Media Freedom by richard barbrook

The Alternative Media

Because of the New Left's origins in cultural rebellion, many young revolutionaries were convinced that the spread of the hippie lifestyle was a crucial part of the revolutionary struggle. In their view, the work ethic, patriotism, sexism, racism and other conservative attitudes were cultural defences constructed by the ruling class against the spread of revolutionary ideas among the workers. Like Blanqui and Lenin, most New Left intellectuals believed that the majority of the population had been ideologically indoctrinated in false ideas by the capitalist media. In their writings, these thinkers relentlessly exposed the political biases of the mass circulation newspapers and the electronic media. Inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, some radicals even advocated the creation of new type of totalitarian media, which would educate the whole population in politically correct ideas.

In contrast, the Situationists rejected the Leninist analysis of the media. In their view, the spread of bourgeois ideologies was only an effect of the power of the media. Instead their analysis emphasised the passivity imposed upon workers by the dominance of the media. According to the Situationists, radio and television broadcasting had to be examined as the primary form of the 'society of the spectacle'. Crucially, the Fordist organisation of the electronic media prevented any two-way communications between the different members of the audience. With their centralised structures, there could only be a one-way flow of communications within radio and television broadcasting. With the audience reduced to passivity, the radio and television stations could use their programme schedules to reinforce the daily rhythms of Fordist society. While the morning radio shows encouraged people to go to work, the evening television programmes provided instant relaxation after a tiring day at the office or factory. At the same time, the electronic media also created markets for the consumer goods produced by the Fordist factories by broadcasting advertising and programmes featuring rich lifestyles. Similarly, the electronic media maintained the illusion of choice offered by representative democracy through the provision of airtime for the competing parties. By mesmerising its passive audience, the electronic media had extended the disciplines of the factory into the leisure time of the workers.

Following the May '68 Revolution, this Situationist analysis was widely accepted among the most radical sections of the New Left. For example, Guattari thought that the mass media had replaced religion and physical force as the most important method of imposing social discipline within capitalist societies. Using his psychoanalytic studies, Guattari claimed that the electronic media promoted specific forms of 'desire' among their audiences. Bombarded by advertisements and mindless entertainment programmes, the majority of the population were being brainwashed into becoming loyal workers and contented shoppers. Crucially, the radical philosopher believed that the effectiveness of this new form of social control depended upon the exclusion of the majority of the population from any participation within the media. According to Guattari and his followers, the New Left had to counter the ideological influence of the newspapers and the electronic media by inventing a new form of media freedom. Rejecting the Jacobin solutions of the past, they called for the application of the principles of direct democracy within the media.

In the mid-1960s, the American New Left pioneered a self-management model of media freedom. Using cheap off-set printing techniques, young radicals set up underground newspapers to cover events censored by the mainstream media, such as anti-Vietnam war protests, new social movements, rock music and the hippie culture. Unlike their Leninist predecessors, these alternative newspapers didn't advocate the policies of a single revolutionary party. Instead they tried to provide 'counter-information' about the activities of all sections of the New Left. Although some were run by hippie entrepreneurs, most alternative newspapers were organised as co-operatives. In these self-managed newspapers, the journalists not only elected the editors, but also rotated important tasks between themselves. Crucially, these radical underground newspapers allowed their readers to contribute their own articles, poems, photos and drawings. By encouraging participation in the production and management of their newspapers, the American New Left hoped to free people from the passivity imposed upon them by the mainstream media.

Inspired by the success of the underground press, other New Left radicals began experimenting with community television. In the early-1970s, the first portable video cameras had become available and the price of VCRs had fallen dramatically. According to the community video activists, the skills of television production could be easily learnt by amateurs. Moreover, almost everyone could express their opinions in a television interview. Therefore, these video radicals advocated that the new social movements should make their own programmes about their struggles. Above all else, they wanted to create an interactive television system, which would allow two-way communications between viewers. In their view, when everyone was connected to the cable television networks, individuals and groups would be able to speak for themselves without need for representation by politicians or packaging by media professionals. Unfortunately for the community video activists, the construction of an electronic agora within television broadcasting was technically impossible in the early-1970s. With cable networks only available in a few cities, community television broadcasting was restricted to a limited number of experimental channels in the USA and western Europe.

In contrast, community radio stations were successfully set up across the industrialised world. In the late-1940s, the first community radio stations had been founded by pacifists in the USA. After the emergence of the New Left, these radio stations were rapidly radicalised by their younger members. By the 1960s, the community radio stations were playing a leading role in the protests against the Vietnam war and in the emergence of the new social movements. Like the underground newspapers, these radical stations not only provided 'counter-information' about dissident political groups, but also were run as self-managed organisations. In 1975, this form of New Left media spread to western Europe. After a celebrated court case, the confiscation of the transmitter of a radical pirate radio station was declared unconstitutional in Italy. As a consequence, thousands of unlicenced radio and television stations appeared in all parts of the country. Although most were commercial, a minority of these radio stations were run by revolutionary groups. Using cheap transmitters, home-made studios and voluntary labour, community radio stations were much easier to run than underground newspapers. Crucially, these New Left radio stations not only elected their own administrators, but also tried to break down the separation between media professionals and their audience. From phone-ins to programmes made by volunteers, the Italian community radio stations encouraged listener participation in their broadcasts. Above all else, these stations allowed their listeners to describe their own experiences in social struggles or their own opinions on political issues without the interference of parties or journalists. According to many New Left activists, these community radio stations had successfully undermined the domination of the 'society of the spectacle' over the electronic media.

Following the success of community radio broadcasting in Italy, similar stations were set up in most western European countries. Crucially, many New Left radicals believed that the implementation of the self-management model of media freedom within radio broadcasting was opening the way for a social revolution. Above all else, the new form of media freedom was the technological fix to the practical problems of creating direct democracy on a national scale. Because every citizen couldn't personally attend an agora within a large country, the bourgeois revolutionaries had replaced the absolute monarchy with a representative form of democracy. However, although all citizens obtained the vote, the election of professional politicians to run the state exacerbated the separation of political power from civil society. According to the New Left, this alienation could now be overcome by implementing the self-management model of media freedom. Within the 'society of the spectacle', the centralised radio and television stations only transmitted a one-way flow of communications from political parties and media professionals to isolated listeners and viewers. But, after a social revolution, the New Left radicals believed that the electronic media could be used to establish two-way communications between localised meetings of workers. With the formation of these horizontal links, direct democracy could be extended electronically beyond the physical confines of a general meeting. Thus, with the establishment of two-way communications within radio and television broadcasting, everyone would be able to take part in social decision-making by participating within an electronic agora.

According to some New Left thinkers, the creation of an electronic agora would only be possible once everyone was connected to a cable television network. In contrast, Guattari and other radicals claimed that community radio broadcasting could be used to build the electronic agora. Like other New Left thinkers, they believed that the new social movements had already instituted direct democracy within their own organisations. As a next step, they advocated that feminists, ecologists, lesbians & gays, ethnic communities and other autonomous campaigns should set up their own community radio stations. Then each new social movement could hold its internal discussions on its own radio station. At the same time, a common debate could be conducted between the different communities through the diffuse network of alternative radio stations. According to Guattari and his followers, these specific and general discussions on the community radio stations would be combined into a permanent meeting of the airwaves, which would involve every new social movement and civil society as a whole. Thus the implementation of self-management model of media freedom within radio broadcasting would provide the technical fix to overcome the physical limits of direct democracy. Without waiting for the building of a cable television network, the electronic agora could be immediately constructed over the airwaves.

In the self-management model of media freedom, the members of civil society exercised their individual political right of freedom of communications through the collective economic right of ownership exercised by co-operatives. Unlike earlier versions, this new form of media freedom didn't limit participation in production to a minority of male journalist-printers or professional politicians and journalists. However the revolutionary hopes embodied in the self-management form of media freedom weren't fulfilled in practice. By the late-1970s, the New Left media had begun to go into decline. During a period of reaction, there was a widespread disillusionment about politics among all sections of the population. Reliant on voluntary labour and funding, most radical publications went bankrupt. At the same time, those underground newspapers with large readerships were slowly transformed into conventional commercial enterprises. Within community television broadcasting, most of the experimental stations never obtained enough support to evolve into permanent channels. Even within community radio, radical stations encountered great difficulties in recruiting new activists and raising revenue. By the late-1980s, much of the alternative media had entered into final stages of collapse, with declining audiences, little money and internal quarrels. Among the survivors, the radical media were usually run by a small minority of New Left activists. With their high level of political commitment, they were often culturally separated from their intended audiences. Under the self-management model of media freedom, all individuals were supposed to participate in two-way communications. Ironically, in an era of political apathy, most of the New Left media were only providing a one-way flow of propaganda from a small group of revolutionary activists. Without the participation of all members of civil society, it was impossible to build the electronic agora. As the utopian hopes of the New Left faded, a new model of media freedom could be tried.

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