This article has been written by a few individuals who spent a lot of time working within the CounterSpin Collective (CSC). As such it purports to reflect the view of ourselves as individuals, and does not claim to represent everyone’s opinion. It contains personal reflections as well as objective critique.
It would be impossible to begin this without first establishing the invaluable and essential role that people from outside Britain had in assisting us to put together a media response group. Analysis of the work done by activists in Dublin around Mayday2004, their support, sound advice and experiences shared, gave the fledgling group the confidence it needed to exist in the first place. Their workshops helped enormously in building the practical knowledge of people intending to facilitate media engagement.
After the Glasgow Dissent! gathering in February 2005 the semblance of a media group emerged that began to look at ways of engaging with the media. A media strategy email list was set up and, unusually for an email list, was at times very interesting. Honest discussions took place on the list that tried to look at who ‘we’ were and what ‘we’ were saying- not just to the media but also to ourselves and to the wider world. It raised important questions about defining our responses if we were to attempt to explain this ‘movement of movements’ and this ‘other possible world’ we wanted to build. However we saw our main function and effectiveness within the network as facilitating other groups to do just that.
The first mainstream media coordination from within the Dissent! Network was at the Festival of Dissent! in April 2005 in Scotland. There had been a flurry of journalists contacting the various different email addresses listed on the Dissent! website, and the Glasgow Dissent! affiliated “Reshape” group specifically asked for help in developing a response to requests for personal interviews. The inevitable stories had begun to appear in the tabloids about “anarchist training camps” and whilst the stories did not make it South of the border to England as much, the “baby eating anarchists” were on their way according to the tabloid press.
At the Leeds working group gathering, an autonomous group of individuals involved with the network proposed that a media response group would be set up for the Festival of Dissent! that would disbanded afterwards. A press release was issued, and after much debating and clarification a number of stringent rules for dealing with the press with regards to access and photos, etc., were agreed upon.
There were a few irritating reports such as ‘exposés’ in the Daily Record and Times about our inability to put up marquees and inaccurate reporting about two individuals as that were supposed ring leaders. However, interviews which we did have control over and the journalists we did meet set a constructive precedent for the next few months and for people within the Dissent! network’s first foray into mainstream media engagement. This was a decidedly positive strategy. A number of specific journalists consistently reported in a ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ fashion- at least always giving us the option of comment, and even at times making a good effort to chose the best clips of our interviews to use in their stories.
After the Festival of Dissent!, the corporate media continued to call looking for interviews and responses to police ‘public relations’ statements, to find out about the Clown Army, the People’s Golfing Association, various group actions, trains from the south east, etc. Discussions during the festival of Dissent! helped formed a vague plan that solidified during the following months. At the end of the festival a number of people from local, working and action groups gave their names and contacts. When the media contacted us, we would arrange for contact to be made between the journalists and these people in the network who had expressed a willingness to talk to the media as individuals. If no one came forward from the various autonomous groups, then there was generally no response, although on rare occasion some groups did ask for assistance to communicate to the media.
Things gained a little more structure at the Nottingham Dissent! meeting. The media group took on the name CounterSpin Collective (CSC). This group’s main focus was to facilitate all those groups within the Dissent! network who wanted our help. A very comprehensive list of press contacts from around the world was built up, translators were found that were able to translate press releases and groups that did produce press releases were able to send them to the CSC where they would be translated and sent out. As a practical example, a number of Spanish translators would be sent a Press Release, and they would work together to translate the text and would generally have it emailed out to the Spanish press within a 24-hour period. For a number of working and action groups this method worked fairly effectively.
Those involved with the CSC also acted autonomously in writing letters and personal responses to mainstream media contradicting the spin and lies put forth from police and state sources. In two cases that seemed to be either slanderous or libelous, written and formal complaints were made, including complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. In one case, personal complaints made to a specific journalist about unfair coverage resulted in another article the next week from the same writer on the history and possibilities of police violence against activists. This article was considered to by activists to be quite good, and a radical shift from what the writer had written before we complained to him. Such actions could have had more effect if they happened in a structured and coordinated way.
The week before the G8 summit the number of people involved with the CounterSpin Collective went from around 4 to 20. Given that this included media response groups at Stirling convergence, Teviot building in Edinburgh, as well as the support infrastructure behind this, many folks had overlapping roles. As a number of these people had not been involved with the media discussions and consensus in the Dissent! network, those who had been involved with the media group were very thorough in introducing new individuals to the media policies and these individuals were respectful of the mandate consented upon.
The week of the G8 summit
As the summit approached, the fact that 5000 protestors were going to be camping in Stirling meant that it became a hub of media activity. A few days before the Convergence Centre officially opened, consensus was reached at an evening convergence meeting to allow accompanied journalists on site for a period of one hour, both to facilitate those who wanted to avoid photography and to set media access to the site on our own terms. It also made things much more easy to manage and contain, as much infrastructure work was still being done by all of us to create a working site.
The meeting asked the rural media response group to produce a press release announcing the open hour and send it out on behalf of the Rural Convergence Space (who at that time did not have access to the net on-site). We also produced a press pack that contained past press releases from Convergence 2005 and also press releases from action or local groups. At 11am the next day the corporate media arrived at the gates. The media were taken in groups of 4-5 into the site for a tour and then people were on hand for interviews and at 12pm they were escorted off site. The whole thing went very smoothly and increased the confidence within the media response group about its ability to function effectively when needed. It was also one of the first examples of the CSC fulfilling its mandate effectively on a large scale.
Another benefit of managing the media presence in this way was that we were able to train people in interview skills previous to being interviewed. A couple of months before at a large international Dissent! meeting in Germany, activists had decided not to have interviews with journalists, so the journalists just waited outside the meeting facilities waiting for anyone willing to speak to them to give interviews. However, at the Rural Convergence space, a number of people were trained by experienced CSC members in interview skills. These individuals were trained to be prepared for trick questions and for interview questions designed to throw people off, and they were trained to stick to a few key points about why they had come to Scotland to protest.
The press coverage the next day highlighted something very important, if somewhat expected. While the tabloid coverage ranged from screaming about blood sucking anarchists to happy hippie’s intent on saving the world (no surprise there!), some papers e.g. The Guardian, The Independent, and Scottish TV produced reports that used good interviews, unedited comments from activists, and posed interesting questions. It was definitely better press coverage than we had had to date and all these articles carried the idea that the Rural Convergence Centre was attempting to be a model of a different type of social organisation, inspiring, ecological, and organised non-hierarchically without leaders. This suggested to us that our ideas could be spread via the mass media on specific organised occasions.
Soon after the convergence site opened the media response group set up in a gazebo outside the site perimeter. It was set off-site and clearly marked so that it was an obvious point of contact for journos and photographers. Here we explained that no journalists or photographers were allowed onto the site, explaining why this was so. They would be briefed on the media policy, i.e. no one could be referred to as a spokesperson for the network. They were given a press pack whilst other members of the media response team would go inside the camp to find people who willing to give interviews, sometimes people working in a specific area or speaking a certain language. This again was a positive example of ensuring that CSC worked proactively and effectively within its mandate.
Having followed most of the press coverage about Dissent! and the issues surrounding the G8 in the lead up to the summit in a co-coordinated manner, the CSC was able to build up a list of ‘unfriendly’ and ‘friendly’ journalists (those who wrote bullshit and those who presented activists opinions without distortion.) Consequentially journalists who we preferred were given exclusive interviews and stories whilst others were asked to leave or confronted with questions as to the nature of their enquiry, etc. On more than one occasion, reporters were told to their face in a polite but direct manner that their media outlet had reported lies, and were told that they should feel personally responsible for trying to create more balanced and reliable reporting in the future. Hopefully this engagement improved coverage as well.
Carnival for Full Enjoyment
One major challenge for the CSC came in the lead up to a demonstration planned for Monday 4 July, two days before the official opening of the G8 summit. The “Carnival for Full Enjoyment” was planned largely by a small group of committed local people who had planned the typically small local demonstrations before. The information that they sent to the mass media consisted of one press release, and offered the link to a one-page web-site containing information explaining the general purpose of the demo: “*No wage slavery *No benefits slavery *No army slavery *No debt slavery”. (Web-site here: www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/resistg8/carnival.htm)
The group organising this demo called itself Dissent Against Work, and a number of jouralists contacted the CSC asking for information about the Carnival for Full Enjoyment after attemts to contact Dissent Against Work went unanswered. A number of these journalists had been in regular contact with CSC people, especially one based in Scotland, and had gotten used to getting interesting reliable information and quotes about various aspects of the mobilisation against the G8. These journalists in turn often became reliable sources of information for activists, telling what the police had said at their various press conferences or in personal interviews, and then looking for a response from activists or “anarchists”, as they liked to say.
This was exactly the case around the lead-up to the Carnival demonstration. In the week leading up to this demo, one journalist commented to a CSC person that the police seemed a bit nervous because they couldn’t contact any organisers from this demo, and the journalist relayed the opinion that this may not work well for activists. A few days before the demo, a journalist that had consistently given the Dissent! network good coverage on a major Scottish TV channel phoned and said he had just been to a police press conference where the police mentioned that they had given a warning to all businesses near the Carnival demonstration route that they should take precautions and avoid talking to any activists, which “could be violent”. This reporter relayed that the police appeared uncomfortable with their situation, and it looked as though the police would likely be gearing up for violence.
One person from the CSC attended the final organising meeting for the Carnival for Full Enjoyment, and relayed this perception that the police might be preparing for violence, even though the organizers of the demonstration were not planning for violence at all. It was mentioned that if the organizers of the demonstration used the better media contacts compiled via the work of the CSC, that the organizers might be able to better get across their intended goals of the demo, rather than letting the police put across a one-sided unfair picture of violent anarchists, and that this might result in a better outcome at the demo itself if masses of Edinburgh citizens were not scared off by police fear tactics.
The demo organisers did not agree with this perspective, for political reasons and possibly also out of the legitimate fear that the press and or police might personally demonise and likely even arrest anyone associated with the demo that might chose to be pictured in the press. This well founded fear comes from previous experiences of political activists in the UK and around the world, and had also been seen in recent months through the police harassment of one CSC activist in Scotland that had her home searched extensively by police.
The organizers of the Carnival demo said they would not speak to police or the media ahead of the demo. After this, Scottish TV phoned the CSC and said they would report about the police press conference, and that without an interview from someone associated with Dissent!, that they felt their reportage would not be balanced. On the condition that they would be represented as an individual and not a spokesperson for either Dissent! or Dissent Against Work, one individual did an interview with this TV station, which has the most viewed 6pm news program in Scotland.
In the end, this particular interview on June 22 worked well with the police early in the news piece trying to paint a picture of chaotic anarchists, but with the CSC interviewee coming on screen looking like an average person and calling for fun and a carnival atmosphere, making the police warning seem silly. Various Dissent Against Work organisers also commented later that this news piece looked well, and it seemed that in this particular case engagement with the media worked extremely well.
As for the demonstration itself, the police over-reacted and the demonstration did not go as well as was hoped for. Furthermore, the Dissent Against Work organisers had said that for their demo they wanted no engagement with the press, and this wish of the organisers was respected by the CSC, meaning that no one from the CSC contacted the media in any way. However, the media was out in full force for this demo, and in one case dozens of journalists were stuck alongside activists for over three hours in a “kettle”, completely surrounded by police who would let no one out of their enclosure.
In this instance, with encaged journalists having lots of time to seek their “interviews with anarchists” and being turned away by many, one CSC organiser actively sought out individuals they knew to be experienced and well-spoken media activists to give interviews as individuals. This worked rather well, as the alternative can often be that those most willing to give interviews may be young egotistical out-of-town males wearing only black and covering their faces, an image the media likes to portray, but an image that is not accurately representative of protestors or necessarily beneficial to their efforts to build mass movements.
One critique of the organisational efforts of this demo is that aside from leafletting some workers in advance, their were few attempts to reach out to local people via any other communication means aside from posters that contained no contact information and a one-page web-site. The demonstration could have indeed passed of much better if leaflets had been prepared, preliminary lectures had been organised, or a communications strategy had been prepared for the demonstration. Instead, the demonstration was largely prevented from marching to it’s destination on Princes Street, there were no leaflets disributed during the demonstration, and the police were largely allowed to innacurately describe what happened on the day in the absence of an organised media team. This was largely a failure in terms of efforts to communcate a message to the public at large, outside of the relative small number of locals who observed the police violence first hand. (For their own more positive description of how the demonstration went, see this piece from the organizers of the Carnival for Full Enjoyment: http://www.nodeal.org.uk/)
To return to the media team at the rural convergence site, on the 5th of July the media reception tent was full and the phone didn’t stop ringing. Loads of people did interviews and we had all television channels and most British papers. In this hectic environment, we slowly became aware that we had no plan for the following day of blockades. The fact that so many small groups of people were going off blockading raised issues about police brutality and the need to get mainstream media out to blockades that wanted it. As well as that there was the increasing risk that at some point we would be surrounded by police and possibly raided. A two-fold ‘strategy’ emerged from discussion within the media response team onsite….
1:Facilitating media contact with all blockading groups who wanted it.
2: In the eventuality of the site being surrounded/raided by cops we wanted to use media presence as a tactic of defense.
All groups going off blockading took the media telephone number. If and when they wanted they could ring the CSC to give an update on their blockade and trusted journalists would be contacted with information as to where the blockade was. It began to appear by 9am that due to the success and nature of the blockades central Scotland was at a total standstill. Unexpectedly journalists called to inform us of the situation on blockades and actions, many of which we hadn’t heard from. The news at 11am that morning acknowledged that the G8 had been totally disrupted by blockades around central Scotland, the chief of police said that “that highly co-ordinated small groups of thousands of people were springing up everywhere and it was impossible to control.” As well as that people stopped from getting to Auchterader by the blockades and general emerging chaos started spontaneous demonstrations in Edinburgh. We were winning…
The second part of the media ‘strategy’ was how can we use mass media as a defense against actions by the police, if as expected there were attempts to surround and/or enter the site? We felt that the presence of the mainstream media could significantly reduce the possibility of police aggression in the middle of the night. Ironically, several journalists who we’d had good working relations with contacted the rural media response team, alerting us to the fact that the space was almost definitely going to be surrounded. We contacted journalists immediately from the first confirmed sighting of the riot police at the roundabout and they started showing up within 10 minutes.
It’s fair to say that paranoia, exhaustion and negative previous summit experiences collectively gripped the site as a whole and the whole situation took on an entirely unpredictable and fearful nature. There was a moment however on Thursday morning as we were surrounded - something inherently beautiful and amazing in being with people in those intense moments- the sun rising, emergency meetings at 4 in the morning, the constant fag smoking, the fear, the coffee, the looks, the pieces of crumpled paper and then a sense that the people you are going through this with are the most incredible people you’ll ever meet in your life.
At 8am in the morning, two activists were allowed through the police lines to speak to the 20 or so journalists camped on the roundabout. It was the first and last time that the media response team did anything approaching a press conference, and was done so at the request of the horizone folks negotiating with the police. We also felt it was extremely useful for the camp’s safety that we kept the media there as a defense. At around 10.30am the news came through that the bombs had exploded in London and a silence descended. From this point onwards, the media interest dropped dramatically and our moment in the spotlight was over.
Thursday the 7th saw a day when as a network we had never been more confused because it seemed that many statements/press releases were wanted to be put out by groups and individuals who approached the media response team to facilitate this. A fairly difficult moment erupted in the media response tent where a group of people came from a meeting with a statement reached by consensus and then another group came to block that consensus. The CSC had no mandate to interpret unclear decisions so in the end we didn’t act because to do so risked compounding the failures of the meeting where the ambiguity arose.
On July 8th as the summit drew to a close a couple of people did an amazing interview with Radio 5 – saying that the G8 summit had been massively disrupted, that the WTO, IMF, World Bank should all be wiped away, that we were legitimate in our use of civil disobedience and that the issues of climate change and poverty could never be solved by institutions dependant on economic growth. Five minutes later Tony Blair’s G8 summit communiqué ended in embarrassing tatters with a weak communiqué and George Bush heading home early with a sprained wrist after crashing into a copper on his bike. To any rational listener, there were activist voices coherently and rationally arguing our points whilst these ‘leaders’ mumbled and faffed exactly as we had predicted they would just five minutes before.
Suspicion within the network
Whilst this article is written by only a few of those involved with the CSC and can only be said to represent our individual views, it is fair to say that nobody working within the media response group that grew to become the small CSC group harboured any illusions about the nature of the work they were doing. We were attempting to do something that some people were very uncomfortable with and in some cases, had an ideological opposition to.
Although constantly aware of this, we were surprised at some of the hostility from within the network. Some people were dubbed as “media whores,” others were flamed on email lists, and attempts were made to block some members of the collective from using office-space in Edinburgh based on unfounded accusations. There was constant, incendiary and untrue gossip circulated about what we were doing, e.g. that the CSC had issued a press statement on behalf of Dissent! that the network would officially not be disrupting the Make Poverty History march.
In one instance at the eco-village, activists speaking to journalists were screamed at and threatened with physical violence and then had bottles of an unidentified liquid thrown at them from inside the wall. These things were cumulatively very demoralising and there was a genuine concern that people who were involved with CSC would face the sort of political crucifixion of people who have engaged with the media at other mobilizations had experienced. It should be said that these things occurred against a backdrop of many working groups and individuals showing support and appreciation for what we were doing. Undoubtedly one of the main problems was one of trust. How this can be changed is not just a matter of CSC looking at itself but perhaps the network as a whole. One positive outcome was that one of the individuals making some of the most vicious personal attacks later apologized after seeing a well organized Press Conference about police abuse, yet the general issue of acceptance of doing mainstream media work within radical movements still remains.
The pro-active media stance taken by those working within the media response groups meant that journalists had a point of contact with people from within the Dissent! Network. We were able to respond to accusations and police press conferences that sought to criminalize us, do interviews with local Stirling press in response to the ‘riots’ and place some context to the massive amount of misinformation that was being put out by police. Of particular concern were the outrageous allegations that weapons were being seized by people leaving the convergence centre site- camping knives and tent poles hardly constitute weapons but the police were determined to place the camp in the worst light possible. Specifically the BBC and ITN changed their online reports to include unedited comments by activists to explain the ridiculous police accusations. The quick reactions of the media response group managed to curtail some of the worst stories instigated by the police.
Some lessons learnt
· For many who worked within the CSC, and many within the Dissent! network, ‘actively’ ignoring the corporate media is not an effective tactic in the genuine fight for revolutionary change in our societies. The media was not the target per se but the people who get most of their news and info from mainstream media were the true targets of our organisational efforts. Use of the corporate media was seen as another communication tool in our collective toolbox, primarily of collective self-defense but also one of proactively voicing our critiques and contextualising our actions to as many people as possible. Pretty much this effort was based on the work of a small number of people with various degrees of experience and creating a communications infrastructure. They were also often geographically dislocated and somewhat fearful of sticking their heads above the political parapet, but saw media work as an important and valuable work. In the end the media groups were often forced to just respond to issues as they came up. We could have done a great deal more than we did do-we could have gone to police press conferences to counteract misinformation first hand, sent spoof press releases, done News Night et al, worked local media, wrote more articles for mainstream press (as was done successfully in the Guardian) etc.
· We feel that a Dissent! press release/communique on the day of the 6th, explaining the motivations and context for thousands of people wanting to shut down the G8 would have been extremely powerful both politically and for ourselves. However the nature of the Dissent! network structure and reason for being (i.e. the mass mobilisation against the G8) meant that there was little space for formalized political discussion as most focus was upon getting more practical things done. But if we don’t focus our discussions than our attempt to engage with the public and on many levels our entire political reasoning and existence will be interpreted for us by the right wing and liberal corporate press, the police, politicians, and in this particular case G8 Alternatives.
· In many senses the ‘action’ of the media response group for the rural convergence centre started on Tuesday 5th of July and didn’t finish till around 4pm on Friday the 8th of July. The group of people that eventually ended up working in the media response group did not expect to be doing so to the extent that it was. Consequently we lacked a co-ordinated link up with the eco-village decision-making processes. It would have been much better if we had co-ordinated going to logistics, barrio, and site meetings or if Barrios had sent representatives to the twice daily CSC meetings. We could have been organized in a far more effective way had we known then what we know now but what developed was in many ways ad hoc responses to situations.
· The more professional “good” journalists came to the media reception gazebo and waited for interviews. The sensationalist “bad” journalists were already inside gleaning all the biased information they could for the exposes that never happened because of the bombs going of in London.
· In the aftermath of the G8 summit there has been no media working group or responses to media from individuals or groups involved with the Dissent! network. Given that there are still numerous
Questions raised by our experience.
- The corporate media is generally interested in spectacle. Mass mobilisations are in some part about spectacle. How we manage to use this to our benefit is limited only by our imagination, creativity and confidence.
- We as a movement have very limited means of engaging with the population as a whole. Do we want concepts of direct action, non-hierarchical organising, and self and collective empowerment to be meaningful outside of activist ghettos? What are the ways in which this can be achieved?
- When our overwhelming desire is not to recreate power structures of leaders and or representatives within the network, is it simply a matter of trust in activists who want to engage with the corporate media to act in good faith?
- Is this good faith any different than that we show individuals who choose to be street medics, legal observers, cooks or compost toilet builders?
- How can we organize to share skills with others and take individual responsibility, and at the same time find a comfortable degree of specialisation within our movement where we allow some to take on specific tasks while others focus on other projects?
- How do we resolve conflicts when the ideology of some parts of a mobilization are at direct odds with others, such as with the internal conflict about whether or not to work with the corporate media?
It is certainly agreed by people involved in such mass mobilizations as those opposed to the neo-liberal agenda of the G8, that we would like our movements to grow. So the question is how we go about doing this. The authors of this paper are in agreement that use of the mainstream media is one method to reach out to large numbers of people to whom alternative and leftist press is either not readily available, or to those whom may not yet find such methods of communication attractive or interesting or relevant when coming from their present understanding of global political economy.
It should be noted that there are many methods of communicating with people. The most effective forms include face to face communication, and are community based. Other effective forms include leafleting, setting up information stalls in busy public spaces, postering, and holding lectures. Independent media including electronic and print media are also effective, but at the present time most independent media projects reach relatively small numbers of people, and in many cases are already targeted at people who are likely to be currently involved in various activist projects.
However, the authors of this paper feel that mainstream media work is a vital part of the communications mix that must not be left out of large scale mass mobilization organizational efforts. They are also appealing for reaching out to people of varying political perspectives, with the hope or directing them towards our messages and our more independent media sources. If we are to attract large numbers of people to our movements, and to build mass movements with the strength to create a more just and ecologically viable society in the future, then use of the mass media will have to be an integral tool within our communications strategy toolbox.