Rod Stoneman discusses the possibilities for more radical and progressive media
You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. It comes from nonconformity – the courage to invent the future.
– Thomas Sankara.
Recently sketching an account of my experiences working in Channel 4 throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, with its bold remit to innovate in the form and content of programmes, has lead me to speculate about the prospects for a return to a wider range of progressive views in the media at present. Those first ten years were a time when British television as a whole was open to more radical voices; a strong left culture had developed since 1968, in a television context it was a period where John Berger presented Ways of Seeing for BBC 2 and Stuart Hall made Karl Marx: The Spectre of Marxism with Thames Television for example. Clearly there has been a cumulative restriction of the range of politics available through public service broadcasting in Britain since then, but it is still necessary to think of ways to rebuild and indeed to surpass the opportunities of the past in the very different context of the present-day. Perhaps some of the guiding principles of the setting-up of the new channel are relevant to progressive change in the media now?
As in the 1970s and 1980s the contemporary resurgence of the Left in British politics has happened in tandem with the growth of a casualised independent film sector: the spread of individuals, workshops and groups have developed the structures of communication and connection and are beginning to enable the more adequate circulation of alternative views. What is lacking is even a partial realisation of the potential of that sector to participate in the industry reaching wider publics through mainstream distribution. Although the industry should not be seen as monolithic or closed there are few outlets for dissenting voices.
Alternative political debate is generated online through Novara and written online outlets Tribune and Jacobin. The Morning Star is the only left paper with a daily presence and is now making an appearance in more supermarkets’ newspaper racks. But we are talking of 10,000 vs the Guardian’s 126,000 and the Sun’s 1.2m.
Meanwhile Momentum has been producing and distributing striking content – a popular audience watched many of its videos during the 2019 election, although that wasn’t enough to counteract mainstream media. The Radical Film Network is a loose association which operates on a pluralist and decentralised basis: over 300 affiliated organisations remain entirely independent and autonomous, while cultivating a renewed sense of community among both activist and experimental filmmakers, bringing political and aesthetic avant-gardes back into dialogue with one another.
The new Left has typically achieved impetus and self-awareness as a movement outside the structures of established political parties or the unions: #metoo, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, have all taken place separately and made forceful interventions with large scale impact. However the absence of an extensive, well-funded institutional space for film and programme making which develops debates within and between these movements is a serious shortcoming. The creation of loose creative alliances of individuals and groups working without a dominant political party needs more sustained media space to develop their impetus into deeper and longer-term hegemony. Despite the moment of severe setback as the shift to the left in the Labour Party has been strategically counteracted, there are signs of regrouping and movement – a relapse is not a collapse and does not have to be permanent.
Furthermore the pandemic has affected the parameters of social change and dynamic in the media. Recent experience of remote working, utilising digital modes for meeting and communication, are part of a reconfiguration of the domestic domain as a space for work, education, creative activity, even self-realisation – a different use of time and relation between people. Individual participation through social media has developed the speedy production of short and witty forms of video.
New technologies offer the possibility of cheap and easily accessed image / sound production. While refuting the implicit exclusions held in the industry’s spurious notion of ‘professionalism’ it is always necessary to think of the audience – to make sure that films made artisanally without budgets can work for viewers used to the expensively made productions that emanate from mainstream media – radical productions made with minimum budgets can hold their own through invention, style and imagination. A reservoir of creative practice is available from new generations emerging from college and university courses – there are large numbers of young people who can work innovatively and make competent programmes.
A crucial underlying change in the way we access the moving image is taking place which creates a timely opportunity for introducing radical media. Although traditional television is fighting to retain dominance in a dispersed market it is now being watched alongside other content in a new non-linear way as, with the notable exceptions of news and sport and live events, new generations access what they want to watch online with divergent timescales.
To state the obvious it is important that a range of approaches to new productions – colour, music, art, comedy – play their part in any radical culture to mix variegated forms of pleasure that reach parts that direct political address cannot. Key to building these media sources is distribution and marketing. Although being on the receiving end of the processes of selection and curation may be painful, they are necessary to choose and mediate the strongest new programmes. The London Film-makers’ Co-operative played an important role amongst the independent film sector in the 1970s and 1980s but its inclusive catalogue (anyone who wished to list films they had made could do so) made it unworkable.
In developing the new technological domain we should be wary of the ferocity and resilience with which the old system defends itself. We see constant reminders in the political sphere, but the formidable power of the economic system also ensures that everything is reproduced in its own image – the idealism at the inception of the world wide web has been reduced to a situation where only Wikipedia, amongst the 10 most popular websites, is a ‘non-profit’ public service. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War unleashed the most virulent forms of neoliberalism including the monetisation and marketisation of education and health.
It has also seen the release of commercial pressure on public service media, releasing market forces which act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and, in the longer term, lead to new, more congenial and conformist film and media configurations. Public service television has reduced bandwidth under market pressure and closed down genuine pluralism in the name of choice. The recent Conservative attacks on the BBC are a not-so-subtle way of reshaping broadcasting in an ideologically more amenable form. However the absolute dominance of the market and neo-liberalist ideas is increasingly challenged on several fronts and recently the proposition of re-nationalising rail, mail and water returned to the agenda.
It is clear that the principles of Radical Pluralism and Direct Speech that were central to early Channel 4 are still relevant starting points from which to approach a very different state of affairs all these decades later. The former involved bringing a wider variety of voices from a progressive spectrum to bear, utilising different forms with different things to say, creating a debate around them. Direct speech was the effort to hear from communities and cultures while minimizing the processes of mediation by ‘television professionals’ from outside. From access programmes made by miners in Wales to African feature films, voices from at home and abroad had their own space. There was a move to shift the balance towards direct speech in all the genres of fiction and documentary – allowing greater access and interactivity.
Clearly there are many urgencies to support organisations and facilities damaged by economic meltdown, but the crisis saw the possibilities of state intervention opening out quickly and in an unprecedented way. The parameters of digital technology, mobilised in the calamity of a pandemic, remote working, non-linear viewing, in tandem with new modes of life and communication, can add to more confident prospects for the Left’s self-representation.
Continued efforts to influence existent broadcasters and help progressive views break into ‘fortress television’ will continue alongside the building of networks that can supersede the current system. The best examples of radical media from previous epochs indicate some of the brave prospects that can be renewed and built upon.
Rod Stoneman was the director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was previously the CEO of the Irish Film Board and a deputy commissioning editor of the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4.