EDIT: In light of recent events, I have to admit that this piece comes across as very naive and one-sided. I would still stand behind some of the ideas expressed in it, and still feel that many anarchists have an excessively simplistic approach to the media, but I would also like to stress that anyone wanting to try and engage with the media in the ways I advocate here should be prepared for the kind of very hostile, personal and intrusive attention that the Telegraph has visited on individuals involved in the Autonomous Students Network and Brighton SolFed. Of course, it is also the case that not engaging with the media is no protection against this happening. Keep your real names off the internet, folks.
First off, the usual round-up of stuff that’s worth paying attention to: This call-out for a “Network X gathering” isn’t exactly something that I’d have written myself, but it is an encouraging attempt to try and improve communication and co-ordination among the anti-capitalist/radical/uncontrollable wing of the movement, and so should be supported. Also, as the police and media gear up for another witch-hunt, this advice from Fitwatch is worth reading.
Anyway, the post is inspired by the media coverage of the protests in general, but particularly by the Channel 4 interview with WAG, and by having read this libcom debate. In general, it seems likely that as long as the current wave of disruptive protests continues, the media will continue to portray ‘anarchists’ as being responsible for all the most exciting, courageous and attention-grabbing aspects of them, regardless of how small a role we actually play. Consdering how marginalised anarchist ideas normally are, this would seem to offer a potentially useful platform. (Obviously, you have to be careful about this: on the day of an action itself, anyone trying to get pictures of individuals breaking the law is doing the police’s job for them, and should be treated as such. Likewise, it’s a good idea to avoid giving your real name – especially if you’re defending illegal activity, but also just in general, really.) Now, many anarchists would object to this, saying that the mainstream media are always going to be hostile to our ideas and so they’ll never represent us fairly.* There is some truth in this, but it’s not the whole story. I’d argue that to view the media as entirely one-sided and hostile means misunderstanding both the way that liberal ideology in general works, and particularly how the market affects the media.
In general, liberalism prides itself on its commitment to tolerance and free speech. Of course, as the police have been happy to demonstrate, it is still ultimately founded on repression, but in general the current system tries to use repressive violence as a last resort. This means that, paradoxically, the system can afford to give space to anti-capitalists and other radical critics, precisely because the act of giving that space can be used as proof of how tolerant and ultimately fair and justified it is. Similarly, competition among media brands means they have to establish distinctive identities in order to get an audience and sell advertising space. So, the BBC brands itself as being fair and impartial, and the Guardian brands itself as being open-minded, tolerant and progressive. So, by giving space to radical critics, they can ultimately demonstrate the qualities they want to associate themselves with, and so improve their branding.
Now, there’s a very obvious reply to this. If, by talking to the media, we just play into the hands of liberal ideology and the marketing strategies of particular media brands, then why do it? Wouldn’t it be better to just stay outside? The problem here is that by refusing to use the space to offer us, we don’t actually undermine them in any way. They benefit from being prepared to give us a platform, not from us using it. If they just say that they spoke to us but we refused to comment, that still establishes them as being willing to talk to us, and so being fair/tolerant/etc. Also, just because we don’t talk to them doesn’t mean no-one will; it’s very easy to find people to speak on behalf of ‘the protesters’, from incoherent egomaniac wankers like Chris Knight to various Trots looking to take control of the movement. If people with decent politics boycott the media, that doesn’t hurt the media, it just guarantees that the only people appearing in it will have dodgy politics of one kind or another.
It is true that the media does very often misrepresent us, but again, they don’t need our help to do it. I’ve been involved in a project that attracted vicious attacks from the local press, but they didn’t even bother speaking to us. In general, if the media want to attack you, they don’t need you to say anything, they can just get some comments from the police, from an institution you’re opposing, and maybe one or two other sources of right-wing opinion, and they’ve got enough material for a hack job. Not speaking to them will not stop that happening. There are plenty of shit articles about anarchists and protesters, but there’s also a surprising number of very good ones, sometimes in very unlikely places.
So, my appeal to anyone involved in an anarchist group (well, excluding primitivists and the like) would be this: know the media’s weaknesses, and use them to your advantage. Write provocatively-worded call-outs before major demos, and then write up reports afterwards celebrating (not claiming responsibility for, but expressing solidarity with) the most subversive and attention-grabbing events that took place on the day. It’s not often the media offers you free advertising, so make the most of it.
*There is also another, more complex objection that can be made to my views here: it could be said that I’m still essentially working with a Leninist/vanguardist view of consciousness that sees ‘us’ as having the right ideas, and political activity as just consisting of spreading the right ideas from ‘us’ to ‘them’. I don’t really know how to respond to that, other than saying that it’s a criticism that could be leveled at virtually any form of activity that involves saying that we have ideas and trying to explain what they are.