The plurality debate recognises that who owns newspapers matters, but says little about how> they’re owned; the regulation debate recognises that media need to be held to account but is focussed on external control, with little conception of the potential for greater internal accountability. But what if the media were owned differently, where journalists, executives and boards accountable for their actions to empowered readers and staff? What if media could be co-operative?
One of neo-liberalism’s greatest tricks has been to persuade the world that the politics of ownership don’t exist, drawing a veil over how power flows from control. That absence is even worse with the media, where we seem to have never known any different to powerful oligarchs. But we know that ownership matters; a newspaper not owned by a not-for-profit trust would not have given Nick Davies time and resources to pursue his story in the face of constant demands to pay shareholders dividends.
But as great as the Guardian’s ownership structure is, it – and that of any other paper – could be better. Its army of worldwide followers don’t need to choose between consuming it (or donating to it) when they could also invest in it, own it and shape it.
It works for plenty of other businesses. Customers own the Co-operative, whilst employees own the John Lewis Partnership. new sectors are successfully adopting co-operation, from the Plunkett Foundation’spubs and shops and Supporters Direct in sport. Already in the media, The New Internationalist and the West Highland Free Press are owned by their staff.
Mutual media would be independent, but regulated internally by its members; it was those members who drove the Co-operative’s adoption of fair trade well before it became commonplace. With greater employee ownership, the NUJ code of conduct could be the standard ethical template, whilst co-ownership would help make co-production with readers a genuine collaboration, not free labour to undercut staff.
So how could we get this? The easiest way is through giving a tax break on investment by readers and staff into a co-operative structures in the media. We could ensure that if groups have to divest existing titles, they’re converted into co-operatives. Regulators can stipulate that when local and regional groups want to amalgamate, or close titles, those outlets are offered to their readers and staff first. We could provide support for the creation of new outlets in communities where existing titles have disappeared rather than giving over-leveraged regional groups more freedom to ‘rationalise’ at local level. We could mutualise the BBC Trust to provide genuine accountability to licence payers and independence from the state.
All of these go against the market-centred approach modern governments have pursued, but in media policy there is a long-standing practice of intervention to achieve a public interest. If we want a public goods to be delivered by private concerns, we need those private concerns to have the DNA of accountability to a public built into them.
The big question is whether people would invest and join media co-ops, which is to say, would people care enough about their media to actively come together to co-fund and produce it? If they don’t, the that’s a far greater problem for the media than co-operation.