Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Journalism and the death of the public

The exposure of News International’s resurrection of the private detective industry has prompted introspection about that neglected and defamed art: journalism.

Journalism is the canary in the coal-mine for a 21st century Left. Real journalism is something society can’t do without if it isn’t to degenerate into a schizoid, Public Relations nightmare in which everything is wonderful forever on your TV screen, while it falls slowly apart outside.

It is increasingly obvious that the private sector can’t provide journalism but hiving it all off to the state just creates different problems, such as political interference. The big or bigger state is not the solution. The answer isn’t the market and it isn’t the state. So what is it?

The commentator Ian Dunt does a good job of explaining why journalism is “uniquely unsuited to the private sector”. It is a social good which can’t justify itself economically. In the past, he writes, this was less of a problem as newspapers would treat investigative journalism or foreign news as loss-leaders, but with a certain gravitas that attracted advertisers.

Now, in the days of the internet, there is much more detailed and reliable information about the behaviour of consumers. Hence, endless revelations about celebrities, ‘strange but true’ stories, and photos of dogs doing funny things.

Journalism is gradually being asphyxiated.  A 2010 OECD report concluded that “no business models have been found to finance in-depth independent news production” which raises questions about “the supply of high-quality journalism in the longer-term”. (translated: here’s a picture of a kitten to distract you)

Dunt is encapsulating the process described by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism as the replacement of the public by the consumer. It is the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in. The consumer has won. But giving people what they want, based on ever more effective ways of finding out what they want, doesn’t create satisfaction. It just breeds the opposite.

Fisher says this is not only because people don't know what they want, they want what they don’t know.

“The most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them: by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk.”

But a risk obviously involves the possibility of being unpopular, of saying something which people don’t want to hear, at least in the short-term. And if everything the media does has to justify itself immediately in monetary terms, you left with (in Fisher’s words) “conformity and the cult of the minimal variation, the turning out of products which very closely resemble those that are already successful”.

The question Fisher asks in conclusion is the question ultimately raised by the News International revelations – what to do about the death of the public. “Since it is now clear that a certain amount of stability is necessary for cultural vibrancy, the question to be asked is: how can this stability be provided, and by what agencies?” (my italics)

One response has been to fund investigate journalism through philanthropy. In the US, the Huffington Post website has received money from charitable foundations for investigative reporting. There are also small funds for investigative journalism in Belgium (the Pascal Decroos Fund which has given 21,000 euros to five teams) and in Norway the Storebrand fund. But, as an article about them says, they are a very small response to a rapidly increasing problem.

Journalism funded through charity can only ever be a limited answer. It is, after all, dependent on capitalist profits being healthy, because this is exactly where charitable foundations get their money from. You might cry, ‘what about non-profit agencies?’ but non-profit businesses still have to survive in the market, and follow its diktats even if they don’t have shareholders to placate. Besides, if no viable business model exists, they won’t exist.

George Orwell once said: “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear”. That right is becoming more and more abstract.

 The above is an artist's impression of George Orwell responding to current events


  1. Have you read Dan Hind's book The Return of the Public? He suggests a structural solution to the problem, i.e. setting up institutions that enable the public to express what they want - from a non-consumer perspective I suppose.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll read it. The 'Threat to Reason' looks interesting too

  3. There's an interesting, if ignored, historical perspective to the questions posed in this post. I was just looking, for another article, at a talk in Greece given by the American economist Richard Wolff - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjGctbILybw&feature=related

    He talks about Roosevelt in 1933 saying that the private sector had failed to provide employment to the American people so he had no choice but to hire people himself.

    One of the results was the WPA: “the govt of the US said to everyone artist, singer, dancer, painter, sculptor – if you unemployed, we’ll hire you and the US govt hired all the artists in the whole country, put them together in troupes – dance troupes, theatre troupes, opera troupes and moved them all around the United States. It brought more culture to the United States, than we ever had before or since”

    You could apply the same thinking to the problems of investigative journalism. It's a social good which the private sector is failing to provide, so it needs to be funded to exist by paid journalists NOT volunteers (who would repay the cost through tax)

    The fact that something like what Roosevelt did is not even proposed in the mainstream, is testimony to how far we've sunk ideologically.

    if this is like telling you grandmother to suck eggs, apologies, but the US isn't my country