progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Book review: Dan Hind

The Return of the Public is in part a history of the concept of public opinion and democratic participation. It is also a critique of the advance of neo-liberal ideas, their implementation through state and corporate bureaucracies, and of the diminished concept of the “public service ethos” of elite institutions.

Dan Hind's proposal for media reform deserves serious consideration, especially in the wake of “hackgate”, the MPs' expenses scandal, and the global financial crisis which resulted in the British banking sector receiving a bailout with public funds.

The good work of a few journalists to investigate allegations of corruption in high places has struggled to make waves in the face of hostility or indifference, and from the institutional constraints imposed on their work by the current system of commissioning news content.

Consider the MPs' expenses scandal: a story Heather Brooke worked on for a number of years. When the story was offered to the News of the World, it was turned it down because it wasn't sexy enough. A story about the structure of political power was rejected as it took place in an insufficiently titillating milieu. Hind borrows the distinction between structure and milieu from C. Wright Mills, along with a separation between mass and public forms of media, and uses these concepts to critique existing public service broadcasters like the BBC.

When the expenses scandal did break, the emphasis was on bath plugs and duck houses – expenses data was searched for evidence of outrageous claims which would attract the attention of the masses and thus sell newspapers. A public media would have asked more searching questions about the effect of privilege on the legislative output of parliament – and years before any hint of widespread abuse of expenses.


Hind suggests part of the license fee should be set aside for “public commissioning”. Power over allocating resources for investigative journalism would be given to the people through the ballot box. Citizens would vote on the journalistic projects they would like to see funded.

For example, a team of journalists within a large town, city, or sub-region, could put forward proposals to produce news content for that locality. Funding would be proportional, thus preventing the localisation of resources and journalism co-operatives operating at a national level to compete for funding.

This reform would introduce democratic participation to the functioning of public service broadcasting, and extend funding of public service journalism to print media, whether in the form of newspapers, magazines or websites.

Public commissioning would give to citizens the powers that they exercise elsewhere, which Albert Hirschman called “exit, voice, and loyalty”. It is also reminiscent of Paul Hirst's model of associative democracy or associationalism, where autonomous organisations periodically bid for state funding in a process decided by ballot.


To the commonplace assumptions of a dichotomy between state institutions and market-oriented enterprise, public commissioning offers a distinct democratic challenge. Choice takes place in the context of the formal equality of democratic participation (“one member, one vote”) rather than the inequality of purchasing power within a marketplace (“one pound, one vote”).

On his blog for the book, Hind makes use of the micro-payment system Flattr, which allows users to distribute an amount of money each month to content-creators. Flattr is not an example of Hind's proposal in action – because rather than commissioning projects in advance of their production, users are in effect rewarding the content-creators and content that they have consumed already – but it gives some indication as to the ease with which the commissioning process could take place.

Social networking has had spatial and temporal effects on journalism with reportage involving more sources from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Though Flattr provides a means for rewarding news and commentary emerging from the blogosphere and social networks, Hind's arguments in the book are strong enough to make a distinction between recognition in the marketplace and the process of commissioning. (Having said that, if sites like Flattr grow in stature, it may be possible for a small number of content-creators to fund future projects – though clearly this is merely a form of implicit support.)

What is remarkable about The Return of the Public is that Hind does not confine himself to media reform – indeed, he spends more than half of the book constructing theoretical and historical arguments for republican governance.

In advocating a change to company law to boost employee ownership and workplace democracy, Hind does not lose sight of macroeconomic considerations, and he realises the need for monetary reform to create a public system of credit.

Hind has produced a valuable work which deserves to be as widely read as The Spirit Level. It is a must-read book, especially for Labour Party members concerned about the influence of media barons like Rupert Murdoch. I recommend you buy the book, read the blog, and Flattr the author.

1 comment:

  1. Again the same question of Democracy to the experts. Dan Hind cleverly traced all historically , political and intellectual elites ..well done..!

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