Tom Jennings’ 1992 essay on current affairs media and their coverage of urban riots
A Hall of Mirrors: Television News and Social Reality by Tom Jennings
Television is generally agreed to be the most powerful way of producing cultural commodities in developed capitalist societies. Mixing information and entertainment on a mass and popular scale, it confronts us in our homes - the heart of our everyday lives. Knowledge from TV is said to represent the benchmark against which all purported 'truth' is measured, where all social life is mirrored in current affairs, drama, sport, comedy and soap opera. Since production costs are so high, and control and ownership of the means of production and distribution so concentrated, its position in new communications and service industry economic sectors is crucial. Finally, it stands at the centre of liberal democracy's propaganda output. This chapter describes television news, explaining how its truth claims produce and mask its effectiveness as a prime site for justifying the status quo. The work of TV current affairs is illustrated matching a description of a news item with an oppositional version of the story. How current affairs coverage follows up the headlines, producing elaborate or 'alternative' readings, is discussed in relation to cultural aspects of the events. Implications of the production of news as culture are used to find ways to resist and oppose the dominant meanings of TV.
I. The Electric Current
Current affairs is the lynchpin of TVs informational role, proving its 'social responsibility', and offering a 'service' to democracy. Its status in the TV hierarchy comes from its presumed independent, objective, neutral role of informing us of events in the public sphere. Its institutional and educational weight leads government to see it as a cornerstone of developed capitalist society. Television news is an expensive commodity, and highly skilled teams churn out fresh streams of real life coverage every day. To justify its cost and be profitable it has to be popular, meaning that in turn, it must produce an audience. Central to scheduling, it has to link with other programmes, particularly in prime time early evening (Gitlin 1983). Main News human interest items and regional magazines soften viewers up, and documentary and minority features follow, bringing the rest of the schedule into a relationship with the headlines. Current affairs offers itself as a window on the world, giving an accurate overview of significant events. It pretends to look factually at reality and natural events of the world, leading to discussion and debate aiming to make sense of the world. Set apart from fiction or entertainment it feeds off common-sense everyday descriptions we use to view the world, reliably underpinning institutional values. Watching News and current affairs programmes is supposed to give us a thorough view of the world and adequate tools to understand it - while validating the status quo.
The authentic, realistic impressions, nowness and liveness bolster the news' claim of objectivity. This masks the extent of construction, selection and interpretation work within the news. Speed, immediacy, rushed tones, live footage and satellite film - all imply no editing. It seems to show events 'as they happen'. Of course the speed hides the enormous expense of technology. The News also hides its authors, apparently reflecting what happens without anyone shaping it. It tries to impose order on the world, to contain the immense diversity of meanings and experiences that life really entails. These are processed into manageable chunks - encompassing the whole of serious reality in the public domain into a few slots in a twenty minute bulletin. The News has to make itself credible as a guide to important happenings, and, symbolically, showing that as a representative of the status quo, that it can manage it, think about it, deal with it, and resolve its problems. The treatment of each event has to result in closure - a resolution saying that everything will be all right - 'we can handle it'. News is produced and processed in this way to fit conventional wisdom, authorities, capitalism and liberal democracy. The usual strategies governing TV News allow it to be persuasive in being 'real' (not imaginative) while making it popular using cultural practices of creating meaning and pleasure (imaginative). It also hides its grounding in social power - dominant groups use TV news to promote their interests. The intrinsic 'quality' makes the ideological nature of TV appear natural - the realism (when effective) of the news makes it look like significant truths about events and people are being transmitted onto our screens without anyone actually doing it.
How is this brainwashing supposed to be achieved? TV news is highly structured. Conventions bring order to a chaos of possible treatment of all that goes on in the world. News is segmented twice: into blocks of time (usually per 24 hours); and into short, dramatic news items. Then various strategies are applied to the form and content of stories. From the traditions of print news, a story is introduced parading its most shocking elements, which may be exaggerated to grab the attention better, stressing unexpected, sudden events, and the on-the-spot News treatment. Stories are grouped into categories (columns) which combine events having a 'common sense' similarity, so viewers can recognise which part of the world is concerned. Compartmentalised, issues appear split from each other, and wider social structures escape criticism. Some links may thus be avoided assiduously - for example, riots are linked to domestic law and order, not to the economy or industrial struggle, and never to civil unrest abroad. If a subject resists categorisation too strongly it will be treated as an entirely separate column, as in British news coverage of Ireland.
News items are selected to suit categorisation. Events must have just happened or be happening now. Other developments are brought in to bolster its 'nowness'. Utterances from elites, experts and leaders already limit the random chaos of the world to the relevance and relationship of events to people representative of the status quo. Stars and personalities are a more subtle method of doing this, where the success of individuals within the system stands for the success of the system itself. Those without status are left as anonymous groups, or roles, filled by a forgettable witness, victim or spokesperson. In this way the public world of real life is peopled by known high status individuals who persist across time - while those associated with the problem (the reason the story is newsworthy) are shown as demanding or needy in ways only the elites can deal with.
Newsworthy items are often negative, unusual, surprising - implying that the routines of normal life (not reported) otherwise proceed smoothly, predictably, controllably and positively. When a story is dropped, the peaceful, positive routine of normal life is assumed to have returned. Worse, the measures, policies, or analyses used by elites in the reportage are assumed to have helped to solve the problem. Because coverage is short term and hysterical, badness ends up looking like it gets solved quickly. The abnormality of the news reflects what dominant sectors see as all of our values, as the nature of society. Poor countries are repositories of famine, unrest and corruption (implying that Western societies provide everyone with the basics and are fair, stable and equitable). Social, economic and law and order problems are only technical matters. Administrative efficiency can solve them, using government, police and business positions and discourses. The shock of newsworthy events is misleading, representing an unruly, but controllable reality. Stories pre-exist in the News, already written, awaiting events and local details. As a commodity, News needs a certain blend of stories. Its structure determines which few out of infinite possibilities will be covered, and how.
But within the structure of the tidy and comfortable News, the outside social environment keeps leaking in - it has to in order to be convincing. In every story, diversity (not homogeneity), complexity (not simplicity), messiness (not tidiness), intractability (not resolvable), vested interests (not neutrality), partiality (not comprehensiveness), the artificiality of reportage (not authenticity), contradictions and conflict (not smooth or neatly fitting), differences and similarities not catered for by selection and categorisation - these inconvenient aspects of life come through. The news keeps its bourgeois grip by putting to work in the way stories are run various strategies to contain and limit meaning. Preferred readings, in a hierarchy of discourses, operate so only some kinds of description, interpretation and explanation are shown as applicable and useful (MacCabe 1976). Views of those standing for the dominant ideology are transmitted as passive, impersonal, objective: expressing universal, incontrovertible facts. Those who may, deliberately or not, undermine this are shown as emotional, opinionated, having chosen their actions (and hence could choose differently). So British news coverage of industrial disputes has union officials making 'demands' - workers are seen as childish and unrealistic, or even as enemies of democratic society. Management make 'offers', describing unchallengeable business reality, reproduced and reinforced by experts and News teams as general social reality (Glasgow University Media Group, 1976, 1980, 1984). The New Realism in trade unions and the Labour Party could be seen as an assimilation into this discourse, agreeing that change must occur within these limits. Ordinary people are incorporated into the flow of the story - material to be processed by the objectivity of elites, experts and leaders. The closure of the story favours a solution fitting the dominant ideology, and oppositional voices are used only for inoculating the healthy dominant discourse. Little room is left for alternative meanings.
The sequence of events in the studio orchestrates these strategies. News professionals represent orthodoxy, but pretend to be like viewers trying to make sense of the story. The newsreader introduces the item, anchors footage, reportage and interpretation - knitting it together with a safe conclusion. The rhetoric leads us to identify with the newsreader guiding us through the maze of reality, and drawing our conclusions for us. The reporter as institutional individual mediates between raw action and truth as spoken by the newsreader - and is deferential towards elites rather than ordinary people. Live action, witnesses and real people with something at stake - who could upset the flow - are cut, edited and inserted into the story. Snippets of the real world provide authentication for the whole process, hiding the selection, categorisatlon, editing and telling of the story. The speed and immediacy of transmission make it look like we really see it as it happens, with no re-working or editing. But the conventional structure and strategies into which the action is dropped make sure this isn't so. Most pieces of live footage and interviews are heavily edited - making them simple, direct and uncontradictory - and may be simply untrue (e.g. when archive footage is used or an elite person's words sewn together to appear smooth). The world is tamed into a punchy sequence: newsreader's intro; live action; reportage; ordinary person; elite person; newsreader's conclusion. News objectivity sees the dominant bourgeois point of view emerging 'naturally', but actually this is constructed by the operation of its conventions. Accusations of 'bias' support the dominant ideology, by assuming that if the content was changed, the news would be more accurate.
The essence of News effectiveness is its realism - that the stories selected and the way they are shown give an accurate view of reality. This warns us (as does calling news items 'stories') that fiction is created, rather than objective descriptions of events. But the News conventions are so hackneyed that they are cliches. Unfamiliar or confusing events are brought into the world of common-sense everyday conversation, made to seem 'obvious'. Translating explanations into metaphors of war, economics, sport and drama also brings meanings into normal limits in a context of personalising events - the newsreader/reporter/expert cast, plus focusing on individuals - the social world is to be understood by viewing personal conflicts and relationships. The narrative moves from peace to disruption. Extracts of real-life illustrate forces at work, before the return to the original state. Who is allowed to speak and what they may say is restricted. Threats to the status quo are neutralised by insertion into the narrative. If many voices are justified opposing the dominant ideology, only a few are allowed. Heroes, helpers and those in support of the authoritative line are enlisted to prove that dominant explanations are widely held. Roles of subversive, enemy, criminal and victim are heavily typecast, so they have no effect on the story except what is written in already. The diverse, complex contradictions of life are avoided by fictional methods operating as fail-safe mechanisms in case opposing meanings filter through the structure of the news. Television news 'fictions' reality to make the meanings produced seem natural and realistic. It imposes the arguments of and represents the interests of those with power, which thus also appear as natural, realistic and universal.
News stories are followed up with documentary features, magazines, regional or local programmes and minority interest slots. Recently television has become more confident as a social institution in its own right. So, a new genre of television programme analyses the news itself - first concentrating on intellectual comment, then augmented by viewer feedback (also fulfilling the requirement to give viewers access to criticism of television). Current affairs is packaged within the company's repertoire of programmes. However, the tone and focus of News headlines decisively shape the entire TV treatment of a topic. This is partly because TV and newspaper lead stories compete with each other for attention, and television can't afford to let the papers get ahead. All TV current affairs stories are placed first in a close relation to the headlines, so as to give the subsidiary coverage more contemporary relevance. Looking at coverage of a single news item, we can see which of many possible meanings were encouraged and allowed to flourish, and what the effects of current affairs emphasis might be.
II. A Gulf on the Home Front: TV and Urban Riots
Urban riots in 1991 again showed working class youth refusing to accept their lot. We were told local problems led to the disturbances - fouling our own nests in orgies of destruction. Liberals squabble over the real causes, the Right know we are dirty animals - all unite in calling for more, better policing. The 80s idea of outside influences helped the police mobilise nationally in time for the Miners' Strike. Now they emphasise local factors, but 1991 was characterised by youth travelling from nearby areas to have a go, knowing the crack without help from the media. They ignored the growth of a culture aware of the malign realities of modern policing and prepared to fight back collectively. Riots followed intense police harassment claiming to fight drugs, armed robbery, joyriding and ramraiding. 'Community' policing is the agenda - more helicopters, personnel, neighbourhood narks - the run-up to a General Election is a good time to play the law and order card. Media and other professionals agree - they may be targets, and riots hit the material basis of their power. Local voices are heard only if they fit their discourses and solutions.
Coverage of Tyneside showed dramatic midnight war-zones, buildings ablaze; police, reporters, fire engines attacked; hordes of malevolent youth; a narrative of criminality and random violence. It only counted as rioting if cameras were there, so Meadowell (North Shields), and West Newcastle got the headlines. A pattern across the region was reduced to 'isolated' incidents elsewhere. Crime was set against amoral evil values, with small doses of welfare charitability. On TV, with various Ministers (government / shadow / religious), and in debates in council chambers and newspaper letter pages, the issues resolved into beating car crime and brow- and breast-beating about the state of society and the need for more intervention and punishment (Hall et al 1978). This led away from the experiences of millions in thousands of decaying council estates and run-down landlorded neighbourhoods. Once portrayed as vulnerable, they are now seen as the source of evil itself. In fact these events are going on all the time - except not all at once, with most of Northern England's riot squads in attendance, on camera. Most destruction is down to local developers and authorities, and the police presence is always enthusiastically hostile. If it wasn't for violence turned inward to the family, burglary, habitual white racism - it may actually feel safer in the zones where the police are reluctant to go. But they get their revenge, coming in force after riots lifting kids, youths, anyone local narks finger, those with priors; fabricating evidence to turn gossip into jail, 'sus' into fact. It's not bias, it's a different world. The media speak to those concerned that their cars don't get nicked, building a 'them and us' worldview.
Residents of 'problem' estates are stereotyped: good, respectable victims, to be patronised/recruited; bad, uncooperative, alienated, parentally-deprived, needing heavy handed discipline/training schemes; and ugly, no-hope, antisocial, violent criminals, to be stamped on. Sir Stanley Bailey, Northumbria Police Chief, philosophically analysed the situation, stressing that it wasn't just ramraiders and joyriders (they're just the worst of a bad lot). On Channel 4's Right to Reply (Sept. 28th, 1991) he cheerfully counterposed young rioters with school-kids altruistically clearing rubbish - so easy to overlook the latter. Underclass myths are handy for projection of society's ills. Nurtured in rank and file police ideology, they are always subject to slippage of categories - young working class and black people can be seen as 'animals'. Certain 'men and women in the street' add hating, vengeful rantings on TV, making experts and leaders sound positively benign. It becomes unthinkable that Bailey's daytime primary school ecological volunteers and the devil-eyed miniature Molotov cocktail waiters after dark are one and the same, as on Tyneside. Is this the end of all hope? Is it worth encouraging the 'good' in the lower reaches of our 'classless society'? It seems not. Ghettoisation is extending further into working class areas, now that our inherently evil nature is accepted - cut-off, starved, hammered, taunted by images of affluence. Councils show their indifference to the locals - who can't generate capital, afford to buy yuppie flats, or even pay their Poll Tax.
Where might we look for less hysteria? TV current affairs slots purport to go beyond tabloid headlines. 'Serious' documentaries build arguments using policy-makers, academics and other 'experts' to give an interpretive framework, then data are chosen to fit. Panorama (BBC 1, Nov. 4th 1991) started from a theory of the criminal underclass. This concept appears attractive, but is easily questioned by looking at the sheer diversity of life in poor communities. As usual the conclusions were dictated by the theory. Minority programmes portray specific real-lives, but find it hard to tackle widespread common interests and experiences. Regional TV fragments and isolates issues otherwise recognisable universally. The Head of BBC North described with pride a short programme about Meadow Well as "the people talking to themselves" with no hint of irony - given that people do this anyway without his help (Right to Reply, Sept. 28th). In the haste to examine purely local factors, nothing of significance is learnt. Old-fashioned social history documentary realists are declining. But their heroic working class myths mesh with imagery of the respectable poor in sitcom, crime drama, soap opera and most other television outlets. They're no great loss, seeing riots as retrogressive - signalling the need for resurgent middle class moral leadership - as in conventional wisdom. The youth-oriented pop gang use montages of styles - snappy edits, reportage, 'amateur' hour, across-sofa interviews and cynicism, cut with radio jingles and computer graphics. They're infiltrating all 'informational' slots, hard news to chat shows, minority to general audiences, but mainly for the fashionable youth market. Channel 4 is catching up, for example in their access flagship: Right to Reply.
Competing with BBC's awful Points of View and the superiority of What the Papers Say, Right to Reply is 'accessible'. Ordinary folk come in off the street to tackle programme makers, public video boxes give space to 'disgusted of X'. To reduce the honouring of experts, discussions are held between media bigwigs and unknowns with axes to grind, umpired by a presenter. Most punters are at a big disadvantage in this environment. Some groups thrive, such as professionals and those with college educations - in effect anyone prepared and able to conduct civilised debate without effing and blinding or allowing open passion to complicate things. C4 bosses have ordered more populism - the yupple intelligentsia is not a sufficient market. A quiz show presenter replaces the sincere leftie, more popular subjects are featured and the diversity of styles increased. The first of the new series (Sept 28th 1991) changed its emphasis in content, including a report on Tyneside's riots, in which the viewer's participation was vaunted. In the presenter's words:
"If you, like Sue Brent, want to make your own report, write to us ..."
The viewer introduced herself:
"I used to live on the Meadow Well estate. When I saw it on the news I was disgusted at the way everyone here was portrayed as troublemakers. The media was just not interested in the real reasons behind the riots. In fact I was so disgusted, I rang Channel 4 to complain. Right to Reply asked me to come down to the estate to get a good idea of what the real people think."
Sue did not make this report - schedule, agenda and editing were totally out of her control. Local coppers and politicians maybe, but why the Chief Constable or local vicar? Sue's questions weren't allowed, they had a list of questions she didn't see it until filming. Most material from residents was cut, the crew were told where to film, the editors crammed in sensational footage plus BBC News extracts, such as:
"Local politicians learning that car theft in the North East had leapt by sixty-four per cent in two years, agree ... the region faces massive problems;" and "two or three hundred youths were roaming two or three streets, waging what many saw as a reprisal against the police. The reason: the deaths ... of two friends, Dale Robson and Colin Atkins, in a stolen car pursued by police. The vehicle burst into flames engulfing the occupants, bringing accusations that the police had rammed it."
Residents slammed the news for lack of sensitivity to the bereaved:
"This has been brewing up for a while - they used the two lads' death as an excuse for this riot;" and "The TV coverage glamourised the car theft and ram raids. It's all been blown out of proportion totally."
All the Head of BBC North could say was:
"We avoided predicting violence to come, because that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We avoided showing any weapons, petrol bombs or anything of that nature. We're well aware that, on occasion, the use of violence ... sorry, the use of language, can inflame a situation".
The editors inserted BBC1 News footage of riot scenes with smoke and flames in the background, and a banner on a wall ("This is for Dale 'n Colin") in front of a burning building, plus a shot of a smashed-up car and shop security video of a ram raid - time which could have been used to represent what residents had to say more thoroughly.
The vibrant community and its diverse activities would have been easy to depict. But residents knew exactly what to expect from the media:
"the estate's been here for years ... they've never wanted to know ... Because of the riots, it's the centre of attraction. They've never come to see good people on the estate, the good things that's happening."
In community centres, the report showed glimpses of silent residents. But large numbers were present, in and out, discussing events. Close-ups and editing gave an impression of isolated individuals responding to outsiders' questions. Voices were depressed more than angry; from the constant media pestering: "They're vultures - like flies round shite" (This was cut!). And:
"Some of the reporters interviewed little kids. I mean, what do little kids know? They're getting the bad things - I seen one little kid even talking about his own brother that does ram raids - it's ridiculous."
Residents described many self-organised local initiatives - food co-ops, credit unions, clearing rubbish for kids' playgrounds, mending fences, mutual aid gardening. A women's writing group for developing literacy has published a book - the basis of a locally-made feature film, Dream On, taken up for national screening. A resident who set up a kids' judo club described the kids' sense of self-discipline and confidence - hundreds will be devastated if new premises and equipment can't be found, now that council funding may be axed. None of this reached the screen in the report. No effort was made to show the results of the community's concerted efforts to make up for its environment. Instead we saw a burnt-out shop and the most boarded-up road in the area. Council workers were told they'd be sacked if they spoke to the media - so the cuts to local amenities (before being torched) weren't mentioned. Cash may have been 'poured' into these estates, but it goes to developers', planners' and bureaucrats' career-building. After yuppification, remaining funds go on schemes controlled by council workers, taking away residents' autonomy. Amenities have been lost when council workers are cut after monopolising the co-ordination and organisation of initiatives that locals felt the need for, and had begun to set up on their own. The programme makers' agenda led to most interviews being ignored, and including unnecessary footage. The vicar's conclusions stood as the main findings: "Society is spiritually and morally sick, at sixes and sevens with ourselves and each other". Evil squalour and lack of hope, by the omission of contrary evidence. Most of his pathetic utterances, proving his isolation in his own parish, were cut, but the editing couldn't conceal the crazed look in his eyes.
Sue's opening remarks were screened last, thus made to sound superfluous since all material showing that there was anything to be "fair" about had been cut:
"The impression given by the national news means that now, if you say you're from Meadow Well, you're labelled a troublemaker. Television has to find a way of portraying communities like this more fairly."
The report strove to contradict her conclusions, placed first:
"Sensatlonalised fragments of real life are presented as bestsellers. It's forgotten that on countless council estates people are struggling every day. Not evil, not ignorant and not mindless, and sadly, not represented."
If this was for dramatic effect, only some methods were allowed - not residents' statements. Links had to be checked to make sure they were safe and fitted the artificial overall plan. Experts and leaders were given space at the expense of residents - who had much more to say. The Head of BBC North's comments were all included, as were those of the Chief Constable that made any sense amongst his drivel. These people's points were either made more effectively by residents, or were contradicted. This couldn't be reflected without showing that the 'Big Noises' had no place in the report, echoing mainstream coverage, not criticising it. None of us had a 'right to reply'. Compare the Video Box offering earlier in the programme on the faking of live action by programme makers, putting Right to Reply's dishonesty squarely into focus. Anyone knowing the situation, of course, had ample warning. The presenter introduced the report with a lie: "riots broke out after two local youths, joyriding in a stolen car, were killed following a chase by police." Even the mainstream news had replaced this lie with another: that it was something to do with ramraiding. All crime is conflated to produce a one-dimensional view of the community based on the idiots who burgle from their own or single out black people to attack. Images of idle squalour add insult to injury:
"it was terrible the way they portrayed people on the estate, made to look like hoboes, hanging around on street corners, doing nothing;"
"We're people, we've got feelings. To hear outsiders calling us scum is beyond us. I've lived here all my life, and I'm no scum."
The problem is said to be insoluble because respectable victims are disempowered not by the institutions and economy that structure the environment, but by neighbours. The logic of media coverage led to a final solution being proposed by sightseers:
"We were standing down at the youth club on the morning after. People were driving past in their cars, shouting 'Burn, burn the lot.' People that didn't even know, just driving through to see what had gone on".
The community's diverse range of attitudes, energy, intelligence, potential and activity has contradictory passions co-existing inside families, peer groups and individuals. We were just shown feeble good and overwhelming bad hermetically sealed in, ruled by malignant Robin Hood-style mafiosi. But organised crime has been part of poor areas since the Middle Ages - the new underclass is not new or a 'class'. Pay attention instead to the community's rich complexity, where active struggles are produced which run contrary to powerful interests. The media manufacture consent, about world events and localised conflict. Alternative views play devil's advocate, scorning other views, propagandising the role of intellectuals within benevolent government, calling it balance!
Fortunately, many refuse to be fooled. It is tempting to see the media as a monolithic 'spectacle' which helps enslave us, but this mirrors too closely the media's grandiose pretensions. We can see riot coverage as middle class unease, confronted with a challenge to the cherished hegemony that they nurture, as the monitors and operators of welfare liberalism. Folk from Meadow Well and other estates watched the telly with a mixture of anger and disbelief in 1991. Some despair - one intention of the form and content of news coverage of conflict. Some turn to self-hatred of their own people, and seduced by the pundits' prophecies, they become part of the community's problem. Others find determination to carry on, or consciously to begin struggle, feeling deep outrage at the images of themselves on screen. Riots may make life harder in the short term. But the capacity to feel, desire and act collectively, against 'legitimate' authority, or as attempts at positive action, can receive impetus from the open disgust broadcast in the riot coverage. Recognising the distortions of us and those like us, we can judge who they are aimed at and why. These images in TV's hall of mirrors bring into focus the troublesome loudness, willingness to discover loopholes, impatience with rules and hatred of those who regiment us, push us around and bewitch us with their fantasies. Such aspects of our culture persist through the history of class society, despite the best efforts of those who try to reform us. We can begin to gather, affirm and mobilise those parts of ourselves found vulgar, dirty and inconvenient by those seeking control. Compared to the empty lifestyles we're supposed to aspire to, there are real people here. The anguish, anger and energy can't be administered away, hidden inside four walls, or sold back to us. No technology of the present or future can abolish this, unless taking the whole planet with it.
Television reflects how others wish to see us, for the purposes of vested interests. The images reassure those who classify, educate and discipline us. They want us to see ourselves like that. Not playing the game, seeing through media-speak, refusing to wear well-adjusted bourgeois straightjackets - we'll impose fewer obstacles on ourselves when it's time to do what needs to be done. Meadow Well youth didn't wait for police permission to express their fury. People don't beg for the charity of the local council to get things done, or the media to tell them who they are or what the world's like. Community autonomy needn't require the whole apparatus of officialdom to be parachuted in to take charge. Many rioting communities in the 1980s self-policed their own antisocial elements. The success of this is patchy and if it starts to work, ferocious police assaults stop it. On Tyneside, Black people, for example, suffer greatly - the Black community not being organised in its own defence, as in Bradford or Brixton. But the idea that the media, police or council have the desire or capability to play a constructive part in this is known to be absurd, since they always deny the institutional culpability obvious to everyone else.
Sadly, attempts by communities to combat anti-social crime have failed so far in Britain to outlast flashpoints. But there was little sign of it at all on Tyneside. Most locals understood and sympathised with the rioters. But even while knowing that police strategies make it worse - including crime - for the sake of a sense of their own security, they had to reluctantly wish for the return of 'peace and sanity' via the police. In the end the community itself has to define 'antisocial'. Brixton people managed it, after rapes and muggings during riots. So have the youth of a Salford estate where drug dealers were expelled and kept out. But not all local criminals will be so defined, by community justice - which has an entirely different concept of what behaviours are 'not on' compared to those of police and media. People expect no more of those in public life than a marginally lesser evil. Press and television have to gloss their output with entertainment value, since their pretensions to be neutral, educational and informative are not taken seriously. They walk a tightrope, keeping a shaky grip on reality, trying to please buyers, sellers, watchdogs and bosses, while not losing their mass audiences. It's a precarious balance.
III. Undermining Consent
Riot coverage shows the effort of the News to contain reality, to limit the range of meanings produced, and to naturalise establishment responses to disrupted routines of governance and social management. Right to Reply fixed law and order as the issue, ruining an attempt to shift perspective onto the life of the Meadow Well estate. Criteria of newsworthiness were reproduced, so all that was shown to have happened was buildings torched and police attacked. Emergent Government policy about car crime - said to be responsible for the shocking tragedy - was reinforced by the presenter, duly supported by footage. Individuals created a role for themselves when in fact they are only hostile outsiders. The viewer-participant and residents function as props to this structuring and selection of authoritative, preferred voices.
A naive reading of the News stories gave the impression that something had to be done. Residents feel the same every day, not just during riots. The question of who might be in a position to act constructively was not voiced. So by default the authorities took up the role. The clampdown was followed in the media by efforts to justify it as part of an integrated and useful policy - clearly it was nothing of the sort. The exaggerated use of news conventions shows how powerfully riots threaten the dominant bourgeois understanding - why else go so far over the top? Inserting the subject into a narrative of car crime is hardly adequate for dealing with the range of issues raised. Was this really the best the News could do to contain the interpretations of riots in orthodox, preferred readings? If so we have to consider how inadequate News conventions are. This runs contrary to mass culture theories of TV as omnipotent overlord of the bourgeois propaganda effort, and an audience subjected to, and fooled by, its legitimation and naturalisation of capitalism and liberal democracy. But there is just too much reality for the News to neutralise. The complexity of real life events means that action footage and interviews with the powerless, however highly edited and circumscribed, contain a depth and breadth of meanings which overflow the narrow confines the conventions force them into. News needs its doses of the real, so as to seem authentic - and cannot eliminate a host of other meanings slipping through the net. When it successfully edits these out, the News is complacent and transparently unrealistic. We know that everything will not be all rlght at the end of the story. Real people have to be seen and heard, and the more this happens the less effective the conventions are at imposing preferred readings.
Dominant perceptions, norms and values are wrong, as well as aiming for conservative effects. The reassuring or punitive tones of those standing for conventional discourses are irrelevant, placed next to the realities of daily experience for residents of rioting estates. Exposure of their intelligence and integrity, as well as suffering, undermines the picture of helpless victims of underclass violence. Casting vicars and police as problem-solvers committed to wisely fostering ordinary folks' interests, is pathetic. Public discourses and government actions compound the failure of political structures even to comprehend 'the problem'. The government responses make car theft more difficult and punishment for it worse; and then bankroll the agencies most directly responsible for the state of the estates in the first place. Media and politicians sincerely defending these measures is absurd, to anyone who has any knowledge of what life is like on the estates. The current affairs treatment could only convince sections of the TV audience insulated from social conflict, economic deprivation, and collective misery - for them News as 'Spectacle' might work. Is the aim to keep the comfortable middle classes (owners of aforementioned fast cars) securely in the grip of the dominant ideology? Gestures are made to persuade poorer folk that their interests coincide - what the News really conveys is that challenges to the status quo will be met with imperious force. Theories of radical academics concerning the effect of mass culture thus apply to the middle class 'mass', not the majority of our society. Defending their class interests within, not against liberal democratic capitalism - the position of intellectual elites as guardians of culture and taste (Bourdieu 1991) and as the source of radical hope against consumer capitalism's trivialisation and mystification of life becomes decidedly shaky.
The conventional News structure works against narrative strength, spoiled by segmentation within and between items. Rapid cuts and the shifts of perspective and subject allow unexpected, unwanted links and contradictions between categories and voices to constantly pop up. A sensational headline and introduction set the scene and prefigure conclusions. But when viewers' attentions have adjusted to the new topic, the story has already moved on to footage and real people's voices. Viewers can now select elements of the story to concentrate on and voices to identify with - depending on their own experience. As interpretations by experts and leaders are not clearly anticipated, so viewers are less likely to draw conclusions preferred by the News team (also because expertise in dealing with the News leads us to adjust to an impending change of subject). The narrative is so weak and cliched that TV News is bad fiction. Heavy controls on form and content work against the rhetorical power that conventional messages in the story might otherwise have. The viewer is highly active in reading the news, not passively falling prey to banal bourgeois preferred meanings.
This is especially true for TV News, compared to other kinds of fiction (which stress authorship and focus on narrowly delimited sections of reality), because News narratives purport to have no 'author' as well as attempting to encompass the whole world within their limits. The narrative structure of the Right to Reply report was very weak. Most filmed material had to be cut - it bore no relation to the fiction the producers were writing. No progression was built, and no relationship between ordinary people, elite individuals shown, and the situation they were supposed to be talking about. Experts and leaders regretted the criminal/victim split, the inadequate media portrayal of it, and epidemics of moral sickness. Residents' voices were selected only to support this view of the community. They would have completely denied its validity, also evidenced by their efforts to improve things. Some of their arguments were included to give the report authenticity - but only those that backed up an attitude of the unfairness of the world. The report did allow some recognition of certain kinds of inaccuracy in media portrayals of Meadow Well. But any hint of the media's active role (and that of the report itself) in legitimating conventional strategies for tackling the problem by ignoring the reality of the community was lost. This was one of the residents' main grievances and talking points. Viewers were not permitted to hear it.
As realist fiction the News fares badly. Viewers are sophisticated interpreters of TV fiction. The crude and recognisable application of conventions means that the News is interpreted as particularly rigid and predictable soap opera, not according to criteria of neutral reportage. If the self-satisfaction and closure of stories by the news team comforts or reassures viewers about the dominant ideology's truth and capacity to run things, this may be in the realm of make-believe, not the world of viewers' own lives, thoughts and behaviour. In the sphere of entertainment, TV news echoes bourgeois soaps or sitcoms by repeating dilemmas, not resolutions to them. Implying that problems always recur undermines the TV current affairs message that they are understandable and resolvable within conventional means. As with, for example, Dallas (Ang 1985), audiences weave in their own desires and interests to construct an immense variety of meanings from TV News. These cannot be predicted, or prevented at the production level. On the contrary the conventional structure of current affairs creates this potential - while attempting to restrict it. So viewers may respond to 'threats to society' by drawing on fantasied and fictional resources from, for example, oral culture, films, books and fairy tales. So the use of wartime or Rambo-style metaphors - or any 'final solutions' which magically abolish badness - echo the apocalyptic presentation of the News fiction. Asked to hypothesise ourselves as omnipotent, in control over others' lives, where else can we turn but to unreality? One popular street proposal was to sail all the youth onto the North Sea and sink them. Such lynch-mob notions are used as evidence of the irresponsibility of ordinary people who can't be expected to behave socially. But all they show is one side of creative appropriation of cultural material, and no close link with what real people would do in the social here and now. These negative interpretations are persuasive if people excluded from any influence over dominant meanings believe that the constructed fictions of current affairs objectively reflect reality, and go along with them in practice. Neither is true - media neutrality and its bourgeois rationality - and the wider exercise of social power paradoxically produces and multiplies resistance as an integral part of Its functioning (Foucault 1982, 1988).
On a political or economic level, this doesn't matter so long as it works. But as a popular cultural commodity, TV News needs to attract a quantifiably large audience. Even if TV News editors could reliably reinforce dominant ideologies by altering News conventions, cutting out excesses of real people and events (as Eastern European broadcasting used to do), the market position of their programmes would suffer. The recurring fuss about media balance is insoluble because the News reproduces all the contradictions centering on the ability of capitalism and liberal democracy to solve problems. Reality must be fictioned, artificially and heavily restricting what can be said, and by whom. Struggles over bias reflect different factions disagreeing over the style and content of this fictionalisation - which restraints to allow. Neither faction can tackle the underlying cause of the tension, nor resolve it without abandoning the audience. So media neutrality becomes another regular news item - as a dilemma that can be repeated, but never resolved.
Viewers resist the dominant ideology conveyed in TV News. Current affairs is viewed selectively, related to lived experience and known events. Ordinary people are heard with recognition or identification. Media pros, as institutional agents, can be viewed with the suspicion and distrust reserved for everyday middle class monitors, controllers, businesspeople and bureaucrats. Experts, leaders and politicians are much more unreal - like stars, royalty, gods and devils - regarded as wielders or possessors of large scale social or economic power - their habitual environments rightly seen as sites of dominance and wealth. Viewers do not turn on their tellies as 'blank slates', and inevitably bring their own social history and experience to bear on what the News tells us of the world. But viewers also process the News in terms of fictional criteria, bringing an expertise to bear which derives from a history of their surrounding culture - including TV and the media and a great deal besides. By placing current affairs coverage according to its narrative affiliations with preferred TV (and other) fiction, viewers distance the meanings produced from any close connection to the 'real world' - deriving pleasure, reinforcing existing cultural or sub-cultural values, re-orienting the self in relation to fictional characters seen on the News. This can help the relatively powerless to create their own collective resistance. After the riots, access slots showed residents situating new-found anger and commitment to action in direct contrast to media coverage. Youth from Blackbird Leys in Oxford responded to the police repression they experienced by asking how come what actually happened there bore no relation to media portrayals nor to police or mainstream ideas of what the problem or solution might be (Free For All, Channel 4, Nov 21st). Knowing that joyriding is not central to the community's problems - that police and media used it as a pretext - the News was read as fiction. Searching for a role, fresh potential for self-organised action resulted. Imbibing the headline's drama and deconstructing current affairs fictions, links can be made between how events get shown, the motives and effects of such representations, and what could be done about it. Similar conclusions could be drawn from developments on Broadwater Farm. The media's demonising hysteria added to residents' commitment to autonomous self-defence and organisatlon. The police's vicious response led to such naked repression that many Black communities and groups have drawn huge inspiration from the Broadwater Farm community's evident success in exposing the charade of law, order and conventional social control as the coercive, repressive and exploitative regime it is. There's no 'manufactured consent' here.
We can interpret ordinary people's general perceptions of the TV News presentation of reality as a 'hall of mirrors'. The images seen on the telly (of ourselves, people like us, and others) are not judged or trusted according to any particular correspondence to reality. Rather they are seen as bearing certain kinds of relationship to a variety of 'realities', such as TV dramatic genres, unrecorded and informal oral culture, fantasy and fairy tales. Questions of what might actually be happening in the world, in our local social and material environments, and in the wider public sphere, are only one source of meanings and pleasures we create in cultural activity. But whichever combination of influences lead people to read meaning into the News, images produced there are necessarily distorted - in order to fit the unitary bourgeois discourses the producers are striving to achieve. The more personally familiar we are with situations and people portrayed, the more likely it is that the distortions will provoke feelings in us that diverge drastically from the perceptions and interpretations peddled by the preferred voices in the News. So the unintended proximity in the Right to Reply report of an outraged resident saying "I'm no scum" and the vicar's pitiful description of rioting estates as suffering from moral and spiritual sickness strikes home. The BBC Chief's Freudian slip - "the use of violence, wrong ... sorry the use of language" - painfully jars against later comments on the media helping a community "talk to itself". Residents insisted that car crime is irrelevant - resisting the effort to contradict them, because to cut these comments would leave nothing of the community in the report. Most of all, attempting to hear and empathise with Meadow Well residents was constantly interrupted by footage and unwelcome elite commentary. Knowing they must have had more to say than "Isn't it awful?" - we fill in the gaps ourselves. The producers evidently had no idea how to do this, except by inserting their own preoccupations - writing their own story.
The divergence between collective self-image and media portrayals gets stronger as the camera descends into the realms of the socially powerless. Ruling classes the world over look pretty well identical - and they seem to get on so well, except when it's bad for business. But the further down the social scale you go, the more bewildering the cultural diversity encountered - virtually the only similarities at the bottom are a lack of money and power. But the media - especially the News - use just a few cliched stereotypes, which stubbornly resist modernisation. These are inserted into news narratives only as props for conventional discourse. The chances of direct emotional resonance in the socially powerless (but culturally powerful) viewer, along the lines of a mirror to reality, or a window on the world, are virtually nil. To the comfortable middle classes, the News may be a dramatic passage in a harmonious Beethoven symphony. But to the inhabitants of rioting estates, it will hardly come over as Brahms Lullaby - more as a cacophony of chords, discords, missed beats and random white noise. So, how can people construct a good, danceable rhythm? What happens on emerging from the hilarity and infuriation of the hall of mirrors?
The TV audience is a blend of social and subcultural groups with a corresponding diversity of forms of cultural expression and production - speaking with accents, reading cultural commodities for different purposes, satisfying other desires. TV current affairs attempts to narrow the audience down into a mass who share their interests and views. They fail, and a common interest among viewers is revealed - their lack of social power. Our voices are not heard, otherwise the media would not purport to speak for us. The most vital aspects of our lives develop at a distance, and apart, from the media - who have no direct access to our material environment, our community, kinship and workplace cultures. Our lives are monitored, invaded, manipulated and rewritten, but we still construct for ourselves, from the real and symbolic materials around us, our own significances, meanings and pleasures. These derive from our everyday lives, and pre-date their coming together as the basis for our enjoyment of popular culture, forming a fragmented, unstable network in front of the screen. The range of cultural commodities on offer at any time cannot be equated to, or cater for, this pattern of culture. Viewers continuously negotiate with, and creatively re-formulate, cultural meanings in relation to the dominant discourses relayed through the media.
TV isn't a web in the parlour for producers of cultural commodities to entrap us in bourgeois discourse (Althusser 1971) or the Spectacle (Debord 1970, 1990). Programmes need to speak to as large an audience as they can, striking enough chords simultaneously with diverse groups of viewers - but they can't keep up. The high failure rate of their products would be tolerated in few other business environments. Ultimately a TV programme's profitability is maximised when its transmittal of a unitary bourgeois discourse is sufficiently open for it to be interpretable according to the multiple and contradictory desires of its unruly audience (Fiske 1987). The less open, in this sense, News programmes are, the more likely viewers are to already accept the underlying messages of homogeneity and rationality. So more traditional 'serious' current affairs only tends to reach middle class audiences. Whereas sensational News bulletins have cliched devices, transparent conventions, and narrative incompetence - and consequently the symbolic space - to allow us to read our own lives into the text.
Professionals toil away in the background, packaging reality into a reassuring, tidy, well-ordered world - reflecting their perspective on life (and that of their bosses) in the finished product. Meanwhile viewers try to make any cultural commodity their own, using it productively (on a different level), to articulate their desires and concerns in the process of generating feelings and meanings from an active engagement with the programme. Now, subcultural and social diversity comes from different personal and collective histories and present situations, and TV material is always read in terms of its relationship to these. For those with little social power, the dominant meanings embedded in TV current affairs will inevitably be resisted to an extent. As the programmes are anchored so firmly in bourgeois discourse, the latter is also opposed by viewer resistance, in its validation of our lived experiences and our immersion in social and cultural positions which are so different from those which the News asserts and passes off as universal. Viewers don't passively wait around for more accurate representations of their desires and interests to be supplied by 'alternative' programme makers. To believe this (as 'right-on' cultural workers seem to) is the same error as those in the political sphere harping on about needing better leadership. Instead of waiting for the answer from above, we play with meanings presented to us as reality - recreating, reformulating, ridiculing, making a travesty of dominant values therein. In this we gain pleasure and power from the cultural significance, to us, of texts produced for quite different purposes by the culture industry. And because we do this in so many ways, from many perspectives, using our different accents, there is little TV producers can do about this escape of meaning away from their narrow dominant sterility, to our irreverent, passionate and uncontrollable desire. Popularity means there must be enough room in the TV text for many different kinds of viewers to read their own lives into it. Just because many people watch a programme, doesn't mean it has the same effects for them all, and certainly doesn't lead to a uniform consumption of the underlying ideology along with the programme.
The oppressed share relative poverty and social powerlessness. Many diverse meanings and significances may be attributed to these facts in our informal cultures and social groups. Resistance comes from the sense we make of the material conditions of our lives, rather than directly from what is measured as 'objective' poverty or oppression - and so opposition to ruling discourses is itself diverse. The network of values, techniques and practices so far characterised as dominant, bourgeois ideology (which supports liberal democratic capitalism) - is also far from unitary. Contradictory interests of sections of the ruling and middle classes are re-worked in cultural commodities (especially the News) into overall images of complementary functions, centralised integration and administrative rationality. In this sense, the dominant ideology that the culture industries try to convey is no more accurate a description of the socially powerful than it is of the powerless. The effect of media homogenisation again denies conflict and irrationality. Dominant ideology is a hegemony (Hall et al 1981) - a network of positions containing deep contradictions, but which ally strategically together in order to maintain the status quo. The mass of the population - the poor and oppressed - can potentially forge an opposing hegemony, moving from resisting to breaking down the dominant ideology, asserting other interests and desires. The Marxist focus on economic forces restricts the importance of production to the making of physical objects, giving crucial historical roles to industry and the social forces closest to it. This may have been an useful analysis in earlier stages of capitalism, but political developments have increasingly refuted its predictions this century. This is evident most of all in the sphere of cultural and social power.
Cultural commodities circulate in the economy like any commodities. But they also work in the cultural arena - used by consumers who are engaged in producing meanings, and making sense of their lives (Bourdieu 1991). Widespread and cheap methods of copying are unhinging cost and profitability from the degree of take-up of cultural artefacts. Distribution is the most dynamic aspect of the industry, and consumers are experimenting with all manner of creative and illegal methods of undermining even further the source producer's control over products. People are exploiting all areas of popular culture to an extent not dreamt-of by even the most conspiratorial media mogul, for purposes that may run contrary to the interests of the commodity economy as well as those of local and national State agencies (Willis 1990). With proliferating cheap technology (including off the back of lorries), the powerless are stealing some of the means of production of popular culture - remember, the production of its popularity, as a cultural activity, takes place as much at the site of its manifestation (TV, video etc) as that of its initial shaping. The technologies and techniques to produce relatively autonomous cultural practices are accruing to us - in addition to the symbolic meanings being appropriated from the texts of cultural commodities, from which pleasure is generated. The latter is a crucial first step, where a presumed position of passive consumption turns into the re-processing of given meanings in the light of lived experience. However, if it were to stop there, all that would result is a perpetual spiral to feed isolated fantasy, dislocated from collective cultural experience. This trajectory may well represent a desired outcome for the ruling classes, who have a rather mechanical conception of how ideas and information will constrain us (Horkheimer & Adorno 1972, Marcuse 1972) - fooled by their own ideology. It is also a grain of truth in the Orwellian warnings of radical critics (Marcuse 1968, Baudrillard 1985, Habermas 1984, 1987). But being unable to see beyond the ends of their snobbish elite noses, incapable of appreciating the powers of everyday subversion inherent in working class cultures, our rulers and their intellectual rivals-in-waiting completely miss the ongoing 'trivial' struggles to make sense of existence that keep the powerless going.
Instead, the most striking expressions of cultural and social desire our current affairs producers can show us are ones that appear to reinforce this perception of mass stupidity, such as incidents where American urban youth will kill for designer shoes, where style fantasies dominate consciousness with dire results. Similarly, cultural critics bemoan the narcissism said to be afflicting younger generations. But while it is undoubtedly true that many kids prefer a shallow, superficial life to any of the 'meaningful' career opportunities on offer, it is primarily middle class youth who are succumbing - placing this activity at the centre of their universes. The appeal of fashion diverts them from the sterility of the bourgeois future - probably why the intelligentsia are so worried about it. The majority know they can never aspire to the heights of narcissistic lifestyles - the harsh realities of the surroundings and the insistent rowdiness of the social environment simply won't permit it. But this doesn't mean that the fantasies are not strived for - only they tend to have a different content, and different effects, from those of their yuppie counterparts. Fantasy articulates desire for alternatives, and this persistently spills over into behaviour aimed at satisfying it. Locked out of permitted routes to success, unable to 'budget' (without disposable income), all of conventional society has to be bypassed in order to achieve results. So now, for example, riots can be excuses for acquiring goods otherwise out of reach. Questions of access to wealth and ways to express social power immediately come to centre stage when even these prosaic fantasies are acted upon. When this combines with collective action in the face of institutional force or inertia, much more than petty lifestyle narcissism is at stake.
To subvert the apparent cultural stranglehold over perceptions of reality exerted in TV and newspaper current affairs, the powerless can engage in 'stealing', or making a travesty of, these elements of bourgeois culture in the same way we do for other cultural commodities and symbols (and materials, when we get the chance). In the process of undercutting popular culture by editing out bourgeois discourse from our versions, the desires of the powerless can be revealed to have the potential to completely transcend the role given us by the tacticians of multinational monopoly capitalism. The trustworthy alternatives of war and super-exploitation of foreign populations and the natural environment, have increasingly moved into a state of flux. Big bucks will still be made there, especially via short term crises, but the commodity backbone of the world economy promises a more stable basis for economic planning. TV current affairs may have different effects on the public understanding of global developments from those at home. Appreciating how things are in places we have no direct experience of is difficult, and at such distance State and capital are able to act with more impunity. But as Chomsky (1986, 1989a) and others suggest, domestic pressure to constrain military and economic aggression abroad should not be under-estimated. If the resistance of ordinary people can hinder the actions of our rulers thousands of miles away - when we refuse to understand the world in the ways the News suggests - then the potential for resistance at home must be much stronger.
The task of enlarging this potential should not be underestimated, even while counterbalancing the unwarranted total pessimism of radical intellectuals on the subject of working class culture over the past century. In discussing tactics in the field of media production and radical propaganda, the emphasis in the final section is on methods which are physically achievable, within the limits of expense and sophistication, and which draw on and extend the ongoing cultural efforts of everyday resistance to, and subversion of, the dominant ideology. If one fantasises becoming a 'real' person through owning expensive objects, a physical challenge to property relations has to await theft. This stops short of political resistance, of course, because it repeats the dilemma of lack of access to power and wealth, with no hope of resolving it. The stunts of Dutch situationists in the 1960s took the notion of public transport a step further, stealing police bikes, painting them white, and re-naming them public property. The Can't Pay, Won't Pay London Tube fares strike a few years ago enlarged the practical meanings of 'social mobility', as did the short-lived workers control of ambulances for the community's use more recently. The success or failure of such initiatives depends crucially on their exposure to the widest audience possible of those affected. We can no longer allow action to speak for itself. As nature abhors a vacuum, so modern capitalist society spawns proliferating fields of symbolic exchange. There is always a spectrum of modes of information, defining and redefining the meanings inherent in significant events. Even if using and abusing popular cultural spaces is seen as negative overall, to ignore it is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance. The New Right has thrown itself with alacrity into self-promotion via adverts - but its apparent success disguises a trend of deep disillusion with liberal democracy. The spectacle of Labour scrambling after the Tories with even more opiate-like campaigns, will confirm 'New Realism' as an American-style, State/business consensus, leaving the public political arena wide open at grass roots. Intervention in cultural fields can aim to expose and go beyond anaesthetic functions of mainstream and advertising media. This needs our active engagement as propagandists with the cultural activities of generating meaning and pleasure that we also undertake in our consumption of popular culture. Fantasy and desire, intention and action are bound up together in this mundane, creative, daily work - it is vital that these aspects of our social existence are mobilised in political work too. It is necessary and desirable to enter the terrain of popular, mass culture, in attempting to change the world. There is no 'ideal speech situation' (Habermas 1984, 1987) which we can pursue like a holy grail, free from rhetoric or ideological content; where rational choices can be freely judged in public debate. No shared communicational competence can ever guarantee democracy - without passion, the desire for better lives, and creative capacity to symbolically and emotionally, as well as pragmatically, strive for it. Seeing liberation as in terms of bourgeois rationality would be a grave mistake, repeating the fiction of TV current affairs, subscribing to illusions that rational debate about the real world is somehow a separate, privileged, passive matter that intellectuals, experts, politicians and marketers can sort out for us.
Situationist efforts to oppose the output of art institutions were most positive in borrowing existing cultural artefacts with completely different original contexts and meanings, and using them to make art with contemporary meaning ('detournement'). Creatively de-mystifying the meanings given to linguistic, visual and functional environments, the stunts and happenings of the more socially aware and involved adherents of this tradition remain fertile ground for action. The plagiaristic impulse of stealing materials for oppositional purposes (Home 1987) mirrors physically copying visual and written material via new technology (Benjamin 1973). The cultural production of meaning and pleasure is the crucial motivating force in both. However, groups like Class War (1991), Attack International's Tin-Tin comic book (Daniels 1990), and 'samizdat' self-publishers, fanzine writers and graffitists thrive because they are not driven by artistic or theoretical impulses which come prior to their passion. Cultural, political and social effects cannot be separated. The backbone of the British anti-Poll Tax movement were local community groups where this was intuitively known and acted on (Burns 1991). Grafting on organisational or ideological structure to the impact and popularity of their output can severely damage the potential that situationists and others have had, in Western Europe (Home 1988), and Poland's Orange Alternative (Branchflower 1989). Commodity fetishism is replicated by institutional, aesthetic or discursive blinkers, losing sight of the cultural power liberated. Focusing on single aspects of cultural production - art and the avant gardes (Home 1988); partIsan political theory (Debord 1970, Jennings & Michael 1986, Barrot 1987); or subverting from within, where radicals enter mainstream cultural institutions and industries and are swiftly recuperated (e.g. the stars of hippiedom and punk, and most of the 'New Left'). So radical art is used by advertisers to keep the allure of cultural commodities ahead of the consumers, and trendy management evangelism has greatly benefitted from sixties anti-institutionallsm (Rose 1989, Fenwick 1989, Jennings 1991, Webster 1992).
Starting with oppositional strength and common interests from a base of rich diversity and unmanageable desires, we often end with a fragmentation of society into squabbling spoilt brats pursuing careers - a parallel with the 'single issue' blight of modern left politics - plus a suffocating mystification of culture. Effective work can only be done outside existing institutions, apart from narrow, totalislng aims and theories. The motive to widen and generalise consciousness of patterns of social power, and to facilitate action to change things, emerges directly and effectively in our active emotional engagement with our culture - the interaction between our social biographies and meanings constructed from what we find in our symbolic environments. Successes in revolutionary movements have been achieved in the past in the context of strong cultures of the oppressed. Failure may result from an inability to integrate diverse cultural expressions with their modes of action into the social forms generated in struggle. Therefore we should continue to fill the public space with creative expressions of our anger, desire and hope. TV current affairs shows the bankruptcy of defining reality as the neutral object of universal rationality. The News can't hack it. Without privileglng an illusory objectivity as the norm against which all must be measured, we can draw on the full range of our social and cultural reality - the tragic, appalling and miserable state of our lives and the fictional, the fantasied and the fun. We needn't be afraid of invading mainstream arenas - this is a bonus and by-product of the activity on the streets - not constrained by the needs of leaders and intellectuals to carve out positions for themselves in bourgeois institutions. Why be intimidated? We wouldn't, in any case, last five minutes there! Who cares if what is created is recuperated into cultural commodities? When we take the initiative for ourselves, we'll be ahead of them more often than not. How do we tell if it works? By its effects, not scholarly excellence, aesthetic sublimeness, theoretical purity or historical antecedence. Impact is measured in confidence, combativity, and the capacity to unite of the communities, subcultures and social groups we live in; the extent of dispersal of ideas, images and practices into the multiple and diverse social environments of the powerless and moneyless; and the degree of contempt, hostility and fear from the comfortable classes met on the way. If we build a whole network of our own halls of mirrors - always critical, validating our own meanings and pleasures and their unity in diversity, deconstructing vested power and class interests, referring to who we are and where we come from - then a culture of resistance has a chance of building a climate of revolution.
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Jennings, Tom (1990) Politics and Class Struggle in the 1990s: Libertarian Theory. The Raven No. 11 (Vol. 3, No. 3), pp.201-212. Freedom Press [84b Whitechapel High St, London El 7QX].
Jennings, Tom (1991) Discourse, Practice and Power. Here & Now, No.11, pp.15-16.
Jennings, Tom & Michael, Mike (1986) And the Power Flows: Politics Without Illusions. In: Freedom: a Hundred Years, October 1886 to October 1986, pp.85-88. Freedom Press.
Libertarian Organisation & Structure (1987) The Future in the Present: No. 1, Critical Anarchy. Newcastle upon Tyne, LOS.
MacCabe, Colin (1976) Realism and the Cinema. Screen, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp.7-17.
Marcuse, Herbert (1968) One Dimensional Man. Sphere Books.
Marcuse, Herbert (1972) An Essay on Liberation. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Rose, Nikolas (1989) Governing the Soul: the Shaping of the Private Self. Routledge.
Webster, Colin (1992) The Myth of Professionalism. Here & Now, No. 12, pp.17-20.
Webster, Frank & Robins, Kevin (1986) Information Technology: a Luddite Analysis. Norwood, NJ, Ablex.
Willis, Paul (1990) Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young. Buckingham, Open University Press.
For more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: