Rebellious Media Conference 2011

Noam Chomsky, Milan Rai and Michael Albert at RMC 2011

Impressions from the alternative media event

I’ve always been a fan of Noam Chomsky, but I’ve now been to two live lectures by him and both times what I’ve taken away is an overwhelming sense of frustration and wasted opportunity.

Despite a previous bad experience at Projectile in Newcastle in 2008, initially I was excited to hear that this year’s conference was being opened with a lecture from Chomsky – apt as he came up with the propaganda theory of media which has helped activists (and journalists) to effectively frame their understanding of how news production works for decades now.

My hope was to hear, at least in part, his views on how the media models have changed since he wrote his seminal work Manufacturing Consent – how the inability of most mainstream sources to make money out of news has affected it, what opportunities and pitfalls potentially await the radical media.

However the talk, despite its headline billing at a media-specific event, was first concerning and then disappointing. The 900-seat hall at IOE was packed with people, but only a minority appeared to be journalists. Rather than the presence of flip-pad notebooks, cameras and recorders, there was a preponderance of students and wild-eyed types whose sartorial choices screamed dishevelled leftie.

It was in large part the same sort of crowd as I’d seen in Newcastle. As a punter to a film festival then, I couldn’t complain too much, but as a radical media worker going specifically to a radical conference, my heart sank. Then Chomsky himself got up to speak and it sank further.

The problem I think is that his fame as an academic rebel and totem for the left has gotten to the point where he is no longer being challenged at events like these to speak on his fields of political expertise – certain areas of international policy, large tranches of US policy and the in-depth analysis of media production he is so famous for.

Instead, he is questioned as a guru might be by people who primarily wanted him to lend his famous name to their particular hobby horse. Possibly as a result of this, his speeches tend to arc across macro-economics and social response – and it was this he turned his attention to rather than issues affecting the media and particularly its radical sections. Don’t get me wrong, it was an interesting speech, it just wasn’t what I (and I suspect others) were actually there for.

But to give the man his due, he knows his audience. Once he’d finished, about a dozen people were allowed to stand up and ask questions. Guess how many of these were about the media? I’ll give you a clue, it rhymes with “hero.”

Nuclear energy got a mention, as did “block the bridge” (which was less a question and more a self-indulgent, irrelevant rant at a busy old man and his captive audience) and he did a valiant job of coming up with something intelligent for each question. But he never said a word about the topic of the conference itself.

I can’t blame Chomsky, or the organisers for this. They sold tickets to a well-thought through and vital event which were unfortunately bought up by the kind of single-minded Chomskids who don’t mind buggering up a serious venture just so they can wank off in front of the left “intellectuals’” equivalent of Justin Beiber.

Meet the Radical Media Makers

The workshops after lunch started to get a little livelier, but were still dogged by a lack of focus, at least in the session I went to, Meet the Radical Media Makers, which was a hugely well-attended meeting (maybe 50 people) diverted into an assortment of cul-de-sacs by people who a) wanted to big up their own projects b) wanted to “get involved with our communities” c) wanted to improve the substance of video media production in particular, d) wanted to get their stuff more widely disseminated.

Now I’m mostly down with this. I think the left is very patchy when it comes to making videos, badly organised in terms of building community links and fucking hopeless at promoting our output. But what I wanted to hear was ideas and organising to build these things. Sadly, it was aspect A which got the fullest hearing.

Mostly people went on about their own projects or pet ideas to subvert the media, all very worthy stuff but mostly an activity more suited to a dinner party/down the pub than a workshop aimed at revitalising, extending and networking radical media, which is what really needs to happen. The most interesting ideas were buried.

One idea I will pick up on, which sparked a blizzard of follow-on thoughts in my mind but otherwise sunk without trace, was for the establishment of a radical version of the Frontline Club. I think this is potentially a fascinating vision for class struggle anarchists and beyond. A paid membership club for anyone involved in or who wants to support/learn to do radical media (I would include a grab-bag of disciplines in this including video, radio and print disciplines) could bring in the money to buy and insure equipment, pool skills, support existing assets and build new ones. In later iterations, it could actually set up a permanent media centre to act as a hub for a vibrant support network for the entire radical press – a Bourse du Travaille for journalists.

This is the sort of idea that 50 committed journalists in a room could put together almost overnight - £100 each and that’s a Creative Suite-equipped computer, camera equipment and even someone paid freelance to get the project co-ordinated. Unfortunately what we actually had was a bunch of activists in a room talking about subvertising.

Words and Money

The late afternoon meeting I attended by contrast was superb. Highly focussed and with a range of practical people from different disciplines talking about the best way to get them working effectively in tandem. The Words and Money workshop had some vital information, a lot of good ideas and forged some very reasonable links between people dealing with the sharp end of publishing and distribution, the bits which have been crippling radical media for years.

This, of course, was about a dozen strong – mostly because the people it was intended for were busy doing something useful (holding down the stalls which sell the literature Radical Media Makers put out). There’s something very telling in that.

Most important from the process was the formal announcement of the formation of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, an initiative designed to get the likes of Housmans, Freedom, Bookmarks and Active Distro working together to promote each other, share good practice and collaborate on a new alternative book prize which isn’t the Orwell – so y’know, radical in some shape or form.
I may post on that and the subsequent discussion in another blog, but suffice to say it sounds like a step in the right direction.

The other meeting I had the chance to go to at the same time was about how to “save” radical magazines and I hope that went well but really, the best way to save magazines is to build the framework for them to thrive – ie. sort out and support a network of outlets alongside a reliable, cheap method of distribution, then market the fuck out of your product. Without those key elements (the ones I was speaking to in fact) I suspect that meeting will have tanked nearly as hard as the Meet the Radical Media Makers.

So what’s the lesson from day one of the conference? You can organise a damn good event, but you can’t force people to do something useful with it. And always go the poorly-attended meetings, as that’s where the useful people are.

Edit: I should say that the event itself was extremely well organised and I've been very impressed by the efforts Peace News et al have gone to getting it together - thanks to all involved!

Comments

visionontv
Oct 10 2011 19:13
Chilli Sauce
Oct 10 2011 21:01

Good blog as always RR.

wojtek
Oct 11 2011 03:42

Apparently the Zeitgeist people were out in force... wall

http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1318266344.html

JoeMaguire
Oct 28 2011 08:18

Frontline sounds like it could have legs if a few organisations got behind it. Also I have expectations that the Alliance of Radical Booksellers is long overdue, especially since there seems to be a spike in the market for radical material.

Rob Ray
Oct 28 2011 11:00

Another one of those good ideas I don't have time to follow up on sad