Saturday, September 12, 2009

Responding to "Digital Britain" Part II

The proposals in Digital Britain for public service content are interesting and, in some respects encouraging. It is right for the government to recognise that the existing media system is failing in the regions and in the devolved nations. But both the diagnosis and the proposed course of treatment are inadequate.

Journalism in Britain is not struggling simply because the existing news media are facing a squeeze on advertising revenues caused by both the recession and competition from the internet. Journalism is facing a crisis of plausibility as its repeated failures to describe reality become more and more difficult to explain away or justify to the general public (senior journalists remain almost infinitely forgiving of their profession's derelictions of common sense, of course - see, for example, Timothy Garton Ash on the Iraq War. He has been 'kicking himself' ever since he swallowed all that stuff about WMDs in 2002. And now that it doesn't matter he has promised to be much more suspicious in future.

I digress.

Journalism is in crisis because it cannot describe the world in terms that are recognisable to an averagely observant person. The world-view that informs the media in Britain and the United States lacks a factual base. People can see how their towns and cities are being transformed by corporate development, yet the media says little or nothing about the process by which this happens and so denies the majority any meaningful say in matters of everyday importance. People can see how their money is now being used to prop up an ailing financial system after a generation of being told that the private sector had to be left alone to work its magic. People can see that governments lie outright when the stakes are high enough, as they in the case of Iraq. People can see that the media ignore issues that touch on their own vital interests and the vital interests of their patrons in the state and corporate sectors.

Given the narrow scope of the analysis of the problem, it is hardly surprising that the proposals for reform in Digital Britain are timid, going on counterproductive ...

[...]

The cure does depend on finding money from somewhere other than the market place. The cure does depend in part on diverting money from the BBC to other news providers. But these news providers must be much more responsive to the needs of their audiences and much less concerned to serve institutional masters whose motives are at burst murky and at worst downright vicious. Rather, money raised on an equitable basis from the public should be used to support journalism of the sort desired by the public. The public should exercise direct control of the research agenda of journalists seeking public money to assist them in their work. In other words, money taken from the license fee should be given to journalists who can convince the public (their paymasters) that their work will serve their interests. I can see no just or justifiable alternative to a democratic system of commissioning.

At the moment the major news media keep a very tight leash on their investigative reporters, and appear to the casual observer to be engaged in a kind of permanent campaign of implicit blackmail and counter-blackmail with both their competitors and with potential threats to their interests. The power to commission investigation lies at the heart of the media's power. And this is so even if, especially if, much of the material discovered remains unpublished. It is up to us to insist on meaningful media reform, and to demand that our money is spent on inquiries of which we approve.

Such a system of funding would allow us to conduct preliminary 'public inquiries' into matters that concern us, but that have no elite backing. In this way an important, perhaps crucial, element of the information economy would be democratised, and the power for the state and of the interests that dominate it to shape the news agenda would be significantly reduced. A new form of tribunician journalism would be made possible as individuals saw the possibilities of a career serving the wishes of the public, rather than those of their current patrons and employers.

None of the established interests are going to support this move, since it promises such thorough-going disruption of their prerogatives. Only the public, organized perhaps through this wonderful invention, the internet, can put this onto the political agenda.

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