Political-Economic Pressures That Shape Alternative Journalism
[This is a transcription of a presentation I gave in 2009 on the chapter of the same name in 'Alternative Journalism' by Chris Atton and James F. Hamilton. The presentation does not focus on the actual content of the chapter, but instead on issues raised by it and connections I made to other examples.]
John Stuart Mill, mentioned in the chapter as a classic political economist, wrote a book entitled ‘Utilitarianism’ but he was highly influenced by Jeremy Bentham, a great supporter of the ‘greatest happiness principle’ we touched on last year in Ethics. For those who didn’t take the class, utilitarianism is the theory that the action likely to bring the greatest happiness to the most people is the morally correct one. I feel that this theory bears close relation to the arguments given by news providers accused of herd journalism and dumbing down. There’s also a quote from Bernard Williams, a former professor of philosophy at Cambridge University -
“…if utilitarianism is true, it is better on utilitarian grounds that people should not believe in it because of its tendency to debase the moral currency”
- which I feel is quite relevant. I do wonder if Mill was alive today, and could see not only the extent of the environmental damages which he himself had worried may be a result of the system, but also the continuing inequality of opportunity faced by people the world over, would he now be a critical political economistmore in the style of Marx and Chomsky – they believed that not only was capitalism not the only, natural way, but that it’s actually damaging to the world and it’s people, using up resources and lives, while keeping those in power in power, no matter what they may be guilty of.
On the question of patronage I was reminded of a journal I read containing a very rare interview with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. In it he recounts a story aboutLord Vere Rothermere who was one of the main financial contributors to the Daily Mail before he died. One of the other contributors was a woman namedPamela Harriman, who withdrew her support after a derogatory piece was published in the paper about her. Rothermere apparently saw the funny side of the story and simply told Dacre he would find another fundraiser. Now before you all start thinking “Yay for the Daily Mail” I should point out that Pamela Harriman had been linked with many different wealthy men throughout her life and the offending piece began with the line -
“Pamela Harriman, who knows more about rich men’s ceilings than anyone alive…”
- so it was another triumph for womens rights from them. The point is however that the Daily Mail, which is also terrifyingly pretty much the only newspaper in Britain still turning a substantial profit, did lose a major stream of income because they printed something about a patron that they didn’t like. While they can afford to have this happen every once in a while, your standard alternative project most likely would not.
This brings us on to another point. While a lot of alternative journalism by definition goes under the radar of the mainstream, one major problem I would see that isn’t mentioned in the chapter would be legal ramifications. There are many alternative publications which still cover the dealings of the ‘elites’ and was a low to no budget publication to become embroiled in a defamation or invasion of privacy case there is very little likelihood that they would have the finances available to fight them in court.
A good example of this is the McLibel trial where McDonalds sued twoGreenpeace activists after they distributed a pamphlet titled “What’s Wrong With McDonalds: Everything They Don’t Want You To Know.” As legal aid is not available for libel cases – which it could be argued is an assault on freedom of speech – the defendents had to gather money to fight the suit from friends and supporters. They spent £30,000, McDonalds spent millions. As to win the case they had to prove everything in the pamphlet was true, they still lost despite being able to prove some. Others they could not prove because they could not afford to bring witnesses from other countries. They were ordered to pay over £50,000 in damages and immediately appealed, despite McDonalds, who had been heavily humiliated by press coverage, stating that they would not seek to collect the money. The European Court of Appeal eventually ruled that the defendents right to freedom of speech and a fair trial had been breached. Though this case is generally paraded as a victory for the “little man” is it worth noting there were originally five defendants, three of whom chose to apologise and refute their claims rather than fight. For the two who stood by their words the entire case from start to finish took twenty years.
Arguably the most famous personal blogger of the last few years is Riverbend, author of Baghdad Burning. Riverbend is an as-yet still anonymous Iraqi woman, who eventually had to leave Iraq and move to Syria. Riverbend became extremely well known before ending the blog in 2007 after four years. A collection of her blogs was also released in book form. Riverbends real name was kept secret for her own protection but this did lead to some right-wing critics questioning the authenticity of the blog, again leading us back to Bacons empiricism and the effect this has on what is judged by many to be “true” journalism. Personal accounts are often discredited, especially if given anonymously, because in many cases, and certainly in this case, enough evidence cannot be provided to prove the truth of all that is said. The writers are often also labelled unobjective.
This section makes mention of the website Crisis Pictures, whose popularity ended up being it’s undoing, as one man did not have the time or requisite skill to keep the site going by himself. This made me think of a website which may be familiar to some of you – Postsecret, run by Frank Warren. Postsecret asks people to anonymously create an artistic postcard that reveals their deepest, darkest secret, and send it to the site. Warren first conceived the idea as a small project for his local community. After publishing the postcards on a blog, other people began to send him their own secrets.
Now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, and the 2007 Weblog of the Year, Warren receives hundreds of postcards from around the world every week. Due to the popularity of the site Warren, a man with no formal training, eventually had to give up his job to keep the site running. What makes Postsecret extremely relevant is that Warren refuses point-blank to have any advertising on the site, despite countless extremely lucrative offers. The only exception to this is rule is a suicide hotline – although whether this can really count as an advertisment in the sense we are discussing is debatable, as it is unlikely that Warren charges them for the space. On the contrary, he encourages visitors to the site to donate to the charity, and when the hotline was threatened with closure in early 2006, an emergency appeal on the Postsecret website raised 30,000 dollars in just one week. Warren supports himself by holding lecturing tours of colleges around the United States, and also has released a number ofPostsecret books, with collections of postcards sent to the site. While this model is encouraging, it is also worth noting that late last year Warren made a personal appeal on the website to readers to buy more of the books, or he would be forced to allow advertising. This tactic must have worked, as months later the site remains advertisement free, but does bring home the difficulty in running a serious online project of any kind if you don’t wish to have advertising on your site, when one of the top ten most popular blogs on the Internet still has trouble keeping itself afloat.
The chapter also discusses ‘witnessing’ or ‘native reporting’ where the ‘reporter’ in question is present and part of the event they are describing, like the aforementioned Riverbend. This conception again makes us rethink what can be classed as journalism. The example that came to my mind was the Wilfred Owenpoem ‘Dulce et decorum est’ recorded in a letter to his mother sent in 1917 from the front lines of the First World War and published in 1920, after Owen himself had died. In the poem Owen recounts the death of a soldier unable to attach his mask in time during a mustard gas attack, who then dies in agony infront of the rest of the platoon. The title of the poem, which means ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’ is refuted by Owen as ‘The Old Lie’. Had internet publishing been available in those days and Owen’s poem been made available to more than an audience of one, it could have been classed as ‘witnessing’. However, it’s also unlikely that the military and the government would allow the publication of such a poem to go unpunished. As Chomsky and Hermann among others note, the war machine is a large part of our political economic system and laws are made to support it. It’s likely Owen would at least have been taken to court for breaching aDA Notice.
The Lancet Medical Journal, one of the most respected medical journals in the world released a report in 2004 stating that the civilian death toll from thesecond Gulf War was roughly 100,000, much higher than had been officially reported. The US and UK governments both denied the claims, and the report was subject to an almost total media blackout – apart from in the main, articles expressing scepticism. When MediaLens, who will be discussed later, approached the Lancet they were able to answer all questions put forward by sceptics, and were said to be confused as to why no mainstream publications had approached them for their side of the story.
COLLECTIVE MOVEMENT AND SUPPORT
The aforementioned website MediaLens serves as a good example for the section on collective movement and support. They also serve as a good example of the reality of commercial and political pressures faced by alternative news providers. MediaLens describes its mission as “correcting for the distorted view of the corporate media” and targets include the BBC, the Guardian and the Times. Roughly once a week subscribers are sent an example of distortion in the press and encouraged to politely get in touch with those responsible – email addresses are generally provided. The authors of the ‘Media Alerts’ are David Edwards and David Cromwell. Both run the website in their spare time, and make money through other means. Other than that, they rely on donations from readers. They also published a book in 2006 ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’ and have another due out on the autumn of this year. However, it is unlikely that profits from either book will keep them afloat, especially given that, despite having a foreword written by John Pilger – who has also stated that the next book is equal to work by Noam Chomsky – the first book was not reviewed in ANY British newspaper. Edwards and Cromwell recently published an appeal for more donations on their website so they can continue to support their work. In keeping with the ‘word of mouth’ tradition of many alternative publications, they also last month sent a message to all members of the MediaLens Facebook group, urging them to invite people they thought would be interested to join.
I would just like to end by saying that while I completely understand the fear of allowing advertisers or a patron into your publication or blog, I do find the attitude or insinuation that it’s somehow wrong for a radical, citizen or left-wing publication to try to make money from what they do – for example the mention in the chapter of OhMyNews and how they “optimistically” see turning a profit as a good thing – slightly backward. One of the main reasons why arts and cultural industries across the world are so dominated by elites and people from richer backgrounds is because to work your way up in these industries you will often be asked to work for nothing in the beginning. For a time period last year I tried to go into Scotland on Sunday every Saturday for experience but had to stop after a few months because I couldn’t afford to continue to turn down paid shifts at my other job while giving them my time for nothing. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. The only people who can afford to do a job well and just for the love of it, are people who are already financially secure enough that they do not need to earn money – which brings us right back to the elites. Again, money should not be the main objective of an alternative journalism project or indeed any journalism project, but it is worth bearing in mind that these projects are often started by people who feel the mainstream is missing something and have no other means of putting their message across – these people are generally not elites and just because you may not agree with the capitalist system doesn’t mean you can simply step outside of it. Man may not live by bread alone, but it certainly helps.