In November 2013 David Icke and others began broadcasting The People’s Voice after a crowd-funding appeal raised £300,000. The ability of a relatively small number of people – albeit with an established following – to secure start-up funding for a broadcast operation suggests that there is considerable appetite for an alternative to the mainstream media in Britain.
But the launch also prompts a question. If David Icke and his associates can launch a broadcast operation, why can’t the left, broadly defined, operate successfully as an independent player in the media field? We hear a lot about the weakness of the British left, but weakness is relative. Almost six million people are still trade union members. The Co-operative Group has around seven million members (there is bound to be a considerable overlap, of course). UK Uncut and Occupy enjoyed considerable popular support. Many thousands participate in demonstrations and protests when they think that they might make a difference. Owen Jones has 60% more Twitter followers than David Icke.
The near-absence of the organized left in the main currents of the media is even more striking when one considers that most of the country is somewhere to the left of all the mainstream political parties. This is true even though this majority has few opportunities to hear its position articulated in the media.
(I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which the left is excluded, There are some left-wing Labour MPs and some Labour-supporting journalists who are given an occasional public platform – Jones most notably. But academic studies suggest that analysis and discussion of key economic issues on the BBC and elsewhere skews heavily towards the interests of what we used to call capital. Mike Berry at Cadiff and Aeron Davis at Goldsmiths have both looked into this and come to broadly similar conclusions. Davis argues that ‘financial journalism, like financial regulation, over recent decades has been “captured” or neutralised by those it is meant to hold to account’. For Berry the evidence shows that ‘the BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda’.)
So the state and corporate media tend to privilege the rich and the powerful. This isn’t surprising. But it is strange that institutions founded to promote the interests of popular constituencies have been content to leave the media status quo unchallenged. Trade unionists I have talked to about this point out the huge costs of running a national newspaper and fall into an embarrassed silence when it is pointed out that the media landscape has changed somewhat since the launch of the union-backed News on Sunday in 1987.
(Actually the exchange usually goes like this:
“Why don’t the unions do something to get their message across without having to rely on a broadly hostile or unreceptive media system?”
“Ah, well, we did try. We launched a newspaper in the eighties and lost a fortune.”
“Yes, but now there’s the internet, and cable television. You don’t need to have a national newspaper to reach large audiences. Individuals and small groups like the Artist Taxi Driver and Novara Media show what’s possible.”
“We launched a national newspaper in the eighties and lost a fortune.”)
So, how much would it cost for the popular institutions and their allies on the extra-parliamentary left to create a news and analysis operation capable of challenging the mainstream? It would certainly cost something. Goodwill and enthusiasm can only carry one so far.
But the sums are not prohibitive. In 2011 Resonance FM in London was putting out an impressive 24 hour schedule for around £200,000 a year. The money paid for full-time technical, administrative and commissioning staff, as well as offices and broadcast facilities in central London. This, together with in-kind contributions from volunteers, has enabled Resonance to build an audience of somewhere close to two million.
Let’s say that we add television broadcast and budget for £100,000 for three more full-time staff. We’re looking at staff and office costs of £300,000. and we still haven’t got to the cost of content.
In 2011 Ofcom estimated that the contributions from volunteers at Resonance were worth a further £510,000.
There’s a lot of content available online and much of the original coverage will be commentary in-studio and interviews conducted via Skype. Organizations and individuals that stand to benefit from stronger coverage from a popular perspective will also want to contribute their time as interviewees etc. I am not a fan of volunteerism in itself and people who work should be paid. But paid trade union comms people could be expected to contribute their time, just as they would appear on the BBC as part of their job, if anyone ever asked them. NGOs, academics and others who are paid to conduct research are also keen to demonstrate public impact. Some would be happy to contribute.
Still, as a minimum you’d also need a news staff that can prepare early morning, mid-day and evening news reports and provide context and rebuttal for the other media’s selection and treatment of issues. In other words, you need to challenge the Today Programme as the dominant framer of the national conversation and continue to present an alternative take on the news through the day. This would be expensive, but it would be crucial to the station’s overall success. Say £100,000 for that.
(As for overheads, I can’t believe that the trade unions and the co-operatives haven’t got some commercial space in London they aren’t using, so we might save some money there.)
Anyway, let’s say a bare bones media operation costs around £400,000 a year to run. I am guessing, but it is not going to be vastly more than that. It wouldn’t be 24 hours, nor would it be heavily reliant on original programming, especially in the early days. But it would have enough money to run cheap talk-based commentary, interviews with experts, documentary specials, coverage of demonstrations and assemblies, and a spine of news coverage. At that level it would be a point of opposition that could challenge media (mis)representation elsewhere and provide its own perspectives on current affairs.
£400,000 a year isn’t chicken feed. How could such a thing be sustainable? Well, as I say, I am not a fan of volunteerism for its own sake and enthusiasm is liable to wane if viewers are subjected to constant appeals for money. But a popular news and analysis service would create opportunities to raise revenues. The Co-operative group would presumably want to support programming that in turn supports the co-operative principle. It would seem to make more sense than advertising in the Daily Mail as it currently does. And popular programming would give the unions a chance to build their membership – an expenditure that would pay for itself. A book programme could do deals with publishers so that the station took a cut from discounted sales. Magazines and publishers could also run their own programmes. (Deep Green Drive Time in Association with the Ecologist, insert your own jokes here.) There are lessons to be learned from alternative media and NPR in the United States.
Audiences are also commercial opportunities in their own right. In the States, successful right-wing media support a vibrant cottage industry of water purifier manufacturers and supplement distributors selling this this kind of thing … Credit unions, utility co-ops and similar enterprises could make their own use of a compatible media environment. If a cooperatively owned business doesn’t exist in a market where the station attracts considerable numbers of potential purchasers, then the station can work with existing co-op incubators to create one. It would be great if, as the audience grew, the co-operative sector were to benefit at the same time.
£400,000 is a start, and a combination of contributions from the unions and the co-operative movement, annual crowd funding drives and commercial revenues could probably cover that. It would be a threadbare offering at that level, but it would be enough to be starting with. Remember, David Icke raised 3/4 of that with only a 100,000 followers on Twitter. If you take Owen Jones and all the trade union feeds, you’re looking at, what, twice that?
A media group like this would want to raise more money to pay for investigations etc, either produced in house or contracted out to operations like Exaro and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It would be an opportunity to give a mass audience a chance to participate in shaping the content of the public sphere, too. But all it this can be done over time, as the audience is established and begins to see itself as a group with a stake in the production process. Once up and running, the organization could even seek to secure public funds and access to the BBC network, in the event that the state broadcaster becomes democratic. It could apply meaningful pressure for just such a process of reform.
Popular institutions are not entrepreneurial businesses and I don’t want to suggest that they should be. But they are suffering acutely from their weakness in the sphere of communications. Of course the challenges are considerable. The operation would need editorial integrity and a genuine pluralism. The temptation to make it the rote deliverer of a trade union or Labour Party line would have to be resisted. But surely no one could deny that the need for an alternative space for deliberation and debate is very pressing. The risk of losing some money is there, of course, but the risks of doing nothing are much more serious.
Perhaps we could draft Owen Jones as the network’s first director of programmes? True, he’s no David Icke, but we have to work with what we’ve got.