New Spinwatch report on the Henry Jackson Society

Spinwatch and the Cordoba Foundation have released an important new report on the Henry Jackson Society, the neoconservative think tank best known for its support for foreign military intervention, the state of Israel and, increasingly, various Islamophobic policies.

The think tank has become increasingly influential in recent years, with an increasing high profile. Members of HJS are increasingly likely to be seen on television providing commentary on international affairs, and the society has close ties to a number of MP’s, mostly in the Conservative Party but also Labour and the Lib Dems. In Scotland the HJS made news recently owing to former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy’s affiliation.

The report provides an important attempt to hold this organistion to account. Amongst the most interesting findings are those relating to its funding. While HJS funding is not transparent the report is able to identify a number of pro-Israel and pro-Conservaive Party figures amongst its supporters. Also interesting is the scale of its funding, over £1,300,000 in 2013.

Full report here.

Imagine if Scotland’s universities were ran democratically

One of the bills currently going through the Scottish Parliament is the Higher Education Governance Bill, which seeks to make the way Universities are governed in Scotland marginally more democratic. It hasn’t received much attention, probably because the proposals are relatively minor, but it does at least provide the opportunity to think about the question of how these enormously important public bodies might be managed. It lets us imagine how Universities might operate if they were genuine democracies.

I’d hope that the need for Universities to be ran democratically would be obvious, given both that they are public institutions with large budgets, and that the decisions they make have a significant impact on society at large. To further see why this issue is important consider a few noteworthy examples of unaccountable Universities decision makers exercising questionable judgement: investing in Arms and fossil fuels, calling for higher tuition fees, huge salaries for University heads while those at the bottom earn less than a living wage etc. etc. Now consider how much easier it would be to fix these issues if universities were more democratic.

The key proposals in the Bill with respect to governance are:

  1. Elections of Chairs of governing bodies of Institutions
  2. Regulations on the make-up of the Governing Body, including the inclusion of Trade Union representatives and directly elected academic representatives).

(For a more detailed outline of what these proposals are see for example explanatory document)

On the first point it is important to recognise that the Chair of the governing body is not the head of the university, but the person who chairs the meetings of the governing body, although there is a lot of variation between universities as to what this entails. At the University of Edinburgh for example the Chair is the Rector, which is a largely ceremonial position elected directly by staff and students at the University.  Part of the Scottish Government’s proposal is that the Chair may be elected at the final stage of the selection process (i.e. after the candidates have been pre-selected). At Edinburgh at least this would be a considerable step backwards.

The most interesting proposal then is number two. It recommends that the governing body should include at least 2 student representatives, two directly elected members of staff, and two members appointed by trade unions (one academic and one support staff). These fairly modest proposals are being resisted by Scotland’s universities (by which I mean their governing bodies, since as far as I know the students and staff at large were not consulted). All but one of the universities or university groups who responded to the government’s consultation opposed the proposals, though it was supported by union,s business groups and student groups. Universities typically argued that Union representatives would argue for the interests of their constituents and not the best interests of the University which would lead to bad governance, and that ring-fencing positions for trade union members was undemocratic.

To think about these arguments consider an example. The governing body of the University of Edinburgh (the institution I know best) is the University Court. Its membership includes a number of co-opted members, including a former chief accountant of Standard Life (finance), the Chairman of Arup Scotland (professional services), a Director of the John Wood Group (fossil fuels), a CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland (finance), a chartered banker and a Chief Investment Officer of Aberdeen Asset Management. Why anyone thinks these are the kind of people to whom we should entrust our universities is beyond me, and having a couple of trade union representatives to begin to counter-balance these interests can only be a step forward.

Overall though I find the bill leaves a lot to be desired. The Bill proposes that the overall composition of governing bodies be largely left to the rules of the institution itself, meaning members such as those listed above may still be co-opted without consultation. One of the responses to the consultation that was more interesting came from Common Weal, which echoes my thoughts on this matter almost entirely. Building on its report ‘The Democratic University’ it proposes simply that:

The solution to this is simple; all members of governing bodies should be elected by the wider university community based on a prospectus of how they would plan to steer that university. The chair of the governing body should then be elected from within the overall governing body by the members of that governing body.

To me this seems like a pretty good place to start.

Unsurprisingly this was not adopted by the Scottish Government when the Bill was published last month, although the core proposals remain. The Bill is currently at stage 1 of its passage through parliament, let’s see what happens.

I’ll be speaking at the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair next week

I’m really pleased to have been invited to speak at the Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair 2014 next week at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith, where I’ll be talking about fracking. The fair is organised by Word Power Books and the full lineup looks great as usual. I’ll be speaking on Friday 24th at 12:30pm.

I’ll be on a panel alongside Penny Cole and Jame McKenzie Hamilton, chaired by Eurig Scandrett. Hopefully I’ll have something interesting to say, but Penny and Jamie definitely will. Penny is environment editor of A World to Win and co-wrote Fracking Capitalism, a superb analysis of the whole issue of fracking. You can download it here. Jamie is directly involved with resisting fracking in Falkirk with Concerned Communities of Falkirk.

My Post co-ofunder Dominic Hinde will also be talking about the future of the media on the following Saturday.

Full programme here.

Some quick thoughts on the referendum result

Like many I’m disappointed with the results of the referendum. As I wrote a few days ago, I was never someone who thought independence would immediately produce a better nation, but it was far easier to visualise progress in an independent Scotland than in the status quo. A couple of thoughts:

1. Independence is probably inevitable

Michael Ashcroft has released results of a survey carried out after the vote. As with all polls it difficult to know how confident to be in its accuracy, but the results are interesting.

Yes won in every age group except 55-64 and 65+, which seems to suggest a majority in favour of independence is inevitable. As someone once said, I can’t remember who, bad ideas generally don’t die out because they are shown to be wrong. The reality tends to be far more literal than that. It isn’t certain to go that way of course, it depends on what happens to the UK over the next 20 years or so. New factors could emerge that change this pattern.

Ashcroft results
Ashcroft results

It is also interesting to look at why people voted the way they did:

Ashcroft results
Ashcroft results

2. A permanent resurgence of democratic participation is certainly not inevitable

I’ve lost count of the number articles I’ve read and of people who said to me that given the mass participation that has taken place around this referendum, on the street and in the voter turnout,  there is no way things can go back to how they were. I’m not at all convinced.

The referendum campaign has been incredible in getting people engaged with politics, I agree. I hope everyone can now accept that the general public do care about what is going on around them, and that we are more than capable of engaging with complex issues. We don’t need an ‘educated elite’ to make decisions for us.

The reasons people have engaged with this process so enthusiastically I think are quite simple.

1. There was a genuine choice on offer.

2. The was a genuine outlet for affecting the outcome.

In most of the elections citizens are asked to participate in neither of these have been true, as there is almost no meaningful difference between the UK’s major political parties and our electoral system(s) place citizens at a great distance from the actual decisions that governments make. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, and unless it does I fully expect the energy built up around the referendum will start to dissipate.

For this kind of participation to continue then we just have to figure out ways to make these factors an ongoing feature of political life. There are lots of way that could be done, so I’ll end with a shout for a group who working on just this problem, SoSayScotland. They’ve already done a lot of interesting work around democracy in Scotland and now that this referendum is over I’m hoping to get involved with them however I can. I hope others do too.

Why I’m voting yes, but not that enthusiastically

I’ve been meaning to write something along these lines for some time, but due to a combination of being simultaneously too busy and too lazy I’ve left it until now. I’m not writing it because I think my opinion is particularly valuable, but because this is how democracy works. We express our views, listen to the views of others, and update them as necessary*. So you never know, I might just change someone’s mind.

I’ll be voting yes on Thursday, but not that enthusiastically. I should clarify that a bit. I’m enthusiastic in the sense that I’ll be spending much of the next week delivering leaflets and talking to people on the street etc, and I never for a second considered voting no. But at the same time I don’t believe independence itself will tackle the most important issues Scotland faces, and accept that the new Scotland that might emerge in 2016 will still fall someway short of what I’d like it to be. A yes vote on Thursday will be the end of one fight and the beginning of another. Nevertheless I think the case for yes is compelling, and that an independent Scotland offers the path of least resistance to the kind of society I’d really like to see. Here’s why:

Democracy

In an independent Scotland the government will be elected by the STV version of proportional representation, as opposed to the corrupt system of  ‘first past the post’. It is this system that allows Green Party to have roughly 10 times as much representation in the Scottish Parliament as in Westminster for example, and more generally makes it possible for a more diverse range of voices to enter government. An independent Scotland will also free itself from the indefensibly archaic House of Lords.

I’m actually not particularly enamoured by STV, nor by representative government of any kind, at it happens. These days I’m happy to describe myself an anarchist, which very briefly means I think people should be involved in making decisions about how the society around them is organised on an ongoing basis (for a fantastic introduction to how Scotland might start to make steps in this direction read this outstanding essay by Oliver Escobar). Clearly these kind of ideas have been nowhere near the current debate. Nor has there been any discussion of eliminating the influence of ‘big money’ from politics, probably the single biggest distorting influence on democracy (I’ve written a bit about this here).

But a government elected by PR  is a massive step forward, and this reason alone is probably strong enough to have persuaded me to vote yes.

Neoliberalism

This is the second clincher. I’m voting yes because I don’t want to be ruled by conservatives, be they blue, red, yellow, or some combination of those. The reality is that there is very little meaningful difference between the main political parties in Westminster. The Manifesto Project do great work work on this kind of thing, and the graph below shows how the political alignment of the three main parties has changed over the last half century. The scale used by the manifest project runs from -100 to +100. The three main parties occupy a range from -1.5 to 17.5.

Manifesto Project graph of main UK political parties
Manifesto Project graph of main UK political parties (graph by Griffin Carpenter)

Of particular note is the rightward shift of all parties since the 1970’s, indicating the common acceptance of neoliberalism.

One of the most interesting political books of recent years has been The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Very briefly, it points out that within developed nations there is a strong correlation between how equal a society is and how it performs in a variety of social indicators such as those for health, education, crime, social mobility, and many more, so that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’. The UK is one of the worst performers in nearly all of these measures. The UK is also one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, marginally ahead of the USA and one or two others depending on which measure you use. This has all come about since the 1970’s, coinciding perfectly with that rightward shift above.

One of the central arguments of the Yes campaign has been that in independent Scotland will look to model itself on countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which are the most equal and most prosperous countries in the developed world, while the UK government continues to look to America for inspiration. Scotland has never bought into neoliberalism, it never voted for Thatcher (though it did vote for Blair/Brown), and the successive elections of recent SNP governments, despite a supposed indifference towards independence. Incidentally the SNP receive a score of -13 from the Manifesto Project for the last three elections. This is a pretty strong argument to me.

I’m no Social Democrat, nor am I a fan of the SNP. While there is much to admire in the Scandinavian countries the Nordic model does not answer any of the major 21st century questions facing humanity. As the Swedish journalist and and novelist Jesper Weithz remarked to Post, ‘it would require three earths if everyone on the planet were to live like Swedes’. It is particularly difficult to be part of a campaign where so many are so enthusiastic about the wealth Scotland might receive from its oil reserves when scientists are telling us the vast majority of that oil must remain in the ground if we are to avoid impending climate catastrophe.

But I’d still take the SNP over the neoliberal parties without question, although I don’t happen to think that that is the choice. It is true the the current SNP government will lead the post-independence negotiations over the coming months and years, but beyond that the future is unclear. The democratic arguments given above means there is far more room for alternative voices to help shape Scotland’s future (such as the Green’s, but others too), while the future of a post-independence SNP itself is similarly unclear, given the extent to which the often diverse opinions within the party are united by shared enthusiasm for independence.

Currency, the economy, etc. etc. – why I’m not scared

I’m not particularly impressed by the counter arguments to independence. I don’t think the worst case scenario’s wouldn’t change my mind, and I don’t think they are going to happen anyway.

In the long term I’d like to see Scotland adopt a new currency, though I can see why a currency union might be a good idea in the transition. I expect the UK government will compromise on this after the campaign is over, though it wouldn’t make a huge difference to me even if the threat was genuine. As Salmond pointed out in one of the recent debates, there are over 190 countries in the World, all of which some kind of currency arrangement. Scotland will have a currency. There are a number of feasible options, all workable. The Scottish Goverment is arguing for a currency union, if it has to settle for a ‘plan b’ it will be perfectly workable. I’d probably prefer that anyway.

Similarly with EU. I fully expect Scotland would be welcomed into the EU, without requiring to adopt the Euro. The European Union is an expansionist organisation, and Scotland has a lot to offer in terms of resources (oil, renewables, fish), so I’d fully expect Scotland to be welcomed into the EU. But again even if that wasn’t to be the case it wouldn’t affect my vote. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of countries outside the EU who are more prosperous than the UK. There are genuinely strong arguments for not being a member of the EU anyway, given the very weak democratic processes at its core and the control it has over member states. The issue of sovereignty is an enormous one, and it is one that the independence referendum doesn’t really touch on all that directly. Going back to neoliberalism again, one of the key features of recent decades has not just been the privatisation of public services but the privatisation of public power itself. The current, secret, negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which will allow corporations to sue governments that try to regulate markets for social benefit, are a clear example of that. These are issues Scotland will have to think carefully about whatever happens on Thursday.

Then there are more general economic arguments. A lot has been made of corporations threatening to leave Scotland, and markets responding negatively. Admittedly there is good reason to be concerned in the short term transition, if the threats are indeed genuine. But then you shouldn’t make long term decision on short term consequences. Looking forward, Scotland really needs to build an economy that is less reliant on foreign capital, and particularly it must look to build an economy that is less reliant on financial services, so that in the long term these companies wouldn’t really be missed. But although Scotland is a very wealthy country, and I think it’ll manage the transition to independence, I do hope that transition is as ‘turbulence’ free as possible. Frankly though, I’d have been more worried if corporations had responded positively.

There is obviously a lot more I could say here, but I’ve tried to keep it relatively brief. I’d be interested to hear what people think, especially from people who haven’t yet made up their mind as we enter the last few days. Finally, some further reading/viewing that I’ve found enlightening, and fun.

Some further reading/viewing

*The music blogger Matthew Young makes this same point brilliantly here in a similar article he wrote a few days ago.

Putting journalism at the heart of democracy

This was my contrubution to Scotland 44: Ideas for a New Nation, the first book by Post. I’ve been interested in media structure and its influence on public understanding for years, and more recently I’ve become very interested in participatory democracy. This tries to bring the two together.

__________

There are two things about journalistic media that almost everyone agrees with. Firstly, journalism is crucial for a healthy democracy. In order for citizens to participate fully and effectively in the democratic process they most have a good understanding the events taking place in the society around them. And since the amount of work required to acquire this understanding is more than any single individual can carry out on their own a healthy media is required as a kind of societal division of labour.

The second thing just about everyone agrees is that today our media is in crisis. With advertising revenues collapsing newspapers and other media are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves financially. For many, this second fact has profoundly negative consequences for the first. If we do not have a financially viable media then we do not have independent, adversarial journalists working on our behalf to uncover truths that the powerful would prefer not to be uncovered. And if we don’t have this, we don’t have the informed population required for a healthy democracy.

There is some truth to this picture, though it is largely oversimplified. The free flow of information is indeed vital, but our media has been failing us on this front for some time. Far from the adversarial image it likes to cultivate commercial media is inherently conservative and constrained. Journalism’s ‘financial crisis’ then might be seen as an opportunity. By drawing on some interesting historical precedents, by treating journalism as a public good and by placing it at the center of a wider movement towards democracy Scotland can take a lead in developing a media fit for the 21st century.

The problem with commercial media

The financial crisis facing contemporary media is largely a problem of advertising. Since at least the middle of the 19th century newspapers and other media have primarily been profit-seeking enterprises that have supported themselves not by selling news to audiences, but by selling audiences to commercial advertisers, with sales typically constituting just a small fraction of a newspapers income. The current journalism crisis then is concerned with the dissipation of this revenue as advertisers need no longer rely on traditional media outlets in order to engage with consumers. This is a crisis that has largely been accelerated by the development of the internet, though problems with journalism stretch much further back in time.

The corrosive impact of this commercial model of funding journalism has been widely documented, though little discussed in popular culture. The canonical study was carried out by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal work Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, though similar analysis is widespread. Herman and Chomsky observe a number of ways in which commercial media is a restrictive influence on journalism, describing a number of ‘filters’ that narrow its output.

Perhaps most significantly they argue that in a media environment funded by advertising revenue the organisations best able to survive are those that can harness a wealthy readership. Advertisers seek to engage with receptive and affluent audiences via supportive selling environments, both of which tend to correlate with conservative world views. It for this reason for example that in 1933 the unprofitable socialist weekly the Clarion closed with a circulation of around 80,000, some four times that of the Spectator and ten times that of the Economist, and why the left-leaning Daily Herald closed in 1964 with a readership that was almost double that of The Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian combined. This has led media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton to go so far as to suggest that the advertising community has a de facto licensing power, a license they are beginning to revoke.

Herman and Chomsky also point out that commercial journalism is inherently conservative in its drive for efficiency, particularly with respect to gathering information. News organisations must routinely fill newspapers or broadcasts with large amounts of content to tight deadlines. It is impossible to station reporters everywhere that news might break, so organisations instead focus on sources of regular and reliable news. These tend to be official sources, such as parliament or government departments, or corporations. A similar phenomenon was recently described by the journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Davies remarked that falling numbers of journalists, producing greater output, are increasingly resorting to regurgitating press releases in order to meet targets, a process he has called ‘churnalism’. Crucially, it again tends to be major bureaucracies such as governments and corporations that possess the resources that enable this steady flow of information.

These factors, and others, combine to produce media that is inevitably narrow, conservative and supportive of the status quo, all of which has very little to do with providing citizens with the information they need to participate in a vibrant democracy.

Back to the future: an historical perspective

But it hasn’t always been this way, and so perhaps in thinking about the future of Scotland’s media we can take some inspiration from the past. In their book Power Without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain James Curran and Jean Seaton have described the existence of a lively radical press in Britain in the early part of the nineteenth century alongside more conservative output, a press that became a significant force in British politics.

Publications such as the Twopenny Trash, the Weekly Police Gazette, the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Northern Star, among numerous others, were hugely popular with the working classes, and indeed were amongst the most widely read publications of the day, gaining national readership. Their influence was extended by the widespread practice of reading aloud in places such as taverns, workshops, homes and public meetings, to the benefit of the large number of the population that remained illiterate. Curran and Seaton have credited this radical press with reinforcing a growing class consciousness, and promoting working-class organisations such as the National Union of the Working Classes and the Chartist movement. The radical press also became a mobilising force in its own right, helping weaken political passivity.

According to Curran and Seaton, all this was possible because of the prevailing economic structure of the press industry. In the early nineteenth century financing a newspaper was relatively cheap. Printing was inexpensive, partly due to the technology being used (hand presses rather than steam presses), and partly because sharing practices meant that each individual copy had far more readers than newspapers do today and so fewer copies needed to be printed in order to remain influential, with the price of a newspaper often divided between many. Labour costs were also relatively low, and many radical newspapers relied on reports and contributions provided by readers free of charge. Many radical newspapers also paid no tax, evading the stamp duty intended to push them out of business. As such, newspapers were able to sustain themselves on sales alone, carrying very little advertising compared to other publications. Indeed for Curran and Seaton it was the rising cost of financing a newspaper and the increasing reliance on advertising in the second half of the nineteenth century that caused the demise of the radical press, so that market forces succeeded where government policy had failed.

We should be careful not to over-romanticise the past. The world has changed much in the last two centuries; we cannot go back to a nineteenth century media and nor would we want to. We need not put too much emphasis on wanting our media to be ‘radical’ either. The lesson of the past might be seen as being about the importance of diversity, with space provided for competing opinions within differing frameworks of understanding. Today for example we might place importance on developing a ‘green’ media, a broad world-view that tends to fit uncomfortably into a right-left spectrum. But looking to the past can help us think about what we want our media to be, as well as what we don’t want it to be.

The media industry today is grasping for solutions to its economic crisis, but it has so far focused only on the financial problem at the expense of the democratic one. Pay-walls have been implemented by some organisations, but even while the jury is still out on its financial viability (recent history suggests that selling content to readers generally hasn’t been enough to sustain newspapers on its own after all), pay walls seem to miss the point. Journalism is supposed to be about informing democracy. As we have seen, the practice of sharing news by reading it aloud in public places was one of the factors that made the radical press so influential, allowing knowledge and ideas to spread. Pay-walls meanwhile seek to close off information at precisely the moment in history when technology has made sharing ideas easier than ever. Organisations imposing pay-walls then seem to forget why they exist in the first place.

Similarly we should be critical of appeals to philanthropy as a means of funding journalism. We have already seen how a ‘de facto licensing power’ in the hands of advertising has a narrowing impact on media diversity. Handing that license to the super-rich seems unlikely to improve matters. Those who have benefited most from the status quo tend not to want to challenge it too much, or in fact might lobby for change that benefits them. This is a phenomenon we see clearly in the proliferation of free-market think tanks in recent decades and the dominance of ‘big money’ within political parties. There will always be exceptions of course, just as alternative viewpoints can occasionally still find a home in our current media, but the general trend is predictable.

The internet has been an exciting and welcome development, but for the most part though it will not save journalism either, as some have suggested. The lower entry costs of online publishing have given rise to a galaxy of small and independent outlets representing all imaginable political persuasions. This is an important development, providing valuable analysis of events from a diverse range of viewpoints that can be easily shared across large audiences. However while opinion and analysis is important, ‘new media’ has tended to rely on traditional outlets for its primary information. And of course, the internet is a large part of the reason those traditional outlets are struggling.

A truly democratic approach to public service journalism

That leaves only one option, to solve both the financial problem and the democratic one, journalism must be treated as a public good and be given substantial public funding. But this is not without its problems. Public funding of media is often treated with suspicion, with some justification, owing to the fear that government control of funding makes media vulnerable to manipulation and control.

The American media scholar Robert McChesney has suggested that the more democratic a country is the more likely it will be that its government can subsidise journalism without exercising control over it. As evidence he points to an annual poll in the Economist that ranks the world’s nations according to how democratic they are, and a similar survey conducted by Freedom House each year ranks nations by how free their press is. Invariably, says McChesney, we find the same countries at the top of both lists, namely countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

So is the solution simply to introduce public funding for media? Not quite. No problem worth worrying about can be solved by a single simple policy intervention, and the problem of developing a diverse, resourced and independent media is no different. Though few would disagree that those nations just listed genuinely do represent the best examples of media freedom in the world today, that is a long way from saying these countries are ideal. So in calculating their rankings for press freedom Freedom House mostly consider the extent to which the press is free from government influence, and in fact take the existence of commercial ownership and the ability to sustain journalism through advertising revenues as positive indicators of press freedom, paying no attention to anti-commercial media critiques. In truth even the world’s best democracies retain highly commercial media, so they can hardly be held as exemplars of a modern free press. In moving towards a fully publicly funded media Scotland would be breaking new ground.

But it does seem McChesney is onto something. It should be trite to point it out, but in a genuine democracy the population should never fear its government as are they are supposed to be the same thing. So it may be that in developing a publicly funded media that is genuinely free of state influence the answer is for Scotland to look to develop structures where that genuinely is the case. Specifically, we might look for inspiration in methods of direct and participatory democracy, so that citizens directly control the media institutions that serve them.

There is always a tension between advocating democratic control of institutions and trying to specify what those institutions might look like, since that is to be determined democratically after all. Nevertheless it may be beneficial to sketch out some ideas.

The main concern will likely revolve around finance. In the short term at least media funding would like come from existing centralised government budgets. But we might imagine decisions about how that money is spent being allocated by a funding council (or councils) ran directly by citizens. Membership of this council might be determined by election, or perhaps more interestingly citizens might be ‘drafted’ in much the way that they are currently called for jury duty. Random selection, perhaps stratified, could be employed to ensure the council was representative, and methods such as those used in participatory budgeting might be used to make decisions over how the money is spent.

Removing decision making from central government in this way might take some precedent from current methods of funding science, whereby the Haldane Principle has long dictated that decisions over research spending should be made by researchers rather than politicians. The Haldane Principle is admittedly contentious, but it does demonstrate one way in which decision making can be divorced from central government. Treating journalism in a similar way seems appropriate when we consider that it essentially is a science, in the sense that its aim is to try and understand and explain the world around us, forming hypotheses in the process that are tested against the available evidence.

Journalism might take further inspiration from science in order to ensure that the information gathered by journalists is available to be shared, discussed and debated. The Open Science movement demands that scientific publications financed at public expense should be freely available online. Media councils might make it a condition of receiving funding that information is published under an open license, such as those advocated by the Creative Commons Foundation or similar.

But beyond that, the details should be determined by the people. How resources are to be allocated between local, national and international coverage, between print, online and broadcast media, between general or specialist outlets, between different ideological viewpoints, and many others considerations besides, is to be decided democratically through debate and experimentation.

One concern is that were these kind of media reforms were to be introduced there is always the danger that a future government could simply seek to reverse them. Rather than face a scenario whereby democratic victories must permanently be defended from attack we might seek a state of affairs where a democratic media is more deeply entrenched, perhaps constitutionally, in our political system. Interestingly the importance of a public service media was recognised long ago by the American ‘founding fathers’, who put in place protections for a free press such as financial subsidies and the first amendment. We might hope that Scotland could go much further in enshrining a truly democratic media in its future.

There isn’t another nation in the world today that has introduced a media system anything like this. However with current economic realities there is an urgent need to explore new media models. By approaching this crisis head on Scotland and lead the way in developing a media that is genuinely capable of serving democracy, and one that is fit for the twenty-first century.

Review: A Lean Third by James Kelman

A Lean Third is the latest collection of short stories from acclaimed Glaswegian novelist James Kelman. It comprises stories originally published in 1985’s Lean Tales alongside the work of Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens, the the majority of which have been substantially reworked here. The collection has been released and beautifully hand-bound by Tangerine Press, and appears to intended as something of a collectors item for Kelman fans and scholars, and features an enlightening 3000 word afterword by the author that details the the background of the stories written especially for this edition.

The result is something of a bittersweet success. Kelman’s reworked stories are an outstanding addition to an already stunning body of work. Kelman’s writings have always stood out for the way in which they are able to illuminate the lives of those living on ‘edge’ of society, and A Lean Third continues this. The collection includes tales of homelessness and hard labour, gambling and fleeing debt. In some ways Kelman’s writings here echo the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London. Kelman though is of a different breed to Orwell, identifying himself more with the existentialist tradition of Franz Kafka. This approach can be seen most famously in his 1994 Booker prize winning How late it was, how late, and is also present here. The result is brilliant and essential.

The only downside then is that this edition is receiving such a limited release. Just 100 copies are being released, signed by Kelman and available for £30/£50. While these editions are undoubtedly special, hopefully a positive response might encourage wider release.

Originally published on postmag.org

Hidden Door: An outstanding arts festival at the vanguard of gentrification?

The doors closed this weekend on Edinburgh’s Hidden Door festival, the non-profit arts festival that took place in the abandoned storage vaults of Edinburgh’s Market Street, not far from Waverley station. For nine days the vaults were brought to live through art installations, spoken work, short films and live music, featuring some of Scotland’s brightest creative talent. But while the festival programme has received universal acclaim, its role in the regeneration and gentrification of Edinburgh’s historic old town has drawn criticism.

The festival is a non-profit enterprise, partly intended to help ‘develop a model for the arts that can deliver high-quality, ground-breaking events, without depending on government funding‘, and is now in its third incarnation following similar events that took place in 2010. The event proved hugely popular, combining established Edinburgh musical acts such as Meursault and Broken Records with other artists and writers to create an eclectic showcase of Scottish creative talent.

Hidden Door festival

Hidden Door festival

While this years festival has arguably been even more successful than previous events, its location in the Market Street vaults has caused some disquiet due to its attachment to the controversial Caltongate regeneration project. The artists involved in the Hidden Door project invested their own money into developing the space for the festival, and with the festival said to have failed to make a profit many have failed to see any return on this investment. As a result some artists involved in Hidden Door have expressed concern that their work has provided significant advertising for the Caltongate scheme, with the vaults themselves expected to be taken over by ’boutique retail units’ within months.

Architects projection of Market Street Vaults redevelopment

Architects projection of Market Street Vaults redevelopment

The Caltongate project, a £150 million regeneration of the derelict 5-acre Caltongate area of central Edinburgh that will see the construction of a range of new hotels, leisure facilities and residential buildings, was approved in January this year. The Market Street vaults are part of the project, which has attracted significant criticism due to concerns the structures will affect the character of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a world heritage site, and its focus on large-scale commercial hotel and retail projects, already numerous in the city. rather than housing for local residents.

A petition against the plans on campign website 38 degrees attracted over 5,800 signatures, and local MP Sheila Gilmore remarked “The Caltongate site will be built into a bland haven for office workers and tourists staying at budget hotels delivering short-lived bursts of vitality before they all head off home. Old Town residents wanted more housing, to see the community grow and take ownership of any new district.”

Impression of the Caltongate regeneration project

First published on Post

I spoke to Prof Greg Philo of the Glasgow Media Group

Interview with Professor Greg Philo, Director of the Glasgow Media Group, a group of sociologists at the University of Glasgow who analyse the media and its impact on public understanding

What is the work of the Glasgow Media Group trying to achieve?

Right from the beginning we were interested really in the construction of public knowledge. We didn’t really see ourselves as a media monitoring group, we were really interested in questions about ideology and the way in which the media contributed, or didn’t, to public understanding and in the construction of available debate in society around what were in effect a rather narrow set economic and political prescriptions.

We began simply looking at a range of different issues looking simply at what was available in terms of public debate, and how the absence of alternatives structured what was possible in public understanding. So we moved pretty quickly from looking at the content of news to looking at public reception, and we were always interested in production processes so we interviewed journalists and looked at the construction of particular stories.

Do you think the Glasgow Media Group has had an impact on the media in the UK?

I think we have had an impact because we took a set of what were quite remote arguments and made them almost mainstream discourse, certainly amongst the left. The analysis we offer in terms of understanding news and information, and the dissemination of information as being intricately linked to political power and to structures of power within society has almost become mainstream in contemporary thought. We were part of a whole strand of intellectual work in that area and it did have an influence.

On the extent to which we influenced the actual output of journalists, I think it has varied at different times. For example at the time of the second Intifada I think what we wrote did have an impact, a lot of journalists wanted to talk to us, and that was in a sense one of the last periods when the BBC was quite open to discussion and debate.

Since then the BBC has moved very much to the right alongside the movement of politics to the right in the country. In some ways I think we won all of the battles in which we were involved but the war moved in the direction of neoliberalism and that is an enormous struggle still to be fought.

But I think our contribution is still there. There is now a large body of well-educated people on the left who do understand those kinds of issues and who are very interested to debate them, but its a minority, and that minority doesn’t have access to the mainstream media. That’s why it’s strange to see someone like Russell Brand appear. I don’t accept any of his solutions, I think they’re daft, but it’s interesting to see someone like that use his celebrity status to get onto Paxman and to lay out in clear terms the kinds of things that are routinely said on the left that now look so bizarre when they are on Newsnight.

An interesting feature of the GMG is the extent to which is has been able to take a political stance, which is quite unusual in academia. Have you come under any pressure as a result?

Universities don’t work on political grounds in my experience in that kind of way. They don’t say ‘oh my God you’re really left wing we’re not going to support you’, they don’t see it in that way. If you get research funding that’s enough. They are not going to argue much beyond that.

Universities are becoming businesses and the issue is whether you are doing things which one way or another contribute to the well-being of the university, and that really means research funding. Well the Media Group is very popular with students. It’s not that we are short in any way on the criteria by which universities work by.

We also get a lot of grants from charities. Every time the Conservatives get into power we get loads of work because all the human rights organisations want us to do work, and oddly we did very well under Thatcher because they shut down their own research departments and we received huge amounts of research funding. So there was never any problem getting money in and in us being part of the academy in that sense, in that way we managed to square that particular circle.

The Glasgow Media Group seems to spend a lot of time analysing the media in current form, but without discussing what alternative models might look like, why is that?

We haven’t ever written a book saying ‘this is what an alternative media would be like’, I think I was more interested in explaining public understanding and also in exerting pressure and providing the techniques whereby people could exert pressure on existing structures. The BBC has always been an issue with me because it’s a public body, its owned by the people, and its duty bound along with ITN to be impartial and balanced and accurate. So it always seemed to me to be a point of contact that we could use either by pushing them into changing their coverage with which we had some success, or else by educating people through our academic work by saying ‘look, these are the things you are not being told’.

This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Review taken from Post Magazine Issue 2

The Circle, the latest novel from the acclaimed American author Dave Eggers, is a thoughtful and engaging treatment of the implications new technologies have for privacy in the digital age.

Set in the not too distant future, the story follows recent graduate Mae Holland as she begins her new job at The Circle, the world’s most influential and powerful technology company (read Facebook or Google). The Circle, led by its enigmatic ‘three wise men’, have come to dominate technology, and society, through its development of TruYou, a system that combines every aspect of a users life into one account, including social media profiles, passwords, emails and payment details. The success of this system provided the basis from which the company continues to expand into all aspects of public and personal life as The Circle seeks to dominate not just the commercial world but the political world as well. The world of The Circle then is Facebook and Google taken to the next logical step.

In many ways The Circle can seen as an updated of George Orwell’s 1984.The references are plentiful, for instance in its plentiful use of slogans (‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’, ‘SECRETS ARE LIES’, ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’) and the company’s ‘SeeChange’ program that aims to fill the populate the world with publicly accessible cameras. Like 1984 the book is rich in ideas, including how the ‘four horsemen of the infocalypse’ (namely paedophiles, drugs, terrorists and organised crime) are persistently used to justify greater surveillance, the relationship between anonymity, trolling and the role technology might play in democracy and the extent to which our online lives are suffocating our ‘real’ ones. Even Julian Assange and Wikileaks get a mention.

But beyond the Orwellian pretensions the book I think makes two particularly important contributions to contemporary debates around privacy. Firstly, the novel helps us appreciate why these issues of piracy matter on an emotional level. It isn’t that analytical argument isn’t present. It is, notably from the mouth of Mae’s sceptic ex-boyfriend Mercer. Eggers is a talented writer, and he uses this talent to impress on the reader what living in the world of The Circle actually feels like. It’s exhausting, as the constant surveillance forces citizens to permanently modify their behaviour, hold shallow conversations and generally suppress their natural inclinations. But surveillance makes us behave better we are told, so what is the problem? The problem is that privacy is an important part of what it means to be a human. It plays an important role in our general well-being.

Secondly The Circle is important in helping us refocus our attention. Much has happened since the publication of 1984. The cold war is over, to be replaced by the age of neoliberalism. In this age, characterised by the large scale privatisation of power, it is often not the state but corporations that need reining in, a fact that is frequently misunderstood. Consider the coverage of the recent PRISM revelations. Much was made of the fact that America’s National Security Agency was able to access the data of users of a number of the internet’s most powerful companies (Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft etc.), but little concern was expressed that these companies held this data in the first place. In recent years it has often been corporations, not governments, who have been implicated in the most disturbing cases of censorship and violations of privacy. To pick just two examples, Google is known to (over-zealously) censor search results related to file sharing, while Facebook has been guilty of removing political satire from its pages after complaints from a government employee.

Even activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group and Open Knowledge Foundation frequently struggle to focus their attention away from states, with the general public tending to follow their lead. The Circle might just help us reassess.

This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.