to imagine that despite the manifest failings revealed by ‘hackgate’, and the intense discussion of what will change in the future as a result, only privately controlled media will be in business to provide public interest journalism.

Of course, such ownership is a fact of the media landscape, and has been for generations. It’s as if our media landscape is seen to have enough diversity in it already, what with the BBC and The Guardian, and in any case, both of those were in place by the 1930s, so clearly our days of creating alternatives are behind us.

But to posit the continuation of this private ownership in the future in the face of the economic and social challenges faced by modern media organisations seems to be as tendentious an assumption as it is unimaginative.

Thinking about alternatives opens out some very interesting possibilities, not least in terms of transforming the way the media are funded (I write much more about this in the report I’ve just written for Co-operatives UK) but it also has a big impact on the regulation debate.

To regulate the media is to provide a means of holding it to account; indeed, a key feature of ‘hackgate’ is the lack of accountability at any stage in the process.

At best, we can say the privately-owned media corporation has proven unable to hold its managers, editors and writers to account and has failed to prevent a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, incubating a culture of anything goes to get the scoop. But what if – far from being a failure of the system – such behaviour is an inevitable conclusion of a system in which ethics and good journalism are provided as by-products of a system based on securing shareholder value?

This isn’t to say that owners and shareholders have instructed their editors to lower ethical standard in pursuit of stories but that they don’t need to, as that’s what the system pressurizes them to do. This isn’t about circulation wars, since shareholders are interested in maximum profit, not necessarily maximum sales. If you can cut costs faster than circulation falls, value is still created for shareholders.

It’s a self-defeating strategy from the perspective of a robust, sustainable and resourced media, but that’s not actually in the DNA of these companies. It was once part of the raison d’etre of journalism but the heart of Nick Davies’ concept of churnalism is about how that has been driven out, down or to the side by the relentless focus on margins.

As a result, those with an interest in a better media, one which supports civic society, have had to seek mechanisms external to media enterprises to bring this about, namely regulation. So one of the key notions underpinning regulation is of bringing a public interest to bear on a private provider of a public good.

Regulation then is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the flaw, but we now have an unparalleled opportunity to rectify it at the source.

Co-operative media have a virtue of being accountable and democratic, responsive to the needs of their members, be they the employees, the consumers or a mixture of the two. Both have been offered take it or leave it choices by the owners and managers of our media; if they leave it, things don’t improve, with circulation declines seemingly prompting even greater breaches in the dash for scoops, increasing the pressure on reporters to conform or get the push.

Not so at the West Highland Free Press where the staff bought the paper from the founding owners in 2009. The alternative was a buyout by one of the major groups of local news media, who would doubtless soon have cut staff numbers, their security, their salaries and their independence. Based on bitter experience in other communities, the likelihood is they would also have cut the local coverage and slowly withdrawn the physical presence from the area. The paper, losing goodwill and readers in equal measure, might have limped on, before closing. The owners would have blamed the challenging economics of distributing over a wide rural area in the age of the internet rather than own short sighted focus on the bottom line.

Thankfully, the journalists at the West Highland Free Press have preserved their numbers, their readers and their goodwill. They put out a quality publication, on time, every week, and in so doing, encourage a productive culture of competitiveness with others in the media ecosystem. The BBC’s presence is stronger and keener knowing that it has a rival for good stories, and public bodies know that with such an ecosystem, maladministration is far likelier to be commented on. Accountability for the paper to the interested journalists spins off to a wider public.

Open, accountable and accessible media offers a chance to break apart the monoculture of standard wisdom that passes for news values. Earlier in my career, I had the job of trying to get journalists interested in news from a small campaign group; the journalists often agreed that these were important stories but doubted that their superiors would feel the same. Those more senior people had a set of news values about what was and wasn’t legitimate subject matter that they would say was based on what readers really wanted, as opposed to what high-brow types would wish their readers were interested in.

This invocation of a public of straw men can give way to the actual voices of that public, not through clickthroughs and comments but through considered advocacy and engagement with all stages of the production process.

How do we get there? The advantage is the media’s economic weakness, with everyone pretty much agreed that to survive, existing media must undergo significant change. So the first hurdle for change – that the status quo resists – is lower than it has been for generations. Add in the fact that ability of the status quo to fight alternatives through their entrenched position is similar weaker, and it’s clear that it’s a real moment to seize. The future is open to new models which can be responsive, accountable and sustainable.

Public policy can assist in several ways. We can extend the definition of an asset in the Localism Act from physical – buildings, land etc – to services of value to a community, and in so doing we enable communities to bid to take their media into their own hands. Providing finance to communities to do so through tax reliefs to encourage co-operative investment would speed the rate of change. (As the situation with Scottish land demonstrates, the power to buy land is negligible without the capital to achieve it). Similar to what the US Community Reinvestment Act did for banks, existing owners could be compelled to offer facilities and titles to the public in an area before they could be closed (or merged) to cash in.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that such notions are impractical. Getting from here to there is certainly challenging, to say the least but impractical has one up on impossible. That’s the reality of hoping that private ownership can be relied on to provide the public good as a by-product of chasing shareholder value or private influence. Equally impossible is the notion that whilst the threat of sanction might stop them acting like a private Stasi, it won’t bring about the kind of media democracy we will need in the next 30 years.

Co-operation is often described as not-for-profit, which soon looks like ‘never makes a surplus’, a problem far too common in the current media. This is a mis-categorisation; co-operatives are about more-than-profit. They must make a profit or else they die, but they must also do more than that or they’re pointless. There’s an honesty to co-operative ownership of media that evades a problem of many other touted solutions, namely that the state or charities or foundations should step in to provide people with a media they need, regardless of whether or not it’s what they want.

A media co-op would fail is if it produces something which not enough people want. And if not enough people want a decent media, then that is a greater problem than anything Leveson is uncovering.

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Standing-striding figure of Nefertiti; Limesto...
Now living in Streatham. Image via Wikipedia

People who believe they’ve had previous lives always seem to have been Cleopatra or Nefertiti rather than an acne-ridden donkey drover from Lichfield.  In the same way, people who have discovered secret legal knowledge always discover things that enable them to do what the hell they like, while still having all the legal protections that the rest of us enjoy.

Enter the Freemen of Land “movement”, who (as described by law blogger Carl Gardner) think that if you don’t use your legal name, the law can’t touch you. In fact, they claim that they are in a state of lawful rebellion, and that this means they don’t need to pay taxes or repay debts.

I’ve always thought that this, like past life stuff, is a bit of harmless kookiness, even if with a darker undertone of paranoia. The language used reminds me a little of those Google ads for a “secret method” of tooth whitening or losing weight that a “young mum from [wherever I am]” invented and the capitalist pigs want to keep secret – yours for only £25+p&p.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see the Freemen make an appearance above the line on Comment is Free yesterday, as part of the Occupy CiF day.

I wouldn’t expect an article in the Guardian’s health section telling me about a miracle tooth-whitening formula discovered by a young mum from Camden Town, so I’m not sure why it was thought a good idea to publish an article which contains this utter nonsense:

All registered names [of children who have birth certificates] are Crown copyright. The legal definition of registration is transfer of title ownership, so anything that’s registered is handed over to the governing body; the thing itself is no longer yours. When you register a car, you’re agreeing to it not being yours – they send you back a form saying you’re the “registered keeper”. It’s a con. That’s why I say I’ve never had a name. We are all taught to be a name, the name on our birth certificate. But if you don’t consent to be that “person”, you step outside the system. According to the law books, a “natural person” (or human being) is distinct from the “person” as a legal entity. All the statutes and acts are acting up on the “person”, and if you’re admitting to being a person, you are admitting to be a corporation that can be acted upon for commerce.

Harmless nonsense? All views should be heard? Well, maybe. But this isn’t some random blog or forum, it’s the Guardian, and if we criticise the Mail for publishing utterly fabricated immigration stories for propaganda purposes, we should be even-handed and criticise the Guardian for putting its logo on this sort of rubbish.  The Occupy CiF day was a good idea, and many of the articles were interesting (though the excellent Adam Wagner points to another dangerously wrong article in his blog), but occupied or not, a paper has responsibility for what it puts above the line.

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Polling Day is tomorrow and if – like a third of voters – you still haven’t definitively made up your mind how to vote, here are some resources for you to take a look at:

And a few interesting articles on what happens next:

Most of all, though, make sure to go out and vote.

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