Review: The Return of the Public by Dan Hind (@danhind)

I encourage anyone interested in the debate on media standards in and around Leveson to read Dan Hind’s The Return of the Public, now released in paperback by Verso. First published in 2010, it antedates the current furore but throws considerable light on it. Hind explores the interplay between conceptions of the political state and the idea of the public from the eighteenth century to the present day. His analysis shows the extent to which political and communications elites have deployed power, money and intellectual self-rationalisation to control the information flows on which critical understandings of reality depend, thereby ensuring a near accord between their interests and an inherently restricted “public opinion”. Hind unpacks the controlling dynamics and contradictions of both market-orientated and public-service conceptions of a legitimate public information exchange and debate, and argues persuasively that while the prevailing orthodoxy in publicly permissible economic thinking has been exploded by recent financial catastrophes and exposed as both the begetter of those catastrophes and a wholly inadequate discourse for understanding and tackling them, its grip persists, while alternative perspectives struggle to secure a hearing.

Hind shows how the modalities, interests, behaviours and ownership models of print and other media are central to these restrictions on public discourse. Whatever one thinks of his proposed remedies for these problems, Hind is surely right to argue that we must mount a serious challenge the dominance of limited interests over public debate. To increase our capacity to self-imagine as citizens and question, check and transform the opinion-forming elites whose captives we currently are, information sources must first to be diversified and distributed, and then reconfigured in new power bases of information which reflect an emergent public opinion that is genuinely self-generated, not controlled and imposed.

And if like me you have a prejudice in favour of books that quote Bakunin, explode overrated sages like Isaiah Berlin, and make elegant use of Kant, then The Return of the Public will repay your attention in many ways.