Why Media Activism?

Life on earth essentially relies on communication and information.

As a society, we so often complain about the fact our system is run by and for corporations rather than communities, and yet so often so many of us seem resigned to an apathetic view that it is how it must be, with no vision of an alternative future. After all, that neoliberal icon herself, Margaret Thatcher, proclaimed that “There Is No Alternative.”

The media we depend upon to keep us informed has been absolutely crucial in maintaining this narrative, its ownership and control for decades firmly in the hands of corporations and/or governments with, to put it mildly, questionable democratic accountability. With communities increasingly dis-empowered and disconnected from decisions that affect them — in favour of capitalist projects wielding immense wealth, power, and influence — somewhat inevitably, advertising also spread across our landscapes, polluting far beyond the pages of newspapers and the commercial breaks of television programming, taking up space in our streets perhaps otherwise occupied by art instead.

(Advertising) is one of the main social forces that convince us that the status quo is both natural and inevitable and that nothing can be done to change it.

– Josh Macphee, from the introduction to the book Advertising Shits in Your Head

Ads are even on the world wide web (though Brave browser blocks them).

In recent years, the rise of the internet and social media stoked unrealistic expectations of a more free exchange of ideas in an online commons that was quickly seized and bought up by virtual landowners like Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, social media has actually contributed to a rise in misinformation.

Understandably, then, it’s become very popular to criticise “mainstream” media — yet those of us who express such criticisms don’t always seem to easily define what we mean by “mainstream.” It’s a term used by many different kinds of people from many different political persuasions. I want to talk about why it’s an inaccurate name for what is in fact establishment media — and what we can do about it through media activism.

Born and raised in Doncaster, England, I was pulled from an abusive school environment when I was aged 11, and taught at home by my mother, who battled education authorities to do so. It’s fair to say this was a defining moment in my life – spending most of my formative years being educated by a working class woman helped shape my intersectional feminism, despite living in a Conservative Britain in the 1980s, marginalised gay and black people all frequent friends visiting us in our semi-detached house literally split down the middle from our neighbours due to the subsidence underneath us from the now-closed coal mines deep underground.

Understandably, this anti-establishment education also meant I was barely able to scrape by through more formal further education and into higher education, with supporting statements from Doncaster College media tutors who felt I had a fairly unique understanding of their subject, leading me to be accepted onto a three-year media degree at Barnsley College, dropping out with just a few months left in order to go travelling a bit, and then return to work for Rotherham Council as a youth and community worker in the multimedia department. When funding for that was ended, I set up my own not-for-profit film company called SilenceBreaker Films, bringing in my fellow media degree drop-outs to work on it with me where possible, and in the years that followed I ended up screening my guerrilla documentaries in different countries in-between covering local political actions for IndyMedia.

I grew up vehemently anti-Thatcher, and by this time was also anti-Blair, alongside a million other of my fellow protesters, attending the historic London march in opposition to his illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, and continuing to document much of the movement while attending meetings and actions around anti-war activism and opposition to oppression linked to such wars: imperialism, colonialism, racism, and of course capitalism itself. Even though I was only vaguely “left-wing,” still finding my way politically, and my films were mostly aimed at the average British tabloid reader, I was still one of the few anti-establishment documentarians making purely independent films largely from his own pocket, and was called a “public enemy” by fascist websites such as Redwatch, while also being called on by activists and academics for various speaking engagements.

One such event was at the University of Huddersfield, where Bruce Hanlin, lecturer in journalism and media, invited me to give a talk to his students because, he told me, “Your ‘alternative’ and varied way into the media might look more realistic at a time when the established media are in retreat and job opportunities at a virtual standstill.” In the talk, I touched on topics such as journalistic integrity in an era of elitism in journalism, and how the BBC’s cloak of “impartiality” protects it in suppressing voices of dissent – after all, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But importantly, it was interesting to me that, for this talk, I was seen as part of the “alternative” media, but very telling that Hanlin also used the term “established” media. I think this can be useful.

As part of my development of SilenceBreaker Films (later SilenceBreaker Media), I have worked with numerous volunteers, often students, and one I recently met talked about her media research looking at both the weaponisation of the media and the victimisation of the media – as a reflection of the current climate. I found this particularly interesting, and I’ll explain why.

Weaponising and Victimising the Media

There was another talk I gave – as a brand-new Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, where rather than discuss what SilenceBreaker Media would be as a not-for-profit entity, I instead told two stories from my area as examples of the need for “alternative” media: the BBC’s manipulation of footage that falsely portrayed striking coal miners in a negative light in 1985, and The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster that told lies about the Liverpool FC fans, 96 of whom died. Both of these examples of deliberately misleading media narratives demonstrate acts of propaganda for authoritarian brutality. Noam Chomsky once stated that “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” With The Sun newspaper essentially banned from the city of Liverpool and readership in decline nationallytrust in the BBC has decreased as well.

And so the research of that student I met with becomes particularly pertinent, because the weaponisation of the media and the victimisation of the media have become linked. As faith in “established” media has fallen, authoritarian world leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have exploited this and in turn complained about “fake” news – calling an exposè or a story “fake” because they just happened to disagree with it, or because it challenges their authority itself. On top of the bombardment of information through a plethora of television channels and websites, this gaslighting has left an already-confused public more vulnerable to further misinformation – for example, the supposed saviour of social media itself for dissemination of information has been controlled by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, on which, in the run-up to the recent U.K. general election, a staggering 88% of Conservative Party posts were “misleading.” (Facebook did ban one of their ads, but only because it infringed the BBC’s intellectual property rights.)

Aside from the data-mining, advertising revenue-raising, private corporate social media models of the likes of Facebook and Twitter, the mass media in general is in the hands of very exclusive interests: just 5 companies dominate around 80% of British news media – Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, Reach, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, and the Rothermeres’ Daily Mail and General Trust, the latter three of which dominate more than 80% of the newspaper market specifically, and the latter two of which have been notoriously right-wing historically (though none of the above, by any stretch, are even remotely left-wing in any way, shape, or form); Murdoch was an ardent supporter of Bush, Blair, and the invasion of Iraq, for example, while the Rothermere family had their newspapers back the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and their editorial narrative hasn’t shifted much at all since.

It’s wrong, then, to refer to this elite group of establishment interests as “mainstream” since they aren’t accountable to the general public and don’t represent them or even their views. Taxing the rich; increased workers’ rights; rent controls; free university tuition; universal healthcare; a Green New Deal; de-privatisation of key industries…too often – in polls too numerous to cite in their entirety here – such policies have proven popular with the general population in both the U.K. and the U.S. while the mass media messaging suggested the exact opposite. In 2016, polls showed that the British public were actually quite keen on socialism, and this was reflected by the 2017 U.K. general election results, which saw the biggest swing to the Labour Party since just after the Second World War and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policies themselves remained incredibly popular.

Establishment Media is not Mainstream

This is why David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens have often questioned the term “mainstream” when referring to this mass media. As Bruce Hanlin suggested in what might well have been an off-the-cuff remark to me, “establishment” media might be a more fitting tag. Because it isn’t just the corporations in control of much of the media that have retained a right-wing stance – as I suggested in my speech at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the BBC have been just as guilty as The Sun, if more high-brow and fact-checked. But as we’ve seen from Orgreave, these facts can be cherry-picked, with plenty more omitted, to serve an establishment agenda – and when the job of a journalist is so immensely class-exclusive, it becomes inevitable that the voice of the working class mass majority in the country go unheard.

Both state-controlled and corporate-controlled media, then, are part of the establishment. They are the “establishment” media. So this suggests that, rather than accepting a counter to this as merely “alternative” and quirky – destined to be on the fringe – we instead need to represent the mainstream of the working class mass majority and become “anti-establishment” media. But how do we do this? What should anti-establishment media look like? And how would we define it?

First, we have to start by analysing the inherent traits of establishment media that lead it to failing us today.

State and Corporate Media Both Reflect the Establishment

These mass media institutions are either led by the state, or by corporations (or, arguably, both) – all hierarchical, elitist entities that represent the establishment.

A counter to this must feature a quality of public ownership. As seen with the union movement clashing with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks – a “progressive” media company funded by advertising and venture capitalists in addition to donations and subscriptions – a private media model is immediately at odds with the anti-capitalist cause, even where you have workers on boards in a social democratic approach. And, of course, there have been all kinds of issues with governments themselves controlling state broadcasters, from Russia’s RT to Britain’s BBC, as I and others have documented at length.

A good anti-establishment media model would be free from the profit motive as well as state funding or ownership. A not-for-profit co-operative model is a way of ensuring this, with a commitment to such ownership encoded within its constitution.

The issue here is that a co-operative model by itself still does not protect the journalism from being co-opted by capitalist interests that could realign editorial narratives. If there’s one thing you can say about capitalism, it’s that it is highly adaptable: capitalism actually quite likes co-ops, and has co-opted many of them to still exist within the capitalist economy. And the survival of our planet as we know it, and the people who live on it, depends entirely on the unquestionable, unashamed, unequivocal commitment to ending capitalism.

Careerist Journalism

The correct organisational model, then, might be a step in the right direction, but that does not by itself necessarily protect the journalism from capitalist interests. A significant reason for this is that quality journalism has long been reliant on traditional journalists from similar backgrounds who will offer similar narratives as found in establishment media anyway – and, as seen with, for example, Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar laughing along with jokes about Jeremy Corbyn on prime time TV shows and writing for The Guardian (a leading thorn in Corbyn’s side), there is a risk that some such journalists will still see such a “lefty” co-op as a stepping stone to seeking opportunities with establishment media anyway.

This is, of course, difficult to avoid, apart from perhaps offering a public declaration of intent to the contrary of such careerist manoeuvrings – contributing to a genuine culture of anti-establishment media that, at best, deters the careerist in the first place, and at worst, scuppers their quest for success in establishment media through association with the anti-establishment image. The world’s first post-capitalist streaming platform, the workers’ cooperative Means TV, for example, have done an excellent job of doing just that.

With all this in mind, the structure of the media organisation remains important, but its culture may be even more important. By rejecting the “career” motive entirely, we can look at informing, and even positively influencing and inspiring wider society through media activism. But this is where it gets tricky, as culture is so fluid, and difficult to codify.

The Argument for Citizen Journalism

I met filmmaker Tim Knight while sharing the stage with him as a speaker for a journalism conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada several years ago, and we stayed in touch. I interviewed him for my own website once and asked him about the rise of citizen journalism. He raised an interesting point when he cited fellow Torontonian, the 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer: “I would trust a citizen journalist as much as I would trust a citizen surgeon.” Some time after, I referred to this by making the counterpoint that if the modern equivalent of professional journalism is professional health care where the doctors are killing people instead of saving them, then you’d take your chances with someone else having a go at it.

And this actually is, sadly, where we’re at. Establishment media has caused immense suffering in our societies — the examples are many, from Orgreave to Hillsborough, alongside the very fact populations tolerate such inequality and oppression, all around the world, not to mention wars carried out in their name. The capitalist class don’t have to force people to accept these things; they can simply rely on their establishment media.

Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.

Noam Chomsky

And yet when we look at citizen journalism, we have much to be thankful for, from George Holliday’s filming of the Rodney King assault, to the mobilisation of entire movements from Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. Citizen journalism has empowered ordinary people in extraordinary ways, while establishment media reinforced the capitalist status quo and hid behind the excuse of “impartiality” when regularly refusing to critique capitalism’s brutalisation of our communities. There’s an old saying that politicians piss on us and the media tells us it’s raining.

This is because the establishment media that lies behind most of our sources of information are comprised of massive hierarchical institutions where stressed-out journalists are practically target-driven in their approach and resort to copy-and-paste from corporate press releases, and re-writes or rejections from editors close to the elites in charge. A media tutor once said, “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.”

In this culture of the modern newsroom, even if there was any inclination to look out of that proverbial window, that’s too often too much effort, as pressures from bosses reduce journalists to, at worst, remaining totally disconnected from marginalised communities, and at best, “reporting” while giving equal say to both perpetrator and victim, apartheid regime and refugee, corporation and community, all in the name of “unbiased” reporting. You can’t give equal say to unequal parties when one of them already dominates cultural narratives. Media is supposed to be biased, in favour of the oppressed. Otherwise, it simply exists to constantly reinforce power imbalances. To paraphrase Finley Peter Dunne, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Establishment media has completely failed to do this because of its hierarchical elitist institutions and class-exclusive professions. Its entire culture is at odds with the interests of our communities. And so, it’s now up to us. But hasn’t it always been?

In many ways, the definition of “journalist” has now come full circle. When the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was adopted, “freedom of the press” referred quite literally to the freedom to publish using a printing press, rather than the freedom of organised entities engaged in the publishing business. … It was not until the late nineteenth century that the concept of the “press” metamorphized into a description of individuals and companies engaged in an often-competitive commercial media enterprise.

Prof. Mary-Rose Papandrea

Don’t Consume, Don’t Contribute – Just Boycott

So, we perhaps now know how to define establishment media, and we know what drives establishment media, and we also know that we must therefore boycott it — not just Fox News, Sky News, The Sun, The Daily Mail, and your typical common right-wing platforms, but the (in many ways more sophisticated and therefore more dangerous) “liberal” establishment media such as the BBC and The Guardian. Media Lens once stated, “It is obvious that the right-wing press…play a toxic role in manipulating the public to favour elite interests. But many people are now realising that the liberal press is actually the most potent opponent of progressive change.” So while for many of us it’s been easy to reject the right-wing media, we’ve now got to kick the habit of, say, financing the BBC, or buying The Guardian. This means not just refusing to pay a licence fee for the BBC. It means not just choosing to buy something different to The Guardian from a newsstand, but also refraining from linking to such a site where every click boosts their advertising revenue (and there’s an incredibly useful site here to help us do just that if we want to use them as a source without financing them).

It also means de-legitimising establishment media by extending boycotting beyond just consumption, to include refraining from participating in it.

For years, I’d been a regular guest on BBC radio and was a columnist for a Johnston Press newspaper, amongst many other media engagements; like other like-minded and well-meaning individuals I was hoping to put across anti-capitalist messages on a major platform, and on reflection it was not just wasted energy, and largely futile – mere pieces of press in a gigantic barrage of media narratives to the contrary – but even worse, by making such appearances I was actively legitimising such establishment media’s absurd claims to be “balanced” in their coverage (which of course is a complete lie due to the establishment interests they serve). No matter how much we want anything highlighted or promoted, it will rarely be worth it – for whatever amount of exposure you gain, you’re paying for it by continuing to provide such media with stories to fill their full function, which is to represent the establishment itself, whether it be lords or oligarchs or big business bosses in general; there is a capitalist class and they’re waging war on the rest of us. The world is on the brink of environmental collapse, and yet the political movements that propose the solutions to this crisis are either ignored or discredited by campaigns in the pages and on the screens of establishment media owned and controlled by an elite group of billionaires hell-bent on maintaining the destructive status quo.

The way to fight back isn’t to continue to consume this media, any more than it is to contribute to this media. We have to boycott it, block it out, while developing the alternatives through citizen journalism. But that can be a daunting task, too.

The Alternative is Mainstream

Right at its inception, I jumped at the chance to support Means TV, which I’d highly recommend. There’s also a wealth of anti-capitalist video resources via A Radical Guide. In addition, these platforms by their very definition effectively undermine establishment media’s traditional reliance on television (as the saying goes, there’s a reason they call it “programming”) — where audiences switch it on and view whatever’s airing, rather than using the internet to seek out and select what to watch and when, another reason I’ve boycotted TV all of my adult life, which is like coming off a drug (and I’ve always experienced a sense of shock when I’ve visited family or friends and seen what’s on their TV channels…it has a lot to answer for).

Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.

– Bill Hicks

And while my recommended list of news providers you see here on the menu to the left (and which I’m aiming to develop as a mobile app) contains some of the more reliable and critical news sources out there — where there are professional journalists doing good work in opposition to your usual serving of establishment media — it’s a work in progress; far from perfect.

To reflect all of our communities at a grassroots level, the ideal model I defined above must largely rely on citizen journalism where information is seen less as what it’s become (a commodity) and more of what it truly is (a human right). And, in this time of global crisis, information is what we’re talking about here, rather than, say, the promotion of the highest form of literature via professional writers.

This means a global network of websites based on France’s Mutu network.

One thing about falling into social enterprise was that it, of course, championed the “social entrepreneur,” the individual go-getter, doing something for the community they’re representing, rather than with the community, much less by the community. Leading SilenceBreaker Films and then SilenceBreaker Media meant that with each and every incarnation, I became more and more associated with the name and it was becoming more and more about me than the intentions. I even attempted a last gasp push to break off SilenceBreaker Media into a journalism co-op, but I was already tainted with the leadership role I don’t want – not least because truly democratic, anti-establishment media can not ever be dependent on one individual alone. It must be a collective effort.

For years before the SilenceBreaker stuff, I’d contributed photographs, videos, and articles to IndyMedia, with its slogan “don’t hate the media, be the media,” and still to this day I’m in touch with old friends who I’d weave around on pickets, demonstrations, and events to document incidents on our cameras in the hopes of spreading information that wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by establishment media. Of course, with its platform for open reporting, accepting submissions from all kinds of citizens, IndyMedia became polluted with unreliable reports and conspiracy theories that only harmed the movement. The Mutu model is different: there is a transparent editorial process based on set principles that are anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. This is what we need in our country — in all our countries.

Now we have an idea of what the solutions are beyond boycotting and supporting counter-culture platforms. We have to work to develop and contribute to a local, regional, national, and international network of anti-profit, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment media platforms.

Get in touch if you want to get involved with it. I intend to play my part.