A curious plea for a disinterested public

Dan Hind’s clarion call for a return of the spirit of the radical political tradition rooted in English republicanism is compromised by his suspicion towards private interests.

Dolan Cummings

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One of the first articles I ever had published was an opinion piece for the Herald in Glasgow back in 1996. I argued against an impending ban on drinking alcohol in the city’s streets and parks. (At the time this was not a routine measure as it is in much of Britain today.)

When I first called the paper’s comment editor to pitch the piece, he asked what credentials I had to be pontificating on the issue. I explained that a few years earlier I had organised a demonstration against a curfew on nightclubs in Glasgow, as well as the introduction of a CCTV scheme in the city centre. This proved satisfactory: I was an activist or campaigner or some such, not just any Tom, Dick or Harry. Not just a member of the public, that is, who presumably would have been advised to send in a letter instead. My article was published and (I’m really feeling my age now) I even got paid for it.

The question of who is granted a voice in the media, and in what capacity, is a central concern of Dan Hind’s new book The Return of the Public. ‘So who is Dan Hind to be pontificating on such matters?’, you might ask. Well, he did write an interesting book on the rhetoric of Enlightenment, The Threat to Reason. The new book’s dust jacket adds that Hind was a publisher for 10 years and is now working on a programme of media reform. The book itself sets out what this means, and it turns out to have a good deal to do with Hind’s ideas about what the public is, as well as how it might gain access to the media. In short, Hind’s ideal public is not made up of individuals or groups with particular interests. Instead, it is a community of disinterested scholars. This is a very peculiar idea, but we’ll come back to that.

The media and the public

‘Media reform’ is an intriguing concept, given that the media do not constitute an institution subject to reform by a particular agency. With the significant exception of the BBC and its overseas equivalents (such as they are), most media outlets are privately owned and operate in a market, albeit one regulated in various ways by the state. Rather than cranking up such regulations as some critics would like to, however, by banning certain kinds of advertising, perhaps, or insisting on political ‘balance’, Hind proposes to supplement the existing media with a new, more accountable model, which he calls public commissioning. In the UK, this would mean the establishment of a statutory body in each English region and devolved nation. These bodies would distribute public funds (Hind proposes this should be a chunk of the revenue from the television licence fee) to investigative journalists and researchers, enabling them to pursue projects voted for by the public following pitches at open meetings. Local TV stations and newspapers run by local authorities could be mandated to broadcast or publish the results, along with other newly-emerging public outlets.

While countless objections might be made to this idea, it is worth taking seriously as a thoughtful intervention into the debate about the future of the media, which is too often characterised by despair rather than imagination. And Hind is refreshingly sanguine about the possibility that rabble-rousing anti-Semites or Islamophobes might try to manipulate such a system in pursuit of their own agendas. This is because, unlike most media critics, he has a basic respect for the public, and believes in our collective ability to see reason: ‘Whatever is true, no matter how unlikely or unpleasant, deserves to be considered. Whatever is false, no matter how pleasing or plausible, deserves to be challenged in open debate.’ Similarly, he refuses to blame the public for the dumbing down of the media, noting instead that, ‘the resort to trivia makes perfect sense in an environment where the sources claiming to offer reliable information do nothing of the sort’.

As Hind sees it, the failings of the existing media, the traditional public service model as well as the market model, not only leave journalism impoverished and unreliable, but frustrate the very possibility of a healthy public sphere. He is careful to distinguish his own argument from that for ‘public journalism’, according to which journalists should make an effort to champion public causes, but essentially within the existing institutional framework. Hind associates this model of journalism with the public as conceived by Jürgen Habermas, who wrote influentially about the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth century. ‘Though flattered with the title of public, the emerging society organised around the club, the tavern, the stage and the novel is better understood as an audience.’

For Hind, it is not enough to be kept informed of social and political developments by civic-minded professional writers. He looks instead to a more radical and participatory political tradition with its roots in seventeenth-century English republicanism: ‘Public commissioning, like the early republicans, recognises that a sovereign public can only establish itself under conditions of general participation.’

That ‘return’ in the book’s title is not that of the postwar public service ethos, then, or the old welfarist consensus generally, if implicitly, invoked by other critics of ‘neoliberalism’. And the ‘public’ Hind has in mind is not a synonym for the state. He is up to something much more interesting than that. But hang on, here comes that funny conception of what the public does mean: ‘Public commissioning will provide a means by which an actually existing public, a public of individuals who are able to act outside the constraints imposed on them in their working life, might come to approximate the ideal public of a disinterested group of scholars.’

For Hind, the problem with the media is that they are too beholden to private interests. There is more to this point than the conventional (and never entirely convincing) charge that newspapers and TV stations are no more than mouthpieces for tycoons like Rupert Murdoch. Hind sees a problem with the way public debate itself is conceived: ‘At present, reliable access to publicity depends above all on institutional position. Individuals are invited to share their views and to contend with one another in debate to the extent that they can demonstrate some private stake in the matter at hand.’ This includes trades unionists as well as business people, of course. It also includes professional experts such as think tankers and even academics, inasmuch as they are constrained by institutional pressures.

A public without interests?

Hind sees interests as private by definition, along with any concerns or responsibilities we have as part of our working lives. He takes this idea from Immanuel Kant, who made a distinction between the use of reason in a private, interested capacity and its unconstrained or ‘public’ use. Hind cites Kant’s example of a priest who endorses the dogmas of his faith in his ‘private’ capacity as a priest (and can do so in good faith provided he is not certain they are false), but who can question those dogmas when he considers them in the light of reason ‘as a scholar addressing a reading public’. This is perfectly logical in its own terms, but it must be said those terms run against any commonsense understanding of what we mean by public and private, and certainly against the use of the words in ordinary English. Most of us would talk of the priesthood as a public role, and of any doubts a priest has about the teachings of the church as private doubts.

Of course, words are used differently in different contexts, and theoretical couplets like public and private are notoriously difficult to pin down. It is useful to be reminded that a professional who sets aside institutional accountability to write ‘in a personal capacity’ is indeed addressing private views to a reading public, as a member of the public. But the problem here is not merely semantic. Hind effectively conflates Kant’s notion of public reason as a scholarly ideal with the whole idea of public participation in politics. The effect is to restrict severely what counts as properly ‘public’ participation, and even public opinion: ‘What we call public opinion takes much of its form from, and hence is substantially the instrument of, private interests.’

The example given above of trade unionists is as a reminder that ‘private interests’ are not always about wicked capitalists plotting to hoodwink the masses. When the masses look to their own interests, then in Hind’s terms they do so not as a public, but as individuals or at best as a private group or groups pursuing collective private interests. But isn’t the latter a pretty good definition of a public? Just because there is no popular movement in Britain today consistently articulating the interests of those outside the elites does not mean we should see ‘private’ interests per se as somehow inimical to public life.

This highlights a tension within the republican tradition historically. Certainly, republican thinkers tended to emphasise public spirit, self-sacrifice and indeed loyalty to the nation over private interests. But the Bastille was not stormed by a community of disinterested scholars. Republican ideas always appealed to particular sections of society and served as a vehicle for particular interests, and were not necessarily tarnished by this. The later emergence of class politics reflected the fact that some conflicts simply could not be resolved through reasoned debate. Sometimes it depends whose side you take.

Hind’s commitment to the idea that media reform is the way to change society leads him to the startling claim that, ‘Injustice must base itself on lies’. Unless injustice is defined so narrowly as to make the statement tautological, it is just not true. Almost every social injustice, from the oppression of women to the exploitation of labour, can and has been justified ideologically, to the point of being common sense. And ideologies are not exposed by investigative journalists, but defeated by political movements, typically comprising a potent mixture of interests and ideals.

For Hind, though, interests are to be exposed rather than fought over, and when the facts are out all reasonable people will agree. So, for example, he says: ‘The financial crisis has shown that neoliberal reform of the public sector has left the state unable to protect the general interest.’ This assumes there is such a thing as the ‘general interest’, which is by no means obvious. Of course, if the public had better understood the uncanny operations of the financial economy things might have been different, but how exactly? Who was offering a credible alternative to ‘neoliberal reform’, and in whose interests? What is in the general interest now, and how do we get it?

Marxists used to reject the idea of the national interest altogether, on the grounds that the interests of the international working class were directly opposed to those of national bourgeoisies. That’s a position that ultimately made sense only if you believed in the possibility of world revolution, a possibility that has now been removed beyond doubt for the foreseeable future. But that does not render the idea of a general interest any more straightforward, or tell us how we might effectively pursue it. The more we understand about the political and economic situation we are in, the better. But the overarching question of political agency is not one that can be answered by investigative journalists.

The public and freedom

‘The public’ is not a bad place to start, however. Certainly, it makes more sense than looking to the bankrupt political class for solutions, or expecting traditional class politics to reemerge. But a public of disinterested scholars committed to the general interest seems a particularly bloodless and uninspiring model. Curiously, if characteristically, Hind looks for inspiration to the bespectacled John Dewey, who described what he sees as a similar crisis in the US in the 1920s. Dewey worried that industrial technology and organisation had transformed American society, replacing the face-to-face interactions of small communities with vast, impersonal bureaucracies. He argued that for democracy to survive, the public would have to come together as a ‘great community’, reviving the spirit and habits of the early republic. ‘It may not be clear precisely what Dewey had in mind when he talked of a “great community”’, Hind concedes, ‘but his instinct to seek the resources for reform in the traditions of republican self-government was, I think, sound’.

Though Hind doesn’t mention it, one can’t help thinking of David Cameron’s Big Society here. However self-serving and ill-defined, the Conservative prime minister’s big idea certainly evokes a similarly nostalgic vision of a vibrant and autonomous civil society. The problem is not simply that this is a screen for spending cuts, but that Cameron and his colleagues think it is the state’s job to foster civil society. Moreover, they’ve wedded the idea to an authoritarian ‘nudge’ agenda, so instead of republican self-government, we get official licensing and regulation of everyday life. Well, that’s one way of conceiving the return of the public, so Hind is surely right to see the question of freedom as a crucial one in this context.

Cameron’s approach is very different from the traditional right-wing liberalism Hind takes on in his useful discussion of different conceptions of freedom. Hind emphasises that a genuine public requires more than the ‘negative liberty’ traditionally favoured by the right, the freedom to be left more or less alone while the ruling class gets on with running things. In the republican tradition, freedom requires that citizens have an active role in government. Critics of such ‘positive liberty’ have long contended that this leads to tyranny, however, as idealists and dreamers trample proper freedoms in pursuit of some greater good.

Isaiah Berlin famously argued that negative liberty is about limiting authority as such, while proponents of positive liberty simply want it for themselves. Hind responds by insisting, ‘The point for republicans is that “authority as such” can only be limited effectively when a public of citizens is its sole source’. This is true, and an important rejoinder to those who see laws like the Human Rights Act as a reliable guarantee of civil liberties, and the great unwashed as the major threat to them. But the implication that republicanism is primarily about limiting authority concedes too much to Berlin. More than that, it is about exercising political power. And this is the most important sense in which a genuine public differs from a community of disinterested scholars.

Rather than simply defining the public in opposition to self-interested elites, we can understand it as a polity. And rather than ruling private interests out of public debate, we can see the public sphere as precisely the place where private interests are made public, through open discussion and argument. We can recognise when people are speaking in favour of their own interests, whether personal, professional or corporate, and neither swallow their arguments uncritically nor dismiss them out of hand. But democratic decision-making is not an academic affair – any more than the pursuit of knowledge is a democratic one. The naked self-interest of the majority trumps any argument, however reasonable, unless that majority can be persuaded to act against their immediate interests for some reason, not as scholars but as particular people with lives to live and bills to pay, as well as dreams and aspirations. Naturally, a well-informed public is less likely to be manipulated by minority interests – Hind’s major concern – but they will make calculations with their own interests and ideas in mind, as long as they are free to do so.

Crucially, however, much public opinion has nothing to do with private interests narrowly understood. Take attitudes to public drinking. Recent measures to ban or curtail the consumption of alcohol in public parks and streets are presented as a response to public disapproval and anxiety, but represent a narrowing of our understanding of what public means. My own criticisms of such developments stem not from a private interest in drinking in the street (though it’s nice to have the option), but from a concern that the transformation of public spaces into hyper-regulated, ersatz private spaces reflects a deeper diminishment of public life. Significantly, the prejudice that only self-interested tobacco companies and their minions could seriously object to smoking bans has stifled and distorted public debate about that related development. I wrote my Herald article on the Glasgow booze ban neither as a self-interested street drinker nor a disinterested scholar, but as someone politically interested in the issue precisely as a member of the public.

What I wrote then, and much of what I write today, was neither scholarship nor investigative journalism. Those are both vital enterprises in a democracy. But what I wrote was propaganda – not in the sense of something deceitful or misleading, but in the morally neutral sense of writing meant to spread certain ideas and opinions. The same could be said of Hind’s book – though The Return of the Public also contains a fair deal of scholarship. Propaganda also has a place in public debate, perhaps especially as a means of challenging ideas that are accepted uncritically as ‘enlightened’ opinion, or as serving the ‘general interest’. The word ‘propaganda’ might be tainted, but most people understand the value of vigorous, partisan argument – substantiated where necessary by scholarship and investigation – in politics and other controversial areas. If public commissioning does take off in the UK, I’ll be there with a pitch or two.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas.

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