Culture Matters

Culture Matters

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Friday, 06 May 2022 14:41

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

Published in Books

Gwrthryfel / Uprising takes us on a journey to the heart of Cymru. Edited by Merthyr writer Mike Jenkins, co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine, with artwork by Gus Payne, this ambitious anthology of radical poetry explores Cymru’s history, hardships, rebellions and resistances. The book is sponsored by Merthyr Trades Council, the GMB union, and Left Unity Cymru.

It opens with three poems directly about the 1831 Rising, ‘an extremely significant working-class revolt” according to Professor Gwyn A. Williams. A range of historical and current themes are covered in the anthology, by eighty poets including Kitty Jay, Phil Howells, Malcolm Llywelyn, Rebecca Lowe, Alun Rees, Laura Wainwright, John Williams, and many others. There are also a number of poems in Welsh by renowned poets such as Ifor ap Glyn and Menna Elfyn.

It is an anthology of and for our troubled times.

Here, rebellious poets draw from that common history, common culture, and common desire to speak truth to the world, showing that we, the people of Wales, y werin Gymreig, have the fire of dragons in our words. Through these words the reader is taken from coal mines to political discourse, from coronavirus to historic heroes, from mountains to valleys, through towns, villages and cities. Words dug from mines, hewn from quarries, herded from hillsides and forged from furnaces—here be dragons.

Here are 21st century bards using the ancient magic of poetry to bring home the fight—the fight against imperialism, against injustice, against discrimination. Not just in Cymru, but the world over.

Why? Because an injury to one is an injury to all / un yn dioddef, pawb yn dioddef.

                                                                                              — from the Foreword by Peter Jones

Gwrthryfel / Uprising, An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5. 

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Friday, 06 May 2022 14:38

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

Published in Poetry

Gwrthryfel / Uprising takes us on a journey to the heart of Cymru. Edited by Merthyr writer Mike Jenkins, co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine, with artwork by Gus Payne, this ambitious anthology of radical poetry explores Cymru’s history, hardships, rebellions and resistances. The book is sponsored by Merthyr Trades Council, the GMB union, and Left Unity Cymru.

It opens with three poems directly about the 1831 Rising, ‘an extremely significant working-class revolt” according to Professor Gwyn A. Williams. A range of historical and current themes are covered in the anthology, by eighty poets including Kitty Jay, Phil Howells, Malcolm Llywelyn, Rebecca Lowe, Alun Rees, Laura Wainwright, John Williams, and many others. There are also a number of poems in Welsh by renowned poets such as Ifor ap Glyn and Menna Elfyn.

It is an anthology of and for our troubled times.

Here, rebellious poets draw from that common history, common culture, and common desire to speak truth to the world, showing that we, the people of Wales, y werin Gymreig, have the fire of dragons in our words. Through these words the reader is taken from coal mines to political discourse, from coronavirus to historic heroes, from mountains to valleys, through towns, villages and cities. Words dug from mines, hewn from quarries, herded from hillsides and forged from furnaces—here be dragons.

Here are 21st century bards using the ancient magic of poetry to bring home the fight—the fight against imperialism, against injustice, against discrimination. Not just in Cymru, but the world over.

Why? Because an injury to one is an injury to all / un yn dioddef, pawb yn dioddef.

                                                                                              — from the Foreword by Peter Jones

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5. 

 

Culture For All: Why Theatre Matters
Monday, 18 April 2022 19:14

Culture For All: Why Theatre Matters

Published in Theatre

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why theatre matters, by Ed Edwards

Why Theatre Matters

by Ed Edwards

Like every sector of society over the 30 years since the disastrous rise of Thatcherism and the economic devastation it has brought to Britain, culture has taken a big hit. Ideas that years ago seemed insanely right wing are now considered normal, such as cutting social security to the point where tens of thousands are losing their shelter and people with serious diseases are walking miles to food banks on a daily basis. While the richest increase their income and pay no tax, the rest of us face insecurity and misery.

And while this disaster unfolds the means of communication are getting further and further out of reach of the ordinary people. Lies and deceit are everywhere. The free press, which should probably be called “the very expensive press” based on what they pay Fleet Street hacks, seems more like a pack of attack dogs chewing up truth, while the few sane voices are drowned in the sea of disinformation. It seems to me, after many years working as a professional script writer that our culture has been as badly deformed by the dictates of The Big Dollar as socialist art and culture was under Stalinism. Instead of asking how do we please the censor, a modern TV producer has to ask: how to we make money out of this?

Yet in the middle of all this, British theatre – before lockdown of course – and hopefully again after lock down – has remained something of an oasis in the cultural desert. Rather than sanitised, or frankly stupid entertainment, or glittery distortions and fantasies, theatre has remained a place where audiences can often see work that tells the truth, or explores alternative views and sometimes sticks two fingers up at the system. I’m not talking about the array of musicals here, which have sprung up these last couple of decades, some of which are undoubtedly very entertaining, but which usually aspire to no more than to become billion dollar shows. I’m talking about struggling local theatres and travelling theatre companies, often run by people who are struggling economically and will probably one day have to leave the industry to earn money somehow, somewhere else, but are still for now clinging to the dream of a better life and a better society.

Most of these theatre groups and buildings are funded out of public money. They somehow manage to cling to the notion that our cultural life matters for reasons other than profit making, that truthful words can change the world and that the airing of radical and different views is a vital part of our lives. And yes, you need money to make a show that can enter this realm of debate and feeling – and even ecstasy – but you need a hell of a lot less than you do to make a Netflix show, or a movie, or a billion dollar musical. So somehow, the tradition lives on. Yes theatre struggles to publicise itself, yes a lot of it happens in London, yes some of it is “up itself”, but there’s a lot of amazing theatre out there still all over the country and if you look for it you will find it. Theatre can still turn your world upside down. It can change the life of the young, as it did mine.

I’ve seen fantastically entertaining and moving plays in recent years about child abuse, zero hours contracts and casualisation. About racism, domestic violence, prisons, crime, foreign policy disasters, corruption, immigration, pollution and war. I myself wrote a play called The Political History of Smack and Crack that made the link between the advent of Thatcherism, the 1981 inner city riots that see their fortieth anniversary this year and the massive heroin epidemic that followed in its wake. Sounds heavy, yes? Actually it was a wild comedy that still made people cry at the end.

Make no mistake about it. The pandemic will give the current government a great big excuse to continue their ravenous eternal austerity drive. They have every intention of cutting deeper and deeper into the money they currently pay to every sector and will use every device to divide us against one another. Every penny they cut will go to pay off the billionaires who will use the disaster to continue their takeover of everything. They will say, “How can you expect us to pay for grassroots football, or TV licences for the elderly, or theatre when we’re having to make “tough decisions” like cutting disabled benefits and closing hospitals.

The real truth is there is more than enough out there to go around. They don’t need to cut a thing. All the debts can be paid by collecting due taxes off the corporations that are talking over everything and especially the means of communications – plus a little more on income tax. It’s actually very simple. But the people who control the airwaves would have you believe there isn’t. We have to stand together to protect every inch of ground against those that would tear it out from under our feet.

We have to fight to keep theatre relevant. To let people in who are currently shut out. We have to fight to make work that challenges an increasingly - and I don't know what else to call it - fascistic system.

In fact, I’m going to write a play about this!

 

Culture for All: Why Art Matters
Monday, 18 April 2022 19:08

Culture for All: Why Art Matters

Published in Visual Arts

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about visual art, written by John Molyneux. Image above: Käthe Kollwitz, Tower of Mothers, 1937/1938.

 

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters
Friday, 15 April 2022 09:03

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters

Published in Religion

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about religion, written by James Crossley. 

Why Religion Matters

by James Crossley

Religious ideas have been central to human culture and society for thousands of years. They have been the inspiration behind art, architecture, and epic literature from the Bible to the Qur’an, from Homer’s Odyssey to Icelandic sagas.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with them or not, religious ideas have influenced systems of morality and our very understandings of life and death.

Traditional expressions of religion are still with us. Today, people will experience religious buildings and ceremonies at weddings and funerals—or even when visiting a historic town. But even in twenty-first-century Britain where church attendance is in years long decline, religious-related ideas remain widespread, such as in beliefs in the afterlife, guardian angels, horoscopes, or alternative spiritualities. Many popular sayings in English are from the Bible. Think of ‘eye for an eye’, ‘love thy neighbour’, Good Samaritan, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘cast the first stone’, ‘eat drink and be merry’, ‘writing on the wall’, and many more.

We all know that religion has justified acts of bigotry and even extreme brutality. Even to this day, we only need think of groups like ISIS, American presidents going to war with the enthusiastic backing of Christian fundamentalists, or far right attacks on Muslims on the basis of their religion supposedly being incompatible with the values of a supposedly Christian country.

In this country, the medieval church justified the social hierarchy, class relations, and oppression with reference to God, theology, and the Bible. This has even been updated to be relevant for today’s ruling class—the austerity measures under David Cameron’s governments were justified with reference to a Thatcherite reading of the Bible in favour of charity rather than a strong welfare state. 

Liberatiuon Theology and revolutionary change

But religion has also inspired reactions against the ruling class. Liberation Theology in Latin America emerged in opposition to American imperialism where religion and the interests of workers and peasants has gone hand-in-hand and where priests have even been murdered for taking a stand.

Radical traditions can be found arguably in any religious tradition, particularly when attacking landowners and the wealthy, demanding care for the poorest in society, and providing a community as protection for the individual. These common ideas across religious traditions can be taken not only in reformist directions but used to justify more revolutionary change. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and no doubt many more) have long traditions noting the connections between their teachings and Marxism or socialism—sometimes to the point that they are seen as one and the same thing.

And while religious capitalists preach a gospel of wealth being as a result of hard work and a sign of being blessed by God, religion has simultaneously provided opposition to this fantasy by also being used on the side of the workers. The rise of the labour movement in Britain owed much to Christian and Jewish socialists with their traditions of combatting poverty, homelessness, and deprivation and a hope for a transformed world sometimes labelled a New Jerusalem.

And that religion has been part of the labour movement should be no surprise given our national history where religion has been integral to any number of revolutionary movements. Think, for instance, of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 inspired by ideas from the Bible about social equality and a time when all things would be shared in common. Or think of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the advancements made in democratic thought and visionary ideas of a better future by religious figures from outside the established church.

Religion isn’t automatically good or bad, pro- or anti-worker, revolutionary or reactionary, any more than film or literature are. But it can be all these things because it is an integral part of human culture and society, a shared language.

'Religion is the opium of the people'

Karl Marx got religion right, though maybe not in the way many people think. Marx famously claimed that religion is ‘the opium of the people’. This is popularly understood as an outright attack on religion as manipulation. But if we read the fuller version of the saying we see that Marx knew how complicated religion could be: ‘The wretchedness of religion,’ he stressed, ‘is at once an expression of and protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

This is why even some atheists have embraced the more revolutionary parts of religion as a way of understanding what a better world would look like and how to achieve it. People like William Morris—who had long given up his faith by the time he was active in politics—saw the values of solidarity, community, and pride in work emerging from our shared religious heritage, ideas which should not be lost and could now challenge and help overthrow the uncaring individualism of capitalism. We should not underestimate the appeal of these values in an era when loneliness has thrived as a consequence of contemporary capitalism.

In everyday practices we see the connections made between non-religious and religious people—campaigning on housing, welfare, and poverty regularly involves people from churches and mosques working alongside agnostics and atheists. No matter how their values are personally justified, the reason why such people can work together is that they clearly do have shared beliefs, goals, and concerns about the devastation caused by a class-ridden society.

People from whatever tradition who interpret their religion in such ways—whether committed members of a radical religious community or casual believer—are potentially part of any response to a heartless world as much as agnostics and atheists who likewise want to overturn class oppression. This should not mean accepting any views—reactionary views must be challenged, religious or otherwise. And the labour movement cannot promote this or that religion and will remain central in opposing ongoing imperialist and capitalist versions of religion. But the trade unions and the labour movement are now the main custodians of those inherited and shared values of solidarity and community which will one day transform the world.  

Culture for All: Why Jazz Matters
Monday, 11 April 2022 12:01

Culture for All: Why Jazz Matters

Published in Music

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about jazz written by Chris Searle, with voiceover provided by Mike Quille. 

Why Jazz Matters

by Chris Searle

I grew up in the skiffle and trad era of the 1950s, when the songs and sounds of Southern black Americans and white radicals like Woody Guthrie became almost mainstream. One of my favourites was the Ken Colyer band. Colyer was a merchant seaman who had jumped ship in New Orleans and played his trumpet there, with its finest musicians. His experiences of virtual apartheid in the city and the racist barriers facing his beloved musicians increased his radicalism, and he and his band marched to Aldermaston on giant demonstrations, protesting against nuclear weapons.

Such experiences taught me that jazz and the blues was the music of black working people, and there was no separation between music and ordinary working life. Songs like King Oliver's 'Working Man's Blues', Freddie Keppard's 'Stockyards Strut', Louis Armstrong's 'Coal Cart Blues', Duke Ellington's 'Stevedore Stomp', Bessie Smith's 'Washwoman's Blues' and Clara Smith's 'Strugglin' Woman's Blues' encompassed a world of work, hardship and struggle. The depth of their poetry of sound and word made me realise that this music was about the real world, and the musicians' powerful quest to humanise and improve it.

I listened to the early records of Ellington, and his radicalism and condemnation of Jim Crow racism in works like 'Jump for Joy' or 'Across the Track Blues'. There were also performances like his trumpeter Rex Stewart playing his tune 'Menelik', a compelling protest against the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini's Italian fascists.

I also followed the big band genius Count Basie and heard his expose of Southern racism in his 'It's the Same Old South', or his union with Paul Robeson singing 'King Joe', a 1941 praisesong to another great black boxer, Joe Louis. A parallel consciousness was revealed in the performance of Billie Holiday, who had sung with the Basie Orchestra. When I heard her singing the seethingly angry anti-lynching protest song 'Strange Fruit', accompanied by the trumpeter and Marxist Frankie Newton, it became even clearer that jazz was at the very centre of black people’s political protests.

This continued with musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the great drummer Max Roach, whose records embraced Civil Rights protest and the cry for racial justice. His 1960 album 'We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite', with the sleeve photograph of a group of black activists desegregating a Southern diner, was emblematic of Roach's proud music.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Civil Rights Movement cut a path right through jazz, as dozens of tunes and albums supported and evoked the relentless campaigning. They included

-        Dolphy's excruciating solo on Kurt Weill's 'Alabama Song' on the 1964 Sextet of Orchestra U.S.A. album;

-        trumpeter Blue Mitchell's 'March on Selma' on his 'Down With It!' album of 1965;

-        bassist Charles Mingus’ burlesque 'Fables of Faubus', which lampooned Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who, with members of the National Guard had blocked the entry of nine black children to Central High School, Little Rock;

-        John Coltrane's 'Alabama', from his quartet album 'Live at Birdland', mourned the racist murder of four schoolgirls, blown up in their Birmingham church as they prepared for Sunday School.

Mingus' contemporary, saxophonist Archie Shepp, is another dedicated musical revolutionary. Albums like 'Fire Music', 'On this Night' and 'Attica Blues' of 1972  which included his epochal 'Blues for Brother George Jackson' fused insurgent jazz aspirations and political struggle, often with incendiary vocals:

Rise up you starved and toiling masses
My brothers, sisters all.
We cannot fail, justice is our avenging angel, 
All hail the bird of truth.
Come soon that day
When slaves break their chains,
And the worker's voice resounds.
Give back the valleys, steppes and plains,
They are mine! They are mine!

Shepp's internationalism was echoed in the music of Carla Bley and bassist Charlie Haden, who jointly formed the Liberation Music Orchestra in 1969. They fused Civil Rights anthems with songs from the Spanish Civil War, a praise-tune to Che Guevara, and Ornette Coleman's lament for the children of Vietnam, 'War Orphans'.

Their track 'Circus '68 '69' satirised the Democratic Party congress of 1968, and its support for the war in Vietnam. Successive L.M.O. albums spread out to support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua with Haden's tune 'Sandino', their championing of South Africa's liberation from apartheid with their version of 'Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika', their solidarity with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 with 'Grandola Vila Morena' and the people of El Salvador in 'The Ballad of the Fallen'.

In the sixties many tunes of protest against the war were recorded by jazz musicians. The great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard recorded an entire album memorialising the fallen of the massacred Vietnamese village of My Lai in the astonishing sounds of his suite 'Sing Me a Song Of Songmy'.

While this musical militancy was at the centre of U.S. jazz, in South Africa the music had taken root with new forms and folk genres in the townships. Outstanding musicians like altoist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim developed a powerfully African version of the music, while apartheid forced many conscious and brilliant artistes to become musical refugees.

Now, as I listen to the new generations of jazz musicians, transformed by the ever-growing participation of superb women virtuosi, I hear new human power, democratic intent and revolutionary configurations of sound. In their performances they embrace the issues and struggles of all of us living in the real world, and their music seeks to find creative, radical and humane answers.

I leave it to the words of great music-maker Charlie Haden, writing in the sleeve notes of the first Liberation Music Orchestra album of 1969:

This music is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing; without poverty and exploitation. We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people's lives.

Jazz is real music about real life: that’s why jazz matters.

Culture Matters Presents: The Cry of the Poor and William Blake at the Bridge Hotel
Monday, 11 April 2022 11:32

Culture Matters Presents: The Cry of the Poor and William Blake at the Bridge Hotel

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters, in association with Orbis Community, Gateshead, are delighted to invite you to a special North East reading of The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty on Saturday the 16th of April at 6pm, at Orbis Community, Unit 9, West Street, Gateshead. The event is hosted by the editor, Fran Lock, and features readings from a number of contributors, local and national.

We will also be joined for this special Easter event by readers from our sister anthology William Blake at the Bridge Hotel: Ten Newcastle Poets, edited by Paul Summers. Among the diverse talents sharing their work will be: Sarah Barrington, Jane Burn, Nev Clay, Julie Easley, Peter Godfrey, Catherine Graham, Al Hutchins, Victoria Nimmo, P.V. Tims, with more to confirmed.

The Cry of the Poor contains work from over one hundred writers and artists, responding with urgency and vigour to the cry of the poor. This anthology of writing is about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. It is a little space for voices and experiences not often heard within contemporary literature. There is mourning, pain, protest, anger and celebration — a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

William Blake at the Bridge Hotel presents ten writers who are diverse in style but unified by generation, politics and class. Their visions of the city and its people represent a fascinating but fraught socio-cultural moment, a time of transition from industry and post-industry, perhaps even a transition from lumpen and often romantic representations of the North East to a more nuanced and complex reality.

The event is free, but both anthologies will be for sale at the event, and all donations will be gratefully received. All money taken will go to fund our publishing operations and towards our broad left struggle for a fairer society.

Everyone is welcome and we hope to see you there! In line with Covid safety guidance, please wear your mask, unless medically exempt. For updates, see our events page here.

Culture for All: Why Football Matters
Friday, 08 April 2022 13:12

Culture for All: Why Football Matters

Published in Sport

Next up in our series of short films about culture and cultural democracy is a film by Martin Cloake on football, followed by the text of his talk

Football is the great passion for so many of us. Going to the match is an escape, a chance to be a part of a community, a connection with memories and traditions and people we value. And, despite the efforts of some, it’s still a game where the outcome isn’t known in advance. It’s the hope that gets you, as we always say.

We need to value it more, this thing of ours. Because it is still ours, however much the modern game seems bent out of shape. We worry that it’s a business, but it became a business largely to make sure it was accessible to ordinary people. If players weren’t paid, the only people who could play when the game was first being established were those who could afford not to be paid. Gentleman amateurs not paid professionals.

Football and Progressive Politics

I’ve always thought football illustrates one of the key challenges for progressive politics. We worry about the making of money when we should worry more about what is done with the money we make. It’s the fans who save clubs when business interests give up on them, because fans realise the true value of the business. The disconnect comes when the business becomes just about making money, rather than about making money to make a better business.

But why do we talk so much about feeling a lack of connection? It’s because we still value the game, our clubs, the feelings the activity of going to the match generates. It’s a spectator sport, but one of the things we value most is the physical participation in the spectacle. Being there is important. And people being there is important to the ‘product’ that is sold on TV. The crowd plays a bigger part in football than any other sport.

Football without fans is nothing has become a bit of a cliché. But we’ve recently seen that games played in front of empty stands don’t provide the same quality of product. Fans count. We play our part. We need to assert ourselves more.

The clubs we built can be bought and sold by anyone who claims to have the money. And once they have bought in, club owners are under no obligation to retain the colours, the badge, the name or even the club’s location. They take business decisions designed to get rich quick, and then blame the fans for wanting success too fast when it goes wrong. And when it goes wrong, it’s the fans who are left to sort it out.

The worst thing we can do is accept that football is just another product. The fact that the culture we created is used so often to sell the game we made back to us shows that those doing the selling recognise the power we have.

Our game is too important to be left to business interests to buy and sell like a product on a shelf. It’s too important to be left unregulated and unprotected. We need to preserve the integrity of competition in the face of business interests that want to guarantee success. We need to recognise that clubs are the products of communities and what community means today. We need to cherish and defend the health of the collective game, to recognise that while our clubs compete there is a common interest in every club thriving. We need to harness the power of the game to bring people together and achieve good things.

Cultural democracy in football

Above all, we need to see ourselves as active participants. Get involved in your club supporters' group. Believe you have a right to question and hold accountable the people who make decisions. Make good football governance an issue that our Members of Parliament take seriously. Believe you have the right and the ability to influence the way the game we created is run.

You can trace a social, economic and political history of our country by reading the names of its football clubs. That’s part of the reason the game is so embedded. It’s part of what we are. And it gives us a chance to express our identity and our ingenuity.

Football was once described as the most important of the unimportant things. And it is. It’s easy not to love much of what the game has become, but the fact that you’re still watching this five minutes after I said the word football says something. Our game means something to us, because it’s still the people’s game.

Culture for All
Wednesday, 23 March 2022 16:17

Culture for All

Published in Cultural Commentary

Over the last year Culture Matters has been commissioning a series of short films about cultural democracy, called culture for all. The films cover a range of cultural topics, including the arts like poetry, film, theatre and music, and also other cultural activities like sport, religion, the media and videogames. The films were made by Carl Joyce and Mike Quille, with the support of the Communication Workers Union. We will be uploading them onto our website over the next few weeks, together with the text of the talk.

Here is the introductory video......

....and here is a video on the media, by Professor Natalie Fenton, followed by the text of her talk. 

Why the Media Matters

By Natalie Fenton

 We live in a society full of information and entertainment, coming at us from all kinds of media. The TV we watch, the radio we listen to, the newspapers we read, the content we consume online, are a crucial part of our daily lives. From watching ‘Strictly’ to getting our daily diet of news, our media are a source of pleasure as well as a means of education and information.

The media we consume stimulate conversations and provide collective experiences – from the televising of the football or the Olympics – to gaining knowledge about the Coronavirus Pandemic – to figuring out who to vote for and how we build our own identities. The very ideas and concepts that people use to make sense of an increasingly confusing world are to some extent dependent on the images and frameworks offered by the media.

So it matters who owns, controls and produces this content. It matters how messages are communicated and the sorts of values, beliefs and forms of understanding that the media promote at any one time. It matters which voices are excluded to the preference of others; who or what is marginalised or misrepresented; which sets of ideas are prioritised and which are neglected.

Ownership of newspapers is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires. Newspapers continue to set the news agenda of the nation yet just 3 companies dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, DMG Media and Reach. Concentration of ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations amass huge political, economic and cultural power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.

The same happens online. Our digital media space is dominated by a few unregulated tech companies and social media platforms. Apple is the first trillion-dollar company in history. Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of Amazon, is the richest person in history. In 2018 his net wealth increased by $400 million a day. These corporations – the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon – form the largest oligopolies the world has ever seen.

They exist to make money out of advertising – they seduce us onto their platforms, monitor our behaviour and then sell that information back to advertisers so that they can target their goods more precisely. These tech giants exercise considerable gatekeeping power over how UK audiences discover, access and consume media content constantly adjusting their search algorithms to maximise their advertising revenue. And although some independent media are flourishing online, their business models are precarious and their audiences tiny compared to legacy national media like the Mailonline, that benefit from algorithms that prioritise well-known brands. 

The BBC is still a powerful presence, but a decade of funding freezes has kept its budget far below that of its immediate domestic and international competitors. Over the last 3 decades its independence from government has also been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. Boris Johnson is threatening further cuts to its funding, and suggesting he might sell off Channel 4. So unsurprisingly, the editorial culture of the BBC has become increasingly Conservative.

And two rival news channels – GB News and News UK TV (from the owners of the Sun, The Times and Times Radio) – will launch soon. Murdoch’s move back into British TV will only increase his already tremendous power over UK politics.

This is bad news for democracy. Major shocks like the coronavirus pandemic have made it clearer than ever how much we need public media – accountable media institutions, run in the public interest, which help a divided society talk to each other and hold the powerful to account. ‘Public media’ are media institutions that act in the public interest, rather than the interests of politicians and governments, billionaire owners or powerful corporations. In the UK today, public media are the best of public broadcasting, as well as independent media cooperatives and democratically-run community media.

Public media are essential to a functioning democracy, and for facing the huge challenges of the 21st century. Our current media system is very far from this ideal, which is why we have to fight for change and for cultural democracy in the media. One vital area for change is access to the internet. 11% of the UK population still does not have access to the internet at home – that’s 7.5m people – more than the combined population of the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Nottingham.

Many do not have the appropriate device, quality of connection or required skills to make use of digital technologies and services. Digital exclusion extends to all of life – access to work, quality of education, availability of healthcare, costs of goods and services and the ability to connect with loved ones as well as voice, information and political participation.

Studies also show that the varying forms of political participation online correlate to social class and educational achievement. In other words, although half of the world may now be online, those using the internet for political purposes are still largely middle-class and well educated.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to lobby government for regular media plurality reviews that will ensure plurality of media ownership and redress existing concentrations to deliver a rich mix of media at both local and national level.

Ensuring plurality also means ensuring our media serve a more diverse set of interests. So we need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as co-operatives and employee buyouts that promote equality and financial security over shareholder returns through offering tax relief and direct subsidies for media that function in the public interest and not for profit.

Social media and other fundamental media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google need to be brought under public ownership and control, in various national and international ways.

We need our media to be fully accountable to the public they serve through independent and effective regulation so they can no longer be discriminatory and cause harm.

We need to ensure equality of access to careers in the media for working-class people, women, people of colour and others who are systematically excluded from sustainable, satisfying careers in TV and broadcasting, newspapers and publishing as well as online provision.

We need to ensure equal and fair representation of working-class people, women and people of colour and others who have historically been under-represented and unfairly represented in the media.

We need a more democratic, diverse and devolved public service broadcasting that is fully independent of government and fully representative of all UK citizens.

And we need free broadband for all.

We need these changes now – there can be no meaningful democracy without media reform.

The Media Democracy Festival is on Saturday 26th March, see here.

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