Anarchist radicalism at its intellectual "avante garde"

Discussion in 'Politics' started by RevoMystic, Dec 30, 2004.

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    [​IMG][size=-1][​IMG] Media Mayhem - Anarchists and the Mass Media II

    by Chekov Feeney
    Ireland, WSM, Red and Black Revolution #8
    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. As sad and some would say pathetic as this is, it's something that we simply have to accept for the moment.

    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 nowadays. 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 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 the corporate media establishment.

    Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that the media is divided up into several sectors and there are significant differences between them, although none of which would imply a sympathetic tendency to anarchist points of view, generally speaking.

    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.

    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).

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

    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 women).

    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.

    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.

    Anarchist Pitfalls With the Corporate Media

    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 corporate 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, as many people are prone to believing every uttered syllable spewed forth from the capitalist media.

    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, such as the network which begin in one American city (Seattle) five years ago and now exists on every continent except Antarctica (this fact was never reported by the corporate press, to our knowledge). 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 fold.

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