Independent media: introduction

“Only through independent reporting where you’re not beholden to the interests of corporations or government are you able to really aggressively pursue the truth.” – Jeremy Scahill

What is independent media?

It’s a form of communication that’s independent of external control that biases the content in favour of an elite. Independent media is free from state control, billionaire ownership and corporate advertising. Its aim is to provide content that is a) factually accurate; b) not biased towards elite interests; and c) often not reported in the mainstream, corporate media because it’s not in the interest of the elite for the public to know it.

There’s a wide range of independent media, from co-ops, to bloggers, community platforms, opinions and analysis, reportage – but the key thing is that they’re all independent of external control.

There’s always been plenty of choice when it comes to independent media.

Mainstream media

Newspapers don’t tend to make profits any more. The Sun and the Guardian lose huge amounts of money, others just break even, and the Mail makes money, but only from a barrage of celebrity photographs online, rather than news. They’re valuable for their propaganda influence, rather than profit. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is very open about his desire to be a ‘kingmaker’.

Also, the influence of media moguls is amplified by the BBC, who constantly report ‘what the papers say’ – but only the corporate papers. As the BBC represents 70% of the TV and radio news market, the corporate media is actually setting the agenda; plus there are many ex-corporate media employees at the BBC and vice-versa. It’s difficult if not impossible to nab a top job at the BBC if you don’t support the corporate / neoliberal agenda. They recruit from a small pool, and everyone understands the established order. It doesn’t help that the BBC has an appointed board that includes board members of corporations, including arms manufacturers.

The licence fee is not paid directly to the BBC, it’s paid to the government, who then pay the BBC. As a state propaganda organ, the BBC is probably the world’s best in its gravitas and subtlety, and has influenced Al-Jazeera, Russia Today and others.

The five filters involved in the operation of the corporate media.

History

Since the invention of the printing press, there has always been media produced by ordinary people, away from the centres of power, and this has accelerated in the age of the internet – see below. There are also organisations to support and develop independent media, like the Media Reform Coalition, who do a lot of research into ownership of the media.

The internet has given a huge boost to independent media, although of course corporations and states try to dominate it. But they can’t (yet) stop independent blogs, podcasts or websites. IndyMedia.org, famously launched after the Seattle anti-globalisation protests in 1999, became a template for citizen-produced content, but was ultimately unsuccessful because of the difficulty of sustaining an organisation based solely on volunteering. If everyone can contribute, in a free-for-all, how is quality maintained? In contrast, New Internationalist has been publishing successfully for 40 years, with paid staff. More below.

The mainstream media is obsessed with the vacuous lives of celebrities, distracting the public from what’s really happening in the world.

What are the benefits of independent media?

The main benefit is that independent media, unlike corporate or state media, don’t represent only the interests of the elite. They can question power, because again, unlike the corporate media, they don’t rely on a powerful elite for their existence.

Democracy

This has huge implications for democracy. It’s not possible to have real democracy when most people get their information only from the powerful, in the interests of the powerful. This creates mainstream consent, so that those who dissent are then seen as ‘outsiders’. We have to have independent media that will question the powerful, or we can’t have a functioning democracy.

Peter Oborne, who was political editor and right-wing pundit at the Telegraph during the Libor scandal, resigned after being prevented by the Telegraph’s owners, the Barclay Brothers, from publishing anything about the role of HSBC, who were providing around half the Telegraph’s advertising income. Usually, journalists don’t have to be told who they can’t investigate – they know what to do if they want to keep their job (as Noam Chomsky had to explain to a young Andrew Marr – see video).

First issue of New Internationalist, March 1973. Still going strong and still a co-op.

Accuracy

Truth is also a casualty of the corporate media. There are various ‘filters’ that prevent you from getting the truth about the world. Ownership is perhaps the most important filter. In the UK, owners of the mainstream media are either the state, or tax-dodging billionaires. Another is advertising – the corporate media is funded by other corporations that have a vested interest in the media not publishing any negative stories about them.

Data

There’s also an issue with data-mining. Data is now a very profitable tradeable commodity. Online corporate media harvests user data and sells it to businesses that will use it against those users, learning about behaviours and beliefs, playing on impulse and short-term desire to sell targeted products. We now have private ownership of information on what makes you you, in much more depth than has ever existed. If individuals want to sell their data in this way, fine – but as things stand, people’s data is being used secretively, for profit, without their consent. We need independent online media that allows users to control their data, or doesn’t collect it at all.

Watch Noam Chomsky school a young and bewildered Andrew Marr in 1996 about the propaganda inherent in the mainstream media. The whole interview is entertaining, but 10.38-11.15 is a gem.

What can I do?

Choose your news sources wisely. Avoid the mainstream media, unless you’re after untrustworthy news and trivia, and don’t fall for for the few considered ‘the good guys’, like the billionaire-owned, mis-named ‘Independent’ newspaper, or the Guardian – funded by corporate advertising and owned by Scott Trust Ltd, registered in Bermuda so that they can avoid taxes, or the BBC, for the reasons outlined above.

As with anything worthwhile, finding reliable sources of information will take a little time, effort and maybe money (remember, if you’re not paying for it, someone else is – who doesn’t have your interests at heart). It’s too important not to really – being fed biased, untrue or selective information will mean that you’re not properly informed about the world.

Open Democracy – independent online news.

News sources

Successful journalism, independent or not, requires skills and time that need to be recognised and paid for. As mentioned above, in the UK, there’s the New Internationalist, and US organisations like Democracy Now! and the Real News Network have had long-term success too.

In the UK there’s a lot of independent comment and analysis, including blogs, plus organisations like Novara Media, that give a spin to the news rather than reporting it, and also local organisations that produce news content, like the Bristol Cable, the Ferret in Scotland, Manchester’s Meteor etc. Do some research to find sources near you.

Then there are investigative organisations like Open Democracy, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Centre for Investigative Journalism; a great news source is the Byline Times, or the more tabloid-like Canary, that does a lot of reportage. Independents, because they are smaller, often provide only one type of media, so to get a full picture, you have to build a portfolio of sources. See our links page to get started.

The Media Fund has a listing of media partners, and will soon be providing a regular round-up of news from independent sources. Bywire are also producing an app to provide access to all independent media in one place. We’ll keep you informed.

Here’s a tip: make yourself a little Twitter list (I know, corporate, but we’ll get there) of independent news sources, so that you’ll have a little independent news feed each day.

If billionaires can influence the result of elections, how will that affect government policy?

Reliability

Once you’ve rejected the corporate media, you’ll have to work out which independent sources are reliable. After the Leveson Inquiry, press regulations were largely re-written by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. The result was weaker press regulation than previously (that resulted in far fewer official complaints about the Mail, surprise surprise), and a not-very-reliable press regulator, IPSO. On the other hand, IMPRESS, fully compliant with the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, is a reliable regulator. IMPRESS is also affordable / free for the public to take complaints to, and there are now moves to register all reliable independent media with it.

It’s difficult to discern whether reporting is factually accurate. The Media Fund make sure that their partners (and a list of organisations that are not their partners) abide by the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct, and can distinguish between causality and correlation, for example. There are also fact-checking sites that the public can use, but they don’t list reliable organisations – they just check specific claims.

Billionaires control the media, and the BBC constantly broadcast their views.

Social media

Around 80% of people now get their news from social media, most of which is also owned by tax-avoiding, data-mining global corporations, beholden only to their shareholders, not their users. To maximise profit, they use algorithms that give users only what they like, which denies users the range of opinions required to understand the world, and produces tsunamis of fake news and conspiracy theories, as well as extreme political division. The business model is based on the dopamine hit of shares, likes and comments, which brings people back and satisfies advertisers and data purchasers.

Providing independent social media is hard, because the giants are so ubiquitous. They have no effective global regulation, and they are almost impossible to compete against without huge amounts of money that independents don’t have. There are alternatives, like Social.coop, but membership would have to grow significantly to compete. Solutions may involve mutualising and democratising the giant platforms, or creating effective social media that doesn’t have to sit on a particular platform – we can then all interact with each other without requiring corporations as intermediaries.

There are local independent news providers all over the UK, and the world, like Manchester’s Meteor.

Contributing

As well as consuming independent media, you can contribute to its output. To get greater insight and to gain skills, you could volunteer for an independent media organisation – either locally or nationally. Just contact them and see what they say.

The Independent Community News Network train people to become community news producers; and the Centre for Investigative Journalism provide courses too. You could also donate to these organisations, or the Media Fund, or do some research and find another organisation you like.

 

Thanks to Thomas Barlow of the Media Fund for information.


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Thomas Barlow co-founded Real Media in 2014 with Kam Sandhu, before leaving it in June 2017 to focus fully on solving the problem of funding for independent media with The Media Fund. Before working in independent media Thomas was active in anti-racist and environmental organising, and before that was a club promoter and festival organiser.


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