Professional pride, RH Tawney, and the future of the media: a reply to Reuben, John, Sunder and Donnacha
1. The fall of the News of the World: comment, challenge, wider opportunity
Of the millions upon millions of words written about the News of the World affair in the last few days, the most interesting have been the ones focused on how we get better newspapers in the future. Amongst these, three particular articles have stood out:
Reuben at the Third Estate, on why a rush to more regulation is not needed:
What the likes of Geoffrey Robertson are calling for now, is full and explicit regulation of the press, backed up state power.
This would undoubtedly be a backwards step for our democracy. If we are opposed to censorship, then there is no way we can demand that an external body with officially sanctioned powers be given the general right to haul papers over the coals for what they publish. And as a citizen, I do not want or need a state-backed body to decide what I can and cannot read………..
But perhaps more importantly, the News of The World scandal has shown that, when it comes to checking the worst elements of the British media, state coercion isn’t the only show in town. It was civil society that forced the News of The World to shut down……..
The principle of a free press goes hand-in-hand with our ability as citizens to cast judgements, and to deploy our own civic rights in campaigning against what we despise.
John Lloyd (with Sunder Katwala responding) in the Financial Times on a different type of self-regulation:
[W]e have a dilemma. State-backed regulation is seen as illiberal, and would be opposed (on liberal grounds) by all of the press. Yet self-regulation….has proved self-serving and supine.
The answer to this dilemma is not to create a new regulator with statutory backing. Instead it is to increase the group’s base of stakeholders – and to include in the number of institutions making up that base the government itself, as a representative of the public interest.
[A] new organisation should be established, which I would call the Journalism Society, in a similar vein to the Law Society, the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales.
Donnacha Delong (NUJ President) at Comment is Free on how unions are best placed to counterbalance NOTW-like excess:
There is no doubt that journalists working in the News of the World at the time were under extreme pressure to produce exclusives and stress was a major factor……It’s no surprise some journalists took short cuts in these circumstances.
The NUJ could have had an impact……. A well-organised union provides a counterbalance to the power of the editors and proprietors that can limit their excesses.
All are good, sensible articles, as far as they go. All of them are focused on how we might make things a little less bad in the future, but operate in within the a paradigm that press excess is an inevitability, and that we must set up the best mechanisms we can to restrain it next time around.
So while I think these articles act as a useful starting point, I want to push the boundaries of the possible a little to examine how the Left, if we get our political organisation might seize the opportunity afforded by the new, unexpected toxicity of Murdoch’s media empire, to start to develop new forms of media which do not need regulation because they are not driven by the same motives and culture.
Moreover, I want to set out how this might be allied to a wider movement to ‘do things different;y when it comes to professional/industrial (self)-organisation.
2. What Tawney tells us
One of the things that has struck me since the NOTW closure was announced is the way the editor and other journalists speaking to the media about the final edition were so keen to stress their and their colleagues sense of professionalism; indeed Colin Myler at one point seemed less offended by the whole idea that the paper was being shut down than he was at reports that Sun journalists had been put on hold to cover NOTW journalist absences.
At first hearing, I thought this seeming loyalty to the paper quite bizarre, but increasingly it seems to me that this professional pride creates a useful starting point for where we go from here. I was reminded of what RH Tawney had to say about ‘Industry as a Profession’ 90 years ago:
A Profession may be defined most simply as a trade which is organized, incompletely, no doubt, but genuinely, for the performance of function. It is not simply a collection of individuals who get a living for themselves by the same kind of work. Nor is it merely a group which is organized exclusively for the economic protection of its members, though that is normally among its purposes.
It is a body of men who carry on their work in accordance with rules designed to enforce certain standards both for the better protection of its members and for the better service of the public.
The standards which it maintains may be high or low: all professions have some rules which protect the interests of the community and others which are an imposition on it. Its essence is that it assumes certain responsibilities for the competence of its members or the quality of its wares, and that it deliberately prohibits certain kinds of conduct on the ground that, though they may be profitable to the individual, they are calculated to bring into disrepute the organization to which he belongs.
While some of its rules are trade union regulations designed primarily to prevent the economic standards of the profession being lowered by unscrupulous competition, others have as their main object to secure that no member of the profession shall have any but a purely professional interest in his work, by excluding the incentive of speculative profit (The Acquisitive Society, Ch. VII).
This extended definition, it seems to me, captures the essence of what both John Lloyd and Donnacha want for journalism, but in its insistence that all ‘industry; must be geared to socially useful ‘function’ (the key theme of the whole book) it also gives more than a hint about how we might go about achieving it.
For Tawney, no genuinely professionalised service or industry can develop unless it has both this clear function, and is clear from the burden of ‘speculative profit’. As he goes on to say (in a way which also fits with Reuben’s regulation-by-public-(dis)approval aspiration) :
If industry is to be organized as a profession, two changes are requisite, one negative and one positive. The first, is that it should cease to be conducted by the agents of property-owners for the advantage of property-owners, and should be carried on, instead, for the service of the public.
The second, is that, subject to rigorous public supervision, the responsibility for the maintenance of the service should rest upon the shoulders of those, from organizer and scientist to labourer, by whom, in effect, the work is conducted.
Boiled down to its essence, this means that the public will only be properly served by industry (including the media) when a) it is ‘professionally’ run by people who care about their function; b) it is not owned by people like Murdoch. It is not an either/or. Both elements must be present.
3. Realising Tawney
But how do we get from here to a Tawnian there? It is unlikely, even in the current frenzy, that the Murdoch brand will come to be so toxic that he has no choice but to sell off News International to a hastily put together workers’ buyout (though the idea of the NUJ joining forces with the new philanthropists Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, George Michael and a strategically disinvesting then reinvesting Church of England for a takeover bid does have its attractions, should they want me to put together a basic business plan).
More likely, I’d say at this stage, that if Murdoch does go for the rapid sale of NI, it’ll end up in the hands of media barons/speculators who operate by the same basic principles as Murdoch. For every Murdoch there’s a couple of Conrad Blacks.
From the Left’s perspective, there is a slightly longer game to be played , though we should be looking to develop our alternatives in the ideological space that Murdoch’s crisis is now creating. When else might we have a better opportunity than when the interests of celebrities, the main organs of civil society, the general public are ‘decent’ journalists are so explicitly aligned.
The medium term objective, I suggest, should be nothing less than the establishment of one or more worker-run press organs, set up on a thoroughly professional basis, but in direct challenge to both the current editorial line AND business model of the current rightwing-dominated media set-up.
As a principle, any such newspaper should subscribe to the main ethical stance of the current NUJ around the conduct of journalists, while avoiding the constraining, and fundamentally illogical, commitment formally espoused by much of the journalism community to ‘fair and impartial’ coverage of events.
You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to work out that, in press as in life, there is no such thing as impartiality, and that to kowtow to such a line would be to fight the rightwing press with a hand behind the back. ‘Facts can remain sacred, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be fresh, worker-led interpretation of those facts.
Of course it’s not easy to set up a national newspaper from scratch, without fairly massive financial backing, and it only be a happy congruence of events of the type envisaged above which might make this happen.
More realistically in the short term the NUJ, with the explicit backing and support of our newly energised Labour party leadership, should be putting its energies into the development of local and regional worker-led titles, particularly in areas where such press has either died off completely because of the way the title main owners, principally Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press, have squeezed what are fundamentally profitable ventures till their journalists and other staff squeak, in the pursuit of quick dividends.
The NUJ can’t do this alone, of course, with the resources at its disposal. It will need the help of other unions, whose regional officers should be chomping at the bit to support regional titles sympathetic to their current members concerns and to the idea of union recruitment, and that will need the policy support of Labour to set up. Here there is a direct link to the ‘Modern Trades Council’ project we advocated in TCF’s Refounding Labour submission.
In addition, bodies like the Media Trust, in alliance with higher education, have already done a lot of good groundwork to establish the latent market for decent quality regional and local journalism, and they should be encouraged and supported to take the next vital steps, which might include raising start-up loan finance from like-minded Trusts and Foundations, as well as ‘alternative equity’ from a range of investors as interested in long-term socially valid products as the are in short-term dividend income.
None of this is impossible. A lot of the stuff about how to develop alternative financing has been around for a while now, and social enterprise/co-operative structures are very well-established.
What has been lacking to date has been a mixture of journalistic introversion (and a slightly snobby reluctance to get hands dirty with the financial elements), and a sense – despite the evidence to the contrary – that it just can’t happen in the face of rightwing press hegemony. Now, at last, is an opportunity to show that there is an alternative way of doing journalism a way which combines professional integrity and expertise with a commitment to Tawnian ‘function’, which would make the old dead bloke proud.
4. Beyond journalism
Of course, if the newspaper industry can be re-engineered toward social purpose and function in this way, so can many other industries and public services.
Space here does not permit an extrapolation of Tawnian theory to other areas of the economy, but in a subsequent post I’ll return to the theme, by focusing on the care industry; like the media, the care industry is currently nearing the awful but logical conclusion of its domination by speculative profit-makers, and as with the phone-hacking scandal it has been (and continues to be) plagued by terrible ‘professional’ practice which exploits and abuses those who society should be caring for most carefully because the very concept of professional integrity has become null and void.
Yet there are alternatives, and the Left and Labour needs to be getting its head round the political organisation and commitments which might realise the ideals of 1920 post-guild socialism to a post-Murdoch/Southern Cross 2010s.
And as Cameron starts to finger the self-destruct button, with his panic-stricken, attention-deflecting speech for the sell off to speculators of all public services (the stuff about sale to charities and social enterprises is a fig leaf for this), the timing may again be opportune.
That’s as long as the Left and Labour are brave enough to take the Right on its own game, with all the difficult but necessary re-conception of what the State actually is, and is for, in a post-welfare state world.
But that’s another post.