I’d always been cynical about left magazines – their predictability, their alienatingly dogmatic vocabulary and the fact that they normally came with a subscription form to a political party. But this one was different. It featured an investigative piece on the (as yet unnamed) successor to Railtrack and a feminist take on US foreign policy. It profiled Labour against the war without being Labourist, and included a call for a more democratic and inclusive Stop the War movement. In short, it made me want to read more.
Two years on, I wrote my first article for the magazine, a small news item about the November 2003 European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris. I was still inspired by the slogan, which wasn’t then a cliché, that ‘another world is possible’. And while the reality of those forums was often messy, repetitive, and convoluted, they were also an inspirational space for practical networking, a place in which the fluidity of a ‘movement of movements’ touched the ground and became visible.
Red Pepper provided me with a monthly dose of reflections on war and global justice activism, as well as regular injections of thoughtful writing on participatory democracy, public services and civil liberties. I hope that it continues to provide those staples, as well as being fuelled by a radical pluralism, an ethics of how we can challenge and improve ourselves through encounters with others.
This has to be an active process, rather than assuming that a static set of interest groups should accommodate, or succumb to, each other’s worst prejudices. That doesn’t mean integration, in the sense of assimilation to one model of a dominant culture, but implies instead the need ‘to mix, to be selective, and to promote the critical mind’, as Tariq Ramadan – the influential Muslim scholar, told me in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, in an interview for my first issue as co-editor. The response to the recent attempted bombings in London and Glasgow was a forceful reminder that these lessons are still sorely needed.
Anti-war, global and pluralist: these were among the best traditions of Red Pepper as I found it. As we prepare to launch a new format, I trust that they will continue to provide a strong framework of values around which the magazine is oriented. But a magazine is not a bible, and nor is it manifesto.
Having principles shouldn’t mean predictability, or a comforting re-assurance of the left’s own rightness.
Red Pepper, like other left magazines, sometimes falls into these traps. That is something I hope we can improve upon – not in the sense of contrarianism or shock tactics, but in uncovering – through a variety of voices – the diversity of practices that give life to these principles. At the same time, we need to develop a serious analysis of the impediments to their being achieved – be they in the spheres of high politics, or in the politics of the everyday and the predominant mediums of culture.
Why do we need a magazine to do this? Well, for one reason, the bewildering array of information available today is no substitute for real knowledge: thoughtful, consistent and ‘situated’ reflections or reportage. The job of an editor – and of a magazine like Red Pepper – is to filter and help interpret. This can mean providing a level of detail about Iraq’s oil laws, Bolivia’s constitutional process or the situation of Yarl’s Wood inmates that it is hard to find in the mainstream press. But if these matters are under-reported, there are still other, well-worn stories whose implications become illegible under the ‘noise’ of media chatter.
For instance, the UN’s millennium development goals promise to halve the number of people without sustainable access to water and basic sanitation by 2015. Yet the private water companies promoted by the World Bank, IMF and regional development banks make just 900 new water connections per day – falling some way short of the 270,000 per day new connections needed to reach this goal. Or, to cite just one more example, the first round of the EU’s ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading scheme, which the British government advocates as a model for reducing climate change, has resulted in a windfall for polluting companies. The ‘caps’, meanwhile, were subject to so much corporate lobbying that they forced no emissions reductions at all.
These examples are not arbitarary. When it comes to reporting on trade and development issues, the best coverage is often in the business press and comes laden with pro-market assumptions that Red Pepper has a role in decoding. In the case of climate change, an explosion of coverage since we first launched our ‘Temperature Gauge’ column in May 2004 has yet to be matched by a proliferation of serious economic and political analysis of the proposed solutions.
The rush to biofuels (or what are better termed ‘agrofuels’) is only the latest example of this, where the promise of a new, greener fuel source is out of kilter with the actual environmental and economic impact. Recent studies have shown that the wave of fuel plantations across the global South is likely to accelerate climate change by intensifying the use of nitrous oxides, draining peatlands and deforestation. The impact on food prices is even more severe, and could lead to ‘hundreds of thousands’ dying from hunger, according to Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food.
The EU is central to this expansion, as it is to much of the trade and investment policymaking that gives globalisation its ‘bite’. Yet its impact, whether internationally or domestically, is often downplayed. The British left often finds it easier to lob bricks at the US than unpick the barriers to genuine human development that the EU is building in the world. In fact, there remains a stark absence of good, critical journalism about the EU across the whole political spectrum.
A report by the German ministry of justice found that, between 1998 and 2004, around 80 per cent of the 23,167 legislative acts adopted in Germany originated at EU level. And while the proportion differs from country to country, the figure is well over half in every EU state, including the UK. Yet for all its headline ‘Euro-scepticism’, the British press does little to report on these processes, or reflect upon the fact that the obscure, inter-governmental processes and behind-the-scenes dealings that result in these laws are hollowing-out our democracy. This is not a matter of being anti-Europe, but of recognising the centrality of the EU to politics and the economy, and debating more fully the kind of Europe that we want. Red Pepper can play a modest role here, as it can in reporting upon the political, economic and cultural contexts of the new forms of political action that are emerging elsewhere on the continent.
Alongside these good intentions comes an admission. I have generally found our cultural coverage lacking. As we have discussed ways to improve the magazine, and sought feedback on it, I find that I’m not alone. Too often, we can get caught in a trap of what one contributor called the Fishing News approach to culture. Sent off to review the latest Hollywood blockbusters, that paper’s fictitious correspondent consistently bemoans the lack of plotlines about fishing.
In creating a more readable publication, we aim to break with this approach and give far more scope to covering the vibrant arts scene that currently passes beneath the radar of all but the specialist publications in music, theatre and visual arts. We’ll also try to provide far better critical reflections on trends in popular culture, whether those involve the next generation of web TV or the re-politicisation of hip-hop. We may even have the odd article about fishing.