Edit History
Search Keywords
Gillian McIver
alternative media
community media

Popular Radicalism and the Media
part 4

"Knowledge is Freedom"

"The free flow of information and communication is essential to a democratic society, and thus democracy requires that powerful instruments of information and communication be accessible to all." Douglas Kellner [15]

The democratic idea is predicated upon two essentials: knowledge and choice. Knowledge so that the citizen/voter knows what the issues are, and choice so that s/he can make an informed decision between possible options. Yet is these very essentials that are most tightly controlled and subjected to dissimulation. There are various reasons for this: the interests of governments, businesses, interest groups which vie to dominate popular thinking; and basic laziness and willingness to accept whatever is put before one. This, however, is often the result of realising that the choices offered are illusionary, but not considering whether one can do anything about it. "The media" are routinely blamed for disseminating half-truths, speculations and opinions disguised as "news" or "information." So much so that contemporary alternative publications speak of "media-proofing:" techniques, if not charms, to disempower the hold that media (usually broadcast media, in this context) has on everyday life. [16] Yet until recently "the media" was held to be the cornerstone of democracy, and still is, as Kellner's quote asserts.

Print Culture and Popular Radicalism

The printing press was invented in Europe in the late 15th century, though a type of press was in use in China long before that. Nevertheless the press easily lent itself to producing printed work in the far simpler European alphabet in Latin and then, swiftly, the vernacular tongues. Immediately upon its invention it was constantly modified, altered and perfected in details, and its products turned to a growing diversity of uses. With the availability of printed matter came a desire to understand it, and although there are no proper indicators of literacy rates for the Renaissance-Early-Modern period, we do know that the literacy rates grew in all European regions, until, on the eve of the French revolution in Paris, literacy rates stood at between 86 and 93 percent for all classes. [17] In addition, for every reader of a printed item, there were those who could be read to, not to mention the milieu of coffee-houses and cafes. [18] Literary culture allowed for the dissemination of "fact" which purports to be unambiguous and to imply reality. The first publications which may be said to be devoted to this were the early newspapers, such as More Newes from Europe (1623) which was one of the first to provide a consistent account of events which also provided a recapping of earlier news. This foreign news, which dealt mainly with the events of the Thirty Years War, was soon followed by several papers which reported the news from Parliament, and during the Civil War rival newspapers purported to tell the "truth" from the King's or Parliament's point of view. These early papers were text-based but featured elaborate woodcut illustrations, mainly of a symbolic rather than an illustrative nature, thus keeping contact with the older methods of communication. In 1665 the first regular paper appeared in England, the Gazette and the first American paper appeared in Boston in 1690, but was soon suppressed. [19] Advertisements appeared in the 18th century and became very prevalent by the end of the century. In the 18th century the press was refined to the point that a small, easy-to use hand-operated press could be purchased relatively inexpensively. These were bought or leased to operate as small family-run businesses. This ease of access made the press available to a much greater number of people and especially to political radicals who wished to disseminate their ideas and gain support for their aims. Despite heavy Government suppression and censorship, these publications continued. [20] The printers and writers played their part in the great agitation for social and political reform of the late eighteenth century, in France (where newspapermen like Danton were key Revolutionary players) and elsewhere. As Richard Barbrook notes, "according to the revolutionaries, individual citizens directly shaped the policies of the state by engaging in reasoned debate over political issues in print," thus creating a common political culture based on freedom of expression and private ownership of the means of production and distribution. [21] Despite Government suppression of the unlicensed press, there remained a high demand for cheaply-printed texts until the second half of the nineteenth century. A whole popular political culture was shaped by this access: "the mass of broadsides, addresses, letters, pamphlets, newspapers and occasional books were the very fabric of political activity." [22] The life of 1840's Chartist radical Thomas Frost is indicative: with some knowledge of compositing and a small capital of £25, Frost was able to earn his living by founding and editing a local newspaper in his native Croydon, launching a short-lived satirical magazine called Penny Punch, editing the Owenite Communist Chronicle and then his own Communist Journal, acting as correspondent for Lloyd's London Newspaper and the South Eastern Gazette, and contributing to Chambers's Papers for the People. Throughout the period he was continually on the bread line ... but he was able to launch a series of publications with virtually no capital and, what is of equal significance, see them all fail without being permanently ruined. [23]

Karl Marx was in the thick of the newspaper milieu when, as a young man, he wrote for the liberal 'Rheinische Zeitung.' Throughout his life and work, he never developed the awe of the power of the press to manipulate thought that is the hallmark of most post-Marx political orders. Rather, he insisted upon the right to a free press, and, in his early work, envisioned a DIY culture where writers and artists would simply be ordinary people expressing themselves, not "professionals." [24] However, rival Utopian socialist Wilhelm Weitling noted that "a 'free' press is impossible if people are not free and editors [are] hirelings of a wage system." [25]

The steam press made possible faster and immeasurably better quality papers to be produced far more cheaply. The price of a good-quality illustrated paper fell dramatically, due to economies of scale which allowed far greater variety of reading material. The drawback was that the press itself was very expensive to own and operate. So only wealthy concerns could afford them. The rotary press, developed in 1870, allowed real mass-production of printed material for the first time, but again, the hardware was very expensive. Within a few years the large presses were churning out all manner of printed material, from comics to newspapers, under the aegis of a large capitalist concern. What we can recognise as our modern-day "newspaper" came into being, but these could only be created "by the collective labour of large numbers of wage workers on mechanised presses." [26] Writers, artists and, later, photographers, were put on salary and their work strictly supervised as to content, and spirit, by the owner or his representatives. Press barons like Northcliffe and Beaverbrook became very powerful. The era of the individual or small group producing their own information or creative work and putting it out into the world was all but over.

After the press was professionalised, the idea of a DIY press was taken up by artists, but artists with a political agenda, from the Futurists to the Dadaists, the Lettrists and the Situationists, and spilled into the late 60's-early 70's hippie "counterculture" movement. The "punk" era of the 1970s saw the creation of the "fanzine," deliberately crude, photocopied magazines which blended cod-anarchist politics and an appreciation of punk style and music. These "fanzines" still exist, as does an informal international network of distribution. [27] Revolutionary political groups equally saw the press as an organ of change, from Lenin's "What is to be Done?" to last month's Class War tabloid, the classic mouthpiece of the vanguard has been the newspaper, as anyone who has walked the Socialist Worker gauntlet of paper-sellers will recognise.

The alternative press gained dramatically with the advent of the desktop computer and printer: a whole magazine could be produced and typeset in an afternoon, if necessary. It could incorporate text and pictures, even pictures taken directly from video. Distribution was still a problem, as only small independently-run bookshops - themselves a vanishing breed - could usually be persuaded to sell them. Then the Internet was set up. That same magazine could be put onto the Web, saving paper and distribution hassles. As the software advances, the pages themselves become more graphic and less dependent on text, even incorporating small video clips. Even better, anyone with access to a computer can write in and share news, opinion and ideas. The potential for political and social debate away from governments, moral arbiters (these used to be the churches but now it seems anyone with enough gall can set themself as a moral spokesperson) and capitalist forces is tremendous.

Broadcast Media and the "Couch Potato"

The millions of human beings who were shot, tortured, gaoled, starved, treated like animals and made the object of a conspiracy of ridicule, can sleep in peace in their communal graves, for at least the struggle in which they died has enabled their descendants, isolated in the air-conditioned apartments, to believe, on the strength of their daily dose of television, that they are happy and free. [28]

Vaneigem's bitter statement reflects a dissatisfaction with the way the broadcast media has apparently turned its back on its role in providing the tools of democracy; information upon which to base knowledge, and choice. He sees the history of the struggle for freedom as betrayed by a broadcast media which tells us we are happy and free, entertains us, tells us what and what not to worry about (e.g. "the economy" - whatever that is, in real terms - not "poverty"). Prior to broadcast media, which is essentially designed for private consumption in the home, film - the newsreel, the comedy and the melodrama projected as a neat package - was the agent of shared cultural experience. It still fulfils a role in cultural consciousness but it is nowhere near as powerful as television for explaining the world to us, and for sheer routine entertainment. As with print media, film and radio in their earliest stages appeared to be a participatory format. Although difficult to master, the technology of early film and radio was not impossible for an enthusiast to learn. But, as Barbrook notes about radio, "using mass production techniques, radio-set manufacturers soon started producing simple receivers as consumer commodities ... by using Taylorist labour discipline and assembly-lines, manufacturers were able to lower the price of radio receivers until almost everyone could afford a set." Radio programming became mass programming, created by people hired to produce certain things in a particular way. Similarly, film-making soon passed from the realm of independent artists to the businessmen of Hollywood, who created the studio system and enormously expensive, widely-distributed spectacles. By the 1960s, television and radio, had totally replaced film as the information media, as the newsreels which used to precede every feature quietly disappeared from the screens. The public experience of theatrically-released film was made over solely to fictional entertainment, and news and information reception was to be a private experience. The Fordist production of media, its reliance on economies of scale, creates a vast division between producers and consumers. As Vaneigem acerbically notes, "it is useless to expect even the caricature of creativity from the conveyor-belt," as the products become ever more formulaic, predictable and remote from human experience.

About the site