Friday, May 22, 2009

It's Finished

A good piece from John Lanchester on the nature of the government bailout of the banks and the need for a state takeover of the financial sector in the LRB:

In fields such as education, equality of opportunity, health, employees’ rights, the social contract and culture, the first conversation to happen should be about values; then you have the conversation about costs. In Britain in the last 20 to 30 years that has all been the wrong way round. There was a reverse takeover, in which City values came to dominate the whole of British life.

That, as the saying goes, is about the size of it.

Hearteningly, Lanchester has taken seen the benefits of a bit of the old swearing, and shows a natural aptitude for lacing shrewd financial analysis with rude words.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Return of the Public 2

Alan Keen, one of the MPs caught up in the expenses shambles, had occasion to ask in April of this year whether the journalist Heather Brooke had some sort of 'vested interest', because he had seen her being interviewed. It was Brooke's attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act to access MPs' expenses that led directly to recent revelations about the antics of our elected representatives. Funnily enough Alan Keen and his wife have been a focus of particular interest in the scandal. I believe the expression is a 'wolf couple'

The exchange between Alan Keen and Roy Greenslade is reproduced below (taken from Ms Brooks's website, which in turn derives from Hansard's record of oral evidence from 21 April) -

Q484 Alan Keen: There is a woman who has frequently been on television and in the press who appears to me to be a campaigner for freedom of information, an American I think.

Mr Nick Davies: Heather Brooke?

Q485 Alan Keen: Yes. Does she earn a living from this?

Mr Davies: She is a journalist. She is a specialist in freedom of information. I think she is actually British and she worked in America and used their Freedom of Information Act, came back to this country just as ours was about to come into force so wrote a book which is a guide.

Q486 Alan Keen: I have seen her being interviewed.

Mr Davies: You are wondering whether she has some vested interest.

Q487 Alan Keen: Yes, because I have seen her on television being interviewed.

Mr Roy Greenslade: I know her quite well. She teaches the students at City. She is a single interest journalist in the old tradition of having one niche interest and following it to its logical conclusion. She lives, in monetary terms, on the margins.

'She lives, in monetary terms, on the margins.' At a time when increased subsidies for journalism are on the agenda, we should surely ask how Ms Brooke and journalists like her can be brought in from the margins.

As a one-off perhaps Parliament should vote her an award for the work she has done in the public interest in this matter - some percentage of the money handed back by MPs, perhaps?

After that we need to look again at the mechanisms by which journalism is funded. If public money is to be used to support journalism, then the public ought to have direct control over the commissioning process. If Heather Brooke, or someone inspired by her example, wants to pursue, say, the links between the financial sector and the political class, then the public should have an opportunity to fund them in the painstaking work of bringing the full story to light. We cannot rely on the investigative zeal of the BBC or of the private media groups.

They will take the view, on our behalf, of course, that we are not interested in such dry and technical matters and watch impassively as hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money is used to shore up a financial sector that has hijacked the political process.

There is, as Ms Brooke has noted, a certain piquancy in Mr Keen's suspicions about a 'vested interest'. It is time that we reasserted the primacy of the public interest as discovered by the public in open debate. The monopoly enjoyed by the likes of Mr Keen has clearly not served our common interests.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare a Drachma?

I know, I know, it's all Euros these days ...

I learnt a little while back from someone called Stratos Fountoulis that my masterwork, The Threat to Reason, is now available in Greek, from the redoubtable publishing house of Thyrathen. This cheers me up immensely, not least because I didn't have a clue how to pay my rent and now I do ...

Those not blessed with a working knowledge of Greek can always find a paperback copy of the English version on the Amazon website.

On the other hand, if you have a penchant for reading on screen you can download the book for free from the Ready Steady Book website. How's that for deflation? From £14.99 to £0.00 in less than two years ...

Still, it is sweet to know that the notion of a Kantian public is percolating through the common culture. I publish a book in the summer of 2007, calling for the end of private domination of the intellectual culture and the restoration of a disinterested public as the agent and arbiter of substantive enlightenment. By the summer of 2009 the neoliberal model is in ruins, nationalisation of the banks is on the agenda, and the public is back with a vengeance.

David Aaronovitch is quite right in this instance. One doesn't need complicated conspiracies to explain recent history, since I did the whole thing, myself. On my own.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Return of the Public

Last week Steve Richards, the head of Ofcom, proposed a new funding model for ITV's regional news. Rather than leaving it to ITV franchises struggling in an advertising recession, we should use public money to fund ‘news consortia’. These news consortia ‘would operate transparently, through a tender process and contracts awarded against clear criteria of delivering public purposes’. He thinks that £40 to £60 million would be needed to provide a ‘straight replacement’ for the existing ITV service. But £60 to £100 million could ‘meet the aspirations of healthy local democracy, quality local journalism and the needs of audiences in the digital age’. More than that, the extra money could be used ‘to design in full cross-media capability’. Presumably he has noticed that local newspapers are being eviscerated by online competition. Richards suggests that there is some money somewhere in the BBC that could be used for this purpose.

It is certainly high time we looked again at how journalism is funded. But the devil as always is in the details. Richards soothingly suggests that ‘we should not get unduly distracted by who the awarding body should be’, before mentioning Ofcom’s Content Board as possible candidate. But the way in which funding is awarded is crucial to successful media reform. If control remains in the hands of a bureaucracy, the deficiencies in local news coverage documented by Nick Davies, Jonathan Cook, and others will be replicated, with a bit of state manipulation thrown in for good measure.

Maybe we should set aside £40 million to provide a ‘straight replacement’ for ITV’s local news coverage. But the other £60 million should be made available to investigative journalists who wish to pursue the kinds of stories that the public want.

The money could be provided to funds covering the existing ITV regions, to smaller units, and, what the hell, to a national investigative journalism fund. ‘Consortia’ of journalists could then publish proposals for funding at an appropriate level of detail. The proposals could outline their credentials and relevant experience, the aims of the investigation, the time needed and the budget. Each of us could register and vote for the projects that we wished to see pursued and the funds would then be released. Voting could take place at the local library, perhaps, to prevent people from supporting whimsical projects. The journalists’ ‘consortia’ would then publish their findings online and make them available on license to other media providers (newspapers, websites, and so on).

The public could vote further funds to projects that they valued and the ‘consortia’ that came up with the goods would be able then to work to bring their work to a wider audience via broadcast, print or online media as appropriate. Book publishers could pick up rights to publish print editions of particularly successful and significant investigations.

In this way we would have a direct role in editorial decision-making, without the doubtless well-intentioned interference of a mediating bureaucracy like, say, Ofcom. Public money wouldn’t be spent subsidising the established media groups. Instead journalists would be motivated to serve a mass constituency at a local, regional or national level, without the worry of keeping employers and advertisers happy.

Some of this magic £100 million could be used to fund local and regional print and online media, too, like the Salford Star, so that the findings of these publicly funded investigations can find their back to the widest possible public. The investigations could provide content for a flourishing culture of pamphleteering, publishing and civic engagement.

Journalists in this country could regain their old eminence as tribunes of the people, and have a laugh asking powerful people impertinent questions. Grizzled burnouts could get to hang out with doe-eyed bloggers. Think of it. Instead of churnalism, we could have properly funded investigations into corruption and conflicts of interest throughout the body politic. Assuming we could be bothered to vote for them – and the beauty of the system is that only the most earnest people will get it together to go to the library and vote.

Local journalism is in serious trouble. But its problems will not be solved by an extension of the existing public service model. The curiosity of journalists needs to be set free from commercial and state interests and connected more directly with the needs of a sovereign public. The same applies to our national media. The BBC is hamstrung by considerations of balance, the private media groups by their reliance on advertising and the often wacky views of their owners. The result has been a series of failures to describe reality accurately to most of the viewing and reading public. These failures have already cost taxpayers tens of billions and will cost incalculable billions more in the years ahead..

It is time to set journalists free. God help us, they’re all we’ve got.

Yes, You Can (Help President Obama)

Like many people in Britain I was delighted that Obama won the election. I won't rehearse the reasons. But I have been at a loss to know how to express my support for the new President.

But now at last British admirers of Obama have a way of taking a stand and being the change we are waiting for. According to the New York Times, President Obama has announced a crackdown on tax havens. Some economists have argued that the lax attitude towards offshore centres of America's competitors means that his moves will jeopardise US jobs and businesses:

Tax experts, including some with Democratic leanings, caution that the proposals could put American corporations at a competitive disadvantage. The United States is part of a dwindling minority of industrialized countries that tries to tax corporate profits on a global basis. Most European governments tax corporations on the basis of their profits within their borders. “If other countries are adopting systems that are friendlier to multinational corporations, then companies will have an incentive to locate their corporate headquarters outside the United States,” said Alan Auerbach, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley ...

There is only one thing to do. We must express our support for President Obama by demanding that Britain and other EU countries tax corporate profits on a global basis, with country by country accounting. That way we can finally feel part of the Obama campaign with its soaring rhetoric, Blackberry-punching, surreptitious smoking, and effortless cool.

Oh, and we can raise billions of pounds for the UK exchequer at a time when, God knows, we need every penny we can get.