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

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 29 Dec 2004 10:09:47 +0100 (CET)

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Part Three - When anarchists swim in the mainstream
Having stressed the paramount and primary importance of building an
alternative media that is open, democratic and transparent, it is important
that we recognise our limitations at the current time. An article that is
published on Indymedia or in Workers Solidarity might be read by a few
thousand people at best. An article that appears in the Irish Independent
might be read by a few hundred thousand. A story that appears on national
television news might be seen by a million.

Building up audiences for our media is a very important task, but it is one
that will not happen overnight. The model by which our media is produced
- participatory, democratic and open to radical opinions - represents a
paradigm shift from the passive consumption that is usual with
mainstream news. People are used to reading news that is written to
appear as if it is written by an authoritative, objective and well-informed
writer, with careful balance between the various opinions represented. In
general, since they lack access to alternative points of view and are not
aware of the forces that shape the process of news production, most people
will tend to accept that these articles are genuinely objective and balanced.
When they encounter alternative publications, they will tend to see them
as biased and 'unprofessional' and will not trust the information that they
carry. Therefore, even if we can succeed in making people aware of our
alternatives, only a minority will be won over at first. Therefore, we have to
reconcile ourselves with the fact that the vast majority of people are going
to continue to get their news about the world from the mainstream media.
This is something that we simply have to accept for the moment. We wish
it was otherwise, we work towards changing it, but it exists and we can not
forget that.

We also cannot forget that as anarchists we are attempting to change
society. We are not interested in creating our own little niche cut off from
the mainstream where we can live outside of the confines of capitalism.
Nobody is truly free as long as one person is enslaved and even though it is
sometimes possible for small groups of radicals to create their own
cultures cut off from mainstream society, when you consider that this
space only exists in the West due to the extreme exploitation of the poorer
parts of the world, it is quite clear that for us to withdraw into our activist
bubbles would be a clear denial of anarchist principles. We have a
responsibility to try to convince as many people as possible of our ideas
and this means that we have to do whatever is possible to reach those
people. Every time an anarchist is quoted in a mainstream media outlet, no
matter how atrocious the article, large numbers of people probably learn
for the first time that anarchists exist. And if we can attract any honest
coverage at all, we will probably reach more people in a single blow than
we would with years of our own publications. Therefore, we simply can't
ignore the mainstream media and concentrate on our alternatives, rather
we should look for intelligent ways in which we can attempt to influence
the coverage that we receive.

When I say 'influence', I do not mean that I think that anarchists will ever
receive anything other than shamefully dishonest and hostile coverage
from the media as a whole. However, Rupert Murdoch has yet to emulate
Stalin's control of information. There are opportunities that we can exploit.
Although almost all professional journalists do labour under the same
structural conditions and within the same corporate framework, there are
big differences in their ethical and professional standards. There are some
journalists who will not set out to deliberately distort what we say and will
make some attempt to portray an accurate representation of our goals and
aims. There are even some rare ones who have somehow retained their
ability to comprehend or even sympathise with our ideas despite the
mind-numbing and narrowing experience of working in corporate media.

Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that the media is divided up into
several sectors and there are significant differences between them. Local
media and upmarket newspapers can't get away with the same indifference
to fact that the tabloids enjoy. This is not to say, however, that 'serious'
broadsheet newspapers are much more likely to paint an accurate picture
of anarchists than tabloids are, or that state broadcasters are any more
likely to sympathise with us than Rupert Murdoch's news channels are
(although news is far from an accurate description of their content).
However, the different sectors of the media can sometimes be played off
against each other. The broadsheets and state broadcasters like to
engender a sense of superiority in their audiences. When the tabloids whip
up scare campaigns, spaces can open in the more respectable media for us.
Suddenly, a realistic portrayal of anarchists can become a story, with an
angle that focuses on the irresponsibility of the tabloids.

In some cases sympathetic interviews, that would be unthinkable in most
circumstances, can get by editors in an atmosphere of tabloid hype. In
2004 anarchists in Dublin, Boston and New York received positive
exposure in parts of the mass media during the hype surrounding major
protests. In all three cases the positive coverage was dwarfed by the
negative. We had "anarchists planning to gas 10,000 Dubliners" on the
front page of the Irish Sun. But the outlandish scare stories were generally
produced by the police and printed by "crime correspondents" dependant
upon them. There is nothing that anarchists could have done to avoid
these. However, the audience for the positive coverage that anarchists
managed to achieve probably rivalled that which they could reach through
several years of distributing their own publications. By engaging with the
media in a careful, planned and intelligent way, they at least managed to
turn the slanders to some good.

*-------start box---------*

>>>>The article below [by Aileen O'Carroll] was originally published
>>>> as a seperate box in this article by Chekov Feeney

Playing the Media Game - 'If you sup with the devil use a long spoon'

The Dublin Grassroots Network put a number of structures in place to
avoid some of the pitfalls of dealing with the media.

Perhaps the two biggest problems in dealing with the media are firstly that
the media can, through the questions they ask and the pressures they
bring, begin to set the political agenda of the group. Secondly servicing the
media machine can take up all a group's time and energy (to the detriment
of the other activity).

One way Grassroots dealt with this problem was to set up a media working
group comprising both spokespeople and those who helped draft
statements. This was a sub-group of the larger organisation, so the
number of people working on media issues was limited. In addition it
meant that policy decisions were made by the larger group of all
Grassroots activists, with less concern for how the media would interpret
those decisions.

Media spokespeople were elected and could be recalled if they had failed to
represent Dublin Grassroots Network in accordance with the network's

Talking to the media places a number of other pressures on the individual.
On the one hand the media can flatter the ego, on the other they can
ridicule and humiliate. It is not good for one's mental health to be a media
spokesperson. In order to share the burden therefore for each event a
number of spokespeople are usually nominated (usually two men and two

The person most affected by the media's political pressure, is not
surprisingly, the spokesperson. It is they who are pressurised to make
commitments and to answer questions that are often unanswerable.
Furthermore the media often describes spokespeople as 'leaders of the
movement' and influenced by the attention, it is all too easy for
spokespeople to allow themselves to be put in this role. This is obviously a
problem for a non-hierarchical organisation.

In order to minimise these effects, in the Dublin Grassroots Network, the
spokespeople are rotated. After each event, the spokespeople resigned,
handing over the burden to a new team.

Rotating spokespeople has the additional advantage of increasing skills
levels and thus the confidence of the group.

To ensure that the spokespersons represented Grassroots' opinion (rather
than just themselves) spokespersons were instructed that their statements
had to follow certain guidelines. During the Mayday protests in Dublin
those guidelines were:

1. We do not criticize other groups

2. We speak only on behalf of the Dublin Grassroots Network i.e. we
don't give our own personal opinions.

3. We use DGN leaflets as a guideline to the Grassroots' position. If we
are asked about anything outside the guidelines, we say 'no comment'.

The media often mis-report and this can cause conflict if the group feels
that errors arise from things the spokespeople haven't actually said. In
order to minimise this, a section of each meeting was open for all to
discuss the work of the media group and the media group's meetings were
open to all who wanted to attend.

by Aileen O'Carroll
*-------end box------------*

Anarchist Pitfalls

But even if we do try to influence how the media portrays us, there are
major pitfalls for anarchists who decide to talk to the media and unless the
groups and individuals involved are well prepared, it can turn out to be
more damaging than helpful. The media are used to dealing with
traditional hierarchical organisations, whose spokespeople are also
normally leaders of their organisation. The media tends to identify this
spokesperson with the organisation and focus as much on their personality
as their politics. For most hierarchical political organisations this is not
problematic, as they both want and need to build up the personal profile of
the leader. They also have the advantage of being able to produce
statements and responses at short notice as they rarely have to seek a
mandate from their organisations to do so. If anarchists attempt to engage
with the mainstream media on its own terms, we will find that the inherent
hierarchical model that is assumed will start to rub off on us and we will
emerge from the experience damaged internally, even if we do manage to
put across a good public face.

Individual anarchists often have very personal problems with the media. As
soon as any named individual is publicly associated with "anarchism" in
the media, they become a target for character assassination by the gutter
press. These types of attack can be vicious and can be very upsetting for
whoever has put themselves forward. They can also lead to serious
problems with parents or relatives and employers. It is not unknown for
people to lose their jobs and seriously jeopardise any chances of future
employment as a result of such attacks.

Taking part in the media spectacle that surrounds summit protests can
have corrosive effects on the politics of the group. Even when people have
a strong commitment to acting as a delegate of the group and not
becoming a leader, they can become entranced by being part of the
spectacle. Media exposure affects the ego. A desire for publicity and
celebrity is a very common feature of our culture and people can become
addicted to it. It is a very flattering experience to have hundreds of
thousands of people seeing your picture or reading your opinions in the
media. The lure of the media spectacle is dangerous for groups as well as
for individuals. A key aim of anarchist activity is to break down the division
between the actors and the spectators in society. Getting a few positive
stories about anarchism among the celebrity features, while useful, is far
less important than the task of building alternatives.

We need to develop structures that allow us to engage with the
mainstream media on our own terms. The question of how we can do this
was one that was explored in depth by activists in DGN, during the run-up
to the Mayday 2004 protests in Dublin. Despite the fact that we were
caught unprepared by the biggest media smear campaign that we have
ever experienced, we managed to develop a model for dealing with it
which eventually proved crucial to the protest's success. See the box
beside for an outline, or the online version of this article for full details.
Non Engagement

Several groups within the anarchist and broader anti-capitalist movement
have adopted a position of eschewing all contact with the mainstream
media, refusing interviews, avoiding photographers and even on occasion
physically repelling over-inquisitive reporters. In the UK the Wombles and
other anarchists have adopted this policy, after a long history of the media
inventing plots as evidence of their utterly evil and sinister nature and
mounting witch-hunts against individuals. A broad consensus emerged in
much of the direct action movement in London that there was little point
in talking to the media as it made little difference to their coverage - they
would stitch you up regardless.

However, there is a serious problem to this approach. In general,
journalists are only interested in talking to anarchists when anarchists are
doing something that is destined to attract media coverage. This means
that they are going to write about you whether you talk to them or not.
Refusing to talk to them whatsoever means that they pretty much have
carte blanche to make up whatever they like. They don't even have to take
the trouble of picking a two-word quote out of your half-hour interview to
fit in with whatever fantasy they have constructed to sell papers. In
general, it is probably true that including comments from real and named
people rarely makes an article worse from our point of view and it often
makes it better. For one thing, as soon as they include quotes from a real
person they have to start worrying about libel laws. If they are just writing
about anarchists in general, they have no such worries. Despite their policy
of non-engagement, the fact that they are named after a fluffy toy and the
fact that their worst atrocity has been pushing a policeman, the media has
still made the Wombles sound like a gang of crazed terrorists.

Another factor is that the act of refusing to talk to journalists is very
commonly used as corroborating evidence of the evil and sinister nature of
anarchists ('shadowy' is a favourite adjective). Furthermore, given the
open and public nature of many anarchist organisations and events, it is in
practice impossible to ensure that there are no journalists present. This
especially holds true for public protests and demonstrations but also
extends to public meetings. In this context, attempts to filter out
journalists will only succeed in rooting out the more honest ones who are
willing to admit their occupation and are much more likely to write less
offensive stuff, while the tabloid journalists who are 'infiltrating' the public
meeting will simply adopt some guise and remain.

I should also add that attempting to physically attack or intimidate
journalists is counter-productive and self-indulgent. It obviously ensures
that they have good material with which to attack you and the rest of the
anarchist movement. It has exactly zero effect on the dominance of the
mainstream media, which the attacks are presumably aimed against.
Journalists, particularly photographers, do often act in an extremely
provocative way, pushing cameras in protestors' faces and so on. In this
case it is quite likely that they are attempting to provoke a response. As an
anarchist you are part of a collective movement and you have a
responsibility to your comrades to learn enough self-discipline not to fall
headfirst into this simple trap like an idiot.

Another important disadvantage of the strategy of not engaging with the
media is that there is always somebody there who will happily talk on your
behalf or about you and normally misrepresent your ideas to suit their own
agenda. This can be a liberal protest group who will happily weigh in to the
scare campaign in order to gain a bit of publicity for themselves, or more
commonly one of the poisonous varieties of Leninists who will use the
opportunity to promote one of their own cult-recruitment sessions,
advertised as a rival protest.

We should remember that the reason that they want to talk to us (and
slander us) is because we are news. There is a growing ideological vacuum
at the heart of capitalism. In its arrogance, Western capitalism has
dispensed with the trouble of convincing its subjects to internalise the
ideologies of the ruling classes. Abstentionism in elections is rife and
pervasive. Trust in our leaders and public figures is practically
non-existent. Authoritarian socialism has collapsed into a tiny shadow of
its former self and either remains rigidly fixed into an antiquated
theoretical framework, frantically spinning in ever decreasing circles, or
has completely capitulated and signed up to the doctrines of the global
elite. It is for this reason that we increasingly find ourselves, often
unwillingly, cast under the media spotlight. Despite its minuscule size and
negligible influence, the anarchist movement is increasingly the only
source of real ideological opposition to the seemingly inexorable march of
this corporate world order. Ours is an opposition that goes to the heart of
the problem and rejects the system in its entirety. Most importantly, our
opposition has steel. We do not shy away from confrontation with the state
or with corporate power. We do not respect their stinking laws. We are a
flag of principled resistance to their entire world-order and this is why they
come looking for us in order to vilify us. And it is because of the depth of
our opposition that we should always seek to prevent the various fools
looking for a job in a city-council or parliament chamber from speaking on
our behalf. We should always seek to speak for ourselves and let our
difference and resistance be known.

The various filters of the propaganda model of mainstream media do
effectively ensure that the media will be overtly hostile to anarchists and
will publish material that is as damaging as possible to us. However, there
is an important limit on how far they can go in their lies and distortions.
Basically, they depend on the fact that most people believe most of the
things that they write. Although there is a widespread understanding that
much news is sensationalised and closer to entertainment than
information, especially in the tabloids, very few people have any idea of the
process by which news is created and are ignorant of the powerful forces
that consciously distort information in pursuit of their own agendas and
will tend to generally believe news reports unless they have a good reason
not to. Once the illusion of the credibility of the mainstream media is
shattered, it is difficult to reforge. People who become aware of the depth
of the manipulations and distortions can be difficult to win back, so the
media, particularly those sections that have greater pretensions about their
own worth, are cautious about publishing information that is seen as
clearly false by a large number of people.

The most effective thing that we can do in the long term to limit the lies
that the mainstream media tells about us is to create our own alternatives
and give people access to information that we produce. In addition to
creating our own media, by being active as anarchists in our communities,
workplaces and campaigns, blatant media lies about our movement will
prove more costly to the corporate media and will tend to push people
towards us. However, in the current situation, with our small size and tiny
circulation of our publications, these factors are only really significant in
very localised campaigns or struggles on relatively marginal issues. When
the might of the state and corporate sector decide to attack us - as is
becoming par for the course in the run up to large protests that challenge
the fundamental concepts of our capitalist world order - our own media
and local connections only reach a negligible proportion of the audience. In
these cases, if we refuse to challenge the slanders in the mainstream
media, the vast majority of people will have absolutely no reason not to
believe the rubbish that they are being fed. On the other hand, even by
showing a willingness to argue our case in the mainstream, we place limits
on their lies. If the media is full of reports about violent hooligan terrorist
anarchists, but the anarchists who appear in the media seem to be sane,
rational, well-informed and articulate, the chances of the public smelling
something fishy are increased many times.

by Chekov Feeney
This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 8, Winter 2008)
Read more articles from this issue

Print out a PDF file of Issue 8
Back issues of Red and Black Revolution

This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 8, Winter 2008)
Read more articles from this issue

Print out a PDF file of Issue 8
Back issues of Red and Black Revolution

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