1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame


Bias in the media

media diet cartoonWhy we did it

When ELBF formed, two of the group had  a history of working in the media. They were involved with others outside ELBF in a group (the ‘media workers group') campaigning against censorship, sexism and right-wing political bias, and for job security, in the media – especially the BBC. We felt that the media played a crucial role in reinforcing bigotry and  passivity in the people – what Noam Chomsky has since called ‘manufactured consent’.

What were the issues?

We were concerned about the way in which the TV news and current affairs’ commitment to ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ excluded radical proposals for change from the agenda. The balance presented was between moderate and right-wing views – members of the media workers group had first-hand experience of the way radical views were increasingly marginalised and eventually self-censored out, as was the real-life experience of working people and minorities – as highlighted in the TV Handbook (see TV Handbook Excerpts). The guiding platitude was that a programme should connect with ‘your great-aunt in Tunbridge Wells.’

Of course, this consensus about what was good for people also permeated other areas of television – from soaps to documentaries – and implicitly drove all programming. There were exceptions, but those journalists or producers who bucked the consensus were constantly under pressure, reinforced by changes in the structure of employment. (The 1970 McKinsey report into the BBC introduced greater use of short-term contracts and casualisation.) The creative explosion that marked television in the 60s was gradually being squeezed throughout the 70s.

What we did

The media workers group’s publications included a leaflet to counter media bias against the gas workers strike of 1973, and to advise the picketers about how to handle journalists (see Gas workers’ leaflet); an article on radio propaganda in the BBC World Service that appeared in 1974 in Time Out (see The Best Of All Possible Worlds) and the TV Handbook, an 80-page booklet deconstructing ownership, content control and distortion in TV broadcasting. We were also involved in meetings of the ACTT, then the main broadcast trade union.

In 1974-1978, some members of ELBF were involved in setting up and running the Newsreel Collective which produced a series of documentary films 20-60 minutes long (see leaflet films from Newsreel). Their topics included abortion (1975); housing (1976); popular power in Portugal (1975 & 1976); unemployment (1976); hospital closures (1977); the Grunwick strike (1977) (see Grunwick Stand Together leaflet); racism (1978) (see Divide and Rule – Never! leaflet); and later a short fiction film about youth and sex (1982) (see True Romance etc. leaflet). The films were made to be shown and discussed in community centres, schools, colleges, youth clubs and other grass roots situations. The collective produced pamphlets to be used with some of the films (see Divide and Rule – Never! booklet to accompany the anti-racist film, and there was a True Romance booklet to go with the film on youth and sex). With the advent of Channel Four, Newsreel received workshop funding from the Independent Film department to produce two feature-length films for television, Domestic Bliss and Unstable Elements.

Looking Back...

During the 80s and into the 90s, as Thatcherism consolidated its hold, the structure of ownership of newspapers and television changed radically, with fewer and more right-wing proprietors owning a larger share of the market, including growing shares of the ITV companies, themselves consolidating and losing much of their remit to public service. Channel 4 enjoyed a heady ten to twelve years of fresh thinking before it too succumbed to the competitive commercial imperative, as it sought to maintain market share against the newly arrived Sky digital channels. Indeed, until the phone hacking scandal broke in 2011 much of the history of British media in the past 30 years has been to invite Rupert Murdoch to a growing share of influence and market share.

So the BBC which we in ELBF saw as a hindrance and representing the ‘establishment’ came to be seen as a last bastion of vaguely liberal values, and as such needing protection, as neo-conservatism ran rampant, including through Tony Blair’s New Labour. In hindsight, we underestimated the positive value of the BBC, public service broadcasting, and the liberal media in general, in holding the line against total capitulation to right-wing populism.

One member of the media workers group, in the late 70s, was involved in the brave attempt to set up a left weekly national newspaper. Others have ferreted away at the margins, continuing to attempt to produce work of quality and integrity. There has been no mass protest at the direction of media control and ownership until the phone hacking scandal laid bare the collusion and corruption that has persisted at the highest levels. Most of the TV and press continues to serve celebrity culture and a right-wing populist agenda, and areas of subversion or real discussion are limited (but important). Occasionally the democratic spirit asserts itself, as when a trans-sexual won Big Brother, or when the audience united to vote against Simon Cowell’s pick for X-factor stardom. Journalists exposed the MPs’ expenses and the phone hacking scandals. The Occupy movement exposed the greed of the 1%, the corporations’ CEOs and the bankers.  

The production of films and material by people in their own communities remains really important, and the internet has played a role in making that possible. The web and social media have also proved themselves to be powerful organizing tools for democratic movements; hence the struggle for control of the internet is beginning to loom large.

Copies of some of the Newsreel films are now held by the British Film Institute.