Why journalists could use a Correa change

August 30, 2012
Dan Hind
Author Dan Hind wants publicly-commissioned journalism.

Ecuador's granting of asylum to WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has thrown a spotlight on the country's media policy.

In 2008, Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution. Among other things, it sought to democratise the media and ban bankers from having business interests in the media industry.

Under president Rafael Correa, the constitution was strengthened last year. Voters backed an amendment to also ban media corporations from being able to own or have shares in business interests in other industries to avoid potential conflicts of interest in reporting news.

The government has also tried to pass a new media law that would break up the corporate media monopoly. Under the new law, private media ownership would be restricted to 33% of all media outlets. The state would control a further 33% and community media would have the largest share — 34%.

In reporting on Assange's bid for asylum in Ecuador, Australia's corporate media have, predictably, attacked the country's media policy. The Sydney Morning Herald's political and international editor, Peter Hartcher, called Assange a hypocrite for seeking asylum there.

"Why? Because Ecuador, under its President of the last five years, Rafael Correa, has become one of the world's leading oppressors of free speech," wrote Hartcher. In seeking asylum in Ecuador, "Assange had stepped right into the archetypal setting for Latin American dictators".

Green Left's Mat Ward spoke to Dan Hind, British author of the award-winning book The Return Of The Public, which calls for media reform in the shape of publicly-commissioned journalism. Under his model, the public would partly decide what is reported on and investigated.

What hope do you see in Ecuador's media reforms?

It is a very interesting development. The left in Latin America has had to deal with a largely hostile private media for decades. They know how important mass media coverage can be. And the hostility has shaped the way the left has developed, I am sure.

The devil is in the details, as ever. Who will control the community media's budgets? Will they be susceptible to capture by the state? How will the public service sector be organised?

In my view, if you have a democratic structure to produce and publish journalism that is adequately funded and that can reach national audiences, then the private media can be left to its own devices, more or less.

How about other models of publicly-funded media around the world?

Well, at the moment the dominant frame is corporate versus public service models. Public service means state control, with more or less plausible checks on overt political pressure. What's missing is anything that combines collective funding with widespread participation in the editorial process.

Progressive-minded books are often critically acclaimed, yet little action is taken on their recommendations. It's been two years since The Return Of The Public came out. Can you chart the reactions to the book and progress that has been made on its recommendations?

The book hasn't been acclaimed exactly, at least not by those who reach large audiences regularly. There were a few reviews, not all of them terribly complimentary. The head of the Reuters Institute for Standards in Journalism said that I overstated my case - a review that I treasure, in a way. In private, journalists are often much more positive. But they can't get the idea of media reform past their editors.

But the book has been taken up by people online, who don't have a stake in the existing mass media settlement - and that has been very interesting. The combination of good independent publishers like the New Left Project and opendemocracy and social media has meant that the argument has reached a much wider public than would otherwise have been the case.

(The new technologies have an ambiguous effect. On the one hand they make it possible for ideas to spread without sponsorship from established media players. On the other hand they can make people think that the established media don't matter, because we can find out what we need to on the internet. That's a mistake in my view, if we are thinking about the politics of communications rather than about personal emancipation.)

In terms of progress, the idea of democratic reform of the media is gaining ground in Britain, Canada and the US, certainly. That isn't because of my book necessarily, of course. Bob McChesney and John Nicholl of the Free Press in the States have been making a similar case for citizen control of funding for journalism. So there are a few people playing the same, or similar, tunes.

In my own country, the Labour Party has toyed with the idea of some kind of democratic reform of the BBC. We'll see whether they take the ideas further. But it is difficult for those inside the existing politics/communications settlement to register publicly that it might need radical reform.

The cause of media reform will wax and wane with the other campaigns for radical change in Britain, is my guess. It will be part of the mix, if I have anything to do with it. And I think it is becoming increasingly accepted that radical reform must include the media, even if that does create problems.

What action, if any, was sparked by The Return Of The Public winning Best Book Of Ideas at last year's Festival of Ideas?

My publisher scheduled a paperback, that was one, very important, consequence of winning. Maybe it helped make the book seem a little more respectable. It didn't lead to a breakthrough or anything. But I am resigned to the long haul. It improved my mood, that's for sure.

You have said: "Our ideas always improve by meeting people with different kinds of knowledge and experience and engaging with them as equals." In what way have your ideas expressed in The Return Of The Public improved through meeting people with different kinds of knowledge since you published the book?

Talking with journalists since the book came out has made me more conscious of how difficult it is to do the job in a principled way. Technically difficult, before we come to any structural questions.

More generally, I hope I have become less dogmatic. Writing a book is an exercise in self-absorption, to an extent - it has to be. Since then, starting with the [British] student occupation [in 2010], and through last year and this, I have a better appreciation of the range of political views on the left, I hope, and I am a little less sure of myself. But I am also a good deal more confident that democracy will work, given a chance, in the media and elsewhere.

The audience for non-corporate media is relatively tiny. How does it win a bigger audience?

There are things you can do, of course. But successful market operators and state-funded media are always going to be able to mobilise much more resources.

My preference would be for non-corporate media to focus on reform of the media. If state media structures are democratised then that will give non-corporate media better opportunities to secure funding. That's assuming that they can persuade a constituency that they are doing something worthwhile.

At the moment state broadcasters have a very expensive apparatus for deciding what can and can't be shown. The money spent on that could be spent discovering new things and putting them in a meaningful context.

You have said: "Late last year I was at a meeting to discuss the reform of the UK media. I argued that public subsidies to the media should be subject to meaningful public oversight and control, along the lines I describe... An academic and journalist reacted with horror and uttered the immortal line: 'But they’ll just want stories about Rihanna!'" But my own reaction is, well, if they just want stories about Rihanna, at least that's democracy in action. Would you agree?

Yeah, if that's what happens, that's what happens. I don't think what she fears is terribly likely. The idea that people will say, yes, what we really need more of is more pictures of Rihanna, that just seems unlikely. The market is quite good at generating that kind of content.

But there's no evidence either way. It hasn't been tried. People might fritter away an opportunity to inform themselves and to form new kinds of political association in the process. They might not. They might do something else entirely. Like you say, that's democracy.

What interested me about that was the anger. How dare I suggest that people have some degree of control over the content of the public sphere!

Given media opposition to any form of public control of anything, your proposals for publicly-commissioned journalism may seem ambitious. There was perhaps a glimmer of hope in the Occupy movement, leading to your most recent book - the pamphlet Common Sense. To what extent would you say that glimmer of hope has been extinguished?

Occupy was certainly exciting at the time. That excitement can make you think that this other world is not only possible but imminent. Hope feels like exhilaration. There is bound to be a falling away of energy after something like that.

Interestingly, in Britain in 2010-2011 there had already been a mobilisation in the universities that was very similar to Occupy in important ways. Those who were involved in that weren't always very prominent in Occupy in this country.

But both groups are connecting with one another, and with others. What happens next won't have the same form as Occupy, perhaps. We're still at the beginning of a process and no one knows where it will end. The conversations happening now are every bit as important as the demonstrations, of that I am sure. This isn't over by a long way. In fact, I feel more hopeful now than I did this time last year.

Video: The Return of the Public. Dan Hind calls for wholesale reform of the media. RSA.

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