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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Alternative Media
by Stephen Baker
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In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US the BBC's Director of News, Richard Sambrook addressed an audience of journalists and broadcasters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He congratulated them on their performance on 9/11 saying that it was an occasion 'when the world needed news in a way it hadn't for more than a decade' and, that in their desperation to understand, the public had turned to the media in search of 'clear accurate information to help them make some sense of those horrifying events'.
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There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that people tuned into the news in larger numbers than before but the notion that journalists and broadcasters 'made sense' of 9/11 for their viewers and readers is an assertion that is more difficult to sustain. The attacks on the US and in particular the 'war on terror' that followed them have rent the international community asunder demonstrating conclusively that no consensus exists within which a public broadcaster like the BBC, nor its commercial rivals, can claim to be 'making sense' of the recent catastrophic events for everyone.
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Indeed, in the present political and cultural climate people may be looking beyond the usual channels of news to alternative sources of information. John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman in December 2002, detected a growing disaffection among young people in particular who perceived bias in mainstream news. As a consequence, Pilger pointed out, they were switching to samizdat sources on the web. Samizdat was the name given to the Soviet Union's underground press and contemporary alternative media often evoke samizdat's radicalism and DIY methods.
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One such publication is SchNEWS a weekly free-sheet published by a collective of political activists in Brighton, who came together in 1994 to oppose the Criminal Justice Act. It describes itself as 'information for action' and it continues to campaign on social and political issues as diverse as the occupation of Iraq and the debilitating health and environmental impact of junk food. SchNEWS has come up with an innovative form of distribution as well. Readers can download each edition from the internet and then print it off, photocopy it and pass it on to others.
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It is this campaigning zeal and indifference to commercial imperatives that distinguishes most alternative and radical media from their mainstream counterparts. Radical media seldom aspire to impartiality and balance. Such journalistic standards mean little when you believe your role is to compete with the propaganda disseminated by your mainstream opponents. Winning arguments, hearts and minds becomes the criteria by which radical media measure success rather than how much profit they make.
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It isn't only John Pilger who has been sitting up and taking notice of the rise of radical media. Academics have begun to take seriously the myriad of news-sheets, journals and websites that exist to disseminate the sort of news, views and information routinely ignored by the mainstream media. John Downing of the University of Texas has castigated colleagues for a lobsided approach to media research that refuses to take seriously 'the historical persistence and geographical pervasiveness of radical alternative media'. Chris Atton of Napier University and Nick Couldry of the London School of Economics point to the 'salience of alternative media to the broad agenda of media and communication research'.
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New research is bringing to light the crucial role that alternative sources of news and information play in forming public opinion. Contrary to what Richard Sambrook believes mainstream journalism and broadcasting can lay no automatic claim to 'making sense' of the world for anyone, especially in a time marked by a deep crisis of political legitimacy. This crisis is apparent in the declining voter turn-out at election time and the levels of public cynicism about the political process. Politics in the West faces further challenges from the revival in political activism around issues of global social justice and anti-imperialism, and a growing religious fundamentalism and militancy. In such a fractious climate just who do the broadcasters think they are 'making sense' to?
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In Northern Ireland we know all about political and democratic processes in crisis. The legitimacy of the state here has been argued and fought over since its inception. In such circumstances the BBC has struggled to offer a unifying representation of the community. Even public holidays and moments of national commemoration or celebration that may be benign enough elsewhere are often the cause of controversy here. When reporting on any political Issue it is almost impossible not to give offence to one side or the other. Commercial broadcasters have tended to avoid political controversy by serving up the blandest of media fare but simply sidestepping or fudging awkward political questions never satisfies the politically committed out in the audience. It is hardly surprising then to find that Northern Ireland has a thriving alternative media where political opinions usually overlooked by the mainstream media are aired.
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Belfast's Linen Hall Library boasts an impressive archive of political pamphlets, news-sheets and journals that is a testament to the zeal among local political activists for getting their oppositional message out to the public. All manner of political life is represented among these publications and their diversity may give a better indication of the breadth of political opinion about Northern Ireland and the depth of political convictions here than the mainstream broadcasters like the BBC and UTV.
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The difference between mainstream and alternative media is most marked by their different perspectives on the political process in Northern Ireland. Local broadcasters and newspapers have all been broadly supportive of the peace process with the nationalist Irish News and unionist News Letter going so far as to Issue joint editorials supporting the efforts being made to secure a political accord. Broadcasters on the other hand have always made clear their preferences by reporting every step towards decommissioning and the re-establishment of an executive as 'progress'. Conversely the alternative radical press is either sceptical or downright hostile to the peace process and has been from its inception.
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Republican newspapers like Saoirse and Sovereign Nation rejected the Agreement as falling short of republican ambitions. Only An Phoblacht welcomed the Good Friday document as a 'transitional phase towards Irish unity'.
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It was precisely the suspicion that the Agreement had this political potential that prompted loyalist publications such as Warrior and the Orange Standard to emphatically reject it. Only Combat on the loyalist side, the journal of the UVF, spoke up for the Good Friday Agreement but its recommendation was couched in negative terms. To sceptical loyalists, Combat argued that the Agreement was at least preferable to the alternative, which was 'a return to the bloodshed of the past on a scale that would be too horrific to contemplate'.
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Even socialists were dubious about the merits of the Agreement. The Socialist Worker branded it a 'bosses agreement' and the Socialist Voice welcomed it only in so far as it opened up a space for the development of class politics.
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The Ulster Humanist embraced two perspectives on the Agreement in consecutive articles: one supporting the accord on the grounds that it left behind the 'dinosaurs' and 'Neanderthals' of Ulster politics, the other urging caution because of the involvement of paramilitaries in the political process. Similarly Women's News offered no clear editorial line on the Agreement, being careful not to alienate any of its diverse female readership.
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If you where a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement the alternative press gave you little grounds for optimism. What emerged from these collective pages was the depth of unease felt in certain sections of Northern Irish society and the incongruous expectations that the 'new dispensation' had aroused in some political circles. The mainstream media did little to seriously contemplate this discontent or the contradictions and confusion out there among its audience. It is for that reason alone that an alternative press exists, to give voice to that which is either repressed or ignored by the commercial and public service media.
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The ongoing crisis in the political process suggests that our fractious alternative press offers a more representative picture of the political situation in Northern Ireland than its mainstream counterpart. For those convinced of the power of the modern mass media or its absolute centrality to public and political discourse this should ring alarm bells. In Northern Ireland, where even a gable wall can be turned into a site for the communication of political messages, the mainstream media have no monopoly over public communication. Indeed, the very people it broadcasts to might not consider it particularly trustworthy or unbiased.
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Mass media everywhere are forced to compete with other sources of news and knowledge that are capable of contradicting and challenging its generally consensual inclinations. Everything from oral histories, wall murals, samizdat newssheets and websites mean that even on 9/11 the media corporations and conglomerates didn't have a monopoly on 'making sense' of the world. Indeed, perhaps especially on such occasions alternative and radical media exist to ask the awkward questions and put forward unpopular truths that the press barons and director generals would rather not contemplate. We may cringe or baulk at the more unpalatable politics of some local alternative publications but it would be unwise to ignore their disaffection. On the other hand, at a time when parliamentary democracy is stunted and banal the political culture might benefit from the injection of some of the more controversial and radical perspectives presented in the alternative media.
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