Flat Earth News
‘It’s tragic,’ he said, staring at the teaser on the front page. The news was all over Euston Station. A huge screen by departures was proclaiming the end of the world as we know it:
Mr Spock is dead!
‘He was 83,’ I responded as we stood by the newspaper rack at WH Smiths.
‘I was shocked,’ he said. ‘I thought he was going to go on forever.’
‘No one is immortal on this planet!’ I laughed, and went to board the 0800 to Manchester Piccadilly. I was heading towards a convergence of journalists responding to the call for a ‘Real Media’: to cover what is happening on rather more grounded territory – Britain in 2015 in the run up to The Election.
Real Media describes itself as a ‘series of events and actions to campaign against media distortion and for independent grassroots journalism’. It has been set up by RealFare, a project that aims to challenge myths about the welfare system and this gathering is its kick-off point. In a similar way that UKUncut brought corporate tax dodging to public awareness and the Occupy movement the corrupt banking system, Real Media wants to expose the hyperreal, hostile nature of the press that distorts rather than reports on the reality we live in.
Aside from this gathering there are two actions this month: a national Anti Daily Mail Week from 13-20th March with online blockades, subvertising, protest and parody, followed by Occupy Rupert Murdoch Week from 22nd-29th March, organised by Occupy The Media. The week will include art and action and is being brought right to Murdoch’s door: his News UK headquarters in London Bridge. A full website will be launched in April.
The gathering taking place at the Friends Meeting House is framed by an opening and closing plenary, with workshops, films and discussions throughout the day. Networking is at full tilt, as I arrive with a bundle of the final issue of Transition Free Press under my arm.
As the speakers open the discussion it becomes clear there are two big challenges ahead: one is to call ‘Big Media’ to account, to make the reading/watching public aware that their news is highly manipulated in favour of the five billionaires who own 80% of its production. That ‘our planet is owned and controlled by a tiny elite of people who are exploiting the commons for their own benefit,’ as investigative journalist, Nafeez Ahmed stated.
The second is to build an alternatively-structured, collaborative media that will include the voices of people who are blocked or left out of the debate. If UK news coverage is ‘shallow and corrosive’ as described by US columnist, Glenn Greenwald, our task is to deepen and broaden it, to make our media both people and planet-friendly.
It is a production problem for sure – subjects such as climate change, Scottish Independence, social justice movements, the fate of the unemployed or asylum seekers, are commonly bypassed or misrepresented. But it is also a consumer problem. We are addicted to processed news.
Like junk food, we know junk media is not good for us, yet find ourselves lured into the ghost trains and freak shows that beckon us at every newsstand or website sidebar. Flick me, click me, now! How can we kick the habit and instead feed our minds and hearts with empathic stories and intelligent debate? How can we see the Earth, not as a battleground, but as a common ground for human beings and millions of other species coexisting, all with limited lifespans?
Seeding the Future
The media, like all British institutions, thrives on humiliation. And the prime way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate someone else you consider lesser than you. What would a new media look like that that doesn’t tap into the fury that lies beneath an institutionalised powerlessness? That is not owned by oligarchs, where editors are no longer ‘content managers’ or papers ‘products’, and a dead actor with alien ears the headline of the day?
In the networking spaces of the Friends Meeting House the signs of it are in the air and on the table: new cooperatively-run, people-owned local papers such as Birmingham’s Slaney Street or The Bristol Cable; the strong intelligent editorial and monochrome style of The Occupied Times, that first went on sale outside St Paul’s in 2011; independent magazines that operate without advertising, such as the New Internationalist; publications that train people to become citizen journalists like Manchester Mule; crowdfunded journalism such as Nafeez Ahmed’s Patreon platform ; radical writers, editors, broadcasters, filmmakers, new wave techs and a few Fleet Street vets, like myself, all happy to share their knowledge and skills and experience.
Which brings a third challenge into play: finding ways to cohere our small organisations into a strong and meaningful network. In a media monoculture news is easy to co-ordinate. McMedia can be sold anywhere: the same press releases and think-tank reports, the same agency photographs, the same levels of antagonism in its columns, just reworked in different house styles.
However a diverse, cross-cultural media doesn’t look or feel like this. It might be grainy instead of glossy, but its headlines don’t scream at you or twist your guts. In conventional media, the reader is irrelevant, except as a consumer of the advertising which keeps it afloat. In Real Media however the reader is a key part of the communications system: they are the story that is being written and, in many cases, they also fund the stories they are reading or listening to.
The only free press, as OpenDemocracy states, is one paid for by its readers.
Paying the Piper
No media outlet is cheap to run. In-depth investigative reporting is expensive not least for the legal fees it can incur. Most people are unaware of how much journalism costs to produce both in terms of effort and finance, and give it a poor level of value or trust.
Conventional journalists however don’t have to think about where their salaries or readership come from. Unless they bump hard against the system, as the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne did recently regarding HBSC, reporters rarely consider the pernicious influence of advertising on editorial, or the dissonance that arises, for example, when companies like Unilever sponsor environmental pages in The Guardian.
In alternative media you have to think about these relationships: you become an entrepreneur, as well as an editor. To pay yourself a decent wage (many independent publications don’t pay contributors or staff) you have to spend time sourcing ethical advertising, subscription schemes, crowdfunding and funding from progressive charities. None of this is secure. So the way forward for many media outlets is through donations: to build a dynamic relationship with their readers – which is how the new media platform, Common Space, launched through Common Weal, has been able to fund its team of reporters.
In England, we are highly aware that the Independence movement has radicalised a large section of society that had never been involved in political discussion before. It has helped to redefine democracy as a people-led movement, rather than a battle for power and privilege in the corridors of Westminster. This however requires a dramatic shift of position from media-makers, and far more than an ability to get a quote or make the deadline. We need to ask ourselves those existential questions that have been arising in the backrooms of the Meeting House on this rainy afternoon.
Who are you reporting to, and for whom?
Whose side are you on?
Everybody Knows the Boat is Leaking
Everybody knows , as Leonard Cohen once reminded us, but few of us speak with one another as if we all know. Everyone knows the captain lied, but carries on reading papers that say the ship is going on forever. One of the reasons for the Big Media clampdown on dissent, explains Ahmed, is because the crisis we are facing – political, financial, environmental, social – is signalling that the system itself is dying.
If everybody knows that fracking contaminates water tables, that Amazon doesn’t pay its taxes, that ‘divide and rule’ is the tactic employed by all bully-boy Empires, a key move we need to make as citizens and communicators is to speak to each other from that knowledge, and frame our media likewise.
One thing is in our favour: what drives every journalist, no matter who they work for, is neither money, nor corporate control; it is the story. And if that story is no longer to be found in illusion or propaganda, but in the real lives of people, reporters will have no choice but to go out there and find it.
Charlotte Du Cann was the founder editor of the grassroots newspaper, Transition Free Press and the Social Reporting Project. A very long time ago she was also the fashion editor of The Independent (some things do change!) www.charlotteducann.blogspot.com