The question of representation

It is time that public subsidies to the media are made subject to meaningful public oversight and control

The opinion of those considerd poor, are all but excluded from the mainstream media [GALLO/GETTY]

This week, the Guardian has published research by Kira Cochrane that quantifies something so obvious that it is rarely discussed; the field of publicity in Britain is an overwhelmingly male preserve. Men vastly outnumber women as named writers in newspapers and as contributors to the most influential broadcast panel discussions (Any Questions and Question Time on Radio 4 and BBC1 respectively) and radio news broadcasts (Radio 4’s Today Programme). In almost every medium, authoritative speech that reaches a national audience is much more likely to come from a man than from a woman.
This is a serious problem in itself, and it is a problem that relates to other inequalities in the media. On one recent edition of Any Questions the reporter, Jonathan Dimbleby, announced jauntily at the outset that three of the four panelists were the sons of fathers who had themselves appeared on the programme. Dimbleby is, of course, the son and the brother of famous broadcasters. As society becomes more steeply unequal, public status once again comes to seem like something that is passed from father to son. This, too, is deeply problematic and, like the relative obscurity of women, it points to the biggest problem of all.

People earning less than the median wage – around £499 a week – are a tiny minority on the panel of the mainstream discussion shows. Things being what they are on Fleet Street, the occasional article will be written by an eccentric who barely scrapes a living, but, again, this will be extremely rare. Hardly anyone who isn’t embedded in the top half of earners has an opportunity to speak to a national audience in a context where they can expect to be taken seriously.

And if one considers those who are defined as poor – those who earn less than half of the national average, say – then the exclusion is all but complete.

To put another way, the top 10 per cent of wage earners outnumber the bottom 50 per cent in the field of publicity to an extent that leaves the concerns and assumptions of the very well off looking normal and mainstream. Meanwhile, at least half the population comes across as peculiar and somehow unrepresentative. It is a kind of magic that makes the majority into a minority.

The poor do appear in the media, of course, but notice how and where they appear. Owen Jones has traced an ongoing campaign of vilification in the national press in his book Chavs. And when the poor riot, their actions are interpreted by politicians and opinion-formers who are, to put it neutrally, not poor. Recent research into their motives has reached only a fraction of the audience who heard the confident denunciations of their behaviour as ‘mindless criminality’. The poor are spoken about, for the most part, when their behaviour becomes disruptive or cannot be ignored. They have few opportunities to speak for themselves at any time. They feature instead as entertainment on programmes like the Jeremy Kyle Show or as recipients of largesse from the well-meaning rich, as in The Undercover Millionaire and all too many similar shows.

Those on low incomes are free to take part in phone-ins. But this does not usually count as an opportunity to intervene in the national debate in any meaningful way. They respond to an agenda set by others and they are under pressure to stay on topic. Compare the treatment people calling Any Answers receive with the latitude given to the banker Lloyd Levene on Any Questions when he started talking about his wonderful plans for a new high street bank.

The way to tackle this is not, I think, to enforce quotas so that panelists and other public speakers become more representative of the population as a whole. Our gender, class and ethnicity informs our experience, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can speak authoritatively on behalf of others. It makes more sense to move from a system of representation to a system of participation, where each of us has some power to affect the field of publicity directly. At the moment, we pay quite large subsidies to media organisations and leave it to them to determine how this money is spent. They decide what is investigated and discussed. They strive to take account of their audiences’ stated preferences. But – and notice the elegance of fix – audiences’ views about the media depend very heavily on information that the media themselves provide. Complaints about the comparative absence of women are rejected by producers on the grounds that the issue ‘almost never comes up as an issue from the audience … I suppose it might be two letters a year, or something of that nature’. My guess is that people are even less likely to complain about the near-complete absence of poor people from, in J.A. Hobson’s phrase, ‘all important avenues of intelligence’. People don’t complain about an exclusion so complete as to be unremarkable.

Other criticisms that don’t fall in a quite narrow spectrum of dissent can be – and are – dismissed for being paranoid or incorrigibly cynical. We now know that a fair and sensible response to most business and economics coverage before 2007 would have been ‘I don’t believe a word of it’. We also now know that much of what News International was publishing in recent years was derived from illegal activity. The list continues. There are all kinds of true claims that are pretty much inadmissible as public speech at any given time. They are also, as it happens, often articulated by poor people, if you take the time to ask them what they think. University graduates are, I would guess, more prone to child-like faith in the conventional nonsense than the people who clean their houses.

That’s not to say that any group has a monopoly on virtue or vice. The point about an unrepresentative public sphere is that it demeans us all. We all end up misled and ill-informed about each other and ourselves. We can only remedy this if decisions about what is to be investigated and discussed in public are subject to meaningful public control. What passes for public life is currently shaped in private by individuals whose very power means that they can never be representative of the population as a whole.

It is time to put a stop to this. Public subsidies to the media must be made subject to meaningful public oversight and control. Each of us, in virtue of our being a citizen, should have some power that we can pool with others in order to direct investigations, and to publicise the results. We have left public speech and status to a handful of professionals for too long. If we are serious about wanting to know what is happening around us we will have to play an active part in shaping the field of publicity.

Feminists and other campaigners for social justice will try all kinds of things to secure representation in the media. Some of them will work, some won’t. Their success at the moment depends on their catching the eye of one of a relative handful of decision-makers in the media. A system that requires civil society to assume the attitudes of a courtier in order to win over unaccountable magnates is surely no longer tolerable. Why can’t sincere and impassioned people have some means to reach their fellow citizens in conditions of equality, some opportunity to make their case that doesn’t depend on the say-so of a producer or editor?

Universal participation in shaping the content of public speech is not a utopian demand, though it will seem to be to those who currently decide what is made public. Participation is also the best way to ensure that those who are currently excluded or marginalised can join the conversation on their own terms. Participation is also the best way – the only way I can see – to ensure that the field of publicity is at least tolerably safe for true claims. And it is in true claims, widely shared, that our hopes for a just society finally reside. 

The field of publicity should not be controlled by people who look like us, or sound like us, or have similar incomes. It should be controlled by us.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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