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Pity George Bush. Once, when asked how he got his information, the US president said: “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff.’ If the news doesn’t please, simply fire the messenger and find one who’ll tell it more to your liking.
Little wonder then that he had trouble figuring out what all the fuss was about after a meeting with “moderates’ in Bali during his whistle-stop tour of Asia in October. For reasons Bush could not quite grasp, his vision of the US as a benign superpower spreading democracy through a reluctant Middle East was received with polite scepticism, even among those nations and leaders he considered allies. “Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?’ he asked one of his aides. “I’ve been saying all along that not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force.’
Even for those of us who cannot afford to pay people to sift and select the news for us, finding out what is really going on in the world is difficult. The issue for the left is not objective sources (what on earth would they be?) but reliable, honest sources that relate to the needs of the many rather than the interests of a few; sources that may not always give us the news we want to hear or views that we agree with, but which provide us not only with a framework for understanding what is happening but also with options for what we might do about it.
This is the strength of alternative newspapers in general and Red Pepper in particular. Over the past decade they have helped create a refuge for those who thought that either the world was going crazy or they were. They have anchored us to a value system rapidly being washed out by the spin cycle of corporate PR and political manipulation. They are keen to spot political trends without wishing to follow political fashion.
And as the dislocation between the political class and popular consciousness becomes increasingly pronounced both in Britain and globally, so the need for alternative media grows exponentially. Britain is a country where the left can produce the largest demonstration in the nation’s history and yet find that neither of the two main parties takes up its cause. We live in a world where not one nation, including the US, supported bombing Iraq without UN approval but the bombing happened anyway.
When Red Pepper was set up in 1994 “alternative’ was used as a synonym for “minority’; as time goes on the word’s meaning becomes increasingly literal. At the same time, Red Pepper is increasingly in step with the majority.
The proliferation of the alternative media through the internet has, to an extent, democratised the means of communication, providing cheaper outlets for left organisations and individuals as well as the capacity to build mass, spontaneous, movements with clicks and sends. From texts to blogs to new websites, the left has managed to exploit new media to confront exploitation. It was the text messages and emails that buzzed around Spain in the wake of the March bombings that explained how the right-wing government in Madrid was lying about the source of the terrorism. Within days that government was out. Similarly, it was the internet that helped create the closest thing we have seen so far to an electoral expression of the anti-war movement: Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In all sorts of ways those who present themselves as mainstream have become marginal and those once dismissed as marginal have more in common with the mainstream.
But as supply has become freer for new media it has become more restrictive for the old. With big chains controlling distribution and display, the chances of smaller, radical magazines making it past their first few months are rare. This financial restraint on our freedom of speech has become a banal fact of life for the left in Britain, but go to the Continent and you’ll see that it is anything but normal.
From the war in Iraq to racism in Britain, and from privatisation to globalisation, the right-wing shift in the political agenda has become so profound and progressive expectations are so lowered that it is, at times, difficult to know how to engage. When Red Pepper was launched Britain was still reeling from the election of one British National Party councillor in London’s East End; today we have around 20 dotted around the country, and the Labour Party regards it as a triumph that there are not more.
We need alternative media to keep debate thriving in print at a time when it is being extinguished in Parliament and elsewhere in the press; we need them to raise the bar of what is regarded as acceptable or desirable, and to challenge the skewed version of “normality’ pumped out by the regular press.
At no point has this been clearer than with the reporting of the Iraq war. Take the toppling of Saddam’s statue. To those who had marketed the bombing of Baghdad as an act of liberation – ie, most of the mainstream press – this was their moment. If they were in search of a symbol for the war, they might have chosen the sight of British and US diplomats leaving the UN shamefaced, having failed to secure international support for it. Or they could have chosen the global outpouring of opposition to the war on 15 February, when I stood next to New Yorkers holding phones to their ears and finding that they were in a global community of millions even if a minority at home.
But they chose the statue, because it told a story of Iraqi self-emancipation that they wanted to convince the world was true. The fact that the pictures had been cropped to make a few dozen men look like a mob and that it conveniently occurred just outside the Sheraton Hotel, where many of the press corps stayed, was left to a handful of regular journalists and the alternative press to broadcast.
One year later, with civilian Iraqi casualties high, no weapons of mass destruction found, Saddam captured and a huge resistance showing signs of uniting Shiah and Sunni in their hatred for the US, the networks and newspapers ask: “What went wrong?’
What went wrong was that the mainstream media wilfully mistook a stage-managed, purely symbolic event for a transformative, substantial one and then sold that interpretation on. Without alternative media challenging not only the premise of the image but also the process by which it came about, many would have been none the wiser.
“Facts speak only when the historian calls on them,’ wrote the historian EH Carr in What Is History? “It is [the historian] who decides which facts to give the floor and in what order or context. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream the Rubicon is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all.’
For “historian’ read “journalist’. What masquerades as objectivity is in fact and always a series of choices, priorities. When in December 2001 Red Pepper placed the available names of the civilians killed by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, it made clear its priorities.
This has been a tough 10 years to keep such priorities in the public domain. But there is a necessary psychological optimism that goes with progressive politics: its culture hinges on the notion that a better world is possible and that a critical mass of people could rise to the challenge of creating it; it is rooted in the belief that there is an essential decency in humanity, which – given sufficient political space, economic resources and cultural capital – can over-ride naked, narrow and short-term self-interest.
The last 10 years have provided the odd glimpse that such optimism has been justified; the WTO demonstrations in Seattle and the establishment of a multiracial democracy in South Africa being just two examples. But the general trend of events, from the evisceration of the Labour party to the election of Bush, has left us on the defensive.
It is in periods like these that an alternative left publication is most difficult to produce. Physically getting it out is a political act in itself. It demands not just commitment, but a mixture of coercion and cajoling to turn high ideals and low funds into a professional product.
But it is also in such times that an alternative, left journal is most vital. Extinguish the flame and there is no torch to pass on in more hopeful times. Lose communication and we are all isolated. Provide a radical filter for world events, an alternative prism through which to examine the world, and you do not just produce a magazine; you help forge and sustain a community of activists and a tradition of resistance.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite