Community Media as a Platform for Deliberative Democracy

When the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown ends, or is eased off, and whatever our life-long political persuasions might have been, we are going to have to build a consensus around how we find new ways to do the things we once took for granted. The question that many people are now starting to consider, as a result of the lockdown, is not how we return to normal, because there is no going back to the old normal, as it was defined prior to the pandemic. Instead, we have to start thinking about how we can arrive at a settlement about what the new normal might be?

It is patently obvious that the challenge of being in lockdown has affected us collectively and individually in many deep and profound ways. But while the lockdown might not have changed many of the fundamentals, as some are claiming, it has certainly brought forward and accelerated the need to look at, and think about, the numerous adjustments that many have been arguing for and trying to nudge us towards in planning for the future.

For example, the urgent need to address the environment crisis and climate catastrophe by shifting to a low-carbon economy; the urgent need to address health inequality, as morbidity and wellbeing indicators have gone into reverse in many places in the UK; the immediate need to address employment exclusion, as jobs are lost from the economy or automated; the fundamental need to build a shared living environment that is focussed on people and not vehicles, so that we don’t choke on pollution or succumb to ever-more traffic congestion; the need to properly instigate a care and wellbeing mindset that is embedded, not just in government policy thinking, but also in our daily and community practices. So no more segregating children and older people, no more poisonous convenience foods, and no more binge drinking and boozed-up carnage culture.

In the past we have often collectively viewed these matters as if they are a set of insurance options and add on to a policy we are using if we are planning our holidays abroad. What’s changed now, however, is that these are no longer optional add-ons, but are clearly integral to how we protect ourselves and our families. There is an urgent need to consider how we mitigate and minimise any social and environmental harms we are causing, and how we ensure that we are resilient and adaptable in the future when challenges like the Covid-19 lockdown recur. One thing is certain, we live in an interconnected and globalised world, whether we like it or not, and we are going to have to face-up to the many complex social challenges that this represents. Insurance by itself will not be enough.

In blunt rhetorical terms, the age of having our cake and eating it is over. The bill is being presented, and we need to figure out how we are going to pay for what we have been binging on. Because we didn’t anticipate all the hidden extra costs, and we even pretended that these expenses didn’t need to be budgeted for, we are now doubling up on surcharges, added extras and hidden costs. Some basic, judicious and prudent planning might have shown, with a little forward thinking, that we needed to put something away for a rainy day. Instead, we have stripped our local public services empty and hollowed out their capacity to plan, prepare and act. We have reduced any capacity we had to act locally and provide for our fellow citizens, and we have taken to protecting our own self-interest, above that of any shared social protections and wellbeing.

Evidence from the Office for National Statistics identifies that the coronavirus has hit people hardest in the poorest parts of the country. Millions of people face potential financial ruin because they have been living from one pay day to the next. And the effects of the Covid-19 virus on health and key workers has hit people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds harder than all other social groups. This is in contrast to the record levels of wealth that have been locked-up in property and estates, which has largely gone untaxed and unreformed, while social care costs have increased significantly.

It’s important to note, however, that the need to establish renewed forms of social security shouldn’t just be thought about in terms of cash, though that certainly helps. We also have to start thinking about our social security in multi-dimensional ways. For example, we need to start to think in terms of social capital and social value. Social capital and social value are the forms of embedded knowledge and wisdom that is available within our local civic and community infrastructure. They are what is facilitated through meaningful and purposeful connections and relationships. Our social insurance in the future, according to this argument, must also be looked at in terms of individuals and communities having the skills, the voice, the power and the capacity to adapt when presented with social change.

Individuals, families and communities need to have the right kind of information resources, the right kind of problem-solving capacity, and the right kind of collaborative trusted and tested knowledge that enables them to increase and improve their resilience, sustainability and levels of social insurance for themselves. We should not be waiting for mandarins and ministers in central government to pop-up with emergency support in our local neighbourhoods. The problems that the government has faced putting adequate testing in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, has partly come about because the government tried to use centrally managed commissioned services from private companies, while failing to tap into the capacity and expertise that is at hand in local health care services, such as GPs and local authority wellbeing provision.

A debate needs to be had, therefore, and quite urgently, about how the relationship between central and local government in the UK is to be maintained in the future. The relationship between the four nations and the UK government is already a hot political topic. But an urgent rethink is also needed about how local authorities are seen. Usually they are put into the box marked problems and they are not tasked with delivering solutions. Successive governments have found it easy to continuously mark local, democratically accountable public authorities, as being a problem that central government finds easy to dismiss or bypass. The rise of the unelected quango has taken power out of local democratically controlled hands, and kept it at the centre where ministers can control and manipulate resources to suit a narrow political agenda that is not reflected on the ground. Be grateful for the few crumbs you get from the table has been the mantra for years now. With governments promising funds to prop-up some towns at the expense of other areas of their choosing, because it better suits their political aims. For example, while cities get ‘clobbered’ by austerity, country councils are treated benignly.

This new settlement will therefore have to cover old ground. Decisions that have been made in the past are now coming back to haunt us. Whether it is the emasculation of local public authorities, the suppression of trade union activity, or the cave-in to the car lobby, and the endless miles of new roads that seem to get approval, while local public transport is left in the doldrums. We are now paying the price for not fixing the roof for everyone, and only fixing it for a few. In many ways this conversation will involve some political cross-dressing. What has usually been dismissed on the left as conservative thinking in the past, are now, funnily enough, essential matters of progressive social planning. For example, questions of how we protect our communities from exploitation and harm are relevent as deregulated employment practices is shown-up by our sudden appreciaten for low paid key workers.

Questions about how we build a sense of commonality and belonging, which is inclusive and coherent, are also coming to the fore? Likewise, questions that seek to address the extent to which citizens (do you remember that word?) and every member of our communities are able to recognise that there are patterns of individual and collective behaviour which is anti-social, which we need to avoid and minimise? Likewise, to what extent are citizens and members of our communities able to recognise that there are forms of pro-social behaviour that we need to extend?

This means thinking way beyond our individual needs, and thinking, as is suggested in the bildung approach of the Scandinavian countries, in ways in which citizens are asked to consider, and come up with, solutions for managing the complex social, environmental, technical and global networks and relationships that we are embedded in. What we need, however, is a platform for deliberation that can inclusively enable people to participate in these debates.

The need for citizens participation and deliberation have been well put in reports and commissions such as the 2018 Civil Society Futures report, which argued that we need to transform our civic infrastructure to an inclusive and deliberative approach, in which a

“re-energised, civil society could be at the heart of the changes we need in our society as whole: reviving our dented democracy, rebuilding our social fabric and enabling us to address the great challenges of climate change and environmental degradation.”

This was echoed by Locality, in the People Power report from 2018 that recommended radical action to

“strengthen our local institutions, devolve tangible power resources and control to communities, ensure equality in community participation, and deliver change in local government behaviour and practice to enable local initiatives to thrive.”

As valuable and welcome as these reports are, and the many other that are like them, there is an additional dimension that we need to add to ensure that the process of civic renewal and capability-building is accelerated. This involves our media, and the way that ideas and information are discussed and shared. Our media is being driven by commercial forces that are leading to consolidation, and a narrowing and detachment of media from local communities. The UK governments decision to support national newspaper organisations during the pandemic, and not support local and independent news and media organisation as drawn criticism from those who are working to ensure that media pluralism is guaranteed, not just in name, but in practice. The question is, how do we facilitate debates and discussion about change, when so much of our media is controlled by so few organisations and people?

Community media has a potentially important role to play, I beleive, in nurturing and fostering these debates and discussions. Community media is defined as a tier in the public sphere that has principles of participatory practice at its core. To be defined as community media ordinary people must be able to join, collaborate, participate, and manage the platforms, content and systems that are used to communicate in their neighbourhoods and communities. To be effective, community media has to be able to demonstrate how it creates social value, and contributes to social cohesion, and thereby help to manage social change. Community media, usually, has clearly identified social gain principles underpinning it, which is in contrast to commercial or state organised public service media. Community media is the only tier of truly independent media here in the UK. It is formed by people who have decided that if they want better media, then they have to be able to make it for themselves.

Moreover, if we are to foster a capacity within society to discuss and deliberate in purposeful ways, then community media must be recognised as a potentially essential tool in this process. Community radio stations, for example, are able to produce programming that falls outside of the corporate, public service and commercial structures that are dominant in mainstream broadcasting. Community radio programming doesn’t have to conform to formats, clocks and structures, but can be defined and accounted for through social value terms. Community media can bring partners and collaborators from across the civic, community, mutual and public authorities together, to share in dialogue and start conversations about social change. They can foster dialogue in ways that other broadcasters can’t, using language and cultural references that mainstream broadcasters don’t easily understand or have the capacity to deal with.

As a response to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown it’s time that we looked at giving community media in the UK a renewed mission. A mission to work with communities, civic groups, charities, mutual aid groups, and local public authorities, based on a model of social value communications, in order to foster debate and discussion about what we need to change in our local communities. If we don’t give people access to the means of sharing their stories, insight, wisdom, concerns or objections, then we will be stuck in the rut of only putting in place changes that have limited consent, based on the same old voices that have been heard so often in the past, and from which we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I believe that community media, if it is accountable and appropriately recognised and understood as a driver of social cohesion, social capital, social value and capacity building, has an essential role to play in supporting, nurturing and fosterning thinking for the post-pandemic lockdown future. Community media can act as a platform for discussion that will ensure we have the right kinds of social resilience, sustainability and insurance in place for when these challenges come around again. There is one thing that is certain, this pandemic will not be the last social challenge that we face, so we better get thinking about what we need to do to ensure that we handle the next crisis better than we have handled this one.

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