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This edited collection looks at the erosion of public knowledge in all its forms and explores the consequences of its decline.

Published onFeb 27, 2019

This edited collection looks at the erosion of public knowledge in all its forms and explores the consequences of its decline. In the autumn of 2016, as this book goes into production, the issues addressed here look more pressing than ever: The United Kingdom appears to be a particularly divided and untrusting nation. It has recently voted to leave the European Union. Financial markets are unstable and seem ready to over-react to every new small piece of economic data. Both main parties appear thoroughly split, internally and externally; so too does much of the country, as EU ‘leavers’ and those who voted to remain (‘remainers’) look at each other with utter incredulity. A great sense of unease has descended: No one knows where Britain’s long-established political, economic and social systems are headed.

Part of this sense of breakdown has emerged directly from the cynical and ill-informed public debates around Brexit. For many, the principal campaigners appeared to be arguing a case they hardly believed in. David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn, campaigning for Remain, had all shown moderate Eurosceptic beliefs in the past. Boris Johnson, for Leave, had previously sounded more pro-European and even advocated Turkey’s entry into the EU (something presented as a threat by leavers).

Leave campaigners repeatedly lied about the economic gains and immigration cuts that would follow an EU exit. Economists, international leaders and institutions that argued to remain were dismissed as the kind of ‘experts’ that ‘people have had enough of’. Analysis of news coverage of the referendum period revealed that the large majority of print news content was biased, and, if circulation figures are taken into account, 82 percent of such content promoted the Leave case (Loughborough University EU Referendum 2016).

The United Kingdom now seems to have moved into an Orwellian, post-truth era in which ‘facts’, leaders and rational arguments inspire little faith. However, as this book reveals, this era has long-term systemic roots—and it also is not restricted to the United Kingdom.

It was not so long ago that the UK and US governments spent billions to propagate the myth of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Since then, governments, not bankers, have somehow been held to blame for the financial crisis, with immigrants and the poor held to account for austerity and cuts. Such narratives are equally common across the US and EU nations (Picard 2014). This is also a time when stock markets, CEO salaries and property prices keep going up, all in spite of general economic stagnation. Inequality has been rising steadily everywhere since the 1980s (Piketty 2014), its pace quickening since the financial crash.

Populist leaders and post-truth politics are springing up everywhere. In the United States, Tea Party politics have produced gridlock in Washington. Donald Trump’s success owes much to a similar breakdown of faith in the established political, media and economic systems of America. In addition, system upheavals threaten relatively wealthy and stable political economies, from France and Greece to Argentina and Brazil. Far right parties (e.g., Front National, Golden Dawn, Jobbik, DPP, UKIP) present serious challenges across Europe and are upending long-established parties and coalitions. Undoubtedly, in all these cases, substantial economic, political, social and environmental shifts are key factors. Clearly, the forty-year failed neoliberal experiment and the lack of post-financial-crisis alternatives have contributed.

However, this book argues that the long, slow death of public knowledge in all its forms is also a strong causal factor. The generation and dissemination of shared public knowledge is a foundational element of democracies, markets and societies everywhere. Without it, there is no social contract, no political legitimacy, no market transactions and no basis for common decision-making. There is also no sense of shared local or (inter)national identity or possibility of a more equal society.

Yet wherever austerity has bitten, competition has been propelled forward or individual choice proclaimed, it is public knowledge which has suffered first. Its erosion encourages more of the same and sets in motion a vicious circle of decline. Part of the problem is that the generation of public knowledge is very much an economic endeavour, influenced by political and economic institutions—as is the generation of economically relevant knowledge itself. Yet neither mainstream economics nor the political establishment shows much interest in something so taken for granted, unquantifiable and immaterial. Just as leaders everywhere continually focus on short-term gains at the expense of long-term investment, so the crisis of public knowledge mounts. Like global warming, inequality and economic instability, the collapse of public knowledge systems is threatening critical consequences.

The Perfect Storm Eroding Public Knowledge

Currently, public knowledge is under threat as never before; a perfect storm of factors is eroding it in all its forms. One of these factors is the Internet. On the one hand, the web offers an abundance of information on all manner of topics and from a wide range of sources. On the other, it has undermined the business models on which public knowledge and cultural creation have relied. Advertising has steadily migrated away from traditional media. Copyright of content is impossible to enforce, which in turn deters investment in its creation. The rise of new digital distributors with global power has weakened the hands of many content producers (McChesney 2014).

A second factor is everything that follows from the long march towards neoliberalism in the organisation of our society. Making public knowledge and culture a matter of individual choice means that the ‘general intellect’ is not treated as a social or national resource. State-funded knowledge and entertainment increasingly gives way to market-funded formats with no incentive to support worthy but unprofitable outputs.

Third is budget cuts and austerity economics. For mainstream economists and right-wing parties, public knowledge is no different from any other public provision and consequently should be produced by markets rather than states. For political economists and left-wing parties, it is more important to protect the material than the cultural. Real food is more essential than food for the mind.

Fourth is the nature of modern knowledge itself. It is increasingly complex, technical, fast-moving and over-loaded. That puts it beyond the comprehension of most people, including those at the centre of decision-making processes. This also leads to greater reliance on so-called experts and technicians with specialist but narrow world views—a world of disconnected information silos that few may access (Engelen et al. 2011).

Fifth is the rise of inequality, concentrated corporate power and the super-rich (Piketty 2014). Extreme inequalities allow the 1 percent to buy the best forms of specialist knowledge, which were once more equally distributed, in accounting and taxation, in law, in economic and financial market research, in public affairs and in advanced communication technologies. Public institutions cannot match the knowledge-producing and purchasing facilities of big finance and business, let alone offer them to wider publics. Thus the decline of public knowledge and knowledge inequalities are directly related to inequality more generally.

Sixth is the rise of forms of ‘econocracy’ (Davis, forthcoming) and ‘auditocracy’ (or audit society; Power 1997): the rise to the top of economically oriented leaders in the fields of politics, public administration and business. Across Westminster, Whitehall and business associations, general knowledge and experience are giving way to economic knowledge, accountancy and targets. In many ways, forms of public knowledge production do not fit. Outputs of news, culture and specialist research can be easily quantified, but not so the resources involved in their production. The emphasis on increasing quantified outputs inevitably erodes the quality and degree of depth in their inputs.

The Erosion of Public Knowledge Provision: A Business Model in Decline

Most obviously, the erosion of public knowledge is observable in the decline and privatisation of the institutions and organisations that traditionally generate and circulate it. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 UK general election, higher education was the first institution subjected to radical marketisation as fees tripled to £9,000 and the government attempted (but has failed so far) to securitize the student loan book (McGettigan 2013). Local library capacity has been cut back significantly as local authorities have been forced to endure drastic cuts. Combined library expenditure has fallen by a third since 2005/2006. Expenditure on books and digital content is the lowest it has been for twenty years (Public Libraries News 2014).

Mainstream news providers in the United Kingdom, United States and elsewhere have watched audiences and advertising revenues slowly decline over several decades. However, the pace of decline has quickened considerably in the twenty-first century with the rise of online news outlets, news aggregators and digital entertainment. Pew Research Center (2012) calculates that the US newspaper industry shrunk 43 percent and lost 28 percent of journalist jobs between 2000 and 2012. In that time, on average, fifteen papers entered bankruptcy each year. In 2011, US newspapers gained $207 million in online advertising but lost $2.1 billion in print advertising. The Guardian, which led the UK press sector in developing its online presence, had gained sixty million unique users by December 2011, but at the same time saw its pre-tax losses rise to £171 million for the year (Franklin 2012). Many areas of news—including local, investigative, parliamentary and foreign reporting—have been particularly hard hit.

In all these areas, institutions and organisations have been forced to adapt to survive, often reducing their product to something that only weakly resembles the services and contents they once produced. One survival strategy is to increase outputs per employee: bigger classes per teacher or academic tutor, more articles or broadcasts per journalist. In his 2008 book, Davies estimated that UK journalists had to fill three times as much news space as they did in the 1980s (Davies 2008). Another strategy involves the de-professionalisation of knowledge-producing sectors and the harnessing of cheap or voluntary labour. Thus, universities have increasingly come to rely on temporary visiting tutors to teach growing numbers of students. Since 2007, two-fifths of professionally qualified library staff have been cut, whereas voluntary staff have increased 2.5-fold (Public Libraries News 2014). Meanwhile, news media has become more dependent on the contributions of freelancers, temporary staff, amateur citizen journalists and user-generated content. So too does television production look to reality TV shows and competitions, made with low-cost participants, as a cheap alternative to higher-cost documentaries and dramas.

Most concerning of all is the third strategy of public knowledge producers: to become reliant on funding and ‘information subsidies’ from the very sources they are supposed to report on. Academic and regulatory research institutions are pushed to seek out business funds and sponsors, which then have a say on published outputs (Monbiot 2000). Most news reporting outlets (public broadcasters excepted) have always been reliant on commercial advertising to heavily subsidise content, thus leaving difficult professional conflicts of interest for journalists (Curran and Seaton 2009). However, as news organisations struggle they have become increasingly dependent on a range of additional information subsidies: news wire services, recycled material, plagiarised copy from rival publications and, above all, public relations outputs from commercial and political sources.

In the United States, according to McChesney and Nichols in their 2010 book, there were four times as many public relations practitioners as media editorial staff working in 2008. An estimated 40 to 50 percent of newspaper stories began life as press releases, while only 14 percent originated from reporters. Lewis, Williams and Franklin’s 2008 study of UK news found that 19 percent of press stories and 17 percent of broadcasts were entirely or mainly reproduced PR material. Forty-nine percent of press stories were either entirely or mainly dependent on news wire agency copy. Thus, be it reporting of foreign conflicts (Herman and Chomsky 2002), scientific research and big pharma (Goldacre 2013) or climate change (Klein 2014), public news and information is far from autonomous and objective.

The Free Market Corruption of Public Knowledge in Markets

The breakdown of the economic model of public knowledge and culture has been matched by a similar decline in the creation of specialist, economically relevant information used by markets, regulators and policy-makers. ‘Big Bang’ in the UK in 1985–1986 was intended to create real competition and more efficient trading in the London Stock Exchange, but instead it created a system whereby international investment banks ended up providing information and advice to both buyers and sellers as well as their own investment arms (Augar 2000). Market forces encouraged low-cost trading and multiple participants, but at the same time devalued and corrupted the production and dissemination of investment research and market-relevant information. Financial journalists and analysts alike became dependent on self-interested investor relations material produced by sellers and the self-serving analyses of investment banks (Davis 2007). The degradation of financial market information in the city was a strong contributory factor to the dotcom boom of the 1990s and the bust that followed in 2000. In effect, the application of extreme market forces to markets themselves has resulted in the corruption of market-relevant information within those markets.

A similar story has unfolded with financial markets in the United States and with a series of financial scandals, bubbles and crises in many nations (Lewis 2011, 2014; Engelen et al. 2011; Ferguson 2012). The sub-prime mortgage bubble, the massive rise of derivatives markets, the general expansion of the shadow banking sector, the growth of high-frequency trading and the Libor scandal all have much in common. They all involve abundant flows of low-cost lending, insiders and outsiders, and conflicts of interest. However, they also share problems associated with the production, dissemination and regulation of market information. New communication technologies, deregulation and the complexity of modern finance each have contributed to massive information inequalities and information corruption across markets. Not only are outsiders continually disadvantaged, regulators and credit-rating agencies cannot keep up. They are unable to access what is happening in the shadow banking sector, in the OTC derivatives market and in the ‘dark pool’ trading centres of finance. Neither are they able to effectively rate the risks of new financial products nor spot cumulative, market-wide risks building up.

The Corruption of Public Knowledge Used to Inform Economic Policy, Regulation and Taxation

A comparable set of problems are present when it comes to accounting, taxation and economic policy. Four big accountancy firms dominate when it comes to both auditing companies and offering these same organisations accounting services. The same big four advise governments and tax inspectors on accountancy regulations. It is the same investment bank managers who get senior positions in government treasuries and regulatory institutions before returning to those same investment banks, and the same esteemed economists write authoritative reports used in decision-making that are paid for by vested interests (Ferguson 2012; Shaxson 2012; Murphy 2013). In effect, the production of financial and economic information that is used to inform decision-making on behalf of the public is itself riddled with conflicts of interest. This allows tax avoidance by big business and the super-rich on a massive scale. It also produces regressive taxation systems that facilitate the continuing transfer of capital from the poorest to the richest 1 percent.

If accountancy and taxation public knowledge is compromised, so is public knowledge in other areas that inform public policy and regulation of the economy. Rich and powerful individuals and organisations have always had more privileged access to political and administrative decision-makers (Lukes 2005), but they are now advantaged more than ever because of their influence over the creation of specialist economic and market knowledge that becomes used by non-expert politicians and civil servants. As economics, finance and science have become more fast-moving and complex, we have entered the age of technical experts and specialist information intermediaries. These include lawyers, lobbyists, think tankers and financiers as well as economists and accountants (Cave and Rowell 2014). It is the super-rich and large corporations that can now afford to pay for the brightest and most able in these professions and to buy as much expertise and research as is necessary.

Thus it is financiers themselves and their many information intermediaries who have had most input into how the financial sector is regulated since 2007/2008. In the United States, lobbying expenditure from the securities and investment sectors amounted to $932 million between 1998 and 2012. From the insurance sector, it was $1.7 billion (OpenSecrets 2012). In the United Kingdom, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2012) found that the UK financial sector spent an estimated £92.8 million lobbying the UK government. The Bureau identified 129 organisations engaged in lobbying for finance. Firms of accountants, lobbyists, PR experts and financiers also directly fund or offer pro bono expertise to all the main parties and their think tanks. In recent years, the financial sector has provided over 50 percent of the Conservative Party’s funds (Peston 2011). In effect, once again it is the rich and powerful funding or creating public policy information on economic and financial matters. Public policy-making research and analysis has been contracted out to organisations for which the main pursuit is self-interest rather than public interest (Crouch 2004). Consequently, rational public decision-making on economic and financial matters, based on ‘independent expert research’, results in tainted and partial outcomes regardless of the party in power.

In conclusion, any progressive form of politics and economics—that is, one that values equality and a notion of a shared society—must acknowledge the importance of public knowledge. Public knowledge and culture, in all its forms, must be seen as a fundamental right, not an additional luxury, and be supported accordingly. Its valuation must resist the tendency to a crude reductionism based on numbers and competition logics. Content creation and authorship needs to be more rigorously upheld by law. The generation of specialist knowledge and public policy needs to be funded by the public purse rather than vested interests. Legal, political and market institutions must operate independently of market forces and partial ‘information subsidies’ when it comes to generating and disseminating wider public information.


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