Occupy Fleet Street: How to Democratise the British Media

« Speaking

I chaired this session on media reform at The World Transformed in Liverpool on September 23, 2018. The panel featured the following speakers, in order of appearance:

On the face of it, this panel probably sounds somewhat innocuous, and maybe not even that interesting unless you’re a journalist. Why should the left care about democratising the media? Why does it matter?

Well, it really does matter, and if you’d like to read up on this further, I would suggest the following New Socialist articles, written by three of the aforementioned speakers:

There’s an audio recording of part of the panel, available on SoundCloud. Unfortunately, because the volunteer doing the recording didn’t manage to catch the very beginning, the recording doesn’t start until midway through the opening statements, which means that the opening remarks from myself, Laura and Angela were omitted. You can find a transcript of Angela’s talk here (though I’m personally not a huge fan of her Europe-centric approach to creating public alternatives to Google/FB/etc).

Leo’s speech in particular was quite groundbreaking. He proposed an entirely reasonable plan for democratising the media by instituting a voucher system for funding. This could initially be funded by the Labour Party itself (through its members), which would function both as a kind of prefigurative politics and would help solve the funding woes that most independent left media outlets are dealing with. More broadly, we should see this proposal as a means of funding the fundamental infrastructure required for democracy. It would also represent an extension of democratic rights into the realm of journalism: if everyone has the same amount of money, this would abolish class inequality in the funding of the media.

There’s also a pretty funny moment around 9 minutes & 45 seconds in, where Leo addresses any potential journalists in the room who might be considering writing a hit piece about this panel, and exhorts them to consider that this proposal would actually be better for them, as it would give them more freedom as journalists. Jim Waterson, media editor for the Guardian, actually tweeted about this:

Leo Watkins of Media Reform Coalition proposes a publicly-funded media system where journalists "have to go out and campaign" for support. Watkins addresses journalists in the room (I think it's just me) & says this system means I never have to write what my editor wants again.

— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) 23 September 2018

(Unsurprisingly, he did end up writing a hit piece about the session for The Guardian: ‘Propaganda of privilege’: how Labour went to war with the media ).

This idea of the voucher system was actually developed further two days after, at an IPPR fringe event for party conference (“The Big Ideas Debate with Ed Miliband”). There, Tom Mills outlined the reasoning behind the voucher system, and expanded on what it would mean for the Labour Party to fund such a system. Pretty exciting stuff, and I look forward to hearing this idea developed further (and hopefully implemented!) soon.

Below is the prepared statement of my opening remarks + questions, with some of the logistical information omitted.

Opening remarks

I’m Wendy Liu, and I’m an editor at New Socialist, which is an online publication based in the UK, and we’ve published articles on media reform from several of the speakers on this panel.

So what is this session about? Why are so many people here at 11am on a Sunday to hear about media reform? How is this relevant to politics, and specifically, the sort of left-wing politics that has brought us all to The World Transformed?

For me, the relevance of the media becomes obvious when you look at just how hostile the mainstream media has been to left-wing ideas. You only have to see the way Jeremy Corbyn has been treated by the press to realise that something is wrong with the current state of things. Jeremy Corbyn talks about nationalising railways, which most people in this country support, and the pundits respond by bringing up Venezuela or Stalin. It’s clear that the media is not speaking to what ordinary people care about - it’s misrepresenting things, deflecting, and trying to scare people away from Corbyn and the movement behind him. That means it presents a huge roadblock to any socialist agenda.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The media has the potential to be so much more - a way to hold power to account, to create the informed and engaged public needed for true democracy. A reformed media could have a crucial role to play in building the society we want to live in.

The question is how we get there. If the media is a terrain of struggle, specifically class struggle, what tactics and strategies can we use to make sure our side wins? In this panel, we’ll hear concrete proposals for reforming the media, building on Jeremy Corbyn’s Alternative MacTaggart lecture last month, but also going further.

I’m honoured to introduce the following speakers: