A Commonwealth of Speech: Communications and the Constitution of Local Government

Dan Hind

Regime Change in the Structure of Communications

This is a moment of profound change in the structure of communications. We are moving from a broadcast-led system to one in which digital platforms predominate. Though the process started in the last years of the twentieth century it has gathered pace in recent years and now coincides with the intellectual collapse of the neoliberal project.

As in the transition to broadcast in the 1920s this moment has inspired a good deal of utopian optimism. In its early years radio was closely associated with the universities and its potential as an agent of general enlightenment was much discussed. The internet, which also emerges out of military planning, was similarly hailed from the 1990s onwards as an instrument for enhancing, even perfecting, democracy.

This optimism is now fading and there are calls for individual abstention, more informed consumption and government regulation – the full pharmacopoeia of liberal reformism. Much more marginal and disreputable is the correct response, which is democratic and alive to the dangers of both state and private domination in the political process, and which, crucially, understands the connections between the distribution of knowledge and the distribution of power.

A Constitutional Response

So what does a democratic response to the shift to digital look like? It registers the constitutionalsignificance of the communicative order; it is not something that can be left to elected officials, civil servants or judges to manage on their own initiative. Rather, it must be established in accordance with clearly defined principles so that it can be then be given an institutional form that is proof against both overt intimidation and subversion by stealth. Vague references to ‘the fourth estate’ can then give way to a clearly defined account of communicative equality. By this I mean an equal right for all citizens to engage in the production and reproduction of effectively public speech.

I have discussed communicative equality and its institutional implications in more detail in a paper for the Democracy Collaborative’s Next System Project, The Constitutional Turn (Hind 2018). But it is worth pausing to consider the difference between a media system characterised by communicative equality and the current arrangements. At the moment, as ordinary citizens we only become newsworthy when we catch the eye of a member of the elite in the form of a senior journalist or editor. When you think about it, it is a disgusting system. Instead of claiming a right to be heard we must present ourselves to our social superiors as worthy objects of attention. (The fact that we sometimes catch the eye of an editor because we have clambered to prominence in a scramble for attention online shouldn’t obscure the point.)

Our ability to tell stories, give evidence, and to learn from others with whom we engage as civic equals, is key to an overdue process of demystification, in which the state-economic order stands revealed as something synthetic and open to reasoned transformation. This implies the need for change at the national level – through reform of the BBC and the creation of public media resources that are recognised and protected by the constitution and the courts.

Local Media is Never Simply Local

Local government is an important element in this constitutional-communicative order. The operations of the local state and economy matter in their own right and need to be subjected to attention and investigation by an invigilating public. Furthermore, the local is where we begin to develop a body of shared descriptions and understandings of the world based on lived experience. The current communicative order is prey to a kind of cosmopolitan parochialism, in which the world-views of a few thousand  people – educated, affluent, white people for the most part – stand in for those of the country as a whole across a range of topics. The overwhelming effect is to naturalise oligarchy. The few who control the process of mediation find themselves in happy accord with the few that control the production of both material goods and immaterial power. 

At the moment the digital shift is in some ways heightening this tendency to parochialism at the centre, by creating an affinity of interests between, say, the BBC and Google, that draws the attention of senior journalists and executive upwards and away from the periphery, towards the global centres of information power and communicative inequality.

But the local is only really comprehensible in terms of the national and the global. The shared experience of life in provincial England needs to be understood in terms of a wider phenomenon of disinvestment and rent extraction that is common to much of Europe and North America (see Brown and O’Neill, 2016; Howard and O’Neill, 2018). Remedies, too, will only be discovered and adopted if these places can communicate with themselves and one another more effectively. Local media that limit themselves to a narrow field and leave, say, ‘politics’, or ‘economics’, not to mention ‘political economy’, to the national media will end up misleading their audiences about what is happening and about what can be done differently. Truly plural local media, on the other hand, will develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the places in which they operate, and of the wider world.

Democratic Pluralism

Plurality of views is secured through a mixture of rights and institutions – the principle of communicative equality is given substance at local, regional and national level by institutions in which citizens act as plural subjects – as inhabitants of a town, city or village, but also as national citizens, as Europeans, as citizens of the world, or as fortuitously sentient bits of the biosphere.

In concrete terms, communicative institutions and rights can only be understood in relation to state institutions. The first step to democratic oversight of the state is the systematic introduction of democratic participation into its operations: juries of citizens selected at random ought to have a mandate to oversee government operations. This makes the executive and representative institutions of local government more ‘talkative’, more productive of content that is shaped by popular concerns and priorities, in dialogue with those who currently escape public attention. These juries will bring in experts as assistants and advisors and so capitalist technocracy is replaced by democratic reason.

Parallel with these juries in local government we should establish news and communications co-ops that map onto the bill-charging authorities in England. (I leave the devolved nations to one side here.) These co-operatives would be owned by the residents of each area. Residency would confer voting rights in annual elections to the board and governance would be further democratised by the creation of more oversight juries. These juries would be paid to oversee the co-ops and produce an annual report. A proportion of the budget and the communicative resources of the co-ops would be subject to a form of participatory budgeting that I have elsewhere called public commissioning.

Editorial bodies would be assigned an operating budget and some obligations in terms of universality – print distribution via the library system, assistance for those with disabilities, and so on. They would have some obligations to cover public business, council meetings, for example, but would enjoy wide discretion otherwise. Projects funded directly by co-op member through public commissioning would enjoy defined rights to use the co-ops’ resources. I have written up further proposals for local and national media reform with Tom Mills (see Hind and Mills, 2018a, 2018b).

The Implications of Democratic Pluralism

At present the state delegates important decisions about resource allocation to profit-seeking firms. Much of this could be replaced by the deliberations of the assembly, at both local level and at scale. The necessary preamble to this democratic planning, however, is the establishment of a constellation of institutions in which the people assembled can take settled form and establish an unforced, accurate, or at least corrigible, sense of itself and its priorities, based on a contested and incomplete, though nevertheless much more precise, account of the world. 

The media now bring content ‘from elsewhere’ that shapes our unmediated relations in ways that we are not encouraged to contemplate, and that we have little power to challenge. And just as it affects how we relate to one another, it does at least as much to establish the limits of the political. The result is a social order in which we are called on to take responsibility for things over which we have no real control.

Our programme now, our practical programme, is to replace this stock of unaccountable, and often very harmful, descriptions with a shared field whose nature we understand, and whose contents we can collectively shape in the light of explicitly stated and generally understood principles. The temptations of deception and self-deception will remain. There is no end to either. But we will have the means to make the best available descriptions of the world the stuff of public business. The truth alone will not set us free. But it has its part to play in the great drama of universal liberation.

References and Further Reading:

Matthew Brown and Martin O’Neill, “The Road to Socialism is the A59: the Preston Model,” Renewal, 24. 2 (2016)

Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, “The Institutional Turn: Labour’s New Political Economy”, Renewal, 26. 2 (2018)

Dan Hind, The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power, and the Case for Media Reform, (Verso Books: 2012)

Dan Hind, “The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State,” Next System Project, September 7, 2018.

Dan Hind and Tom Mills, “Public Ownership for the Public Sphere,” New Socialist, March 4 2018

Dan Hind and Tom Mills, “Media Democracy: A Reform Agenda for Democratic Communications,” in Laurie Macfarlane, ed., New Thinking for the British Economy, (Open Democracy, 2018), pp. 160-171

Ted Howard and Martin O’Neill, “Beyond Extraction: The Political Power of Community Wealth Building,” Renewal, 26. 2 (2018)

This essay is based on Dan Hind’s remarks at a conference on Equality and Democracy in Local & City Government: Theory and Practice, held at the University of York on 7 January 2019. [programme]

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Dan Hind

Dan Hind is an independent publisher and republican whose work focuses on the relationship between states and communications systems. Dan is a fellow at the Democracy Collaborative, which recently published his paper "The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State". His second book, The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power and the Case for Media Reform, won the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. He co-presents the Media Democracy podcast with Tom Mills.

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