Community Media Discussion – Tilting the Balance

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about the potential support that a Labour Government would give to community and independent media, based on the proposals to devolve power away from Westminster and to enable communities to represent themselves. What will this mean in practice for independent media producers who want to serve and support their local places and people? How can we foster community and independent media as a trusted platform that is inclusive while serving clear public purposes?

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If Labour forms the next government, will there be a different approach to media that recognises a new set of public purposes? Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has just published a book, All In, where she outlines some of the principles and experiences that she believes will shape the decentralisation and devolution agenda of an incoming Labour Government.

Nady’s premise is that we have ceded far too much control over our economy, culture and way of living to distant international corporations who are only accountable to their shareholders. Nandy views the rise of populism, which resulted in Trump and Brexit, as a global phenomenon, albeit with very local roots and consequences.

According to Nandy it is little wonder that “global happiness is falling, and freedom is in retreat,” because, she says, it has become “too easy for multinationals to appropriate power because nations are divided, not unified, in action” (Nandy, 2022, p. 47). The result here in the UK is that we are living in an increasingly unequal and polarised society, with “two countries living uneasily side by side that had lost the ability to understand one another” (Nandy, 2022, p. 56).

Nandy believes that one of the factors fuelling both political and cultural division is the loss of the common public domain that we once shared, but which technology has now displaced by individualising and privatising way that we hear about our communities through social media. There are few places, Nandy argues, where “people can sit together and thrash out the common ground.”

This lack of common ground became like a “pressure cooker that overheated,” from which “populism provided the safety valve” (Nandy, 2022, p. 57). Increasingly it feels that our society is presented with extreme options that we must choose between, where one group who promotes these choices are on the side of the people, and the others are demonised as enemies of the people.

Public discourse is as much about promoting rage and indignation, Nandy argues, than it is about promoting understanding and collaboration to solve problems. It is easier to shut people out of the process of public discussion, and to keep a tight control over who has a voice in our media, than it is to ensure that many voices are heard, across the whole political spectrum.

To exemplify this process, Ofcom reported last week that the BBC needs to do more to appeal to lower-earning people because they are less able to access online and on-demand services than their wealthier counterparts are to access. The universal principles of the BBC, however, are under threat by its own self-defined digital-first policy of developing online news and programming content, while cutting local radio service in England. A fact reported by the BBC on its own website in the Arts and Culture section by their entertainment reporters, rather than in their politics or civil society categories.

Nandy’s analysis, while something of a mixed bag of hot topics which suffer from being generalisations, does make the essential point that if we shut people out of the decision-making process, then our faith in both the civic and political systems that we live by, as well as the cultural and social understanding that we gain through them, will be shaken.

As Nandy states, “we all need, want and increasingly demand the right to be included in the decisions enacted on our behalf and I passionately believe that, if we are, those decisions are always better for it” (Nandy, 2022, p. 75). The question that is open for more probing, then, is to what extent our media follows and is defined by this prognosis.

Nandy spends little time addressing concerns about media concentration outside the ownership of newspapers and the scandal of the Leveson Report. Nandy clearly recognises that new voices in media need support and space within the economy to find a way to thrive, but there’s no indication of how this might be achieved, and what the practical solutions will be that will hold back the power of the international media corporations.

Nandy argues, correctly in my view, that our democratic politics in the UK suffers from a deficit of practical participation, and she clearly wants to follow the example of countries like Ireland, France and Canada that have introduced more collaborative and deliberative forms of civic engagement. As Nandy explains, she believes that “people in every part of Britain have something to offer and when we open up the conversation so that more of us can contribute, we all gain” (Nandy, 2022, p. 109).

Does this mean that our media, and specifically our independent and community media, will be invited to play a role in the opening up of these conversations. Nandy recognises that we can’t leave people to sink or swim in social media platforms, which are a wild west of antagonistic and unaccountable practices designed to maximise profit.

Is there a way that we can foster a network of accountable and trusted community media producers across the UK, that are tied with places and communities that are otherwise underrepresented? Does the example of community radio, in its most progressive and inclusive moments, offer an example of how we can build communities through and with our media skills and creativity?

Nandy relates how many people no longer see themselves reflected in national or even local stories. For many reasons, a lack of integrated public and civic services being accentuated after twelve years of austerity, means that there is little to connect with outside the functional provision of information. Nandy suggests that arts and culture are an essential investment in a cohesive and coherent society, especially when they are underpinned by a knowledge of what matters to each local area, with its unique history that underpins the “pride, identity and purpose of the area” (Nandy, 2022, p. 118).

As Nandy argues, “arts and culture that reflect us in our national story. Isn’t this the basis of a thriving country, one in which people genuinely have a say, chances and choices, one that can unlock the creativity and energy of its people, and live its value at home in order to stand for them abroad?” (Nandy, 2022, p. 120). What I would like to see, is the insertion of community and independent media here as well, as a vehicle for the reflection and expression of our common life and culture together.

What do we need to see from a potential new Labour government in relation to supporting community and independent media? As well as holding power and economic might in check, what civic capabilities and opportunities for social and cultural expression do we want a new government to foster and promote? Moreover, how will be build these capabilities, and what resources will they need?

The pandemic proved that the provision of media can’t simply be about information and inane companionship, but must have stronger social purposes to it. What if community and independent media was able to provide learning opportunities, cultural exchange opportunities, friendship opportunities, even therapeutic opportunities?

The social challenges we face need an infrastructure for co-development, deliberation and creative expression outside the confines of information and news management processes. We need a media that we can be part of ourselves. That deals with the challenges of climate crisis, inequality, globalisation, and the many problems that we hope government can help us deal with.

But we can only do this one step at a time, when it is most tangible to us, where we are most connected, and when we are among the people that we share our lives with. Media can’t just be seen as a service that is provided for us, but is a rich expression of our own concerns and sense of identity and belonging, whatever the place and whoever the people.

Nandy argues that “effective policy for levelling up involves a much deeper understanding of the links between public and private sectors, civic institutions and the value of the networks in communities. It demands a shift in the way we think about infrastructure, institutions and people and about the government’s role in supporting them” (Nandy, 2022, p. 147).

From the perspective of any future government policy relating to media, we need to see a lot more meat added to these bones. We don’t want the state sanctioning what kind of media we access and choose in our lives, but we do want a framework of accountability so that we can trust the people creating, sharing and making stories and keeping us informed. We need booster rockets that increase the capacity of community and independent media to serve clear social and civic purposes, tied to their place, and accountable to the people they serve.

If Nandy wants the next Labour government to go All In, then this has to include our media as well.

Nandy, L. (2022). All In – How to Build a Country That Works. Harper North.