Paul Anderson, Free Press, March-April 2013 

It’s a measure of how far the left has retreated in recent years that the best most media reformers can imagine to defend journalists’ independence is a “conscience clause” in their contracts to allow them to refuse their bosses’ instructions to act unethically.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea. The National Union of Journalists has supported it since the 1970s, and it was backed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on press regulation at the end of last year.

If implemented, it would provide a small but significant protection for journalists.

But it addresses only at the margins the fundamental problem of how little most journalists control what they produce. You get a lot of leeway if you’re a big name – a star broadcaster or a columnist on a quality national newspaper. But journalists are generally kept on a tight rein.

Media organisations are run by managers answering to owners or (in the case of the BBC) political appointees. The bosses set the agenda in every way: the editorial line, news values, what you cannot touch for political or commercial reasons. Journalists do what they are told.

To some extent, this is inevitable: there will always be a tension between the individual journalist’s autonomy and the collective will of his or her organisation. Any journalistic enterprise that’s more than micro, new media or old, needs editorial direction and a division of labour. But it’s quite feasible for the producers to determine both.

Why isn’t anyone today making the case for workers’ self-management in the media? One reason is that it seems unrealistic. The “right to manage” ethos is entrenched even in liberal media organisations (and it’s getting worse). Even the most diluted forms of self-management –workers on the board or a say for journalists in the choice of editor – would be resisted vigorously by those in charge. Maybe, in the circumstances, the priority is defending what little space we’ve got.

But unrealistic is not impossible. The idea that workers’ self-management in the media has been tried and failed and isn’t worth trying again is a canard.

True, there were several examples of self-managed magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s that failed:

  • The Scottish Daily News, created with the help of a large government loan by former staff of the Scottish Daily Express after it closed, lasted six loss-making months in 1975. 
  • The Leveller, a libertarian left current affairs magazine based in London, managed six crisis-ridden years (1976-82) before folding.
  • City Limits, an alternative London listings magazine, did brilliantly for several years after emerging from a strike at Time Out in 1981 (with funding from the Greater London Council) but started to lose money in the late 1980s and expired in 1992. 
  • News on Sunday, a national left-wing paper launched in spring 1987 with trade union backing, ran out of cash in weeks and closed by the end of the year.

But none of these failures shows that workers’ self-management cannot work. News on Sunday was a farcical demonstration of how not to do it – as chronicled by Chris Horrie and Peter Chippendale in their book Disaster! – and the Scottish Daily News was an attempt to revive a corpse. The Leveller and City Limits both came within an inch of success, however: it was undercapitalisation that did for them.

And times have changed. All those experiments were in print, before desktop publishing and long before the internet. The internet allows anyone to publish for free to a worldwide audience – and today you can do everything online: words, pictures, audio, video.

Yet 15 years into the internet age, it’s notable how little the potential of the web has been exploited by collaborative self-managed journalistic projects in the UK. Yes, there’s Open Democracy, there’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there are dozens of group blogs, and plenty of media and campaigning organisations have adapted successfully to the online world. But even at local level there are few independent journalism-led and journalist-run web initiatives that go further than providing forums for the expression of opinion.

Of course, journalism costs money, and no one has quite yet worked out how to make the internet pay. Open Democracy, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the successful group blogs rely for income on fundraising or selling stories to established media outlets. But there are signs that it won’t be long before a robust business model for online publication is established, through a mix of online advertising, subscriptions and micro-payments: it’s already beginning to happen in the US and elsewhere.

And once it is – well, the possibilities for self-managed media are endless. Radical journalists in Britain need to be putting a lot more thought into how, together, we can at last seriously exploit the potential of what was once known as the information super-highway.

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