Active Re-branding or leave it to do-gooders?

Are we too complacent?

Henry Porter, writing in The Observer on 8th September about the Snowden affair, calls the British people “complacent” in its attitude to secrecy. He is concerned that the BBC’s Today programme on the previous day did not cover the subject recently when he believed it should have been a leading item.

In the UK, as we hopefully begin the escape from one of the worst recessions in history and where wages are, Iike in the US, still falling behind prices despite renewed growth in the economy, there is a mistiness amongst the population that is likened to Huxley’s Brave New World – where many of us appear to be high (or low) on Soma.

The Soma of the 21st Century is, maybe understandably, related to wealth– the money we earn that gets us through life. It pays our bills, buys our food and clothing and shelter, pays our tax and is almost everything most people think of as their main route to wellbeing. For almost all, money seems to form the basis of our lives and engulfs our thinking.

For money appears to be at the heart of everything the 21st human believes in – lack of money effectively disenfranchises us from most of life’s gains. Lack of money dis-enables. Maslow got it right to a point. We are all focused on the lower levels of his hierarchy. The trouble is how enough of us penetrate the upper layers.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We seem to get the shelter and food parts, even the desire to belong and group ethics; but, once we get to esteem we believe that this relates to work and jobs and self-actualisation is well beyond almost anyone anyway. Working to the common good, for example, is maybe a stretch too far.

A recent survey shows that “only” 9% of us actively participate in civil society – working for civic pride – maybe being self-actualisers. The Charity Aid Foundation (CAF) found that just 9% of people give 66% of all the time and money to charities / not for profits in the UK. See report.

The “civic core”  – a concept first espoused by Mohan and Bulloch in 2012 – drives the charity sector. The “zero givers”, as the name suggests, relies on them to be the “do-gooders”.

 I am reminded of the days when Schools’ Boards of Governors were obliged to meet with parents annually. I cannot remember one occasion when, I as one of the governors, was confronted by an audience larger than the school governors present. For a school with over 1,000 sets of parents and guardians, possibly 10 people would turn up. No wonder this annual ritual no longer exists. Most people want to engage with themselves and their families and not with the wider community – let the civic core do it.

This reflection on society may seem overly harsh but does shine a light on Henry Porter’s concerns about society being “complacent”. Except in times of abject misery – like a time of war – most of society is not complacent but reliant. Reliant means that the vast majority of people looks to the civic core to run the core of society.

CAF senses that much of this is down to time-poverty – or lack of time to commit to other things. Is this really true? Are 91% of the population lacking time – or is this an excuse? Maybe there is no sense of the Big Society that David Cameron no longer mentions. Maybe we are individualists that rely on the rest of society where it counts – where priorities like secrecy issues are well down the list.

Re-branding society is a challenge – a call to inaction or action?

Of course, 9% of the adult population actually represents a lot of people – around 9% of 50 million – which is 4.5 million.

According to CAF, 4.5 million are actively involved – the civic core – who are not so time sensitive. A high proportion, though, are over-65’s and there are many more women than men, less full-time employed, less young people.

The challenge to which Henry Porter alludes is how to galvanise sufficient of civil society to make a difference – in an age where not enough of us commit to anything other than ourselves or to our close kin and friends – or, maybe to the ultra-loose contacts on Facebook or Twitter, where a retweet has somehow become our idea of “campaigning” and close friends are indicated by the number following you on LinkedIn or Facebook.

An indication of this is an excellent article by none other than comedian Russell Brand writing in the Guardian – 13th September.

This article followed his “joke” at clothing firm Hugo Boss’s expense at the recent GQ Awards. Brand’s article is very well written but it is not the explanation for his comments that struck me, but that such an articulate and obviously concerned individual as Brand could say the following (and I quote at some length):

” …For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers – he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor – influence the way he runs our capital?

Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?

Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?

I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each another. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.”

This may well be heartfelt but the essence of Brand’s words seem to me to be passive – a plea not to trust politicians, big companies and the media: heartfelt but inactive; a plea to do nothing – to be mournful, sad about the exploits of others but certainly no call to action. It is a call to inaction.

Maybe he is too busy to use his fame for good causes; maybe Russell Brand is more interested in having a few laughs with his mates. But, if someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Brand can’t rouse himself to do anything, to get involved somehow, what do we expect from the rest of the 91% (or even most of the 9% who, while involved, are certainly not out there campaigning or even showing annoyance or being pro-active)?

Finding the Catalyst for Action

When many don’t even vote or even consider it necessary, we know that democracy is not in a good state. But, voting is a passive demonstration even if critical to a democracy.

Most do not enter into a debate on issues outside their very close domain – sport and the weather seem the height of discussion in this country. Or, many get high on celebrity – X Factor or Big Brother. Former News of the World readers now tweet obscenities or attack feminists. So, issues like secrecy or tax havens (important to some) somehow seem trivial when prices are rising above the rate of wages and when good, full-time jobs are hard to obtain, when the trivial becomes all-important.

Maybe there is a catalyst out there that will encourage more to raise the temperature of debate and even to join in an active capacity. I have seen it at work. Organisations like Global Witness (where I was fortunate enough to work for close on five years) are full of young, impassioned, intelligent people who work hard to make real change happen. Whenever a job vacancy was advertised, there were often hundreds of applicants – from top quality people itching to get involved. There is a strong undercurrent of capability in the UK (and elsewhere) of well-educated, strong-willed people that want to pro-actively work for a better future, who are not complacent and not reliant on others.

Maybe we need to get them to talk more about what they do – not just to governments and politicians (who, in the short-term, are the change agents) but to young people in schools and universities – who are so focused on jobs and wealth (which is fine) but who may also want to ensure that society is properly balanced. This balance is not away from wealth creation (which will remain a fundamental underpinning of our society) but towards wealth creation that we all feel good about and where we do understand that money is not the only thing: wealth being quality not just quantity.

Maybe Russell Brand could get involved in this way – using his enormous power of communication to pro-actively make people want to get involved. From an inactive mournfulness to pro-active catalyst – a re-branding that makes sense.

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Leveson – 2000 pages for the 19th Century

A couple of weeks ago, I posted:  Selling Off the Fourth Estate – which attempted to outline the momentous problems impacting the print media. These problems centre around the rapid growth of online media, blogs, Twitter and the rest which make for competition in our snap-shot age.

Along comes Leveson and ignores it all! Not just my blog – which as part of the online circus will never get his attention but the whole of the internet. As James Ball writes in the Guardian: quoting Leveson first,

“[T]he internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’,” it reads. “[T]he internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

The report then suggests there is a “qualitative difference” between seeing, for example, pictures posted online versus on the front page of a national newspaper, noting “people will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy”.

So, Leveson seeks to wrap up the online media in statutory rope with Ofcom as the judge and jury while ignoring the fact that the print media is dying an agonising death already at the hands of the internet as he reacts (maybe over-reacts) to the public call for action.

Public reaction in the UK is understandably violent against the phone hacking and over-intrusiveness of the press in key cases such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies. The desire to tame the press is not new – it has been the case for centuries. But, the real harm has been done recently by the internet and the freedom to publish on it which has taken much of the business of publishing away from the printed media.

There are many articles written about the likely death of print media and anyone who talks to journalists will know that they now operate in a silo that is getting smaller and smaller. Leveson has missed the opportunity and the UK has missed the argument. Appointing a judge to rule on the press was undoubtedly going to lead to a legal framework rather than any new understanding of what investigative journalism is all about. Leveson is a lawyer and the legal profession (which also makes up so much of our leadership in the UK) does not have the ability to “judge” society’s ills. They make law and judge on whether the law has been broken – lawyers are real dangers when they try to set the standards or try to understand what ails society.

So, the mistake in appointing a lawyer / judge is now apparent. The print media’s death will merely be hastened if a statutory rope is tied around it. The Fourth Estate – the crucial monitor of our executive, legislature and legal processes (as well as of society) – will be hastened towards the unregulated and “wild west” of the internet. This is happening anyway as more of us publish on it and more decide to give up regular reading of newspapers and weeklies. Analysis is being eroded and headline journalism (just one click away) is gaining momentum.

Leveson is completely out of date on this and ignorance is not a virtue. While TV and radio have managed to compete (so far), it has also suffered. Many online visual and audio news facilities exist and the number of options grow daily. But, TV and radio are not highly analytical. Even in a one-hour documentary, they scratch the surface. The cost of TV remains high and the options to this are considerable.

This means that printed media and its funding remain important and its ability to compete with the internet is so important. Leveson (and the government that appointed them) have missed a key point.

What next? This Government has already stated (through Cameron and Hague) that they are less keen to enact the key Leveson requirements (a legally enforceable press act) than others. This is good even if it infuriates public feeling on this, while gaining support from  Liberty, PEN and many other press freedom groups. What remains a problem is the notion of “press barons” and the difficulty of too much power in the Fourth Estate being held by too few people or organisations.

This and an understanding of the way that the internet is re-shaping the press and how both influence decision-making (at all levels) are the key questions that the “press” has to face. The law as it stands in this country and our desire for the freedom of the press so that it can rail against hypocrisy and totalitarian doctrines of the centre are at the core of our society. The printed press should work to get its act together – the market it attempts to steal by printing lies and which has resulted in the demise of the News of the World and potential court cases against senior management in the industry is already turning against it and to the internet. Government should focus on the twin issues of print press centralism (too few owners) and funding of the printed press and the rise of onilne media.

The UK deserved better than a blinkered 2,000 page report by Leveson that, despite its huge page count, was prepared to spend one page on the internet – the main reason for the drive for circulation that has driven papers like NotW to scandal and illegality.

Locked out of Power and Making a Noise

How do we contribute to society and how do we influence the future?

 

There is a dangerous gap opening up between people and institutions that current forms of democratic parties and other organisations set up to channel views to those instruments of power are not able to bridge. The problem is manifold:

Political parties which dominate most democratic societies are filled with professional politicians who have little (or at best moderate) understanding of the real world outside of politics;

Civil service bodies and public sector institutions are (as they have always been) full of careerists who are no longer “tempered” by the social reality that broadly based political parties would provide;

Campaign organisations are also full of careerists who work their way up the system internally and may have little real association with society outside their own silo of interest.

Corporations (especially large, multinationals) have a tremendous power in a world dominated by numbers – growth objectives – and can fund large campaigning groups of their own.

Ever-Changing society

There is no equilibrium in society although it feels like stasis has been reached. Different bodies are continually evolving as the environment changes politically and socially and economically. The problem is that entrenched interest groups (drawn from those sectors above) continuously work to make their positions more secure.

In the past, four, main sources of change were developed to open up society to change:

Political parties

Campaign groups

The media

Communications

But, mainstream sectors have succeeded, in the main, in wrapping the first three groups into that mainstream. There is a dependency on each other and a difficulty in breaking through with new ideas and attempting to force through decisions on even the most important issues.

The global economy has exacerbated this problem – as international needs lead to massive international organisations that succeed always in taking decision-making away from the individual.

Improved communications have through history succeeded in transforming the ability of individuals to learn more and have a greater say. The printing press was followed by the telephone, which was followed by the fax machine and the mobile telephone and the internet. Mass communication is now available that provides the ability for all of us to understand more of what is being done in our name. Social systems such as Twitter enable communication in an instant; mobile telephony and digital technology allows information in microseconds. This has had repercussions in events like the Arab Spring but the rigidity of social norms fights back most often.

Society’s complex underpinning will see some new emergence develop from this – but, what is it likely to be and how can the individual become involved rather than be part of a sector that more clearly matches that of Orwell or Huxley’s nightmares?

The drift to Centralised control

Maybe it’s a natural occurrence – that as organisations develop, they coalesce and form groups and associations that begin to meld into international committees that appear completely remote from most of us.

This is certainly true of political parties, true of sports associations (like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee), true of international organisations (like the UN, WTO), major NGO’s and charities, political groupings such as the EU, international corporates (such as the banks). Most people don’t know most of these organisations and many (like FATF – the Financial Action Task Force) have for years seemingly gloried in their anonymity.

With the rise of the internet, we were meant to discover more but that same rise has meant that less spending goes into traditional media organisations like campaigning newspapers. This has meant a reduction in in-depth investigations and analysis and much-reduced investment by newspapers and other media outlets in providing the type of information we need as individuals in society to keep the massive organisations on their toes.

In a major sense, the rise of the internet has had consequences that were not envisaged and has led to a major centralization of power structures – more immune from investigation than before.

We must not be misled by the closure of the News of the World in the UK after the hacking enquiry – the NotW was a scandal rag that was part of the new world of celebrity. Its loss is not great.

The loss of whole departments where the main task was to investigate and analyse how society works (and where it does not) and the rise of the internet as a news medium (and comment in 140 characters) shows that, so far, what has emerged is leading to centralization not the reverse.

Does Centralised control matter?

Democratic society is supposed to provide individuals with the ability to influence the way our society is run. So, centralized control does affect us all. While the drive to consumerism may suggest that we would not mind if we were ruled like in China (more goods supplied to keep the population quite), I suspect that this tendency does not appeal to all of us. Centralised control does not stop at Tiananmen Square – it has no controls. “”Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” (William Pitt the Elder) is borne out through history and the idea that we can allow others complete freedom to guide us through life is obnoxious to most of us I suspect.

What are the options for decentralising?

The centralization of sectors of society needs to be continuously prodded. That can be done both internally (i.e. within those instruments of power) but mainly externally (from other organisations and / or individuals).

Working within is tough – the structures bind staff to their culture and it is very difficult to break out. A feature of British politics has been how the Liberal Party (a party for the individual within a coherent society and always opposed to centralization and totalitarianism) has become (especially since it became the Liberal Democrats) so bound up with the EU project – a centralizing force that is now seen to be breaking up.

External pressure may now be the only way to elicit change and to change the environment so that something less centralized can emerge.

The Centre for Civil Society in Australia is a good example of an organization that has been set up to prod society. www.civilsociety.org.au

The Centre for Investigative Journalism in London is another. http://www.tcij.org/

NGO’s like Global Witness are important contributors. www.globalwitness.org

All such organisations are set up to prod (some quite heavily) the existing structures – they are all dependent on external funding.

We need some creative destructionism – in the same way that Apple created new products that tore at our desire for more than pure functionality (although Apple is now part of that central structure); in the same way that Google tore into the online world and is now a core of that central structure – within the non-economic sphere, the way we live outside of numbers and products.

There are some options that remain that can assist in developing society so that we learn the lessons of the 20th Century – where communism and fascism drove the world to and then away from totalitarianism. Those lessons are now in danger of being unlearned – where the danger of unbridled centralism of society is occurring without (thankfully) war, but just the same potential results. We could wake up and find the world run from the centre. Maybe it is already and the drift to unequal wealth distribution a symptom.

That suggests more of an effort is needed to point a finger at our structures and the best way to do this is through our participation – and through some independent organisations, especially in investigative journalism, which can expose, fight for freedom of speech, help to analyse the impact of centralised decisions on society and expose fraud and corruption: many groups, many individuals wanting to open up the closed doors.

Does a tree that falls in a forest make a noise?