Where next for radical media?

IssueOctober 2011
Feature by Emily Johns , Brian Dominick, Anne Beech, Michael Albert

1) Why do we need “radical” media?

Anne Beech: Most recent reasons? Phone-tapping scandals, reportage (and analysis) of the disturbances in Tottenham, Hackney et al, the ongoing misrepresentation of events, individuals and communities (Dale Farm, anyone? Palestine?), the sclerotic hardening of information arteries online and in print, in media and in book publishing, the continued conglomeration – but all at a time when new start-ups (the ones that want to retain their independence, that is) thrive and flourish, alongside the older but none-the wiser indies from the late 1960s such as Pluto, Verso et al. We need a radical media to ensure that we can continue to speak truth to power. One day, they’ll listen!

Brian Dominick: We need media outlets that are structured radically and open to radical voices. Outlets that are radical for the sake of only expressing radical viewpoints are of profoundly limited value as anything more than echo chambers.

There is one niche that is widely unfilled, where radical outlets could excel, though there may be too little demand for them. This is the area of critical reflection on vision, strategy, tactics, and activism/organising experience. Publications or other outlets that focus on developing movements through journalism about movements and praxis would be terrific, but it would require radical movements that want to improve efficacy, not just look, sound, and feel like “revolutionaries”. I don’t know if this demand exists.

Michael Albert: Partly because non-radical media, otherwise called mainstream media, doesn’t deliver news, analysis, or vision, that we need to have to be more effective changing society. The non radical or mainstream agenda is to convey, in the words of the New York Times masthead, “all the news that is fit to print,” which means all the news that is consistent with maintaining existing social relations on behalf of the rich and powerful, while we, the mainstream media, profit.

We thus need radical media to provide what is otherwise missing which is news, information, analysis, and vision that seeks to change existing social relations on behalf of the poor and weak, with no attention to profit other than to eliminate it as a social motive. We also need our own media, like we need our own other institutions, as experiments in how to conduct social life more humanely, without hierarchy, in tune with real needs, etc.

Emily Johns: There is an enormous disjuncture between what we see in mainstream media and the reality of the world we experience around us. We need media that reflect our understanding of reality otherwise we become isolated and powerless. We need to value and cherish the independent media because they exist against great financial odds.

2) What are some of the most exciting achievements of radical media that you know of?

AB: In the hope that everyone leaves out the false dawn that was Wikileaks (or maybe there are useful lessons we can all draw from that particular curate’s egg?): the ongoing phenomenon of the dedication, conviction and passion that inform so many campaigns on the left. These pioneers, dreamers, wild people, truth-tellers are the people for whom we publish – and we strive to keep them supplied with the information, the history, the theory and the ideas that they need.

MA: Most of the information that sustains and produces dissent derives from contributors to, and is conveyed by, radical media, sometimes directly to recipients, sometimes to some recipients directly and then by word of mouth or organising to others, and sometimes even by forcing the mainstream to take note.

I think the big radical media revelations, often applauded, are, however, arguably the least of it. More fundamental are the sustained communication and nurturance of thought and discussion and action that radical media contribute. A limit on radical media, however, is what radical actors and writers do. That is the substance to convey and if there were more vision, more action, more gains, radical media would have more of value to convey.

EJ: I love the story in Bash the Rich where Ian Bone (editor of Class War) describes the exhilaration and fear of producing and distributing through 5,000 letterboxes The Swansea Mafia, which detailed, with hard research, the corruption of Swansea council, and led to the jailing of the leader of the council and four others.

3) How useful do you find the “Propaganda Model” of the mass media developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky?

AB: Perhaps heretically, as the profile of what constitutes media changes, might I hazard that it’s reaching its sell-by date? Or at the very least that we will soon need to recalibrate the model to suit new media forms?

BD: It is useful for understanding the structural influences of major media, but over the years I haven’t found it as applicable to actual intellectual self-defence. It tells us where to find bias or holes, but it won’t expose the truth. Alternative media and knowledge acquired the old-fashioned ways are still necessary for effectively reading between the lines of the corporate news.

MA: What makes the propaganda model foreign to many people isn’t complexity, but simply the way that the mainstream takes for granted virtually opposite – and quite absurd – claims. So of course the model is useful, because (a) it is accurate, and (b) it is about a topic of great importance and relevance which is, what factors affect what we know about society, and thus what we come to desire and believe.

EJ: It is very useful and refreshing to revisit their ideas regularly and go “aah, yes, that’s what’s going on”, and have a sense of the fog clearing, and remember that it’s all common sense.

4) What would be your advice to someone wanting to be involved in radical media?

AB: Just do it. But abandon the idea of leveraging that involvement into a position of wealth and fame!

BD:Acquire a variety of skills – not just journalism, but office management, bookkeeping, design, web software or content management – and get involved with or start a collective. There’s simply no more fulfilling way to participate in media production than the truly radical way, which means giving hierarchy and bosses the middle finger.

MA: First, develop your understanding of society in general and media in particular. Become adept at communicating ideas and information that is foreign-sounding to others. Become adept at thinking hard about commonplace and seemingly obvious realities and assumptions, to see if, perhaps, there is more at work than the mainstream claims.

Find others to work with. Decide on a form of media you wish to work with. Very carefully understand how the social relations of a media institution of the sort you want to create or work with will impact its functions and be disciplined about rejecting that which will constrain and limit achievements. Begin a project in light of your insights. Have a thick skin and a sense of proportion, realising that due to a likely lack of resources, your road will likely be hard.

EJ: Go and apprentice yourself to a good writer or film-maker and be willing to learn the craft. These are rare and precious skills needed by radical media.

5) How can radical media grow stronger and more useful to movements for radical social change?

AB: Collaborate, share and then collaborate some more... Never privatise. And keep a smart set of account books.

BD: Radical media need to be critical. Most left outlets simply praise and fawn over anybody doing anything that fits as “leftist”. This isn’t helpful. In the end, it doesn’t even rally the choir; it just makes everybody feel depressed that there’s so little innovation, vision and growth among social movements.

When the same old tactics fail again and again, it’s okay to point that out. The left is a room full of strategic and tactical elephants that almost nobody wants to take note of. I don’t mean sectarian insanity, I mean constructive criticism to encourage more effective organising.

MA: It can become more relevant, by which I mean it can put less of its sparse time and resources into repeating that which its audience is already quite aware of, and more time and resources into providing what is in short supply for its audience, but very much needed by them. In my own view, complaints about and endless descriptions of injustice are of the “we already have arguably too much of that” character – and celebrations and compelling discussions of vision and strategy are of the “that’s new, that we need” character.

EJ: Radical media are useful when they provide accurate, sourced facts and comprehensible analysis in plain language. The roots of strength are anger, beauty, joy and conviction – the more we express that in our writings and images the stronger they become.