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Fourth estate agents

Progressive activists have often had a difficult relationship  with the mainstream media. Ian Sinclair discussed the advantages  and pitfalls of working with and in the mainstream with five activists

David Wearing,  co-editor, New Left Project

As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci observed, power cannot rule by force alone. Hegemony requires that a sufficient portion of the population view the status quo as fundamentally legitimate, or at least unalterable. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman described how the corporate media function in a way that manufactures this popular consent, by framing discourse, promoting certain perspectives and omitting inconvenient facts and voices. Of course, these principles apply the rest of the intellectual culture, including academia and publishing.

For those of us who regard the status quo as inherently corrupt, exploitative, violent, undemocratic, and ecologically unsustainable, there are a couple of ways to approach this problem.

The first is to publish our own arguments on our own terms. ZNet in the US is a good example of such an effort, and the website I helped to set up and now co-edit, New Left Project, hopes to provide a similar service.

The second approach is to exploit any openings that appear in the mainstream media to present a wider audience with views that challenge the conventional wisdom. I take this second approach as well, in writing for the Guardian and the New Statesman.

Opportunities to express critical views in the mainstream media are few and far between, but worth pursuing given the advantages of being able to speak to a large audience.

Polls show that a sizeable number of people are suspicious of corporate power and opposed to military aggression overseas, but the media gives the impression that such views are marginal and lacking in credibility. By showing those people that their views are shared by others, rationally legitimate, and can be articulated in confident and persuasive terms, a sense of isolated impotence can be replaced by one of shared possibility. This in turn can lead to greater engagement and mobilisation against power and privilege.

The need for a mass movement against state-corporate power has never been greater, for reasons I don’t need to spell out. The left needs both a lively alternative media that helps us to develop our arguments, and a concerted effort to force our critiques into the mainstream discourse. Together, these tasks can play a complementary and crucial role in building the movement we need.

Joss Garman, works for Greenpeace, previously an activist with Plane Stupid

An editor memorably advised me: ‘The thing about many activists is that they confuse what’s important for what’s interesting. To get it past my editor, you need to bring me something that’s both interesting and important.’

Understanding news values is something campaigners have to learn and too often don’t. Small numbers of people, so long as they’re sufficiently savvy, innovative and creative, can get their arguments into all the mainstream outlets and the homes of decision-makers, plus the millions of people they’d like to persuade, if they understand what constitutes a ‘news story’ as opposed to an ‘issue’.

Rather than viewing all mainstream media as ‘against us’, Plane Stupid and Greenpeace put significant investment into building friendly relationships with correspondents to try and get out key campaign messages. More often than not, journalists know their audience is interested in the issues and are appreciative for help in finding ‘ways in’ to cover them. But timing is important. Why should a reporter cover this story today as opposed to tomorrow?

What’s most important is simplifying what you want to say, delivering it right into the inboxes of the right people, in the most accessible way possible, and not at the crack of dawn or when they’re right on deadline in the late afternoon!

When Plane Stupid and Greenpeace have undertaken direct actions, and direct communications, we’ve usually gone to great practical lengths to achieve maximum media exposure.

We pay to hire professional photographers and videographers to get broadcast and newspaper quality images, and to distribute them quickly to national news and picture desks. We have media-trained spokespeople involved in the direct actions themselves, and available to go around studios.

This matters because, in the words of one famous Republican spin doctor: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.’

Press releases are kept short, to-the-point, addressing the key questions and bare minimum requirements needed by busy journalists: ‘Who? What? Where? Why? What images? Why would my audience be interested in this?’

Ewa Jasiewicz, journalist and activist who has written for the Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph.

As a profess-ional journalist, your press pass is like a passport into greenzones of information, super-expensive conferences, global events, and access to question people we might want to revolt against. The product of this access can be useful investigative pieces that can reach millions, shift debate, and further our struggles.

The downside is that you get known for being a ‘troublemaker’, and locked out or up, meaning sometimes it’s more useful to hide the pass than flaunt it.

If you work in the MSM [mainstream media] for a living, you risk disappearing up your own arse and becoming a commodity, necessarily trading off a name and reputation, using social media to keep the personal brand alive daily which can place enormous pressure on the individual.

Being part of activist groups that use the MSM to further messages, others’ voices and issues draws less personal exposure because it’s the issues you’re putting out there not yourself. Group agency and profile can be amplified leading to more political alliances, platforms, public support and awareness and access to those in power.

Press releases can sometimes be taken as gospel if journalists’ time is limited and what you’ve written is concise. You get to be direct and consistent whereas journalists may need to be more discursive and keep switching issues to avoid being ‘typecast’.

The downside is that you need to keep creating actions or responding to the news cycle to remain current and relevant. Complex issues can get reduced to soundbites and ‘messaging’-orientated rather than analytical which can be counterproductive.

It’s hard to sum up all the pros and cons because it’s a fluid relationship dependent on individual or collective, public or anonymous identity, responsive to so many external events and alliances. All I know is that you need to remain flexible, mutable, and consistent despite the news cycle, whims of the market, group melt-downs and ego.

David Cromwell and David Edwards, co-editors, Media Lens

First, we need to dispense with the misleading term ‘mainstream’.

The corporate media is an extremist fringe that supports the humanly-catastrophic goals of a ruthless, unaccountable elite.

It is an industry made up of giant profit-seeking corporations whose main task is to sell audiences to other corporations – wealthy advertisers – on whom media entities typically depend for 75% plus of their revenues. This system is literally not in the business of alerting humanity to the real risk of climate catastrophe and the need for immediate action. It has a proven, indeed astonishing, track record of suppressing public awareness on these crucial issues.

For years, left/green activists have argued that we should work with or within corporate media to reach a wider public.

For a long time the argument seemed unchallengeable. But after decades of accelerating planetary devastation and rapidly declining democracy, the argument has weakened to the point of collapse.

By a process of carefully-rationed corporate ‘inclusion’, the honesty, vitality and truth of both the Greens and the left have been corralled, contained, trivialised and stifled.

Corporate media ‘inclusion’ of dissent has deceived the public with the illusion of openness and change while business-as-usual has taken us in the opposite direction.

Ironically, meek ‘cooperation’ has handed influence and control to the very forces seeking (successfully) to disempower dissent – in the absence of serious left criticism, corporate media performance has actually deteriorated.

Why should progressives help this system sell the illusion that it offers a ‘wide spectrum of views’ when its biased output overwhelmingly and inevitably promotes Permanent War for resources and war on the planet?

While the internet remains relatively open, there is a brief window to break away from the corporate media, to build something honest, radical and publicly accountable. Climate crisis is already upon us, with much worse likely to come. The stakes almost literally could not be higher.

New Left Project is a website dedicated to producing high quality comment and analysis on issues of concern to the political left (broadly defined).  www.newleftproject.org

Greenpeace is an independent organisation campaigning to ensure a peaceful and sustainable world for future generations.
www.greenpeace.org.uk

Plane Stupid is a network of grassroots groups that take non violent direct action against aviation expansion.
www.planestupid.com

Media Lens is a UK-based media-watch project analysing mainstream media bias. www.medialens.org 

Ian Sinclair is the author of The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003 (Peace News Press, 2013, £10).

Topics: Media