Media matters: 'Words and Money', 'The Return of the Public' and 'Barefoot into Cyberspace'

IssueNovember 2011
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (Verso, 2010; 128pp; £12.99).
Dan Hind, The Return of the Public (Verso, 2010; 256pp; £14.99).
Becky Hogge, Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of Techno-Utopia (Bookkake, 2011; 246pp; £8.99, or available for free download from

Imagine a world without small publishers or independent bookshops – perhaps without bookshops at all – where the only cinemas are multiplexes showing films like Transformers 5, and where newspapers – their content hollowed out by falling sales and advertising revenues – have become mere conduits for government and corporate PR.

Not a million miles away from our current situation you may be thinking – and it could well be the future unless decisive action is taken now.

Vive la France?

Long-time publisher Andre Schiffrin provides plenty of concrete ideas for resisting these trends in Words and Money, often drawing upon European precedents. For example, France has a law prohibiting the discounting of book prices and provides tax breaks to some of its independent bookstores; Italy spends 700 million euros a year underwriting its press, largely through postal subsidies; and Norway’s Arts Council guarantees publishers a minimum sale on certain volumes which it then distributes to the country’s public libraries.

While many of these proposals are relatively modest and could even be adopted on a local basis, others would clearly require major political battles at the national – or even international – level to implement: for example, using existing anti-monopoly laws to break up the vast media conglomerates that are destroying the independents; or turning Google’s vast database of digitised public domain books into a public resource, available to everyone free of charge. Clearly, such battles are a long way off at present. Nonetheless, Schiffrin has provided an invaluable service – and guide – to anyone concerned about the “world of words”.

Systemic unreliability

Dan Hind takes a more radical tack in his The Return of the Public – a rich brew of ideas that can be only sampled here.

According to Hind, “[t]he coverage that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the breakdown of the financial system in 2007-8 demonstrated the systemic unreliability of the media system on which we depend”, highlighting the fact that “the civic spirit of public journalism, the participatory zeal of citizen journalism, and the resources of digital technology do not suffice to establish a widely-shared account of the world that corresponds with the facts and that can therefore provide the basis for properly public decision-making.”

Not suprisingly he favours radical changes to our media system, and – as a first step in this direction – he proposes the creation of a system of “public commissioning” to run alongside existing media institutions.

The core idea here is to enable the public to have a direct say in chosing which stories get researched and investigated.

Hind has identified £80m that is no longer needed in the BBC’s digital switchover fund. This money could be used to fund investigative journalism. Journalists and citizen researchers would submit proposals for investigations, to be made available online and in libraries.

Following a series of public meetings, where those seeking support could make their case and be questioned by the public, the public would vote on which should receive funding. The results of the investigations would then be made available to everyone, with the public having a say – again, through a vote – on how much publicity the stories should receive via public media.

A modest proposal?

This may seem like an extremely modest proposal – perhaps even, at first glance, a slightly nutty one – but Hind makes a persuasive case for its latent radicalism, arguing that it could help sow the seeds of much more substantial popular participation in the public sphere by widening the realm of civic equality (everyone’s vote has the same weight), making further experiments in popular democracy seem less daunting (learning by doing), and – most importantly – enabling the general public to enquire into the topics that they think are important.

According to Hind there are currently less than 100 full-time investigative journalists working in Britain, all of whom are dependent on professional commissioning editors for their income and audience. His proposal would provide a basic salary for 3,000 journalists and researchers to work full-time on matters of interest and concern to the general population, with potentially explosive results.

What would happen under such a system? Hind’s democratic instinct – and he may well be right – is to give people some credit, and trust (most of) them to do the right thing.

Would people vote to dig deeper into the details of Britney’s love life (material already available in abundance through existing commercial channels), or would they choose to use this precious opportunity to investigate topics left largely untouched by the mainstream media: the role of offshore tax havens in the economy; the revolving door between our largest companies and most powerful political institutions; the hidden funding sources of the thinktanks that provide the talking heads for the media; or the relationship between the arms trade and foreign policy? It’s a tantalising question. Ask your friends and relatives – activist and non-activist alike – what topics they’d choose to have investigated. You might well be surprised.

Hackers and visionaries

Neither Hind or Schiffrin has much to say about the realm of digital media, a gap engagingly filled by Becky Hogge’s Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of Techno-Utopia.

In 2010, the Open Net Initiative – a collaborative research project involving the universities of Harvard, Cambridge and Toronto – reported that the internet was increasingly being subjected to an “architecture of control” imposed by police, intelligence agencies and the private sector, and that fear-inducing narratives of terrorism and child pornography were being used to normalise internet surveillance and censorship across the board.

The contrast between this and earlier, utopian dreams that the net would (in Hogge’s words) allow information to be distributed “by everyone to everyone, so that it bursts like sunlight into every nook and cranny of the intellectual landscape” lies at the heart of her book.

A former director of the Open Rights Group, Hogge’s first-person narrative sees her visiting the Chaos Computer Club’s annual conference in Berlin, interviewing hackers, activists and visionaries, as well as recapping some of the history of the technology that we now all take for granted – all the while casting a wry eye over proceedings. Critical issues such as copyright, digital privacy, surveillance and online censorship are deftly and painlessly explained along the way. If you’re an activist then you need to care about the media, and if you care about the media then, like it or not, you really need to care about digital media as well.

Hogge’s book provides an excellent place to start. I only wish I’d had it to hand when we first began programming the RMC!

Topics: Media
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