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.