The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind

Reviewed by Linus Rees British and American governments since Thatcher and Reagan have handed power over to the private sector and little has been done to halt the erosion of the public by market interests. In 2007 this all went terribly wrong when the current financial crisis broke and it was the public who ended up paying for it. Instead of the market being reined in, it is the public that is being cut down. The bankers and their ilk, it seems, have got away with it. For now.

Dan Hind in the Return of the Public says its time to evaluate what has occurred and sees the opportunity for citizens to re-assert their interest against the dominance of the markets. In this three-part book he discusses what the public is, how it has been sidelined, and finally how the public can return to regain control.

Liberalism has dominated politics for the last 300 years and it is this that Dan Hind spends much of his time dissecting. Much of the radical writings on liberalism were marginalised because Thomas Hobbes appealed to a compromise between the monarchy and the republicans. The writings of Milton, Winstanley and Harrington were pushed aside.

In the Commonwealth of Oceania, James Harrington argued that the citizens of a state can only be free when they determine the content of its policies. But the relationship between state and the individual in liberal writing has been dominated by what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty.

For Berlin, negative liberty is about protecting the individuals from molestation by the state. Positive liberty on the other hand is about engaging in education, discussion and the political process. But the more the individual engaged in the political process the more, according to Berlin, they would encroach on the freedoms brought about by negative liberty. Berlin distrusted positive liberty and it is this distrust which has dominated liberalism since Hobbes.

In the second part, Hind examines how public communication has broken down to such an extent that news media no longer provides an accurate picture of the world we inhabit. Instead of properly informing people about the world around them, the news media serves the interest of the powerful where vast amounts of corporate activity remain unreported.

Despite the number of alternative news websites giving a different picture and unearthing corporate activity, these sources are underfunded and reach relatively few people. Far too much of the media is dedicated to trivia and an agenda set by a small number of publishers. As a result the public is kept largely ignorant about the world.

Neither is he optimistic about social media being able to counter the dominance of the mainstream. The likes of Twitter cannot replace the in-depth analysis and investigative reporting that can come about through good journalism.

Finally Hind sets out a way of reforming news media and scientific research along the lines of a “participatory” model where the public can have more of a say in setting the news agenda. He describes how we might adopt a model of “public commissioning” of news and scientific knowledge in the public interest could be achieved.

It would mean public money being allocated to journalists and researchers who come up with proposals for informative writing which the public could decide upon. An informed public instead of being talked at would be actively engaged in public life.

If community newspapers like Fitzrovia News gained more support from public money it would go a long way to helping us report on the issues which many people tell us are important to their lives in Fitzrovia. Particularly reporting on planning, housing, the environment and public services. The time it takes to investigate issues as well as seek funding to run a citizens’ journal is beyond the work of mere volunteers.

The Return of the Public could be a manifesto for reform of the media. It should be read on courses on media studies as well as politics. This is an important contribution to understanding the relationship between power, politics, and the media.

The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind. Hardback, 252 pages. Published by Verso, London & New York, April 2011. The author will give a talk at Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross, at 7pm on Wednesday 22 June (entry £3). He has a blog at thereturnofthepublic.wordpress.com

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