An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 35-37.
"Revolt is contained by overexposure. We are given it to contemplate so that we forget to participate."
- Raoul Vaneigem.
During and after the eviction of the anti-A30 road camps at Fairmile in early 1997 there was an explosion of media interest that seemed to come out of nowhere and caught us all by surprise. At that time a lot of the A 30 campaign were living together in the office and there appeared to be consensus on what interviews to do and what to say in them.
The overall attitude to the media onslaught was positive but cautious. We would never have gone looking for media interest on that scale and felt that publicity was one of the less important aspects of a campaign. We were wary of exposure that would trivialise the issues, concentrate on lifestyle issues or show us in a bad light. But we were also aware of the opportunity to get the issue of DBFO road financing, which had so far had very little publicity, into the news. We treated it all as just another thing to deal with and we were as thoughtful and tactical as you could hope.
Some very good things came out of it. We did get some media dialogue going on DBFOs and I've met some really sound people at Manchester who got involved because of seeing Fairmile on T.V. I find it hard to get an overview on this myself, but friends tell me that in general media reporting of road protests has been more positive since Fairmile. The media circus brought eviction sites that little bit further into the mainstream. Although we were almost entirely unsuccessful in promoting general ideas about direct action as a tactic and a philosophy, the Fairmile media contributed to the mainstream trend that setting up a site is increasingly seen as a natural continuation of a public enquiry based campaign.
Road protesting is no longer just a news item; no soap opera is complete without one! This normalisation is partly a refiection of the movement's growth, and partly a result of all those lifestyle articles that negate the environmental issues to concentrate on how you go to the toilet up a tree and what protesters eat for breakfast. The media's concentration on personalities after Fairmile has taken this process even further. Protesters are now seen as a rather cute and harmless subsection of society. Discussion programmes that want to look hip are trying to get the 'protester' viewpoint on issues not directly related to transport policy or the environment. These discussion programmes display a bizarre duality of thought. There are (only) two sides to every story with the truth lying somewhere roughly in between them. They have a role to play in defining truth by setting out the boundaries of legitimate opinion. By appearing on these programmes the opinion you put forward is legitimised. This obviously holds some potential for subverting the dominant paradigm.
I was really unhappy with the way that journalists frequently said that the point of the campaign had been to attract publicity to the issues. It not only presented a false view of direct action but was disempowering to the readers as it reinforced the view that they cannot change anything directly. In it's way it was a factor in causing the Swampy phenomenon to continue into the Manchester based No Second Runway Campaign, when some activists adopted this view themselves. Raising the issues is important but it shouldn't be the only point of a campaign, otherwise it's not direct action, it's indirect action. What we had after Fairmile was a situation where the media were reinventing direct action as indirect action.
I should take some personal responsibility for that. When a journalist asked me how I felt that we had 'lost again', I replied that we had won in our own terms because we had cost so much money and because we had 'raised the issues'. It didn't take a lot to twist that into 'we only did it to get in the papers'. This is exactly what the media did, partly because it was what they already believed. I am coming to the conclusion that admitting to journalists that we need them, in any way, is always a mistake. It would however have been impossible to avoid spreading some kind of damaging myth, whatever we had said, when dealing with a media circus that big and that intense. Journalists sometimes ask really difficult questions and are always trying to make you say something that will support whatever angle they have decided to take. The fact that you cannot be sure of what that angle is makes it impossible to know what is the best thing to say. I give my own mistake here as an example of the difficulty of using the mainstream press. It is also an illustration of why media attention on a Fairmile scale, even with its positive aspects, should never be aspired to or relied upon.
At the time we had little concept that 'positive' publicity could be a problem. Looking back on the experience, I think that we need to be at least as wary of 'positive' publicity that misrepresents individuals and/or the campaign as we are of publicity that is negative. I feel a lot more comfortable being denounced accurately as a dirty, dolescrounging, anarchist than being lauded as someone trying to get publicity for their single issue concern in the hope that the government will do something to stop it. In the end I came to the conclusion that my whole outlook was so radically different from that of the mainstream media that it was a straight choice between being hated for what I am or loved for what I'm not. The latter is not necessarily better since the media's agenda doesn't really represent what the public think but merely what corporate interests would like them to think. And besides, misrepresentation on a large scale has its own dangers.
When a journalist asked the tunnnelers where they were going next, some said "Manchester". The anti-runway campaign at Manchester (see Do or Die No.6 - page 82) was then plugged as the 'Next Big Thing'. I think that if it hadn't been hyped, then it would have been a much smaller campaign. That in itself was not a bad thing; Manchester was a good campaign and worth fighting. I don't think it's too much of a problem at the moment but we do need to be making sure that the media are not telling us what to do.
The attitude towards the press was different at Manchester. A lot of people had seen the Fairmile publicity and aspired to something on the same scale. Some even saw media attention as one of the most important aims of the campaign. The media misrepresentation was that living on site was just a way of grabbing the attention of decision makers by getting in the papers. It became a self fulfilling prophecy as people who got involved as a result of the coverage were those who found the misrepresentation attractive and they brought that attitude with them onto site. The character of the Manchester campaign, at times, seemed to mirror the character of the Fairmile coverage. Being in the papers inspires people to come on site and that's great. But those who see the media as a recruitment tool should acknowledge that while coverage will encourage the movement to grow it will also infiuence the direction it grows in.
The office spent almost a hundred percent of their energy on trying to get in the papers, sometimes at the expense of getting safety and communications in the tunnels sorted out and setting up a good prisoner support. A lot of pressure was put on Swampy to do media stuff. It was seen by some as for the good of the campaign. Publicity stunts were even organised. That climate was undoubtedly a factor in the Swampy phenomenon.
Something that could have been done better at both Manchester and the A30 was looking not just at the merits of an individual interview, but also at its place in the media trend as a whole. In the same way that the word 'Pepsi coke' on its own reinforces all of Pepsi's advertising, just the appearance of a particular protester, no matter what that person says, can act to reinforce previously written ideas about that person or the road protest movement in general. And in my opinion this is what happened with Swampy.
The media picked on one person and made him the focus not only of an entire campaign, but of an entire movement. This gave the readership an image of action being taken by a 'hero', a famous person, not a diverse group of ordinarily extraordinary people like themselves. This, coupled with the 'It's all just to raise awareness' line, reinforced peoples' disempowerment.
I think that the biggest problem facing us in the aftermath of the spectacularisation of Fairmile is the kind of over-enthusiasm that a lot of us have towards the media. Many people consider that to change the world we must change peoples' minds and that this is best done through the media. But what are we changing their minds for? It doesn't matter what people believe if they are too alienated and disempowered to act on it, and the mass media is above all a tool of disempowerment and alienation.The dangers of becoming too dependant on the media are obvious. The people who control the mass media have broadly the same outlook and some of the same interests as the people who own opencast sites and build roads. To get good coverage we risk pandering to their outlook in the mistaken belief that it represents the thoughts of the general public. (People, in general, tend to be more radical than the mainstream media would lead you to believe.) Especially frightening, and again this isn't a problem yet, is the risk that we will start only doing actions that will look good in the papers. Once we go down that path then we might as well just phone up heads of multinationals and say 'What would you like us to do today?'
I think that the media circus surrounding Fairmile presented some opportunities to do a lot of good. We did our best with it and tried to take those opportunities as they came up. But it was by no means an entirely good thing. It shouldn't be seen as desirable and we shouldn't be trying to make it happen again.
Mainstream publicity is a bit like being arrested. It is a fact of life and it is sometimes necessary, but it isn't the point and you don't try and make it happen for its own sake. Whatever your views on the media, make sure you've thought them through. Always try and have an overview on what you're doing. And remember - a press release is a potent tool, use it with care and intelligence or don't use it at all.