The media have some explaining to do in Britain and elsewhere. Taken as a whole they keep seeing things that aren’t there, like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And they keep overlooking things that are there, like the shadow banking system. There is clearly a problem with the system that provides most people with most of their information about the world beyond their immediate experience.
So much is obvious, I think.
But as we try to work out what to do about these glaring failures we run into other problems. Let me highlight two of them, one obvious, one less so. The first is that the media largely control public discussion of their own operations. They largely control public discussion of everything, so that is no surprise. And besides, journalists and broadcasters have deep firsthand experience of the subject under discussion. Who else should journalists and broadcasters talk to, if not themselves?
When discussion of reform becomes impossible to avoid – when a vast criminal conspiracy is discovered in a large media company, for example – the media are well placed to frame the topic in ways that suit them. And so in recent weeks we have heard a good deal about the need to improve self-regulation and professional standards in the industry. Presented with a massive and highly consequential failure to describe, the media offer a must-try-harder approach that leaves existing power relations substantially intact.
The second, less obvious, problem is that we are, for the most part, reluctant to contemplate the implications of what is obvious – that the media are incorrigibly unreliable about matters of vast public significance. The major media’s control is not total, in this or any other matter. But there is little appetite to move away from the explanations and excuses offered by the media themselves, to debate programs for reform that go beyond what they themselves are offering.
After all, there is a large and noisy group of public intellectuals who claim to want to promote Enlightenment values. They say that they oppose enchantment and want to see the public sphere made safe for rational argument. They have considerable social power – even if the major media ignored them, they could still reach a considerable audience. Why don’t these inheritors of the Enlightenment call for reform of the media? Why do they focus instead so obsessively on religion, the supernatural and homeopathy? After all, journalism in its current form is a far more consequential source of mystification than Christianity or Derek Acorah.
We are happy to point out those moments when the media fail to live up to their own stated ideals. But we don’t care to think too much about why they fail so consistently. It is no surprise that the one really pointed challenge to the media’s self-image, Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, comes from a radical anarchist perspective. Their argument is usually ignored by commentators and analysts considered authoritative by the media themselves. To reject the account the major media outlets give of themselves is to leave the familiar world far behind.
Richard Pryor used to joke that, no matter what, you should never admit infidelity. Even if your partner finds you in bed with someone else, you have no choice but to deny that they have seen what they have seen. ‘Who are you going to believe?’ he used to ask, ‘Me or your lying eyes?’ To the extent that we depend on the media to keep us to make sense of reality, to make sense of ourselves, we are always tempted to accept their assurances that, while mistakes have been made, lessons have now been learned. They weren’t betraying us. It was an innocent misunderstanding, an unfortunate set of coincidences that look suspicious but that can be explained.
Once we see these reassurances for what they are, it isn’t that hard to grasp the nature of the changes needed. With a little thought we can also see how such a program might be implemented.
The mix of public service and market institutions in Britain doesn’t do what it claims to do. It doesn’t give us the information we need if we are make sensible political decisions. A new approach is needed. In The Return of the Public I propose that we democratise editorial decision-making. Each of us needs to have some modest ability to give direct support to journalists and to publicise what they discover. Intermediaries, whether well-intentioned or not, cannot be trusted. We already pay considerable sums to support journalism through the television licence. At the moment the BBC and the government determine how the money is spent. It would be a relatively simple matter to take some fraction of the money raised and distribute it to journalists whose proposals receive a given threshold of public support. Once investigations were completed citizens could also vote on whether to give the results wider publicity.
Both the distribution of journalistic curiosity and the attention given to what that curiosity uncovers need now to become matters of open public debate. Having tried all other options, perhaps we can finally consider democracy as a method for generating information in what is, in some senses at least, a democracy. The notion that the citizen body should have some independent power to shape the content of its own beliefs strikes many professional journalists and liberal reformers as anathema. But the existing arrangements are indefensible and we have the means now to create a movement for substantive media reform. Social media allow us to share information and to engage directly with those who have social power and access to publicity. We can start asking journalists and editors why they won’t discuss proposals to democratise the media. We can call on intellectuals who go on and on about rationality and the Enlightenment to get serious and support reform of the media. We can build a coalition that, eventually, the BBC and the rest of the major media will be compelled to notice, for fear of seeming foolish. And at that point we’ll win and the work of changing the general field of what is widely known, and with it the nature of the political, can finally begin.
The media alternately fail us and offer deceptive explanations for their failures. They cannot help but do so. The power relations that govern journalism must be changed in our favour if we are to understand what is going on around us. Again, this much is obvious. Do we continue to ignore the evidence of our eyes or do we follow knowledge where it leads, even as far as another world?
Dan Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was Hijacked and How We Can Reclaim It and The Return of the Public, which won this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize. He tweets here.
This article is the first in a series on media reform. The second, by Julian Petley, can be found here.