Co-ops and the commons: imagining a ‘People’s Media’

What role could co-operativism have to play in a UK media commons?

Conversations around ‘commoning’ have become more prevalent in recent years; traditionally used in reference to natural resources, the idea of a commons has more recently been used to think about assets such as software and knowledge.   

In the UK, the idea of a ‘media commons’ is a response to the huge challenges facing the industry. Only a third of the UK public say they trust the news, ownership is increasingly concentrated and publicly funded media has become a political football. Meanwhile, there is little opportunity for public participation. 

In reponse to this, the Media Reform Coalition has released the Manifesto for a People’s Media, which reimagines the media as a commons. 

There is much overlap between the values and practices of co-operativism and commoning, and it is often said that co-op models can answer the challenges facing media organisations around public trust, accountability and resilience. So what would a the manifesto’s ideas mean for the co-op movement?

The report, released in November as part of a wider campaign called BBC and Beyond, proposes a media commons consisting of organisations that are collectively managed to ensure they are “independent, accountable, democratic and for everyone”. They would be funded by significant new public investment, and rather than replacing commercial media, would become “the heart of a media system that is fit for the future – just as the NHS is the public heart of healthcare”.

The manifesto imagines a system of radically transformed public service broadcasters operating alongside an “ecology” of participatory newsrooms, community radio stations, digital innovators and cultural producers. 

Both public service broadcasters and the independent media commons would receive public funding. New models of public ownership, rather than government ownership, need to become the norm, the report argues, to enable universal access.  

“We need new conceptual frameworks for what it means to own things together,” says the report’s author, Debs Grayson. She warns that for many, the idea of a publicly funded institution brings perceptions of an “elite level of state bureaucrats who decide how things work”. 

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The report imagines the devolution of public broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4. The public would be brought into decision-making processes – by electing representatives, taking an active role in commissioning, or sitting on panels to scrutinise coverage. 

Many of these ideas chime with recent campaigns led by the Co-op Party to mutualise the BBC and Channel 4 and stave off the threat of privatisation. Most recently, the Party has amplified its calls for a “People’s BBC”, which would remain publicly owned, with key decisions put into the hands of licence payers through a BBC Trust. 

Looking beyond public broadcasters, the report offers case studies including two recently established co-ops, the Ferret in Scotland and The Bristol Cable. Both titles invite readers to become members for a small monthly fee, providing a source of income and giving members direct ownership. Membership comes with legal rights, such as the opportunity to elect and stand for the board, and sets the foundation for a more open relationship between the outlet and its readers.

Ms Grayson says this shows how larger organisations such as the BBC can do things differently, prompting questions like “what if the BBC’s investigative journalism was run more like The Ferret?” or “what if its sourcing of stories was more like the way the Bristol Cable works?” 

“Media co-ops are very useful as examples because they’re very explicit in their governance structures,” says Ms Grayson. But the report imagines a more diverse mix of structures working alongside one another.

Ms Grayson highlights community radio as “probably the most class-inclusive media institutions that we have on offer”, which tends to be much more successful than newer media co-ops at engaging and building long-term relationships within working-class communities. The UK’s community radio sector comprises over 300 stations (more than the country’s public and private stations put together) using different legal structures including private limited companies and community interest companies. 

A commons isn’t about a specific legal structure, she adds, but shared values and practices. “Sometimes with things like community radio, the processes for being democratic are more implicit, and they’re practices that have built up over time.”

The manifesto also proposes a British Digital Cooperative “to develop a surveillance-free public platform architecture to include social media, search and other information-sorting and communication utilities to enable citizens to interact with one another and develop resources for social and political communication”. 

But these ideas need developing, warns Ms Grayson. “If there’s an imaginative leap that has to be made around democratic funding mechanisms, there’s an even bigger imaginative leap that has to be made around democratic digital technologies, because our framework for it is so shaped by the big tech companies now.”

The report also calls for a network of data trusts to “steward and govern the sharing of data for the public benefit”. The issue of data ownership has been a topic of conversation for co-ops for some time, with recent research efforts from the movement examining existing data co-ops and exploring the data needs of the communities different co ops serve.  

There are clear synergies between the idea of a media commons and what is happening in the co-operative movement. Co-op business consultants Co-operative Futures said of the Manifesto for a People’s Media: “We urgently need media which is owned by us, accountable to us, where we all get to play a part in creating it: we need to build a media commons.” 

As conversations around identity and messaging continue within the wider co-operative movement, the instruments co-ops use to communicate with each other and the public become increasingly important. Ms Grayson argues that “our mainstream media do not tell the story of co-operatives properly”, leaving  co-ops as “invisible” within dominant narratives around business and finance.

The media doesn’t tell stories of co-op working, she adds, “because that is not how they are structured themselves. So how can a top-down, highly hierarchical, often very abusive media organisation talk realistically about the possibilities of co-ops, where it is so out of line with those things in its own practice?”

The proposals in the manifesto are a huge step away from where we are now, Ms Grayson admits, and may seem “completely out of line with the whole direction of travel”, but she says things have already changed in unimaginable ways. “Change is coming, so we can at least try and hold on to some idea of a future that we would like to live in”.