Representative Isegoria

In my sortition thesis I argue that both elements of Athenian democracy — isonomia and isegoria — need to be representative when applied to large modern states. Representative isonomia is achieved via large randomly-selected juries, but isegoria requires different mechanisms — including competitive commercial media — to ensure the accurate representation of public opinion. This presupposes a bottom-up model in which commercial newspapers “refine and enlarge” the opinion of their readers (in order to increase subscription revenue). This has been much criticised by advocates of the Lasswell propaganda thesis — the critique specifically aimed at the concentrated ownership of the MSM — arguing that “the freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”.

The top-down Lasswell thesis has been thrown into doubt by the Brexit referendum — the Daily Mail supported Brexit and the Mail On Sunday supported Remain. Both newspapers are owned by the strongly Remain supporting Lord Rothermere, whereas the position of the broadsheets owned by Brexit-supporting Rupert Murdoch was the other way round (Sunday Times for Brexit, The Times for Remain).

A recent episode of BBC Newsnight has thrown additional light on the hands-off stand of newspaper barons. Lord Rothermere, “a strong supporter of Britain remaining int the EU” was urged by David Cameron to sack Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, on account of his intemperate editorial line in favour of Brexit. Rothermere refused, only telling Dacre about Cameron’s intervention after the poll results were revealed. Paul Dacre issued the following statement:

For 25 years, I have been given the freedom to edit the Mail on behalf of its readers without interference from Jonathan Rothermere or his father. It has been a great joy and privilege.

The supposedly “impartial” BBC and most of the political and cultural establishment were on the Remain side of the debate, leaving the popular press as the only form of representative isegoria for what turned out to be a majority of UK voters. This being the case, the decline in the subscription base of newspapers, the growth in online media (dependent on advertising income) and the increasing role of social media and false news poses a far greater risk to democracy than the s0-called tyranny of the Press Barons. Bring back the bad old days!

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3 Responses

  1. *** The description of the British commercial press role is interesting. But the situation in France seems different. To be seen, but maybe the British situation is exceptional.
    *** There is, to be simple, four main factors weighing : the material and moral interests of the owner, those of the advertisers, those of the journalists (taking into account the contemporary tendency towards ideological consensus among the culture elite), the reactions of the readers. The weights of these factors may differ from a country to another.
    *** A commercial press very sensitive to its readers may be one of the ways of modern isêgoria.
    *** A drawback of this way will be the natural tendency of such a press towards sensationalism ; and hence towards binary choices. OK for Brexit the choice was binary by nature; but it is not general. If a couple is deciding to have a baby, the choice is binary. But if the choice is about the relationship, we see in France many available options : marriage, two domiciles relationship, cohabitation, PACS (« civil solidarity pact »). Most political issues are not binary by nature, even if factional fight may lead to binary choices ; and one of the advantages of the minipublics, with the modern technogical means, is precisely to allow preferential multi-optional choices , practically impossible in referenda. It would be bad for a democracy-through-minipublics if the commercial press succeeds in imposing binary views.
    *** In ancient isêgoria, the theoretical right of speech was not used by evey citizen ; but any option could get a defender – except an « horrible » one, because the orator would have been shouted down. To have the same result for the general political debate in modern societies a commercial press may be useful, but it is not enough. Other elements must be added, to be studied.
    *** I suggest one kind : public media agencies ruled by very small citizen juries. The small size of the juries would create random strong differences of political sensitivity between the public media agencies ; here lack of reproducibility will be an advantage, not a drawback.
    *** Note that such an idea might be used for public cultural agencies. The procedure for judging dramatic competitions in Athenian festivals is not understood with consensus among the historians, as far as I know, but it seems to have involved a deliberately high level of randomness. Against bribery, it is said ; but maybe likewise to prevent any attempt of cultural orthodoxy.
    *** I was speaking of isêgoria in the general population debate ; it is another thing in the debates in the minipublics. But the minipublics are drawn from the general civic body, and even with the best procedures in minipublic debate, it would be difficult for the jurors to extract themselves from a public opinion which would have been monocolor or bicolor.


  2. Andre

    I think the UK may well be exceptional — certainly compared to the US, where local monopolies still exist and newspapers are still (highly?) profitable. Representative isegoria by commercial media requires marginal profitability (so that newspapers will not be dependent on advertising revenue but will have to track the preferences of their subscribers). Unfortunately the internet and social media are killing that possibility and we should be deeply concerned.

    Most political problems can be reduced (albeit in the pejorative sense) to binary choices. Given that my model for decision making by minipublic, closely modelled on the Athenian nomothetai, presupposes a trial format and competitive advocacy that’s fine with me. I am not a deliberative democrat.


  3. Andre,

    One has to be as naive/deceitful as Sutherland is to think that commercial media (in the UK or elsewhere) reflects (or can reflect) public values or the public interest.

    Unlike in public policy decision making, public media is a venue where mass citizen participation can be meaningful. My proposal follows the same line of thinking of your proposal, I think.


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