PERC’s first series of papers looks at the Economics of Public Knowledge. What links the contributions together is a sense that public knowledge, in all its forms, is being eroded in multiple ways. The long push to shrink public provision in favour of markets, boosted by austerity economics is corroding public information provision. This is being observed, from education and legal services to local council provision and the BBC. The new digital economy has upended the business models of traditional print and broadcast media as well as publishing.
Financial markets bother less and less with real research into real world investments because it’s cheaper to invest in relation to internal market movements, using trading information and super-fast computers. State institutions, big and small, not only privatise and outsource physical services, they also contract out policy-making itself. And, as the world speeds up so developing depth knowledge and expertise is made to appear a costly indulgence when a new ICT risks making that all redundant.
At a time when getting the economy back on track and maintaining essential services are prioritised, it is all too simple for both left and right to make public knowledge, information and culture a low priority. It’s easy to forget that without these things democracies, markets and societies cease to operate properly. In fact, as all the papers here reveal, without support for public information and knowledge, each of these things is fundamentally threatened.
My first paper in the series presents some of these arguments in more detail. Des Freedman’s critique of media moguls shows that contemporary media ownership increasingly circulates news that reflects elite interests and brings together elite networks. This not only severely hinders the fourth estate remit of journalism, it is one reason why many news producers are struggling to survive as readership and advertising go elsewhere. Colin Leys’ third contribution shows how public policy has been colonised in many areas by private interests. In his example on UK health policy he reveals how private consultancies and think-tanks have moved into the Department of Health and, consequently, have promoted moves towards NHS privatization.
Roger Smith’s fourth paper asks what are the consequences of the last Coalition Government’s cuts to publicly-funded legal aid? It is clear that the cuts have had far-reaching effects across the legal system and beyond it, of the kind that simple balance sheets will not show. Henry Silke’s fifth offering shows the strong connections between the media, the government and property business in Ireland in the lead-up to the Irish property crash. All three had shared interests in pushing the boom and all three continue to do so, regardless of the bust, and wider social and economic costs.
The sixth piece comes from Andrew McGettigan. This carefully teases apart the UK Treasury view of higher education policy. It reveals an intention to collect data on graduate employability and loan pay-back rates for all institutions and courses. This suggests a disturbing future in which government can further gear higher education to market forces. Our seventh paper, by Kate Wright, documents the slow impact of market forces on editorial content for BBC News Online. This world-wide version of the BBC, increasingly reliant on advertising, is slowly shifting the balance between advertising-friendly features and hard news. Just look for yourself.
Each of these pieces not only records what has been happening but also show the directions of travel in the UK and elsewhere over the next few years. Watch this space for several further papers in this series. These include: an analysis of what crippling austerity has done to the public sphere in Greece, how advanced neoliberal policies have devastated public media in New Zealand, how financial markets have corrupted market information within UK and US financial markets, and the marketization of UK schools.
Also look out for a second series which will begin soon on Money Futures. For further information on PERC Papers (series and single items) please contact Aeron Davis.