Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?

Stefano Maffei (David Icke) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Stefano Maffei (David Icke) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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.”

Long pause.

“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.


18 thoughts on “Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?”

  1. Great piece, Dan, thank you, Looks like you have it all worked out (I was convinced you’d trail off inconclusively but by the end it felt like it was already happening!)
    If I could just add my two cents. I think…. This will fail unless it’s truly alternative and truly radical. And if the climate crisis – the issue that unites all issues (if anyone could bear to talk about it for more than 15 seconds, let alone think of it) – isn’t at the core of the agenda, and I mean *solutions*, not science jargon, etc., then the whole enterprise will fizzle into irrelevance.
    Major media can’t talk about climate seriously because to do so – if talking *seriously*, I emphasize – is to question everything, starting at the top, by which I mean capital….
    The people knows shit’s fucked up, and they want to know what to do, but they have nowhere to turn (or at least nowhere to turn with production values, scripts, or panache even approaching that of the BBC – which can be matched, btw, with limited resources if imagination is employed).
    Also, I admire Jones but I feel he’s slightly too establishment and anyway I think a figurehead or ‘face’ is a risky enterprise. I suggest calling on various sympathetic celeb types (Brand?! Bad idea?! But aim high, definitely, as long as no control is being sacrificed) and get them to help promote it, without them necessarily being staples of the actual broadcast/s/er(?), necessarily.
    Anyway, just throwing idea out. My first couple of points there are what I really want you to consider.
    I’ll be keeping tabs on this, as a filmmaker and media obsessive I’m already a committed supporter (though, sadly, Ireland-based for the time being.)
    Best wishes!

  2. Thanks, V, you are absolutely right that this needs to be a space that can address the ecological crisis seriously. People do want to know what can be done, and what is (and isn’t) being done. And the mainstream can’t help but shy away from this. As for figureheads, I am very wary too. Hopefully the audience will take the lead in determining how the thing develops. But establishing it as a reality is the first hurdle.

  3. Are you going to drive it forward yourself or are you seeking collaborators at the outset? I don’t think you’ll struggle (not too hard anyway) to find smart people who’ll want this to happen.
    Incidentally, I’ve been monitoring various crowd-funded films that friends have been producing over the last few years, one of which raised something like 150,000 or something and is now in Sundance. And that’s for a specialist movie. This idea has/is genuine mass appeal. What’s great about crowd-funding is that you build in and connect, on the journey, with your audience, as you hint at.
    Media Lens asked a while back (probably more than once) why there’s no Democracy Now! or The Real News equivalent in Britain (I’m assuming there are similarities with your plan), but I must say I don’t think I ever use TRN anymore – because it keeps asking me for money! I find it irritating. (Drifted a bit from DM too, for more basic reasons of finding it increasingly… I dunno, tame or something, and quite American-centric, obviously.) If somehow you guys could sort the finance aspect out through some way that doesn’t pop up in people’s faces or annoy them I think you’d be onto a winner. An annual fee of 10-50 quid, circumstance dependent, maybe? Something like that, your own licence fee. Constant funding appeals are head-wrecking, and make people feel miserable (I think – experts may disagree!)
    Also, their content isn’t that original, aping the formats of the majors broadcasters. Perhaps this idea could also cultivate longer form documentary content and/or shows about culture, communities, etc., that are ignored by major media, etc.

  4. Crowd-funding can be very effective, especially for a discrete project. But you’re right about the drawbacks of constantly asking for money. Ideally you want a sustainable funding stream from an annual fund-raising drive that is just that, a yearly event, and some money from commercial partnerships and popular institutions.

    There is a formal timidity in a lot of ‘alternative’ media, isn’t there? There’s no reason a broadcaster couldn’t develop new formats – discussion programmes that are egalitarian and surprising (drawn from assemblies around the country, say), who knows what else.

    I think it would be good to run news coverage that set out the mainstream agenda and critiqued it, so that people who wanted an alternative take would know that it would be available as a matter of course. But perhaps better approaches would emerge over time.

    1. Good ideas, all, just the idea of getting public opinion that isn’t a high street montage of 5 second vox pops: ‘i like it’, ‘i don’t like it’, ‘i like it’, ‘i don’t’… [presenter turns to camera]: ‘as you can see, views here are mixed’ bullshit. Definitely heaps that can be done more interestingly than that to which we’ve become accustomed.

  5. Maybe I am missing the point but are we looking to re-invent the wheel or perhaps grow what is already set up?

    E.G Indymedia? Running (sustainably) since November 1999, exaclty as an alternative to the mainstream further to the discovery of the ‘masked anarchists will use london undergrounds ventolation shafts to pop up around the city and firebomb’ lie/meme was found across every mainstream tabloid. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Media_Center) or Be The Media (http://bethemedia.org.uk/) or VisiononTV

    1. Indymedia’s obviously great, and I can’t speak for Dan but I think what he wants to do is, basically, reach further than Indymedia does, at least in the UK.
      Like I said, Indymedia’s not something I would disparage as it’s of great value and deserved reputation, but whenever I visit the an Indymedia page, it feels small and esoteric. Obviously somebody decided, presumably in 1999, to keep the format simple, and I appreciate simplicity, but there’s a certain grandeur lacking, I suppose, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. I’m not a designer, but like it or not, the imagery and feel of a website, news show, interface, etc., matter greatly, it can’t expand its appeal on just content, no matter how great that content.
      Kicking myself I can’t find the quote itself, but some guy once said (I’m not making this up, I genuinely read it in the Financial Times), I paraphrase: “The more radical the idea you’re trying to sell, the more you should dress like an accountant.” I’m gonna guess he means dress like a well-tailored accountant, and I’m saying maybe this idea needs sharp, inviting packaging, pizzazz, panache… damn, couldn’t think of another.
      Ideally, I think, this concept would create a confluence, bringing a broad range of strong alternative voices and minds together. No reason in the world this would have to work against people and activists with similar goals, surely the exact opposite.

  6. There are lots of alternative media operations out there, it’s true, and anything new would want to work with them. Many of the best ones are print-only or nearly print-only and it would be great to bring some of their contributors on air. But the alternative media at the moment don’t reach the vast majority of people on a daily basis. I suppose I am arguing for something that can regularly challenge the mainstream and provide a better account of reality to people who are at the moment pretty much reliant on the BBC and the newspapers.

    Hence the need for enough money to sustain reasonably high production values (while not necessarily aping the other broadcasters), pay professional journalists, administrators, programmers and technicians, and put out new daily video/radio content. That’s something that doesn’t exist yet, I think. And I don’t see it emerging organically out of anything that does.

  7. It’d just be dominated by identity politics and pointless waffle anyway. Why would a movement that’s essentially dead have a media outlet?

  8. This really feels like a doable idea, Dan, for some small group of determined people actually to make happen. And certainly a very much needed one. I wish it well. Not a lot that I can offer beyond that, except for journalistic contributions themselves; free, naturally. (Professional background in writing and performance arts; but in my seventies now, so of limited usefulness, perhaps)

    1. You can’t get out of it by saying you’re too old … All hands to the pumps at this point, I am afraid.

      We’ll see, anyhow. I’d like to think that there is enough energy and talent to do something that takes on the mainstream political establishment and its surrounding media system. The fact that David Icke can get as far as he has tells us something.

  9. This won’t work as the left is inherently schismatic. Its a bit like religious broadcasting. The C of E does not have a channel on Sky, its only fundamentalists sects who do (even the catholic channel on Sky is run by a fundamentalist grouping of catholics). The best you could hope for would be a TV or radio equivalent of the WRP Newsline – remember that? All colour and funded from dubious sources. Thats my 2p worth.

    1. My (slightly rude) reply to that is, ‘People who say a thing cannot be done, Should get out of the way of the people who are doing it.’

      The only way to know if something is possible is to walk towards it. The need is there, and people really are suffering for the want of it.

      ‘there is nothing wrong with having castles in the air. That is where they should be. Now put the ground in beneath them.’ HD Thoreau

      I’m a dreamer – yep!

  10. I don’t remember WRP Newsline…

    You’re right that the left is prone to schism and sometimes activists fall into an all-or-nothing way of thinking – either it is exactly what we want, 100%, or we don’t want anything to do with it. A successful media operation with funding from existing institutions wouldn’t give those institutions everything they want, all the time. To work it would have to draw in other points of view, including those of their critics.

    (Much of the criticism leveled at trade unions – that they are inward-looking and bureaucratic – would be best countered by their supporting something like an independent media operation like this, funnily enough.)

    Engaging material will be incomplete and will have starting assumptions that won’t be shared by everyone. It might be that this degree of pluralism isn’t possible. But it is a shame if that’s the case.

    These days the most of us are more willing to draw from multiple traditions and align themselves with movements, campaigns – parties, even – on particular issues. I wouldn’t watch something that statically reproduced a ‘line’, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. I’d watch something surprising, that gave its contributors (including people who aren’t ‘professionals of speech’) the back-up they need to communicate effectively, that allowed people who currently under-represented an opportunity to establish their presence in the public sphere, to speak with some expectation of being heard. So, for example, I’d also like to put on a version of Big Brother where interesting people could debate our current predicament and what to do about it.

    But everyone would have their view, and none of us would end up with what we wanted exactly. Hopefully, though, what we did end up with would be better than what we have.

  11. This is a great post!

    I too have grappled with the question of why there isn’t such a media presence as you describe. Your ballpark figures convince me that there is simply no GOOD reason (as opposed to explanations of why such a thing hasn’t arisen. Plausible candidates I have come up with are: the “generational” defeat of the left and the consequent pessimism and lack of ability to really conceive of such “landscape altering” projects; the fact that the BBC/Channel 4 are probably regarded as ‘good enough’ by enough people, to take much of the energy and quality out of such an alternative operation; the fact that many people of the appropriate political persuasion, for the last decade-and-a-half looked to the internet, and may only recently be realizing what its limitations are, in terms of reach. This list could doubtless be infinitely extended).

    As I believe you have stated elsewhere, a significant Left media presence is simply an indispensable precondition for any other of the Left’s aims to stand a chance of being realized. On those occasions when I stand back sufficiently, it astounds me how little this is recognized, and how much energetic activity is, as a result, just pointless shouting into the vacuum. Personally, I have flirted a little with the ‘Left Unity’ project, but I think it is clear that such an effort will get nowhere in the current media environment.
    So I think you’re really dealing with the nub other things here.

    A point raised in the comments is the difference of format that might be necessary for programs on such a broadcast platform, commensurate with what a Left media organization is actually trying to achieve: i.e. empowering people; getting the content decided democratically; educating people. I agree that a relatively “straight” news operation, to counter e.g. the massively dominating line of BBC and Sky news, would be necessary. But I think it would not be sufficient, since most people do not have the knowledge necessary to actually adjudicate between these different narratives. However much I would like to see a vigorous Left presence, I find the balkanized situation in the States rather frightening – the creation of “camps” of the mutually-uncomprehending.
    In this regard, the move of ‘The Real News’ to Baltimore is quite interesting, and its wider plan to take part in sort of “advocacy journalism” and democratic capacity-building (with the idea of town-hall style debates). It has made me reflect on what an alternative/Left news operation is aiming for. I guess the point is that, in place of abstract “news”, this is a conception of news-of-relevance-to-a-certain-constituency, or news as a tool. One can obviously take this too far; yet it is important.

    Rather similar to your ‘Big Brother’ idea, I imagined a sort of political X-Factor, with the audience voting on positions/policies. But in general I suspect there are thousands of creative media graduates bursting with ideas for such alternative formats. The chief difficulty as I see it would be striking the right balance between being serious, and being entertaining. It is important to realize just how little time and energy your average person has to devote engaged attention to news. To some degree, contemporary news is as appalling as it is simply because it is so superficial, so ‘noisy’, so cartoon-esque, rather than because it is right-wing; to some degree, a Left news operation is just a sober and serious news operation. But one would need to not lose people. I guess this is just a skill every Left communicator must have, trying to educate people who are, so to speak, exhausted after a day of (metaphorically) threshing corn under the taskmaster’s whip.

    Another significant point that has come to mind when I have thought about this, is the role that non-news programming plays in enculturing people, giving them certain general attitudes, as well as building trust. These are obviously platitudes of critical media studies. MediaLens dissects the hypocrisy of much BBC output, but a lot of the trust towards its news operation is sort of “borrowed” from the drama division.
    Your numbers would obviously quickly become unfeasible if one were to contemplate adding original drama. …I suppose there are many independent film-makers out there who would jump at the chance of showing on a national broadcaster….

    You know, I think this is just an idea waiting to happen. I can imagine that something like a well-proposed Kickstarter project could get this off the ground, but in general I think that initial capital would surely not be hard to come by. There are surely hundreds of thousands of pinkish residents of middle England, aging hippies and so forth, who would give some money to a project that had some practical reality, dynamism, verve etc. I agree that ongoing funding would probably be RELATIVELY easy to come by, with the right mix, and if there were sufficient buy-in from relevant sources, especially the unions. …In fact, your excellent point that, by creating members, union funding of such a thing would pay for itself makes me wonder again why it isn’t already happening. (You summarize the stock response of the unions when you have asked them. Is it really that simple?)

    How about some sort of dedicated site/forum to thrash this out further? A bold and forward proposal, I know!! 😉

  12. At Agreed. Absolutely. I have thought this often. And no doubt that others have as well.
    The step is to organize a conference over a weekend, and come out of that with a plan of action. That’s the way things seem to get done. There would be no shortage of interest.
    Owen Jones, media lens (?), john pilger, open democracy, 38 degrees…etc…

    It is an exciting prospect. And it is entirely possible.

  13. There would be no shortage of interest.
    Owen Jones, media lens (?), john pilger, open democracy, 38 degrees…etc…

    So, where is it? Owen Jones is an apologist for an imperialist Labour Party as far as I can tell, so to include him in with our vainglorious left seems a step too far.

    The fault, if there is one, lies with the entire trajectory of what passes for a left here in the belly of the (lesser) beast. There is no end of ‘alternate’ views, both in print and on the Web and maybe that’s the problem, or problems. For a start, calling it alternate, so it’s just another opinion, dead ends it. The politics of defeatism.

    Second, surely part of the problem is precisely the vast number of ‘alternate’ views, each one claiming to own the truth. So yet another call for yet another conference which seems only to benefit conference organisers in much the same way as disasters seem only to benefit NGOs.

    Until the left can present a coherent alternative to capitalism that DOESN’T involve the Labour Party and Parliament, I see no way forward. I’m guided by that great socialist revolutionary of the 19th century, William Morris:

    “There — it sickens one to have to wade through this grimy sea of opportunism. What a spectacle of shuffling, lies, vacillation and imbecility does this Game Political offer to us? I cannot conclude without an earnest appeal to those Socialists, of whatever section, who may be drawn towards the vortex of Parliamentarism, to think better of it while there is yet time.

    “If we ally ourselves to any of the presen[t] parties they will only use us as a cat’s-paw; and on the other hand, if by any chance a Socialist slips through into Parliament, he will do so at the expense of leaving his principles behind him; he will certainly not be returned as a Socialist, but as something else; what else is hard to say. As I have written before in these columns, Parliament is going just the way we would have it go. Our masters are feeling very uncomfortable under the awkward burden of GOVERNMENT, and do not know what to do, since their sole aim is to govern from above. Do not let us help them by taking part in their game. Whatever concessions may be necessary to the progress of the Revolution can be wrung out of them at least as easily by extra-Parliamentary pressure, which can be exercised without losing one particle of those principles which are the treasure and hope of Revolutionary Socialists.” — William Morris, the Commonweal, Volume 1, Number 10, November 1885, p. 93.[1]

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