A functioning democracy needs a Real Free Press

Photo: Craig Maclean

by Ken Ferguson

The media is in crisis, both globally and locally.

Around the world we have seen the collapse of numbers working as professional journalists. Politics, business and institutions are as a result at historically low levels of public oversight; corruption and plutocracy go unreported.

In Scotland, this is compounded by a clear disconnect between positions taken by media organisations and the views of a substantial portion of the population who feel that they are not represented, and that information the public is given is systematically biased on key issues in Scottish politics.

The roots of the worldwide crisis in journalism lie in two factors.

Firstly, corporate greed – a massive trend towards mergers, consolidation and cost-cutting across decades. Remaining staff are grossly overworked, important events go unreported, and pressure is constantly on to provide sales-friendly, cheaply-produced soft news.

Secondly, providing society with the news required for democratic self-government is no longer a profitable investment for capitalism.

The internet has damaged traditional media organisations – not simply in free-to-view content online, but because surveillance possible via the medium makes traditional advertising obsolete. Facebook and Google, two of the thousands of commercial entities examining your every move online, have built some of the world’s most successful corporations by marketing personal data so that advertisers can target demographics with automated precision.

In the past, it made sense for large companies to subsidise journalists’ jobs and a multifaceted media environment, because this brought in the audiences advertising desired. This is unnecessary now – advertisers know exactly who their customers are, and what they might buy, usually better than they know themselves.

Advertising revenue has collapsed across the industry; papers have been left scrabbling for new business models.

Proposed Solutions

Some newspapers have opted for an online subscriber model, using “paywalls”. Many such efforts fail because they are trivial to defeat for anyone with moderate IT knowledge.

There has been massive discussion of the rise of “citizen journalism”. The networking of citizens with ubiquitous, inexpensive communications technology allows news to reach around the world in an instant, thereby short circuiting censorship or conservative editorial control.

The internet has allowed a flowering of unheard voices, many of whom would struggle to gain access via the hierarchies of the traditional media; there are a number of new non-commercial, co-operative organisations that are doing important journalistic work (Voice of San Diego, Pro Publica, De Correspondent and Bella Caledonia to name a few examples.)

The vision represented by citizen journalism and alternative media is compelling, and has much to offer in the way of solutions. However, there remains an irreducible problem of resources and quality.

Crowdfunding and relying on philanthropy will not provide sufficient paid investigative journalists with sufficient stability to do their job. If the internet has impaired subscription or advertising as realistic revenue streams for the majority of organisations, then what are journalists to be left to other than charity crumbs?

Journalism as a Public Good

What is required is that society recognises it needs multiple media outlets independent from oligarchs and commercial interests. Quality journalism is a basic democratic need – people cannot rule themselves without reliable information.

If a democratic media is valued by society, then it must be recognised as a public good which requires public funding to sustain.
For this we need professional journalists to assist us in finding what we need to know.

The case of WikiLeaks is instructive – after posting thousands of leaked US embassy cables, it took experienced journalists to examine them and find salient, interesting information before making their explosive impact.

If a democratic media is valued by society, then it must be recognised as a public good which requires public funding to sustain.

US academics Dean Baker and Robert McChesney have developed a specific proposal for how this could be implemented in the US. It is worth considering for Scotland.

It involves a voucher being given back to all citizens, allowing them to donate a fixed sum ($200) of taxes to non-commercial media outlets of their choice. This proposal circumvents obvious complaints of state control from opponents of public funding.

New media organisations seeking such funding would have to accept no advertising. All produced material would be public domain and available to all online.

The Scottish Context

Scotland is of a size and scale where a citizen’s news voucher can win support and implementation.
In Scotland, the National Union of Journalists recently discussed the voucher concept at a major conference in Edinburgh attended by industry and the Scottish Government.

The idea was also overwhelmingly supported at the recent annual conference of the SSP.

We wouldn’t demand people consume polluted water. Instead we provide a clean water supply as a public health good. Neither should we leave provision of information vital for democracy’s continuing health to the vagaries of profitmongers.

Scotland is of a size and scale where a citizen’s news voucher can win support and implementation.

For all our futures, it’s time to make it happen.

Ken Ferguson is the editor of the Scottish Socialist Voice. He serves on the SSP’s executive committee.

Main photo: CC BY 2.0 by Jon S