A roughing up for history’s first draft

The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind, Verso, RRP£14.99

The news media are broken, Dan Hind believes: radically broken. So much so that they deny their readers, listeners and viewers the ability to be effective citizens, starving them of information and stuffing them with delusion.

He does not write, as others have, of the need to reform the media so that they can tell true intelligence from false, as in the matter of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; or warn the world of an impending financial crash. (I am not convinced either was possible in the way most critics believe.) Reformism, for him, is not on. Journalism will not heal itself, and society, merely by trying harder.

Journalism as it is practised – he means mainly British and US journalism – is flawed in every way: in how news is gathered, reported and edited; in the assumptions journalists make about their audience; in the issues they deem worthy of coverage; but above all, in their subservience to their owners. The news media can only fulfil their democratic boast – that they hold power to account – by being put under an owner who is not a baron, a corporation or a state. They must work for the public.

Hind’s plan is to create a fund of some £80m annually (for the UK), which would employ some 3,000 journalists who would work for a “public commissioning system”. Under this system, the public would debate and vote for the issues they wished to be investigated; the journalists, organised in regional groups, would then carry out the investigations. It is not clear how these would be published or broadcast – the idea seems to be a mixture of mandating local television channels and local government newspapers to carry the reportage, and allowing the BBC and independent broadcasters and publications to buy them. But Hind expects that, as the idea catches on, it will be extended into the realm of public policy.

The description of this plan takes up a few pages; the rest of the book is composed of a run-through of various conceptions of the public. Nearly all found wanting. There are brusque dismissals of David Hume, Adam Smith, Isaiah Berlin and Jürgen Habermas. Immanuel Kant, at least his essay on enlightenment, merits conditional approval. Only the most radical are fully endorsed: indeed, Hind’s central idea is the media equivalent of the proposal, by the 17th century political theorist James Harrington (in The Commonwealth of Oceana) that, in the ideal republic, everyone should have roughly equal shares of land so that all may be in real equality to each other. For Hind, information equality is the time’s greatest need.

His argument is marred by vast overstatements – as that, presently, we (citizens) are no more free than battery chickens (“we are not, in one sense, even fully human”); that the franchise was conceded only so that the people might be taxed; or that fear of Islam has been primarily driven by mainstream media. Journalism, for Hind, is little more than elite propaganda: and, because it is so, people turn from it in disgust to the enjoy-able fantasies of celebrity magazines.

Yet. Underneath the mound of inflation there is something real. News is a problem for democracies, and one that is deepening. In Italy and Russia, the – elected – political rulers have eviscerated much of their broadcast media, by far the most important through which people learn about the world. In the US, television and radio presenters have put themselves at the head of a political movement of the right that sees in the Obama presidency one which will destroy American democracy, and comes close to legitimating armed rebellion against it. Trivia continues to proliferate in the popular newspapers, magazines and broadcasts. And as Leonard Downie, the former editor of the Washington Post, said in London last week, American newspapers, still by far the largest employers of journalists, are shrinking dramatically. We have, in the web, a possible antidote: but it is not very popular as a news medium, and for the moment simply enables more niche players – such as Politico, Breaking Views and PressThink – to give high-grade information and opinion to those already well informed and highly opinionated.

Hind wildly overestimates the appetite for information and revelation, as he does the ability of journalism to create the kind of public he wants. But there is something large-hearted in the view that the facts will not just set us free, but allow us to be fuller citizens. Journalism should be about discovering the truth. As Mr Downie put it: “Accountability journalism is the most important function of the news media.” Those who write and broadcast have a high duty: and must have in mind, always, that it consists of educating a citizenry.

We must just try harder.

The writer is an FT columnist

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