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Issue #1506      22 June 2011

The importance of the alternative media

Speech given by Anna Pha at a function at the Mori Gallery Sydney to mark the 1500th issue of The Guardian

First I would like to clarify the use of term alternative media which has undergone significant change in usage in the recent period.

It used to refer to non-mainstream or independent media outlets such as the likes of the British Guardian, the Independent, our public broadcaster the ABC. It did not include publications such as The Guardian which is not a publication of a stand-alone media organisation but the organ of a political party. Nor did it normally include newsletters and journals of other organisations and groups. The main source of news and information for the majority of people was the corporate monopolies – the reach of the alternative media was relatively small and overall not so influential.

In recent years, the communications revolution has seen a rapid expansion of new digital media platforms. Previously distinct boundaries have been blurred. Newspapers, for example, have websites, audio, twitters, blogs, etc, which are transmitted through a range of media – phones, tablets, etc. With each new development the corporate media monopolies seek to move in and extend their monopoly control but the internet has made it more difficult. The media has also become far more interactive – not just “letters to the editor”, but real time comments through emails, sms’s etc.

There is an element of democratisation and accessibility that did not exist before as the communications revolution has opened up new opportunities for more voices to be heard, the voices of the people. The cost of internet-based and other digital media has become relatively cheap. The speed and reach of communications has opened up new horizons for trade unions, Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, peace and many other activists and groups. It is being used very effectively to not only disseminate information but as an organising and campaigning tool with some great victories. The concept of alternative media appears now to include all of these sources, including The Guardian.

There is not time to say more on this – but I do want to highlight what they are the alternative to. To the corporate media monopolies – what is often called the “mainstream” media. The likes of News Corp (Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, Advertiser), PBL (Australian Consolidated Press magazines, Nine Network), etc. This monopoly applies to production, distribution as well as ownership.

This so-called “mainstream” or “mass” media promotes the interests of a small minority: it serves the interests of a particular class, the capitalist class.

Ideology and propaganda machine

It is extremely powerful and sophisticated in the way it pushes its ideological agenda. Its content is so highly streamlined and centralised that when the US invades a country or carries out an illegal assassination breaching the sovereignty of another nation state, within minutes, the many corporate media outlets run the same line, the same footage, use the same political spin, the same lies. It is all-pervasive, reaching across the community and extremely convincing when so many outlets run the same line. It can be quite difficult without access to alternative sources of information to fathom what the real situation is.

I’d like to take a couple of examples of the manipulative power of the corporate media. We hear a lot about the evils of the Taliban, but how many people know who originally trained and armed them or for what purpose? When US and NATO forces were bombing Yugoslavia, we got graphic images, demonisation of leaders and lies. Never the role of the West in stirring up racial tensions or an overall picture of the aims of the West in carving up a sovereign state.

Take another example: climate change. Can anyone tell me when the Kyoto Protocol expires?

Answer from someone in the audience: 2012.

Well it doesn’t. That answer illustrates the power of the corporate media. The period of the first round of commitments for emission reductions by the rich, industrialised nations finishes in 2012. Under the provisions of the Protocol a new round of commitments should be implemented in 2013. They should have been finalised at Copenhagen. That is just one example of a lie consistently promulgated by Western politicians and the corporate media monopolies as they cover up the role of the US, British, Canadian, Australian and other governments in trying to smash the Kyoto Protocol. If you believe the media (and government) the Copenhagen conference adopted the Copenhagen Accord. Another lie.

The list of lies and disinformation and even more importantly the lack of information is endless. I am sure everyone here could give many examples.

Wielding power

The constant, consistent barrage of propaganda is effective. In particular it is used to suppress ideas that challenge the capitalist system; that put forward alternatives. Take for example the recent NSW state elections. Labor was on the nose but the only alternative that the media seriously put before the electorate was O’Farrell. The Greens got at best a token run and when the CPA runs it gets very little at all. In the political sphere the corporate media prop up and perpetuate the two-party system.

The “debate” surrounding the carbon tax is in itself another example of how the corporate media divert attention from the key issues. The real discussion on what the government should be doing to address climate change does not get an airing. Instead there is a lot of hot air over compensation and the price of carbon. The Greens, the CPA, the many environmental and other community organisations, scientists and others who recognise the urgency of the situation and have worthwhile policies, at best get a token airing.

The parameters of the debate are narrow and “safe”. The reader or listener is presented with a phoney contest of ideas, while the genuine alternatives necessary to address climate change and challenge corporate power and interests rarely get a mention.

It is the same in how it deals with Gillard’s education revolution – details are debated but the fact it is an agenda to privatise public education is not raised.

A couple more comments on the power of the media: We usually associate adverts with a product that some corporation wants us to buy. But what about BHP ads in a magazine or newspaper? Have you ever bought something from BHP? No. You can’t. BHP is buying influence.

“Axe the tax” mining magnate Gina Reinehart recently spent $300 million buying 10 percent of Ten Network and five percent of Fairfax. Why? I think you can answer that one, midst a struggle over mining taxes and carbon taxes.

Where in the mass media is the debate about privatisation as against a phoney debate on the details of how to privatise?

Where is the voice challenging neo-liberalism and the role of markets? The odd columnist [raises it] but not front page headlines.

The choice of language is another powerful weapon in manipulating the truth. Take the terms: rebel, opposition, guerrilla, terrorist. Each has a different connotation, the use of one term in one struggle and a different term in another struggle is political, and used to win support for or demonise a particular group.

The tendency towards quick 30-second grabs makes it even more difficult to put forward and argue serious, considered alternatives. How do you counter in 30 seconds the populist “Stop the boats”.

Need for alternative

It is imperative that left and progressive voices receive a wide airing beyond activists and other relatively small pockets of the public. There are pressing issues. The world we live in and our planet is in a big mess, to put it politely! A global food crisis, millions denied proper sanitation and safe drinking water, millions dying of preventable disease, wars, the threat of nuclear war, denial of human and democratic rights, millions of displaced persons, economic crisis, mass unemployment, and climate change.

Urgent measures are required to deal with these crises, but Western governments are showing no sign of changing their ways and taking the necessary actions. They protect their investments through the power of their media outlets, by manipulation of the truth and public opinion. At the same time millions of people around the globe, including in Australia are taking action around alternative policies; they believe there could be a better world. But their voices are not reaching the broader public through the corporate monopolies; their calls for action are sidelined, ignored or even ridiculed.

The alternative media has an important role to play in building the people’s struggles, in informing people, offering solutions, showing there is another way, that a better world is possible.

I was asked by a media student recently if I called myself a journalist. I said yes. Her response was that you are not neutral, you put an opinion, that they are taught at the university that journalists are neutral, they convey information. (I doubt she really believed that!) We had an interesting discussion about the political line of the corporate monopolies, the selection of content: which stories are run, what facts are omitted or included, the choice of language, who is interviewed, etc, are highly political.

Just to take the example of Gina, supporting a $30 carbon price would not be a sound career choice for a Ten Network or Fairfax reporter. I said I am not neutral, I am partisan and I try to be as objective as possible. That objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. Neutrality amounts to acceptance and de facto support for the status quo. During Hitler’s time it amounted to appeasement of fascism.

The speed and reach of communications has opened up new horizons for trade unions, Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, peace and many other activists and groups. It is being used very effectively to not only disseminate information but as an organising and campaigning tool.

And this brings me to The Guardian and how it is different to many of the alternative media outlets. Some, such as the public broadcaster, have political limitations placed on them by government or right-wing management, yet still can do a great job such as the recent Four Corners program on the slaughter of cattle in Indonesia. Some are single issue; they take up campaigns, make exposés and provide valuable information. Some are “independent” – their positions on issues might be left, progressive or even conservative on different occasions.

But The Guardian, The Workers’ Weekly, has a sharply defined class position. We proudly and openly admit our class allegiance; we do not hide our support for the working class. While we run with many issues that other alternative media cover, we analyse them from a consistent class perspective. We also attempt to make the links between the different issues, to identify the causes of problems (eg climate warming), and we put forward alternative policies in the interests of the working people and the planet. We give a voice to working people, to Indigenous Australians, to refugees. We set out to inform, educate and politicise our readers, to encourage them to become active, and we strive to support and build left and progressive movements as well building the political alternative.

If real change is to be achieved, if peace and justice are to become a reality, and the planet and human race saved, then the alternative media will need to become mainstream, not confined to pockets of the community.

I want to conclude with the headline from the front page of the Daily Telegraph (02-06-2011): “Disability pensioners outnumber total war wounded” and underneath it in large bold letters: “AN ARMY OF SHIRKERS”. I rest my case. That alone demonstrates the importance of the alternative media and the need for the alternative media – and I refer here to left and progressive media.  

Next article – Call to halt human rights violations in West Papua

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