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(en) Ireland, WSM, Red and Black Revolution #8 - Media Mayhem - Anarchists and the Mass Media I. (1/2)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 28 Dec 2004 08:29:52 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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On one level the phrase "the media" simply refers to the various modern
technologies for transmitting ideas to large populations, such as
newspapers, television, magazines, radio and the new kid on the block, the
Internet. These are extremely useful tools. They allow people to know
what's happening in the world and hence share some common
understanding with strangers. A fundamental precondition for achieving
the type of revolutionary change that anarchists seek is that a large number
of people actively desire it, or at the very least are open to it. Indeed,
communicating "our beloved propaganda" to the masses has always played
a major part in anarchist activity and hence we require the media.
However, today, when we talk about the media, we also implicitly refer to
the corporate machine that comes very close to operating monopoly
control over mass communication.

This article examines the mainstream media and looks at the various
factors which ensure that it effectively works as a propaganda tool for the
powerful. It looks at ways in which anarchists can deal with this situation,
by creating our own media, but also by challenging the hostility that they
habitually encounter from the mainstream. It is mostly based on the
experience of the 2004 Mayday protests in Dublin, which saw a huge
smear campaign against the organisers, and looks at some of the ways in
which they tried to respond.
Part One
Mainstream Media - The Propaganda Factory

A critique of the role of the mainstream media has long been a central part
of the global anti-capitalist movement. Noam Chomsky's book and film,
"Manufacturing Consent," can probably be considered a core text of this
new movement. It provides a very detailed critique of how news is created
and disseminated according to what Chomsky calls the 'propaganda
model': a series of information filters which serve to tailor information to
the needs of the powerful. This section simply presents some of these
important factors in outline. I strongly recommend Chomsky's text for a
much more detailed analysis, including a wealth of empirical evidence.

With the increasing pace of corporate globalisation, the ownership of
mainstream media resources like newspapers, television channels and
radio stations is concentrated in the hands of an ever smaller number of
enormous companies. As a result, the tiny number of individuals who own
and control these companies enjoy effective control over a huge percentage
of the information that is seen by the public. Naturally, the owners tend to
favour news that reflects their own worldviews. So, for example, news
items that are critical of the concentration of ownership in the media
industry are unlikely to be very popular in their productions.

Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi are two of the better-known global
media moguls, but there are lesser-known figures who exercise a large
degree of control within particular areas or industries. For example, Tony
O'Reilly's company, Independent News and Media, owns Ireland's
best-selling daily broadsheet, best selling daily tabloid, best selling Sunday
broadsheet, best selling Sunday tabloid, best selling evening paper as well
as owning more than 50% of all local newspapers and radio stations in the
country. This naturally gives him enormous ability to shape the news
agenda in the country.

The primary source of income of virtually all mainstream media comes
from advertising. This has created a situation where the media's core role
is not to sell news to consumers, it is to sell demographic slices of the
public to advertisers. As a result of this focus, the news content of the
media tends to tailor itself to the needs of advertisers. For example, a
publication that tends to be very critical of large corporations will soon find
it difficult to attract advertisers.
Political Pressures

Media companies generally depend upon their relationship with centres of
political power. This is especially the case with state broadcasters, where
the government of the day often has the power to fire senior figures who
insist on presenting information in a way that is deemed unfavourable to
the political power. When the BBC made a small, routine mistake in
reporting on the Iraqi 'dodgy dossier', the chairman was forced to resign
after a government witch-hunt - despite the fact that the content of the
report was substantially accurate. The mistaken detail was apparently
serious enough to cause heads to roll at the BBC, while the mistake in
going to war with dodgy information was not serious enough to prompt
any internal action by the state!

Political pressure is also applied to commercial media who depend on
access to information from the state (e.g. invitations to press briefings,
leaks from government and security sources...) to fill their pages. Political
parties and other powerful groups employ large numbers of people whose
job it is to put pressure on media companies. For example, Alaister
Campbell, New Labour's press secretary, used to phone the BBC to
complain about their coverage on the Today programme every single day,
regardless of the content. The reasoning behind this was that it would
cause the BBC producers to shape the news in advance, as they knew that
anything unfavourable would be the subject of strenuous and wearying
complaints. Similarly in Ireland, IBEC employs several full time PR staff
who spend much of their time harassing journalists and lodging
complaints when they think that any coverage has been 'unfair' (code for
anything that is critical of them or their members).

Finally, most states have various pieces of legislation which effectively
discriminate in favour of corporate-owned media. Strict libel and copyright
laws and the attendant risks of costly court action can be very effective
means of excluding non-commercial radical publications. For example, in
Ireland the libel laws allow the victim to sue the distributor. Easons, the
company which exercises near monopoly control over print distribution in
the country, thus requires that all distributed media should pass a costly
legal check before it can be distributed. This effectively excludes virtually
all radical and non-commercial publications.
Sensationalism and 'infotainment'

As the central task of the media is to deliver audiences to advertisers, the
educational value of the content is a much less important consideration.
The news media, therefore, tends to present information in as
'entertaining' a way as possible in order to maximise market share. This
focus on 'infotainment' lends itself to sensationalist reporting, designed to
catch the attention of the public rather than inform them. Thus, a fantasy
about a shadowy group plotting a major atrocity at a protest is much more
likely to grab the headlines than an examination of why the people
concerned are protesting - despite the fact that the former generally has no
informative value whatsoever.

The focus on sensationalism and entertainment lends itself to short
segments composed of 'sound-bites', designed to be digestible to the
lowest common denominator among the audience - meaning somebody
with little attention-span and no knowledge of the subject. As a result, it is
extremely difficult to introduce any concepts that fall outside the 'accepted
wisdom' on a particular issue (the accepted wisdom being roughly equal to
the points of view that are most favourable to advertisers and owners).
Accepted wisdom can be repeated indefinitely, but any sound-bite that
contradicts it tends to sound crazy. For example, if you were to state the
fact that the US is a leading terrorist state on US television, most viewers
would assume you are barking mad. On the other hand, anybody can say
that "Cuba is a terrorist state" and it will be accepted by most without a
second thought. Thus, in the era of the sound-bite, it is virtually
impossible for anybody who has an opinion markedly different from the
mainstream to present their ideas in a way that will appear credible.
The position of reporters

In line with developments across the board in modern capitalism, the
internal structure of many media companies has changed quickly. The
number of full-time news staff has declined sharply and they have been
replaced by freelancers, either working on short term fixed contracts or
with no contract at all. This has led to a situation where editorial staff have
less and less time to research news stories. As a consequence, much of the
content is cobbled together directly from press releases and other such
pre-packaged forms. Furthermore, without the time to adequately
investigate any issue, content is considered newsworthy only if it can be
squeezed into a well-known angle. Any news item that does not fit into
one of these cliches is just "not news". Protestors can be presented as
violent hooligans or harmless utopian hippies but otherwise they can be

The increasing preponderance of news-staff who work in insecure
positions has also contributed to the decline in the quality of news content.
Working in a highly competitive environment, with future employment
depending on breaking of high-profile stories, the temptation to embellish
and sensationalise stories often proves irresistible to those who are
desperate to establish themselves in the industry. Attending a public
meeting where reasonable people discussed plans for a protest is a story
that is unlikely to grab the front pages. On the other hand 'infiltrating a
secret meeting where fanatics plotted to bring chaos to the city' might.

Possibly the most insidious factor that shapes the mainstream media is
what Chomsky calls 'self-censorship' or the 'internalisation of values'. This
refers to the process whereby media workers internalise the filters that
apply to the publications that they work for. This creates a situation where
many will strenuously proclaim their freedom to write whatever they like
and deny the existence of any censorship of their work. In general,
journalists start on the bottom rungs of the media ladder, producing
commercial features or lifestyle pieces. By the time they rise through the
system to work on more politically sensitive pieces, they will be very
familiar with the dominant ideologies espoused by the publication and
industry that they work in. Anybody who fails to internalise the correct
values will either fail to rise, or will face so much turmoil and conflict that
they will be driven out.

For example, it is unlikely that the editors of Ireland's Sunday Independent
have to refuse too many articles on the grounds that they are too
sympathetic to Sinn Fein. Anybody who finds themselves in a position as a
political writer for that publication will already know well that only
criticisms of Sinn Fein are likely to be published. Furthermore, it is likely
that only those writers who demonstrate a personal dislike for Sinn Fein
will ever be given a job as a political commentator.
Part Two
Building Alternative Media Institutions

For all of the reasons given above, anarchists and other radical critics of
the current social order are never going to be given a fair hearing in the
mainstream media as it is now constituted. On balance, the media
coverage they receive will be overwhelmingly negative. They will be
ignored, belittled, mocked, misrepresented, slandered, vilified and abused.
There is nothing that can be done about this in the short term - it is a
consequence of the structure of the entire industry and is outside of
popular control. Therefore, in the long run, the most important task is to
create alternatives; media that is not controlled by powerful corporations;
that does not depend on advertising revenues; that primarily aims to
inform rather than entertain; that is independent from political pressure
coming from the powerful.

In the past there have been many extremely successful examples of people
doing just that. There is a long tradition of radical grassroots publishing
with roots that go back at least as far as the late 18th century, when
Thomas Paine's pamphlet The Rights of Man was influential in
popularising the ideas of the republican revolutions and uprisings around
the world. During the 19th century, a workers' press flourished, producing
numerous popular daily newspapers in new industrial towns in Britain and
the US. In 1930's Spain the anarcho-syndicalist CNT produced over 30
daily newspapers, including the national best-seller. Sadly, with the
growing importance of advertising revenues and the decline of radical
workers' organisations, alternative, non-commercial publications found it
impossible to compete with the corporate products and their number
dwindled. Generally only those publications which were run by
well-organised and committed political groups survive today. Their
circulation is mostly tiny compared with the mass distribution that the
workers' press achieved many decades before.

New media technologies such as television and radio that were introduced
in the course of the twentieth century tended to be even more tightly
controlled by government and large corporations as they require greater
capital investment. Today, there are only a small number of community
radio stations and public access television channels that are truly
independent of corporate and state control, and they have tiny audiences
and minuscule resources to cover news stories when compared with the
corporate competition.

To appreciate the marginality of non-commercial media today, consider
the example of Ireland. In terms of print publications, it is only the
newspapers, magazines and 'zines produced by small left wing groups and
individuals that are fully independent of the various filters in the
propaganda model. There are less than 100,000 copies of libertarian
publications and maybe twice that number of Marxist and other radical
publications distributed in Ireland each year. This figure is easily surpassed
by every single issue of several corporate Sunday newspapers. In other
media, such as television and radio, the situation is worse still. A couple of
community-controlled radio stations compete against a huge array of state
and commercial offerings with vastly greater resources and audiences.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. No matter how hostile and
powerful the mainstream media is, radical political movements can still
overcome the barriers put in their way. For example, in the 1970's Sinn
Fein claimed to be able to sell up to 45,000 copies of their newspapers1,
An Phoblacht and Republican News, each week . Although their populist
nationalist politics are hardly radical, their military campaign was in full
swing at the time and they were utterly reviled by the mainstream. Despite
the fact that the corporate world wouldn't touch them with a barge-poll,
they managed to build an impressive network of supporters to distribute
their ideas to a mass audience.

A more recent, if limited, example was seen during the recent campaign
against the bin-tax in Dublin. The mass opposition to this tax was
completely ignored by the mainstream media for three years. During this
time the campaign distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets and
newsletters to Dublin households, through an impressive network of
volunteers. By the time that the government decided to act to crush the
opposition to the tax, large swathes of the city had been won over to
support the campaign. The huge leafleting network was crucial in creating
a common understanding of the issues among large numbers of workers
across the city. The mainstream media did eventually start to cover the
campaign, but only when the city was on the verge of being shut down by
the campaign and then their coverage was a good example of how the
media can act in unison when the interests of the powerful are threatened.
Virtually every single piece of coverage in the mainstream media was
overtly hostile to the campaign. Yet, despite the media smears, the long
process of building a campaign and distributing information was strong
enough that it took the full might of the state to crush it.

However, it requires a huge investment of resources for radical groups to
be able to create and distribute their own media. In general the time,
money and energy involved means that it is only relatively coherent, well
organised and committed groups who are capable of reaching large
numbers. This is one area where anarchists have often fallen down,
especially in comparison with authoritarian socialists. Very few anarchist
publications reach large numbers of people. Indeed anarchists often mock
Trotskyists for their concentration on selling newspapers. Certainly the
politics that their papers advocate and the forceful recruiting that tend to
accompany their sales pitches deserve to be mocked, but not the fact that
they sell newspapers, which is simply part of the hard slog of trying to
build up alternative media.

However, the situation is not entirely depressing for anarchists. For one
thing it is possible for anarchist organisations to expand the circulation of
their publications significantly with hard work and organisation. For
example, the circulation of Workers Solidarity has increased by a factor of
at least ten within three years. Now about 6,000 copies are distributed,
mostly delivered door to door, every two months. In addition to the
publications put together by organised groups, advances in technology
have created something of a boom in DIY publishing of anarchist zines,
mostly assembled by individuals or small groups of friends. Although these
publications normally have very small circulation and tend not to be aimed
'outwards' at the general public, together they do serve to circulate ideas
and debate among a wider group than would otherwise be possible. But
most importantly, the development of the Internet has created a new
distribution and publication method for radical media, one that has yet to
fall under the absolute control of corporate or state power and one that is
particularly favourable for anarchists.
Revolution in Cyberspace?

Despite the overblown hype about the potential of the Internet to replace
all traditional forms of communication, its emergence has still had
important effects. It has significantly reduced the costs of distribution of
information to mass audiences, thus lowering the financial barrier to entry
in the industry. This has allowed organisations without huge financial
backing to attract large audiences to their sites without the need to depend
heavily on advertising revenue. For example, the web site of the WSM
probably attracts significantly more traffic than many of the mainstream
political parties in Ireland, despite the fact that we are thousands of times

The inherently trans-national nature of the Internet has had important
effects. By allowing people to communicate without any penalties for
physical distance, radical political currents, which were previously too
geographically dispersed and thinly spread to form themselves into
effective movements, have been able to come together and organise in
cyberspace. The global anti-capitalist movement, which exploded onto the
TV screens in Seattle and Genoa, had a long incubation period on the
Internet before it was capable of coalescing in the real world. The anarchist
movement too owes much of its current growth to the Internet. Not only
have anarchist ideas been revived in their traditional bases, they have
spread all over the globe, often carried by popular websites and mailing
lists to countries without any anarchist tradition, or one that was long

The Internet's trans-nationalism has also allowed non-corporate media to
somewhat circumvent the various legal impediments that states have
devised to impede radical media. National copyright and libel laws are
difficult to enforce when the website is physically hosted in another
country. As an international entity, there is no single legal system which
has authority over the whole Internet. Unsurprisingly, the US government
have been taking steps to remedy this. They have effectively attempted to
legislate for the entire Internet, through the promotion of multi-lateral
agreements, like the treaties on intellectual property rights agreed at the
World Trade Organisation, or through unilateral measures like the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act, where the US attempted to prosecute foreign
companies for breaking US copyright law. Although such legal control is
still limited, it is a constant threat to free communication on the internet.
History tells us that the more that states can legally control the information
distributed on the Internet, the more dominated by the corporate sector it
will become.

In addition to its low financial barrier to entry and its trans-national,
geographical distance-collapsing nature, perhaps the most important
development of the Internet is a consequence of its fundamental
communication paradigm. Traditional media facilitate few-to-many
communication. This means that a relatively small number of people
produce the information, while a large number of people consume it and
there is a clear division between the two. This model is favoured when
there is a relatively high cost involved in producing and distributing the
information. In the early years of the Internet, this was the predominant
model for web sites, with sites being managed by individuals and small
groups and passively consumed by viewers.

However, unlike a newspaper or a TV broadcast, there is virtually no cost
involved in adding and distributing new information on the Internet. There
are few of the same constraints on the size and volume of the information
distributed. This feature has facilitated the development of many-to-many
communication models, sources of information created by participatory,
voluntary communities where the lines between consumer and producer of
the information are blurred. This type of community stretches back to the
birth of the internet and has migrated through the various Internet
communication tools from usenet newsgroups to email lists to the World
Wide Web.

Probably the most impressive child of the Internet is the free software
movement, a vast and nebulous community of computer programmers,
spread all over the globe, who use a production model that is much closer
to pure communism than to capitalism - the vast majority of work is
voluntary and the products are given away for free. This community is
responsible for much of the software that runs the Internet itself and its
creations have been crucial in the development of internet communities
where information rather than software is the product. With the
development of software tools to facilitate the creation and distribution of
information by large groups of co-operating people, enormous repositories
of information have been developed by ever-growing communities. The
increasing sophistication and ease of use of the tools has been closely
followed by larger, more diverse and more sophisticated examples of
community organisation.

Radical political currents have been able to take advantage of these
developments. In the English-speaking world, it is almost certainly true, if
difficult to measure, that vastly more information written from a radical
left-wing point of view is distributed electronically than on paper today.
The nature of the Internet's communication model has also meant that
those political movements which are more libertarian in their organisation,
with considerable autonomy within broad agreements on principle, and
more democratic and participatory in the way in which they produce
information, have tended to take advantage of this opportunity much more
effectively than the traditional, authoritarian left. Highly hierarchical
groups are organised so that a small number of specialists produce the
information, or at least closely scrutinise it before distribution, which is
more suited to traditional few-to-many communication.

Many of the collectively produced, politically radical information sources
on the Internet are intended for a particular niche audience and serve
mainly as a means of developing the community internally, by providing a
forum in which people with similar views can identify each other, get some
sense of themselves as a collective movement and develop their ideas
through debate and argument. Bulletin board systems, like urban75.com
and enrager.net, based in the UK, are good examples. Although these
communities are very useful, they aren't aimed at a general audience and
will never compete with the corporate world as a primary source of
information about what is happening in the world.

Other communities have taken the first steps towards taking on the
corporate media. Sites like Znet, and commondreams.org gather together a
wealth of high quality radical analysis of current affairs. While these sites
have a large number of contributors, they still generally rely on a small
group of people to choose what to include and what not to.

Some Internet information communities have attempted to go beyond this
and facilitate as wide an involvement in the process of information
production as is possible. Due to the fact that different participants have
different level of commitment to the goals of the community, it is probably
impossible and undesirable to ever eliminate the position of members with
particular privileges that allow them to regulate the distribution of
information. However, there have been several hugely successful
examples where this principle is taken to its logical conclusion.
Communities like Slashdot, Kuro5hin, Indymedia and Wikipedia are
entirely managed by the community that uses them, and these
communities number many thousands.

Indymedia is of particular interest to anarchists due to its political roots as
well as its open participatory nature. It was born in Seattle in November
1999, during the famous protests there against the WTO and has remained
heavily influenced by the radical libertarian ideas current in the global
justice movement. Today, it has expanded to be a global network of open
publishing news sites, with 150 collectives of varying size in over 70
countries. "Open publishing" means that all of the users of the site
produce the news collectively, rather than it being a job of a small group.
The members of each collective are responsible for enforcing basic
editorial guidelines and choosing which articles to highlight as 'features'.
The network of collectives agree to a basic set of goals and principles as
part of the process of joining. These network wide agreements amount to a
statement of basic anarchist organisational principles - emphasising
democracy, accountability, openness and non-hierarchical structures.
However, beyond the basic agreement of principles, the collectives are
autonomous. This creates a great diversity within the network, which is
particularly obvious when examining the editorial policies of the various
different Internet sites. Some sites, predominantly in the US, practice a
policy of free speech, where all contributions are automatically distributed,
irrespective of their political point of view, which normally has the
unfortunate consequence of a large amount of the content being made up
of deliberate disruption and abuse. Other sites apply much tighter
guidelines, even going as far as banning hierarchically organised groups
from distributing information through the site, or only allowing
participation by registered users. Most sit somewhere in between,
removing disruptive content and personalised abuse, but allowing input
from all political points of view as long as they do not contain hate-speech
such as blatant racism, sexism or homophobia.

Although communities like Indymedia do eventually aim to challenge the
mainstream media as the dominant way in which people inform
themselves about the world, it is obvious that we are a long way from
there. However, given their apparently utopian principles, their networks
have flourished and grown. Although there are huge differences in the
quality of the information produced on Indymedia sites, some of them
have managed to become important sources of news in certain fields. For
example, although the audience of Indymedia Ireland is undoubtedly
mostly confined to people with left wing sympathies and it has in no way
managed to become a real alternative to the corporate media for most
subjects, with 50-100,000 hits on an average day, its reach dwarfs that of
other radical publications. When radical political movements are
particularly active in the real world, during campaigns, protests and
disputes, the local Indymedia sites become invaluable sources of news that
easily rivals the coverage of the corporate media. For example, in Ireland,
Indymedia provided the best source of information about the anti-war
movement, the recent battle against the bin tax and the mayday
anti-capitalist mobilisation and during all of these periods, the readership
increased enormously, peaking at 900,000 hits on Mayday 2004. Similarly,
the New York city Indymedia site provided unparalleled up-to-the-minute
coverage of the protests there during the 2004 Republican party convention
to appoint George Bush as their candidate for the presidency.

However, while it is clear that communities like Indymedia are extremely
useful in distributing radical information to large audiences and the
Internet continues to be an extremely powerful communication tool, it is
important to remember that the vast majority of the world's population
have either severely limited access to the internet or none at all. For the
forseeable future we must resign ourselves to the fact that only a small
minority of the population, even in the richer parts of the world, will have
sufficient access to the Internet to make it a viable source of news, no
matter how high the quality of the material that we produce. If we want to
change the world, we need to win over large numbers of people who will
never have access to the Internet. So it remains of paramount importance
to produce and distribute information in traditional formats. The Internet
gives radical left wing movements access to a huge range of ideas and
information. The process of distributing this information back into the real
world through traditional media is a crucial part of the cycle. Newspapers,
radio shows, leaflets, magazines and so on will be with us for a long time
yet. Many Indymedia collectives and similar Internet projects are already
addressing this problem and are making great efforts to transfer the
information from the internet onto the streets, through printable pdf
news-sheets, screenings of downloaded video productions, running radio
shows and stations and hosting workshops, but the distribution of
information from the Internet back in to the real world will remain the
bottleneck for the a long time to come.
This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 8, Winter 2008)
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