How we can begin to make sense of the world – and use media to change it for the better.
There are enough materials on our planet to provide housing, clothing, and food for all people, all around the world, so that everyone can live a dignified life. Today, many are questioning why this isn’t already a reality: why don’t we have a system where society functions sustainably – from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs?
The system almost all of us are subjected to in the world is one where a forest only has value if it’s cut down; one where buildings sit empty while communities are in need – a system where profit has the utmost importance over all other things; a system that actually denies care and prevents progress if it doesn’t mean profit; a system of greed and growth; a system of supposedly endless extraction of natural resources…which is, of course, incompatible with our existence on this planet.
But this system – capitalism – attempts to justify itself with the principle of hierarchy: placing the interests of one entity over another not only excuses the hierarchy of profits over the natural world, but also conveniently divides our society that is also subjected to these hierarchies – rich over poor; famous over obscure; white people over people of colour; straight people over queer folks; men over women and non-binary people; cisgender over trans folks; non-disabled over the disabled, and so forth. Societies remain in turmoil, ripped apart by these differences, in-fighting, when the system has actually been quite clear in its division – hidden in plain sight – for a few hundred years now: the distinction between those who own and control property and business, and those who do not. This is the only true division.
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.from the preamble to the IWW constitution
For many of us, the best part of the day is lost to work. While the labour of workers has long made money for businesses, despite that labour itself generating the value of the products and services being sold, the workers have usually only ever received a small cut of the profits – profits that are in fact, then, unpaid wages, used instead to increase wealth for the capitalist class: the greatest hierarchy of all that is inherent to the system; essentially hard-coded into it. Yet a capitalist cannot make a million, only take a million. But still, those unwise to the injustices of this are instead easily distracted by other aforementioned hierarchies manufactured for society to fight amongst themselves over, while the rich get richer, and people suffer in various kinds of poverty – not just material poverty, but other kinds of poverty, too, such as poverty of education, and poverty of leisure, poverty of hope…which helps the system to continue.
I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.Stephen J. Gould
But of course, this system is completely unsustainable. Expansion of profits and narrow-minded never-ending extraction means destruction of the planet itself. The capitalist class seem confident they can close themselves off from the effects while the working classes fight amongst themselves outside. But inherently, humans are social creatures and enjoy spending time with others they have shared experiences with, yet climate change, wars, famines, discrimination, financial uncertainty and other conditions lead to displacement; in turn, nation states open and close borders to control the flow of people as it suits them and their economic motives at the time – essentially also opening and closing access to everyday essential resources that, as mentioned, are plentiful enough to easily meet the needs of all human life on earth, yet are instead ring-fenced and hoarded by a greedy capitalist class, enabled by nation states that serve these immensely powerful interests. And this is why we are now seeing late-stage capitalism requiring greater, more ruthless authority, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s why capitalist interests always accept fascism, propaganda, and disinformation as a way to keep the same old system on track when society experiences unrest.
I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.Eugene V. Debs
The aforementioned displacements and upheavals are caused by these very interests, with ordinary people subjected to their power when, instead, communities could be organised by and for the people who live in them. It may seem obvious, but such a system of “direct democracy” would threaten these concentrations of power protected by the nation state, with its “representative democracy” of careerist professional politicians claiming to solely speak for thousands or even millions of people until the next ballot box election cycle where we choose between one suit or another, red or blue, like Coke and Pepsi; both options bad for us. Ultimately, the state is another concentration of powerful interests, with its hierarchy of institutions, armed forces, policing over its people, and often punitive welfare systems, where, while elites hoard their wealth, people scramble for scraps of assistance to experience a life less miserable – assistance that can be withdrawn at the whims of a government whose politicians swap, switch, and change positions, portfolios, and policies in the corridors of power; policies that can remove support for swathes of people with the mere flick of a pen.
we all tend to agree that refusing to help place food within reach of the needy when we have the chance is still a form of starvation through cruel inaction. It causes harm. So these policies are state violence. If the needy then take food from a marketplace without paying for it, the state ensures that they are arrested, prosecuted, and punished. Meanwhile, rich capitalists can themselves break laws and pollute the planet, and get away with it through legalised bribery called government fines. The state generally rewards the greedy, and persecutes the needy.
The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.from Wall and Piece by Banksy
While people for years have argued with one another about segments of society or political parties across the spectrum, after the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler, and numerous other examples, it turned out that the biggest problem wasn’t to be found on a horizontal line of “left” or “right” politicians in the halls of power, but at the top of a vertical line – of those holding power over the working class “citizens” beneath them. Yes: the problem was power itself. A line must never be vertical, and only be horizontal when it’s endlessly representing all people, essentially joined in a circle.
Most of us have little experience in groups where everyone gets to make decisions together, because our schools, homes, workplaces, congregations, and other groups are mostly run as hierarchies. Our society runs on coercion. You have to work or go to school and follow rules and laws that you had no say in creating, whether you believe in them or not, or risk exclusion, stigma, starvation, or punishment. We do not get to consent to the conditions we live under. Bosses, corporations, and government officials make decisions that impoverish most people, pollute our planet, concentrate wealth, and start wars. We are only practiced at being allowed to make decisions as individual consumers, and rarely get practice making truly collective decisions. We are told we live in a system of “majority rule,” yet there is rarely anyone to vote for who is not owned by – or part of – the 1 percent, and the decisions those leaders make do not benefit the majority of people.Dean Spade
Direct democracy – and not state socialism, which has, throughout history, given us aggressive power blocs and forced labour camps – is true socialism, where people literally decide for themselves on how their communities are organised. It is often called libertarian socialism…or simply anarchism, a scary-sounding term for the establishment media, maybe, but the word “anarchism” actually derives from the ancient Greek word anarchia, which basically means “without leader” or “without authority.” No lines, only circles.
Like all really good ideas, Anarchy is pretty simple when you get down to it – Human beings are at their very best when they are living free of authority, deciding things among themselves rather than being ordered about. That’s what ‘Anarchy’ means – ‘Without Government.’Clifford Harper
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once stated that “anarchy is order without power,” a phrase that arguably inspired the symbol of the letter “A” inside a circle. After all – as history has already shown in such a short time – capitalism brings us violence, corruption, and complete chaos, so despite what its defenders claim about anarchy, it is anarchism that offers us order at last: a world without leaders, states, or borders, a world that opposes hierarchical structures, a world in which individuals create and control their own collective organisations federated and democratically coordinated (rather than competing) with one another, where communities act locally but think globally, without desperation, crime, police, prisons, or powerful institutions, and where people’s needs are met through the principle of mutual aid, alongside community support systems, conflict resolution, restorative and transformative justice…and direct democracy.
Unlike representative government, consensus decision-making lets us have a say in things that matter to us directly, instead of electing someone who may or may not advocate on our behalf. Consensus decision-making is a radical practice for building a new world not based on domination or coercion.Dean Spade
Such concepts are, of course, fundamentally based on inclusion, care, and non-violence and yet, as innocuous as they seem, those of us who promote them and participate in them are often targeted and demonised by the state – so incredibly threatened states are by such programmes’ potential to de-legitimise, undermine, and even replace the state itself. It’s why the rise of fascistic right-wing violence is greatly ignored. It’s why, instead, peaceful campaigners can be called “domestic extremists,” cute bookstores can be considered “hotbeds for terror plots,” and it’s why the free breakfasts provided by the Black Panthers were considered a “security threat.” At its worst, the state itself actively stamps out such solidarity (which is horizontal), and at its best promotes charity (which is hierarchical). The state is defined by power itself. And, of course, power protects itself. No government has ever liberated all of its people from oppression – perhaps because centralised power is oppression.
Existing political elites and the ruling classes have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, even if that means the continued murder of Black people by police, foreign military intervention, and a dangerously escalating climate crisis. They will not voluntarily give up power and share the wealth, as has been demonstrated throughout history.Dana Ward and Paul Messersmith-Glavin
Nonetheless, it took me many years to finally accept the reality of the fact that the state cannot offer socialism: “state socialism” is as much a contradiction in terms as “representative democracy.” After all, anarchism wasn’t always articulated in simple terms until recent years, when it has perhaps not coincidentally grown in popularity. But once we realise direct democracy is the libertarian socialism we seek, we start to ask how we can finally realise this.
Of course, working class people must organise now – in non-hierarchical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Solidarity Federation, moving towards workers’ cooperatives, as well as groups like renters unions and mutual aid initiatives – embracing an inter-communal, internationalist, and intersectional anti-capitalism that understands and embraces the varying and unique levels of oppression experienced by different communities. These examples of working class solidarity are, at the time of writing, often quite small organisations in the grand scheme of things – and that’s why information is absolutely crucial in raising awareness of the futility of the current system as well as these alternative ways we can effectively de-legitimise the system, undermine the system and, yes, ultimately replace the system: building the new world in the shell of the old.
The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.Murray Bookchin
So often, so many of us resign to an apathetic view that the world is how it must be, our vision of an alternative future obscured by the current culture and its media. After all, that neoliberal icon herself, Margaret Thatcher, proclaimed that “There Is No Alternative” while working closely with media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch to perpetuate this narrative, manufacture consent, and develop distractions and divisions amongst the working classes.
Born and raised in Doncaster, England, I was pulled from an abusive school environment when I was aged 11, and — while my dad worked long shifts at the nearby factory — I was taught at home by my mother, who battled education authorities in order 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 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, an industry in which both my grandfathers worked — and an industry targeted for daring to be strongly unionised.
Becoming a “media activist”
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 worthwhile, fairly unique understanding of their subject, leading me to be accepted onto a three-year media degree at Barnsley College — and still struggling with hierarchical formal learning environments I dropped out with just a few months left in order to stay in the United States, before returning 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 non-profit organisation 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.
However, both failed in different ways. While I’d founded SilenceBreaker Films, it was only able to access grant funding for community workshops by having a committee in place, who, while I was staying in Canada, ousted me and wound it up, apparently transferring its assets to their friends, while blaming the collapse of the organisation, even to funding bodies, solely, squarely, and entirely on myself – as a committee, enjoying their rights but accepting no responsibilities. Meanwhile, IndyMedia was experiencing the opposite issue: this global network’s non-hierarchical structure was both its strength and its greatest vulnerability, as this extended to a lack of editorial oversight, and IndyMedia became overwhelmed by conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites, largely collapsing in on itself around the world as its more responsible guerrilla reporters pursued paid careers in an “alternative” media buoyed by pages on emerging social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where profiles were created and raised by self-proclaimed pundits and where meanwhile I neglected to promote myself or my skills.
As a result of these couple of examples of chaos, feeling burned, I wrongly doubled-down – setting up a successor to SilenceBreaker Films, called SilenceBreaker Media, which I’d conceived while still in Canada, to be multi-discipline and broader in scope, yet more locked down legally as a “social enterprise” in the UK. This move meant I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with not just activists and artists, but entrepreneurs and city councillors I’d later come to recognise as what you might call “liberals” or “centrists.”
The careers of clout-chasing professional politicians and business people are perceived, even by those careerists themselves, as dependent upon the capitalist status quo, and while emerging leftist and/or populist politicians often posed no significant threat to that (most often proposing policies of Scandinavian-style social democracy, at best), in countries from the U.K. and U.S. to Russia, the prevention and decimation of even these mild alternatives and tweaks to the system led the rest of the population of angry, confused people outside of the “suited-and-booted” bubbles to being seduced by something else that promised a drastic shake-up: a fascism openly promoted, for years, by a media that meanwhile engaged in an all-out assault on all things not conservative.
Aside from the emergence of right-wing authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, parents were even resisting the “indoctrination” of the school system by teaching fascism to their children at home. Fortunately, my mother had taught me anti-fascism, and removed me from school because of its abuses of power from teachers and headteachers in the hierarchical education system, not just bullying from classmates. Again, the problem was power, and its abuses.
The education I was given outside the state system highlighted a “D.I.Y.” punk ethos popular from the time I was born: my mother was herself figuring out how to effectively teach me, while in turn I was having to figure things out for myself without any peers, pupils, or classmates, as it were. We worked with whatever appealed to me in order to learn: watching educational films; reading well-written books and magazines about topics I was interested in to better grasp the English language; using collectible items to understand mathematical concepts; embarking on local nature trails; visiting museums and galleries. This punk D.I.Y. ethos is what I applied to my guerrilla journalism and documentaries, which I researched, wrote, produced and directed myself, with extra crew hired from fundraising and even my own pocket, so clueless about capitalist realities that I even let the cinemas screening my films keep all the box office takings after screening costs were covered, clearly confusing a lack of revenue or proceeds with “non-profit” principles.
Unsurprisingly, in addition to being taught the D.I.Y. ethic, I was brought up vehemently anti-Margaret Thatcher, and, growing up further, was also anti-Tony Blair — alongside a million other of my fellow protesters, attending the historic February 15th, 2003 march in London protesting his 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. It was on this scene that people first introduced me as a “media activist,” the first time I’d ever even heard the term. Even though I was probably only vaguely “leftist” or socialist, still finding my way politically, and my film work was mostly aimed at the average British tabloid reader, I’d still been one of the few anti-establishment documentarians making purely independent films largely from their 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, aside from speaking about the SilenceBreaker Media concept, 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 the late 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.
There was another talk I gave – when formally launching SilenceBreaker Media as a brand-new Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs – where my speech had to follow that of a suited representative of one of the School’s corporate sponsors, who rather liberally confessed that communities don’t need things “doing to them” by corporations but need, instead, support, so I went up and, unable to stop myself, spontaneously stated that corporations needed things “doing to them” by communities, “and I’ll leave it to your imagination what those things might be.” Despite laughter from the majority of the audience, the suit in question looked unimpressed, and afterwards the managers of the School seemed to be displeased with me, too – possibly because as part of my actual “graduation” speech, rather than use ambitious business language about SilenceBreaker Media, I instead talked about why such media was needed, offering two tales from my area to illustrate my point: 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, 97 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 nationally, trust in the BBC has decreased as well. And justifiably so. But that vacuum hasn’t been reliably filled.
On top of the bombardment of information through a plethora of television channels and websites, the confused and fact-starved public not successfully seduced by fascism have still become vulnerable to further misinformation presenting itself under the guise of offering “alternative” media like Redfish, Mint Press News and The Grayzone who have built a reputation in the internet age for fiercely “anti-imperialist” reporting – only for such coverage to be largely restricted to critiques of Western imperialism, with funds from Russian powers supporting these narratives that undermine Western superiority while platforming white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists.
When I was younger, the existence of anything questioning Western imperialism seemed appealing at face value, and many of these outlets are designed to exploit such sentiments while being, at best, state socialists or, at worst, disinformation channels serving the interests of the powerful Russian government, and – as mentioned – often platforming bigots and pseudoscience personalities. But across the web, they’re all fighting for clicks, whether they be Bellingcat exposing The Grayzone as state stooges, or The Grayzone attempting to return fire by making the same claim back at them. Regardless of the influences or agendas, they’re all compromised and open to these criticisms (though some worse than others, of course).
As faith in “established” media has fallen, right-wing politicians like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson 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 – related to the rise of the far right who have essentially effectively rebranded consequences as “cancel culture” as a way to protect and perpetuate their bigotry while, for example, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities promised to gain some momentum in the struggle for long overdue rights and justice. But these struggles are rarely covered or vocalised in an era of media “debates” that offer “both sides” while literally discussing fascists and an opposition anti-fascist movement falsely portrayed as a terror cell called “antifa” while political pundits normalise the dehumanisation of “migrants” in a manufactured moral panic of “wokeness” where treating people with dignity and respect is re-framed as irrational “political correctness” on purpose by those who will resist societal progression, to protect power, hierarchies, and the capitalist status quo.
Understandably, then, it’s become very popular, right across society, 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, but it turns out it’s actually an inaccurate term for what is in fact establishment media.
The media’s ownership and control has for decades remained firmly in the hands of corporations and/or governments with little 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. Ads are even on the world wide web (though it is possible to block them).
(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
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 and Elon Musk. In fact, this kind of social media – aside from making money from selling user data to advertisers – has actually contributed to a rise in misinformation.
In the run-up to the U.K. general election in 2019, a staggering 88% of Conservative Party posts on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook were “misleading.” (Facebook did ban one of their ads, but only because it infringed the BBC’s intellectual property rights.) More recently, Covid denialism (linked heavily to the far right and fitting nicely with capitalist ideology) has thrived via conspiracy theories thrown around on Facebook as well. Twitter, meanwhile, was purchased by Elon Musk, who also perpetuated conspiracy theories and even banned anti-fascists from the site. Far from ever being “platforms” or virtual “town squares,” these social media sites and apps are simply privately-controlled entities subjected to the whims of billionaires and their desire to protect the capitalist class – even if it means promoting fascism to do so.
Technology is usually fairly neutral. It’s like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or to destroy someone’s home. The hammer doesn’t care. It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.Noam Chomsky
As a concept, social media remains a good thing. The rise of the “Fediverse” has demonstrated that there are more ethical, non-hierarchical, decentralised and democratic alternatives available to us – Mastodon instead of Twitter, Friendica as opposed to Facebook, Pixelfed in place of Instagram, PeerTube over YouTube, and so on. That’s great. But what is the equivalent when it comes to mass media in general? Because that lies in the hands of very exclusive interests: for example, just 3 companies dominate at least 80% of the British newspaper market – Reach, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, and the Rothermeres’ Daily Mail Group, the latter two of which have, historically, been notoriously right-wing (though none are, by any stretch, even remotely left-wing in any way, shape, or form); Thatcher’s old friend 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. And it isn’t just the private companies in control of much of the media that have retained a right-wing stance: the BBC are inherently anti-left – not, perhaps, despite being a state broadcaster but because they’re a state broadcaster. While Russia Today, or RT, are roundly (and rightly) criticised for being a state media group and therefore at the behest of the Russian government, the BBC, too, is controlled by the increasingly right-wing, authoritarian U.K. government – but repackaged as, instead, a “public” broadcaster. Ultimately, government-controlled media can no more reflect the views or interests of the public than professional politicians can.
The Establishment Media is not “Mainstream” Media
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 us or even our 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, though Noam Chomsky’s work often alludes to this – such policies have proven popular with the general population in both the U.K. and the U.S. while the mass media messaging suggested little less than, well…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 (cynically co-opted by his establishment-friendly successor, Sir Keir Starmer, in his leadership campaign, scrapping them as soon as he’d gained his position of power).
For years here in the UK, 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, as mentioned, is a complete lie due to the establishment interests they serve and their pro-capitalist editorial narratives). 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.
Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem
The way to fight back isn’t to continue to consume this media, any more than it is to contribute to this media. Ideally, we have to boycott it; block it out. Both state-controlled and corporate-controlled media are part of the capitalist establishment. They are the “establishment” media. And this suggests that, rather than accepting a counter to this as merely “alternative” and quirky – destined to be on the fringe, or opening up routes for conspiracy theorists – 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?
These aforementioned mass media institutions are all hierarchical, elitist entities that represent the establishment. A counter to this must be free from private ownership and the profit motive as well as state ownership that creates a cosy relationship where journalists court favour with the government. After all, 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.
It may seem like the obvious option is a journalism workers’ cooperative. But one such entity once courted my involvement, only to reject any attempts from myself to collectively adopt overtly anti-capitalist narratives; others involved felt that just being a workers’ cooperative was simply enough to contribute to a better world. But if there’s one thing you can say about capitalism, it’s that it is highly adaptable: the system has co-opted many co-ops to still exist within the capitalist economy (that famous cooperative The Associated Press even cooperated with the Nazis). 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 resisting fascism and also ending capitalism. It’s not enough to just be a co-op and let capitalism continue without critique. But I realised that the media co-op in question was largely started by individuals who staunchly disagreed with this stance, much more content to exist within the broader capitalist economy, and perhaps much more interested in simply seeing their work published, albeit via a co-operative business model with subscriptions and fees. After all, many of these “alternative” media companies have long been seen as stepping stones to establishment media by aspiring journalists. At least co-ops such as the British digital tabloid The Canary or the stateside streaming platform Means TV have made themselves less of a target for such cynical ambition by taking on an overtly anti-establishment approach. But there’s still a risk: as mentioned, establishment media loves little more than to lure and co-opt “dissenting” voices, leaving the journalists within workers’ cooperatives subjected to the capitalist economy and its corruptible seduction. Writers have bills to pay. There has to be another way — beyond the reliance upon journalism as a job. There has to be a way to start building the new world in the shell of the old.
Becoming the Media Through 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 that actually is, sadly, where we’re at. Establishment media has caused immense suffering in our societies — the examples are many, from Orgreave and Hillsborough, to global warming, alongside the very fact populations tolerate such inequality and oppression, all around the world, not to mention wars carried out in our name. The capitalist class don’t have to force people to accept these things in opposition to our interests; they can simply rely on their establishment media.
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. And on demonstrations week in and week out, protesters are filming police to hold them to account in ways their powerful bosses and their friends in establishment media rarely ever do. 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 even well-intentioned journalists are practically target-driven in their jobs and resort to copy-and-paste from corporate press releases, and re-writes or rejections from editors and “higher-ups” 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 fucking 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. It has to be about publishing content that the powerful do not want to be published. 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 that’s nothing new. It’s always been up to us.
Perhaps even more importantly, building a world based on the principles of mutual aid means sharing information as communities, as well, rather than leaving this responsibility solely with professionals. As communities, we really have a responsibility – and a right – to gather, collect, and share information about things that affect us, ourselves. The world we want is built by creating it. A media by and for the people is a crucial element.
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
To reflect all of our communities at a grassroots level, the ideal media model 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 and calling out for here, rather than, say, the promotion of the highest form of literature via professional writers (although we can have that too, as you can see).
This means a global network of websites based on France’s Mutu network.
Based on (and named after) the principles of mutual aid, the Mutu network is composed of over twenty radical websites dedicated to local news, located in various areas of France, in addition to Switzerland and Austria.
Each website has its own features, but all have a set of principles in common:
1. Participatory publishing: any person or local group sharing the goals of the website can submit articles
2. Support: the group which runs the website can help contributors with the writing and editing of their articles through a collective interface
3. Openness: the website isn’t the property of a particular group, it aims to reflect the diversity of ideas and practices that exist locally
4. Anti-authoritarian ideas: all the websites within the network aim to push forward emancipatory ideas and practices, resistance to authority and anti-capitalist ideals
5. Dissemination: steps are taken to ensure the content of the websites can be spread on a large scale
6. Integration within a local context
7. Mutual aid between members of the network.
The Mutu model is one that works — and can be replicated and built on.
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. (There’s a reason that corporate suit during my speech was unimpressed by my making fun of that attitude.) 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 — and truly democratic, anti-establishment media can not ever be dependent on one individual alone. It must be a collective effort – no leaders; no masters.
For years before the SilenceBreaker stuff, as mentioned, 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 and actions 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 at their core. This is what we need in our country — in all our countries.
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 that are non-hierarchical. Here in Britain, myself and others have been in contact with French-speaking comrades involved in Mutu in mainland Europe, to gain support in building a similar network here in the UK from the ground up — we’re currently calling it LoAM (Local Autonomous Media).
But it doesn’t just end there: crucial media activism extends into anti-ad campaigns, subvertising, and also into social media networks (not just content, but the form itself: there are different, more democratic and decentralised platforms emerging, as mentioned above). There are many weapons to wield in this war of information. A Mutu-style LoAM is just one of the biggest, and potentially revolutionary.
The struggle for a better, fairer, more sustainable world means a struggle for information embedded within it: it is absolutely crucial — hence, it’s truly a case of “D.I.Y. or Die.”
A downloadable PDF of this manifesto is available here.