No democracy without informed citizenship

What hope is there for a re-invigorated democracy in an age of press misinformation and data deluge?   The battle for democratic renewal is also a battle about the control of information: who owns it and what they do with it. We urgently need a ‘new commons of information’ in which Assemblies for Democracy takes a lead (two examples given)

A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth”.

So said Peter Oborne, the former chief political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph on his resignation from that paper following its fraudulent coverage of the recent HSBC tax dodging scandal. HSBC, one of Europe’s biggest banks, helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets, while circumventing domestic tax authorities. HSBC also happens to be one of the Telegraph’s biggest advertising clients and recently lent its billionaire owners, the Barclay brothers, £250 million for one of their business ventures.  No small wonder then that the Telegraph refused to run stories on the HSBC scandal; it simply had too much to lose.

Yet as Peter Oborne, pointed out, the biggest losers were the Telegraph readers:  a leading UK newspaper had abdicated its responsibility to tell the truth about an issue of vital public concern. As Peter Oborne  pointed out ,  “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril”.

Nor has the State been any less successful in cowing a ‘free’ press to do its bidding.  The current government has intimidated sections of the media to either downplay or spin the whole issue of mass surveillance by GCHQ.  With the exception of the Guardian, an otherwise spineless British Media has either ignored or even followed a government line that positions the human right to privacy – and human rights in general – as serving only to protect terrorists and criminals. The whistle blower Edward Snowden Snowden has rightly called the UK media’s coverage of the GCHQ story “a disservice to the public.”[i]

The increasing role of corporate PR in the production of news

While these two recent examples stands out as two of the most blatant acts of the press failure to publish real news, there is another less dramatic, more insidious shift in news reporting that has been taking place.

A study done by the Cardiff School of Journalism in 2006 exposed the degree to which the quality and independence of British Journalism was being compromised by its increasing reliance on ‘pre-packaged news’ provided by PR and wire services:   19% of newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories were verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material, while less than half the stories they looked at appeared to be entirely independent of traceable PR[ii] . The main source of PR is the corporate/ business world, which the report states is “more than three times more successful than NGOs, charities and civic groups at getting material into the news”.  Consumer, business and entertainment stories score high on PR content but the greatest volume of PR generated material is health, particularly from    health and pharmaceutical industries[iii].

Agency or wire services accounted for 47% of the press stories but here too, corporate PR material was evident in the content provided to newspapers.

As journalists are required to do more with less time, “ready-made” news comes to replace independent journalism with little effort made to contextualise and verify the main source of information.  The research found that    in less than one in five cases was this done meaningfully[iv]. Broadcast news does better, with 42% of cases involving thorough contextualisation or verification.

Although this study is dated, it is unlikely that the corporate PR machine is any less effective in its efforts to shape the press and TV media coverage of the news we receive – and we have not even touched on Sky News owned by Rupert Murdoch!

At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, there is a growing public distrust in mainstream media revealed by a YouGov  poll in August 2014. This showed that only 45% of British people trusted upmarket newspapers such as the Times, Telegraph and Guardian, with less than half that (22%) for the Mail and Express and only 13% trusting the red topped tabloid newspapers the Sun and Mirror. BBC journalism scores 61% but it is Wikipedia that topped the list with 64% trusting it to tell the truth “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.

The internet, social media and ‘an epidemic of ignorance’

Wikipedia’s success notwithstanding, too much credence is placed on the internet and social media   as allowing us to circumvent information roadblocks at the click of a mouse.  Internet search affords almost instantaneous access to vast amounts of information but separating the wheat from the chaff, myth from fact, balanced information from sheer digital drivel,  is onerous work. And what credence can we put on Facebook’s efforts to position itself as a main source of news for the tens  of millions of ‘friends’ who think that Facebook  is the internet and who never pick up a paper  or listen to radio? Our multimedia rich society, far from informing and educating us has, through the commercialisation of the internet and ‘big data’  mining of personal  information,  created new global powers and vastly extended the impact of advertising to create new wants and a new economy of  endless distraction.

Whether it is  editorial policy, or a Facebook algorithm, increasingly we are being served ‘junk news’ that filters out the real issues of the day,  leading to what Dr Jonathan Sachs has called an ‘epidemic of ignorance’, a collapse of the public’s basic knowledge about key issues we confront such as climate change[v].  His research in the U.S chimes with a separate   YouGov study in July[vi] 2014 which showed that that only 36% of UK adults could identify Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary while only 28% recognised Jeremy Hunt as secretary of state for health – despite the fact that the NHS was and still is one of the key issues that the public most cares about. The same survey showed that a third could not identify the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And a separate Ipsos Mori poll in 2013 highlighted the scale of public misperceptions on some of the most important issues of the day: the proportion of Muslims in England and Wales was perceived to be 24%, in reality it is 5%; the proportion of immigrants was estimated at 31%, in reality it is 13%; and more people think Job Seekers Allowance and Foreign Aid tops the list of government expenditure when in fact it is pensions, education and the NHS –  we spend 15 times more on pensions than JSA (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).

As Dr Sachs points out, “a poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvres of special interest groups that pull the strings in Washington[vii].”  As in Washington, so in London.

What then can be done?

In the face of misinformation by print and broadcasting media on the one hand and digital overload on the other, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve. However what I suggest we can do is rescue from the morass of information and digital trivia, certain key facts and data on issues that really matter.  We would then do our utmost to ensure that these stand out in stark relief and be kept ever in the public eye, regardless of the torrent of ephemeral 24 hour news that ultimately serves more to distract than inform.

I therefore propose that Assemblies for Democracy takes a first step in this direction by developing a set of basic guides on seven key issues that really matterthose that stand out as being the most important challenges of our time.   

Each guide would be   written, peer reviewed and fact checked by subject matter experts sympathetic to the vision and values of AfD.  

The high trust assigned to Wikipedia suggests there is real public appetite for trusted, balanced information and there is probably no more urgent task then finding new ways to curate   key accurate information that the public never loses sight of.

Seven basic guides on the seven most important issues of the day….

The number seven is arbitrary; it could be more or less. What those guides might be is really open to question.  Likely candidates include Climate Change, Inequality, Human Rights and the UK Constitution. The future of the NHS and public services could be a fourth.   However the whole process of choosing the subjects  probably deserves  wider discussion.

Each guide would be divided into three broad sections and should ideally be no more than 4-6 pages long for if we are to ask our new model citizen to have a basic grasp of the facts and arguments on a wide range of issues, we cannot inflict twenty page tomes of dense analysis on each subject -they will not be read!  A suggested format is as follows:

  • The first section is descriptive rather than analytical: it describes the challenge and scopes the different facets , dimensions and impacts of a particular issue e.g. inequality,  climate change along with its impacts
  • Section two is analytical: it seeks to answer the question why: what are the drivers? What are the underlying causative factors that give rise to this problem or challenge? How do these factors interact with each other? What are the conditions and broader context in which these factors operate?
  • Section three is creative: what are the possible solutions? What are the policies or innovative thinking that we can bring to bear on this issue, as a community, a people or a local assembly? This section would be short and only sketch out possibilities. The whole point here is to use this section to open up discussion and link it to crowdsourcing approaches that pull together  suggestions, ideas and  new thinking  using e-democracy tools such as Loomio and D-Cent as well as local assemblies

To give some idea of how such a guide might look, I have imagined what these might look like by  taken a first stab at developing two: Climate Change and Inequality. You can see these at the bottom of the post but please note:  I am not an expert in these subjects, nor have they been reviewed or fact checked by anyone else.  Treat them as examples.

….written under a New Commons of Information…

I have also  imagined that all seven guides would be published under a New Commons of Information – call it  The New Commons Publishing Company, a  not-for-profit community interest company with a diverse ownership that includes charities, campaign groups,  individuals, subject matter experts, social enterprises and local community group, but chiefly  local Assemblies for Democracy.

It would be largely volunteer run and its sole purpose would be to publish the seven guides in an accessible format including PDF and slideshows using Slideshare and YouTube, allowing the content to be embedded in any blog or website. Importantly, final editorial decisions would be made by community activists prior to publishing, not professional publishers or subject matter experts. This is not just about reflecting   the democratic values of Assemblies for Democracy:  community activists   are actually those most closely connected to their communities and therefore most likely to understand whether and how such information is understood and used.

…that engages the public to crowdsource solutions and take collective action

As said above, section three of any guide would only sketch out policy suggestions and proposals while encouraging a broader conversation and crowdsourced solutions using dedicated e-democracy  tools that are explicitly used for discussion and consensus building such as Loomio  and D-Cent. These could be used   as part of extended discussions that begin at local assemblies and later continue online.

The Finnish model of Open Ministry is paving the way as one of the new models of participatory democracy that crowdsources  legislation and, in collaboration with an enlightened Finnish parliament, gets citizens proposals straight to a parliamentary vote.  However it is too soon to say to what extent this exciting and innovative approach will genuinely re-shape democracy. The answer to that probably lies as much in our hands as anyone else’s.

Finally and very briefly, crowdsourcing legislation and policy proposals will likely be more effective if the ‘crowd’ – a community, an assembly, a country – is supported by a civic service (note the spelling) whose knowledge and expertise is drawn from both within and outside the traditional civil service and local government. They act as consultants to give advice and support.  They do not take decisions.

A basic guide on Inequality

A basic guide on Climate Change

[i] Guardian: A court managed what the complicit UK press couldn’t: force GCHQ to tell the truth 7-feb 2015

[ii] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006)

[iii] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006) (page 21)

[iv] Cardiff School of Journalism: The Quality and Independence of British Journalism (published 2006)

[v] Jeffrey Sachs: The Price of Civilisation pub 2012 (pg 154 and following)

[vi] YouGov: In fame, Michael Gove joins Cabinet top tier

[vii] Jeffrey Sachs: The Price of Civilisation pub 2012

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