Novara: new media for a different politics

Novara Media are currently fundraising £10,000 to expand their efforts to help transform the media landscape. Andrew Dolan interviewed Novara co-founder Aaron Bastani about new media, insurgent politics and what the future holds for Novara

October 26, 2015 · 13 min read

IMO Bastani

The liberal media are often referred to as ‘gatekeepers’, in that they determine the boundaries of acceptable debate. If they are indeed gatekeepers what is the role of Novara and projects like it?

I think to some extent we do exist to undermine their role, but at the same time we have propositional projects as well. We also want to operate as a pole of attraction and disperse a certain set of ideas, ways of doing things, critiques—we don’t want to be only critical or we will be determined by that.

And the nature of bourgeois media is changing. The liberal media that was paid for through market mechanisms—either through advertising or the consumption of a product—no longer makes sense any more because the cost of information has plummeted. So we have to be very careful who we are criticising when we talk about the liberal media. The bourgeois media now encompasses Al Jazeera, the BBC, Bezos’ Washington Post, Lebedev’s Evening Standard—clearly, liberal media isn’t a very useful term now.

Beyond the failure of traditional business models, is journalism in crisis?

It’s clear that journalists aren’t held in particularly high esteem by the public. In terms of public levels of trust in them, they are marginally above politicians. That said, what digital media has done to journalism has meant investigative journalism is more important than ever. Also, there was a really interesting bit of data out a few weeks ago and it showed a decline in jobs in journalism and an increase in jobs in corporate relations, in public affairs. So if you think of politics, society, economy as a set of information ecologies, I think that what we had 20 years ago with bourgeois journalism is probably better than the clearly propagandistic model we have now, in terms of not just private enterprise but also certain parts of the state apparatus. The Metropolitan Police, for example, has I think 80 press officers.

So yes, there is a crisis of journalism, which is intrinsically linked to a certain technological model of information distribution. Where Novara is trying to situate itself is within the realisation that information in a certain sense wants to be free, but, when you don’t have access to resources, it doesn’t matter if something is free, you still can’t produce it. So, the cost of entry is very low but that’s not necessarily a good thing for historically peripheral actors, working-class organisations and so on.

The concept of ‘networked journalism’ has been used to describe a changing media landscape and the role of the journalist, in that they participate in a collaborative ‘networked practice dependent on sources, commentaries, and feedback, some which are constantly accessible online.’ This often bears little resemblance to traditional journalistic behavioural patterns. Do you think that Jane Merrick’s labelling of yourself as a ‘non-journalist’ comes from the inability of media elites to understand this transformation, especially as it relates to the digital environment?

That’s a perfect way of putting it. There’s a bunch of ways you can define a journalist. Obviously there is membership of the National Union of Journalists, there’s possession of a press pass. Or is it somebody who draws an income from journalism? Do I earn money from content creation? Yes I do, so I think in the strict sense I am a journalist. Why was Merrick so keen to say what she said? I think you are absolutely right. I think it’s a combination of an unease with the particular technological paradigm that we are in, which clearly undermines her social function and which clearly undermines the organisation she works for (the Independent on Sunday).

It was interesting that Merrick cited the fact she has spent 15 of her 17 years in journalism reporting from Westminster, as if proximity to the political elite validates one’s journalistic credentials.

Yes. And lobby journalists are probably the least professional journalists. I’ve had a particular problem with people like Nick Robinson. When he was BBC Political Editor at times he came across like a government press officer, and that fits in to this problematic of fewer journalists and more people in corporate affairs and public relations. Often these lobby journalists seem like the latter.  And maybe that’s to do with with an increasing lack of resources from a weakened revenue model. Often with the demands of a 24-hour news cycle, there will be just four lines from a press release.

How do you understand the relationship between insurgent politics and insurgent media?

I was very sceptical of the power of media to help political outsiders. The first case study is that of the EZLN and the Chiapas uprising in 1994. This was called the first internet uprising by people like Manuel Castells, because they used email to spread their message to favourable journalists and academics. I was never quite sure what that really meant. It’s open for debate. We are still finding out the role of new media in the rise of Syriza. Ditto Podemos. So the case studies are small at the moment. A good place to look is closer to home and the referendum on Scottish independence. Polling a year before the referendum was around 75 per cent against and 25 per cent for leaving the Union. That 25 moved to 45. Now that wasn’t because of the SNP; that was because of a range of politically heterogenous actors, two of which became the biggest blogs in Britain: Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland.

So I think if you were to have something in this country which was to defy the odds politically you’d need a similar set of actors, something like the Radical Independence Campaign, and media actors equivalent to Bella Caledonia or Wings Over Scotland.

Plus there is an interesting moment where a lot of . . . (mainstream outlets) . . . don’t have a revenue model anymore, and don’t really have an audience any more. And you have these insurgents who could probably scale quite successfully. What I am worried about at the moment is that there is probably not enough of us. You would need 15-20 of these actors. Now some will be new like us, some will be older like Red Pepper, and who have adapted really intelligently to the new environment. That said we now have this whole new ecology—Momentum, Corbyn—and there will be a hundred and one projects in the next couple of months. I think things can change very quickly.

If you were in Jeremy Corbyn’s team, would you advocate allocating funds for radical independent media? Do you think this is something the Labour Party needs to do if they are serious about building the counter-hegemony necessary to win power in 2020?

Probably. Although you would prefer it to come from the trade unions. They have more money. They’ve got six and half million members and if you look at the Trade Union Congress (TUC), I think their Youtube Channel has something like 500 subscribers. This is the biggest civil society organisation in the country, they should have a million subscribers.

We often hear that trade unionism is over, state socialism is over. Some of this is obviously true, but why shouldn’t the TUC be producing great content like the RSA—like the David Harvey video. Why isn’t the TUC creating that? And that seems to me to be a perfectly legitimate question. I think the TUC—and this includes individual union branches—should be funding media. I’d say it’s one of the most important things that they can do in the next five years.

Is social media an echo chamber?

It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Clearly social media was completely unrepresentative of what happened in the May General Election. The kind of demographics on social media aren’t really representative of the country as a whole. But at the same time, the only place that was really showing you the margin of the Corbyn win was social media. If you were listening to Michael Crick, Allegra Stratton, even favourable journalists like Owen (Jones) or Paul Mason, you wouldn’t have seen that margin of victory coming. Social media was the only place you could see that happening.

Similar story with Obama in 2008. If you were seeing just how powerful this digital campaign was you’d say to yourself, as statisticians like Nate Silver did: ‘he’s going to win under-35s, he’s going to nail the vote of people of colour, and of women.’ In 2008, the Democrats didn’t just win, they won huge, they won in states the Democrats don’t traditionally win, and you only really knew that through social media.

Beyond acquiring more resources, how do radical media outlets expand their audience beyond traditional constituencies?

Resources go beyond the purely financial. They can be relational, so they can be social capital, especially influence. If Red Pepper is read by fifteen members of the Shadow Cabinet that’s obviously quite useful. I would also say that new media needs to look at the intersection of digital and offline. There needs to be more offline events. I talk frequently about Drinking Liberally in the U.S, a big part of Obama’s victory, which—and here’s a bit of Malcolm Gladwell, although I don’t agree with much of what he says—allowed the weak ties of online interaction to become strong offline ties. What we are doing online, it’s not an echo chamber, but there is a certain truth to the fact that it only really ferments weak ties. There is real potential in leveraging the online for offline events, not just in terms of fundraising, but in making change happen.

I also think people shouldn’t be confined by a certain form. At Novara we’ve got short-form, BuzzFeed style articles but we recognise the power of long-form. If you look at one of the big publications to not just survive but also thrive, it’s the London Review of Books. So there is clearly a massive space for long-form. So we are going to move to one long-form piece a week, which is going to be an agenda setting piece, on the Sunday.

What do the next twelve months hold for Novara Media?

With the fundraising effort we are only trying to raise £10,000, which is negligible. We are also trying to raise £1000 in terms of monthly subscribers—at the moment it’s around £1200 so we’ve done really well. To get £1,500 would be great, and if we could take that to £10,000 then you’ve got a full time organisation funded in a really radically different way.

My suspicion is that if we don’t strike while the iron is hot that £1,500 figure will go down rather than up. So we need to take things to the next level. In the next month there will be video content out by people you’ve not seen before; Eleanor Penny will be doing content on sex work. There will be more videos from James (Butler) and Ash (Sarkar), and like I said there will be long-form content. We’re also looking to hold an event before Christmas.

Hopefully the next 12 months will see us move to a full-time organisation, paying our writers decent money. We want to be offering market rates within two years. Not just because that’s the right thing to do but because to get people that aren’t necessarily heard in the mainstream media, let’s say someone like Aderonke Apata, we can’t ask her write something about Yarl’s Wood unless we can pay her—she hasn’t got time to write for us.

So, the next twelve months is paying our writers on the path to a full-time organisation. We were thinking of doing all that before 2020, but with Corbyn I think our timeframe has to be a lot narrower. Same with people like Red Pepper and all kinds of radical media projects out there. There is the possibility to grow exponentially within the next 18 months. It may or may not happen, but there is the possibility. People could add zeros to their audiences and not just seeing it nudge up, because the appetite is there. I think in England in particular, we are on the cusp of a moment that seems like what Scotland had before the referendum, and that holds huge potential for the left and the left media especially.




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