In The Enigma of Reason Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that the main use of reason is to justify and explain conclusions that we have arrived at sub-rationally. Some reactions to Extinction Rebellion’s blockading of newspaper distribution centres seem to me to illustrate their point. For example, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said their action “damage[s] our democracy”. Johnson said: “A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account.” And Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said that “shutting down free speech and an independent media is the first action of totalitarian regimes and dictators.” Such fancy talk attributes to the press a sanctity it does not merit. And it’s not needed. If XR had blockaded a Cheesy
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In The Enigma of Reason Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that the main use of reason is to justify and explain conclusions that we have arrived at sub-rationally. Some reactions to Extinction Rebellion’s blockading of newspaper distribution centres seem to me to illustrate their point.
For example, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said their action “damage[s] our democracy”. Johnson said: “A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account.” And Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said that “shutting down free speech and an independent media is the first action of totalitarian regimes and dictators.”
Such fancy talk attributes to the press a sanctity it does not merit. And it’s not needed. If XR had blockaded a Cheesy Wotsits factory you might reasonably object that it was interrupting people’s right to earn a living: you wouldn’t need to argue for the gustatory merits of the Wotsit. Equally, you don’t need to attribute virtues of the press in order to defend its freedom. To do so is to seek an unwarranted justification for your priors.
Instead, this issue raises some interesting questions. One is: do we actually have a free press? Rightists say we do. Which is true in the sense of there being little state control, except for onerous libel laws (and guess who they benefit). Leftists say we don’t, as a handful of billionaires control most of it. This split reflects a general divide about the nature of freedom. The right has traditionally identified this with an absence of state intervention. The left has replied that freedom in this sense often permits too much private sector inequality – for example, in working conditions. As Corey Robin argued in The Reactionary Mind, Conservatives’ talk of freedom often disguises what is really a love of hierarchy. The issue here is what type of freedom we value rather than the nature of the press itself.
If we accept, arguendo, the rightist conception of freedom here, another question arises. How much good or harm does the exercise of this freedom do?
You might think here that I’ll object to its Tory bias. In this context, I won’t. Yes, there is some evidence that the media does boost (pdf) the Tory and UKIP (pdf) vote. But people have a right to advocate voting Tory, And the media is not the only source of ideas I believe to be mistaken. Pro-capitalist ideology can arise without the aid of the press.
Instead, there are other costs.
One is that far from embodying a diversity of opinion, the media actually narrows it down. Market forces tell us this. Since it became technologically possible, we’ve seen an explosion of blogs, podcasts and alternative online publications. This would not have happened if people had been satisfied with the range of opinion they were getting from the old media. If the media were truly diverse, you’d not be reading this.
Another is that the media systematically fosters false ideas. Simon Wren-Lewis has accused it, rightly, of promoting a false picture of economics. And the admirable Mic Wright documents many other shortcomings. These are not always matters of left-right bias. The media is also biased against the social sciences. It under-reports slow but important changes, ignores the countless unseen mechanisms that create our world; and looks too much for human agency where in fact there is emergence.
Surveys show that the public is woefully ill-informed about many social facts – albeit no more so in the UK than elsewhere. This is surely a clue that the media isn’t doing the job that its advocates claim.
There’s a further problem. Contrary to Johnson’s claim, the press does not adequately hold the government to account. This is not a new phenomenon. 25 years ago Patrick Dunleavy wrote (pdf) that:
Britain now stands out amongst comparable European countries, and perhaps amongst liberal democracies as a whole, as a state unusually prone to make large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes.
This was corroborated by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King in The Blunders of our Governments.
Which points to a longstanding failure of the press to improve the standard of government – perhaps because forensic policy analysis does not shift units.
I suspect that our democracy would work better if the mass media did not exist. In such a world, people would vote more on the basis of their local knowledge and one source of correlated opinion would disappear. The conditions required for there to be wisdom in crowds would therefore be closer to being fulfilled.
Which leads to a further problem: should anything be done about this?
One strong answer is nothing, at least legally.
Breaking up the Murdoch empire would not shift the press to the left: there are lots more right-wing billionaires who might buy up his papers.
Also, there are trade-offs between values. Perhaps we must sacrifice some good governance in order to have free speech, just as with Brexit we sacrifice some prosperity for democracy. This is especially true because it is woefully naïve to think restrictions on the press will impinge only upon the Sun and Telegraph. The law is often a weapon against the weak and marginalized. Restricting free speech would mean silencing bloggers, not the Sun.
Why not instead just let market forces and demographics do their job? Newspaper circulation is dropping, and is low among the young. They are losing relevance.
Which raises another possibility. Could we use countervailing power?
We know this can work. Capitalism was much more successful – even by its own lights – when trades unions restrained management. Might a similar thing be true of the press?
I’m not thinking here merely of XR blockades, nor even of the growing influence of new media. For me, one priority for a future Labour government would be the creation of institutions of deliberative (pdf) democracy such as citizens juries. These would provide space for people to consider policy issues on the basis of evidence provided by expert witnesses. Policy formation would then become insulated from press pressure, similar to how judges strive to ensure newspapers have no influence upon criminal trials. The press would then lose its political relevance.
Libertarian Marxists have traditionally looked forward to the state withering away. With some effort we might, more justifiably, look forward to the press doing so.