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The Democratic Firm: a guarantee of journalists’ independence and media pluralism

Submitted by on March 26, 2012 – 14:37One Comment

The plu­ral­ism of media is cur­rently seri­ously endan­gered (not only) in Europe. Apart from obvi­ous polit­i­cal pres­sures and effects of media con­cen­tra­tion, jour­nal­ists are also gravely affected by the finan­cial and eco­nomic cri­sis. With a drop in adver­tis­ing rev­enue, the media are cut­ting their costs and turn increas­ingly to free­lance work­ers. This sit­u­a­tion places the jour­nal­ists in a daily strug­gle for piece­work rates, to ensure their liveli­hood. But more­over, the free­lance con­tract is weigh­ing heav­ily in the bal­ance of power with the employer, espe­cially with regards to edi­to­r­ial choices.

Goef­frey Geuens also explains well the dif­fi­culty for jour­nal­ists to take dis­tance with the pre­vail­ing one-track think­ing, which gained ground in news­rooms. In the ide­o­log­i­cal field, there would be no need for extern pres­sure, because most of jour­nal­ists would have (uncon­sciously) inte­grated the main dis­course, espe­cially on social and eco­nomic issues.

In an arti­cle on media cov­er­age of a recent tragic car acci­dent in Swiss, in which twenty-two Bel­gian chil­dren died, jour­nal­ist and lec­turer Marc Sin­naeve also points out a para­dox: while media fight a lot to inves­ti­gate what can cause such (appalling) news item, “they were sat­is­fied with much less ques­tion­ing dur­ing the announce­ment of early retire­ment reforms in Bel­gium”. They cover this kind of pol­icy “as if it were a fate, despite the fact that here, a severe inves­ti­ga­tion would be nec­es­sary”.

How to pro­tect and defend plu­ral­ism in such conditions?

We think an alter­na­tive model of work­ing organ­i­sa­tion could respond to all those threats to media inde­pen­dence and plu­ral­ism: media con­cen­tra­tion in a few hands, polit­i­cal pres­sures, strug­gle for per­sonal liveli­hood, pre­vail­ing ide­ol­ogy. This model, the Demo­c­ra­tic Firm, is pre­sented and defended by Philippe D. Gros­jean.

Philippe D. Gros­jean is the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of the Per­ma­nent Forum of Civil Soci­ety but also per­son­ally runs dif­fer­ent projects for the strength­en­ing of civil soci­ety and active cit­i­zen­ship all over the world.

In his Demo­c­ra­tic Firm, the con­trac­tual link between the owner of the means of pro­duc­tion and the worker is inverted. Apply­ing it within jour­nal­ism, the media owner would not rent the work­ing force of jour­nal­ists any­more, but the jour­nal­ists would be those who rent the newsroom/radio station/TV stu­dio to realise their articles/multimedia pro­grammes. The prod­uct of their work would belong to them.

IHECS’ stu­dent Elodie Lamer met Philippe Gros­jean to give us more infor­ma­tion on the Demo­c­ra­tic Firm:

EL: What does the Demo­c­ra­tic Firm change for the employee?

PGThe demo­c­ra­tic firm is based on the labour the­ory of prop­erty which says that every per­son who sets him­self to work to pro­duce some­thing is inescapably the first owner of that product.

In every activ­ity of our lives, being the owner of the means of pro­duc­tion doesn’t make you auto­mat­i­cally the owner of the prod­uct. For exam­ple, if I rent you my pen and a sheet of paper (or allow you to use them free of charge) and if you start to draw some­thing, the draw­ing will be yours, not mine, even if you drew it with my own pen. In every-day life, one becomes auto­mat­i­cally the owner of the first prop­erty right to the result of our labour.

But in the cur­rent eco­nomic sys­tem, this every-day auto­matic prin­ci­ple is changed by the employ­ment con­tract which says: “because you are using my means of pro­duc­tion, the prod­uct becomes auto­mat­i­cally mine”.

In a demo­c­ra­tic firm, it is no longer the owner who rents in the work­ers; it is the work­ers who rent in the means of pro­duc­tion. By just invert­ing the con­tract like a sock, the same pro­duc­tion process can be orga­nized with­out vio­lat­ing the inalien­able prop­erty right of the work­ers, or the pri­vate prop­erty right of the owner. This is fully respect­ful of the human right.

EL: What is the dif­fer­ence between the demo­c­ra­tic firm and the co-operative, which is another alter­na­tive to the wage-earner?

PGIn all work­ers co-operatives, the prin­ci­ple of democ­racy in the work­ing place is respected. But in a demo­c­ra­tic firm their indi­vid­ual prop­erty right is also respected. Indeed, the demo­c­ra­tic firm solves a long-standing major prob­lem of all work­ers co-operatives in the past, i.e. how to iden­tify clearly the prop­erty right of each coop­er­a­tor on his(her) share on what is com­monly detained, so that when he(she) decides to leave or to retire, his(her) indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion in the assets of the firm could be eas­ily iden­ti­fied and refunded.

When you look back in his­tory, you see that every work­ers coop­er­a­tive has always failed to solve this ques­tion. They didn’t man­age to invent a sys­tem to respect the prop­erty right for every­thing that the coop­er­a­tors detained in com­mon. Each firm has things which have been bought with every cooperators’money in vari­able pro­por­tion. And if some­one wanted to leave, he had to sac­ri­fice his con­tribu­tive share.

Only one co-operative has done that. The coop­er­a­tive of Mon­dragon (in the Basque coun­try) decided to cre­ate an indi­vid­ual account for each co-operator in the lia­bil­ity of the firm. So when some­one decides to leave, he gets back his con­tribu­tive share. Mon­dragon was a good exam­ple but now it is start­ing to crum­ble down only because that coop­er­a­tive decided to buy com­pa­nies, becom­ing an amal­gam of co-operators and employ­ees. And it makes me think that as long as every com­pany doesn’t turn itself into a demo­c­ra­tic firm, it is dif­fi­cult that one can sur­vive remotely some­where in the planet.

EL: Is this model adapt­able to the media?

PGOf course! For most Medias, jour­nal­ists con­sti­tute them­selves as a sep­a­rate soci­ety. But in their con­tract with the share­hold­ers it is still pro­vided that “although you con­sti­tute a sep­a­rate entity, you are still using my means of pro­duc­tion and there­fore we keep the power to instruct you on what you may or may not tell when using our means of pro­duc­tion.” It’s the case for the RTBF for exam­ple. All the jour­nal­ists are merged into a group who signed a con­tract with RTBF and every jour­nal­ist is autonomous and respon­si­ble for what he says but what he says has to be blessed by the shareholders.

So it isn’t a rela­tion­ship employer-employee but it is not yet a demo­c­ra­tic firm because

  1. The jour­nal­ist don’t have the inalien­able right to self-government in con­duct­ing their pro­duc­tion process,
  2. The jour­nal­ists don’t have the inalien­able prop­erty right to the pos­i­tive and­neg­a­tive out­puts from their pro­duc­tion process.

EL: Which polit­i­cal impulse is needed at a Euro­pean scale?

PGThe Euro­pean court of human rights should con­demn the salaries con­tract because it doesn’t respect the human rights. One should adopt what I call “the Bosman strat­egy” refer­ring to that foot­ball player, Jean-Marc Bosman, who refused to be trans­ferred to another club. He refused to be sold just like an ani­mal. And he decided to bring his case before the Euro­pean court of human rights. And he won. And this is what every labor union should do. They should come together and bring the case of the employee con­tract before that court argu­ing that it is oppo­site to the human rights of prop­erty and democracy.

The cri­sis forces us to seri­ously re-think the lib­eral blind-alley we have been fac­ing for far too long, and to turn to alter­na­tive ways of social, sus­tain­able and solidarity-based econ­omy, more respect­ful of human rights.

Accord­ing to us, the Demo­c­ra­tic Firm can con­tribute to meet those stakes. In the field of spe­cific media chal­lenges, it would also bet­ter guar­an­tee jour­nal­ists’ inde­pen­dance and media pluralism.

What do you think?

Related posts:

  1. Defend­ing media plu­ral­ism by mon­i­tor­ing threats in the Mem­ber States
  2. Towards a Euro­pean Ini­tia­tive for Media Plu­ral­ism — March 31st, 2011
  3. Cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive for Media Plu­ral­ism: from Brus­sels to Bologna
  4. AFP’s inde­pen­dence in danger
  5. Cre­ate a bal­ance between pub­lic ser­vice media, com­mer­cial media and community-based media


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