Community Media Discussion – Intercultural Policy and Practice

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This week in our community media discussion, we are continuing our conversation about community cohesion, and the role that community media plays in promoting an intercultural social experience. We will be talking about how community media needs a renewed focus in public policy terms so that as advocates we can change society for the better by expanding media diversity, inclusivity, participation and civic engagement?

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Over the last couple of months, in our weekly community media discussion, we have been examining the need for community media makers to test the relevance of our practice in relation to the practice and intricacies of community cohesion and intercultural understanding, particularly as they relate to community-focussed communications. We’ve explored the ideas and concerns of Ted Cantle, who has sought to answer an essential question we all must face, which is now much exacerbated after thirteen years of public austerity: namely, how do we develop a vision of a “shared world and society in which people are encouraged to value the common humanity of all nations, faiths and ethnic groups” (Cantle, 2012, p. 176).

In our discussions, we’ve accepted that community media occupies a somewhat ambiguous position in relation to the identified need for a shared and cohesive social vision. On the one hand, there is the difference that individual volunteers and community media advocates make in their specific projects and work. This work can be uniquely innovative and ground-breaking, however, because community media is a patchwork of different concerns, rather than a single tapestry telling a unified story woven with a common set of threads, a single vision of community cohesion is difficult to encapsulate.

On the other hand, however, we also need to take account of the dysfunctionality of the regulatory and government framework that surrounds and defines community media here in the UK. This policy framework supports only a limited and narrow conception of the role of the media because it is conceived mostly as something defined in the consumer market, and is largely devoid of social purpose. Other than information provision or consumer choice, our feeling in our discussions is that few media organisations really make a difference and help bring about change.

Similarly, and except among a small band of committed community media advocates, there is little general consent for forms of media that are directly controlled, organised and relevant to citizens themselves. The DIY media ethos still seems odd to most people, even to progressive campaigners who want to see citizen power at the heart of a reformed society, never mind government policy developers who choose to ignore the potential for media that prioritises social change, transformation and, for example, levelling up.

In our recent discussions, we talked about how the media plays an essential role in helping to moderate and reduce social tensions, especially those that come to the surface when there is a lack of intercultural understanding between people from different communities. At a time when we are faced with rapid social change and cultural fragmentation, whereby there is regular and repeated disruption to the previously secure and homogenous mainstream identities, it is essential to acknowledge that the recoil that many of us instinctively feel is itself understandable. However, rather than exacerbating our social differences, as many of our mainstream media outlets do, there is a clear need to ramp-up investment in media that encourages contact between people from different faith, ethnic, class and other diverse ad often overlooked social backgrounds, to secure a durable sense of social cohesion.

It’s clear that the more we can support plurality of media supply, the more we will gain a greater respect for the different points of view that many people hold, and the traditions that they are informed by. In our conversations over recent weeks, we’ve discussed the importance of boosting forms of community media that can enhance social capital in a number of ways. As such, we’ve accepted that there are always social intersection points where we should focus on bonding capital, based on our multiple identities.

This bonding can come with our shared and mutual support for people of a similar religion or ethnicity as ourselves, or because we live in a particular place or have a set of definable social interests. We should not forget, however, that bridging capital is similarly essential to a functional and dynamic society. People gain from having opportunities to mix and interact with people from different cultures and communities, and community media, we agreed, is an essential vehicle for people to learn how to interact and mix using media forms themselves, rather than waiting for the state or a group of professionals to do it for them.

We also discuss the concerns we have that the UK is becoming increasingly stratified and divided. For example, with the concentration of people from migrant communities here in Leicester, which strives to be welcoming and accommodating, people from established communities have less opportunity to mix or interact with the people who are recently arrived. Similarly, people across the income scale seldom mix in common social experiences because the provision of housing and transport has exacerbated social segregation. We also explored concerns that people from different ethnic backgrounds are not getting the chance to interact with the majority white British population, and are concentrated in urban centres, where we are interacting with people from massively diverse populations.

The consequence of the rise of places like Leicester, London and Birmingham, which are now identified as places of superdiversity, presents many challenges for media provision outside the market. For example, the BBC struggles to provide services that are relevant to the social and cultural needs of the people of each city, which is understandable given the accelerated diversity of these places. The BBC has rightly been criticised for being able to provide services for the unified and homogenous identities of people who live outside the cosmopolitan urban areas, though this perception is likely to be exacerbated as the BBC cuts and combines its local radio output as it seeks to save money.

Community cohesion can’t be achieved, we agreed, if we are not prepared to discuss and articulate our differences and divisions. These divisions are not just academic, but can play a significant role in communities as they change and grow over time. As Ted Cantle reminds us, our differences are “socially and politically defined, not primordial” (Cantle, 2012, p. 177). What is missing in relation to community media, however, and as we discussed on a number of occasions, is an uncompromising leadership within community media itself. There is some frustration that those appointed to speak on behalf of the sector are not sufficiently steeped in the experience of living in superdiverse communities, and don’t therefore recognise the need to understand social diversity from an intercultural perspective.

If there is one message that has come from these discussions about community cohesion and community media, it is that we need to be willing and able to challenge, not only the government and the public bodies associated with media policy, but also one another. It’s clear there will be some uncomfortable conversations in the future that challenge colleagues across the many patches of community media here in the UK, on the basis that we aren’t doing enough to empower communities to bring about substantive and meaningful change. What we need to do, therefore, is drive-forward the message that the principal mandate of community media is to support community cohesion as a unique social activity in its own terms, not an imitation of what has happened in the past, and not an imitation of what the international corporate media organisations are prepared to allow. As Ted Cantle explains:

“In the emerging world of interculturalism, the continuing development of social identities may well define the next decade. This is a highly contested area but states must be prepared to facilitate more multifaceted and dynamic identities that mirror the changes in financial, commercial and technological processes, and reflect this in the development of new democratic institutions” (Cantle, 2012, p. 187).

Our essential task, then, is not simply “learning sympathetically about others,” but is to look at and think about how we can use all forms of media to “help in the task of developing cohesive civil societies by turning notions of singular identities into those of multiple ones, and by developing a shared and common value system and public culture” (Cantle, 2012, p. 208). Community media as it evolves and changes is a necessary and important tool that we have to invest in if we are to make our vision of a cohesive and nurturing society come true.

Cantle, T. (2012). Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity. Palgrave MacMillan.