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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.
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