Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Here is an article I wrote a few years ago for the Guardian newspaper.
Good evening, here is the real news
One-sided coverage of protests has led many to ask if mainstream news broadcasters are really telling us the whole truth. For the real story, says Paul O'Connor, you've got to tune in to the video activists.
Repeated episodes of bulldozer diving, tree sitting and summit blockading have finally forced the BBC into considering creating a "protest/anti-globalisation correspondent". It has taken a decade for broadcasters to recognise the direct-action movement as an important political force.
But while the established media have been painfully slow to react, the alternative media have been in the thick of the (direct) action for years, reporting the news you didn't see on the news. Five years ago, many reporters were too busy discussing the hairstyles of "ecowarriors" to bother investigating the reasons behind the tunnels and the tree-houses. Fast forward to this century, and the outrage surrounding the summits of the IMF, World Bank and the G8 leaders has been largely reduced to a binary battle between "anarchists" and paramilitary police. The problem, as the BBC has perhaps now realised, lies in the fact that reporters rarely have a full understanding of the issues, and thus the motivation, behind this latest wave of protest.
When thousands of people didn't bother to vote in the general election, the press decided it was a sign of apathy rather than disillusionment with mainstream politics. Yet it wasn't apathy that spurred over a thousand people to blockade the Manchester studios of the BBC on election day. The mainstream media have a long way to go to regain the trust of this new force of political activists.
Campaigners have now become so frustrated with the media that many are treating reporters as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. Standing outside the locked doors of the media corporation, Joanna, an environmentalist, said, "The repetitive trend in broadcasting the 'violent anarchist' scare stories churned out by the police has only alienated us." Combined with reports of editors handing over their photographs and video images of protests to the police, it is hardly surprising that activists are now refusing to talk to the media.
But in the true DIY style of this movement, alternative outlets are being created. Video activists, internet hackers, radio pirates, digital photographers and text reporters are creating forums for the ignored and the marginalised.
Eight years ago I co-founded a non-profit organisation, Undercurrents, to provide an alternative to the mainstream definition of news. Within that time we have trained hundreds of environmental and social justice campaigners to use the camcorder as a tool for change. From Belfast to Brighton, video activists are now editing on laptops and producing their own news. Screened monthly, via video projectors in solar-powered cinemas, the "News Reals", as they are dubbed, are attracting large audiences.
Undercurrents, along with other media activists such as Indymedia and the SchNews weekly newsletter, created a valuable platform for activists to bypass the corporate media by recording and circulating news of their own events. With just six agencies dominating the world's distribution of news, media campaigners are busy setting up working alternatives.
Japanese video maker Matsubara Akira was so inspired while exchanging videos between Liverpool dockers and Japanese railway workers that he set up an organisation to distribute the works of video activists. Speaking at a festival in South Korea, he said, "I set up Video Act! to 'Create, Screen and Change'. I would like to make it go global and make a stronger network amongst the working people."
This desire to forge links is endorsed by Katharine Ainger, editor of the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine. She argues: "As the economy globalises, we actually find out less and less about one another from the media. Cost-cutting means that coverage of international news in the west has fallen by an average of 50% in the last 10 years."
In reaction to the tightening grip of the media moguls, computer hackers created a unique "open publishing" network on the world wide web. By allowing anyone to publish their own text, audio or video reports online, Indymedia aims to "erode the dividing line between reporters and reported, between active producers and passive audience".
The price to pay for providing such an open platform is high. During the G8 summit in Genoa last month, paramilitary police attacked the volunteer-run Independent Media Centre. As hundreds of armed troops destroyed computers and cameras, a video activist from Undercurrents escaped on to the roof and recorded the brutal raid. Using a water tower for cover, Hamish Campbell had problems steadying his digital camcorder while listening to the screams of his colleagues being tortured below.
Bill Hayton, a BBC reporter, was so shocked by the raid that he published his own report using the independent media portal. He wrote: "The thought that a European police force can line protesters up against a wall and beat them until their blood literally flows across the floor chills me to the bone." Police assaults on the Independent Media Centres during the protests in Davos and Quebec received little or no mainstream coverage.
Outside the media centre lay the broken body of Marcus "Sky" Covell. Covell travelled to Genoa and volunteered his skills to ensure that the internet system worked for independent reporters. But after Italian police left him with snapped bones and lungs filling with blood, the Daily Mail penned reports accusing Covell of being the "mastermind", the "Briton who led rioters". These ill-informed reports provided yet another sad example of why activists have lost faith in the press.
American video activist Rick Rowley, who lost his camera equipment and tapes to the Italian state in Genoa, says the experience hasn't deterred him from video activism. Despite spending four days in jail before being released without charge, Rowley is still looking forward to being on the streets at next month's World Bank meeting in Washington DC.
He and his colleagues at the non-profit Big Noise films co-produced This Is What Democracy Looks Like, the story behind the WTO summit in Seattle. As he explained: "It was pieced together from over 100 cameras and has sold nearly 10,000 copies, and last year, on the anniversary of the protests, the documentary was screened in 50 cities on five continents."
The alternative media are also providing a fuller record of the events in Genoa, a stark contrast to the daily news feeds distributed by the corporate agencies. Associated Press Television News (APTN) summed up the weekend of protests with a series of about 30 images, the overwhelming majority of which featured only the violent clashes.
Sam Wild remained in Italy to coordinate the distribution of "key moments of the protests" to alternative media outlets around the world. While sorting through the "sackfuls" of digital tapes, he says, "Because so much footage from so many people was contributed, we have ensured that we have a real overview of virtually every major and minor event that unfolded."
The alternative media take a much more inclusive view of protests. While not ignoring the street battles, we concentrate on giving a voice to the 300,000 non-violent demonstrators who travelled to Genoa.
Grassroots reporting is perhaps finally gaining acceptance within the mainstream. At the end of this month, Channel 4 will broadcast the pilot of a unique programme which, according to its producers, will offer "a radical new approach to current affairs and politics inspired by video activists". Alt-World will feature stories by video activists in Brazil, Australia, the United States, Yugoslavia and Britain.
Nina Simoes will present one of these segments, on the huge social movement in her birthplace of Sao Paolo. "In countries like Brazil, where an under-represented majority struggles to have its voice heard, video activism has been fundamental in raising awareness about many of the social problems."
Pluto Press released the Handbook, detailing this growing movement and offering all the insider knowledge necessary for anyone to put a camcorder to good use.