Agitation and the web

Could a new wave of online video help transform politics?

The last few weeks have seen a new spate of agitational web videos, accompanying the amazing upturn of politicking in Britain in response to the brutal, ill-considered and philistine cuts proposed by the coalition government which took office last May.

Last May, as I noted at the time, was the first time an election in the UK had encountered Web 2.0, and "the intrusion of blogging, interactive amusement, social networking, twitter and user-generated content, including videos." Surveying the trends in those election videos, I found them "enjoyable but mostly not very honed, either aesthetically or politically." Which meant "that internet culture still has a long way to go, at least in the arena of national politics in the UK, before it moves on from reactive political agitation to a more progressive mode of active intervention."

It is now, I think, beginning to move on.

There are good selections of current web video at Coalition of Resistance and Counterfire. There are several strands to be observed. The first is video of actions-in-progress, mostly filmed with mobile phones, minimally edited and posted rapidly on the numerous blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter tags which have sprung up as part of the campaigning. For this is a form of politicking which thrives on social networking, as several journalists have realised.

The BBC education correspondent explained how "the protests that took place last week weren't organised by any conventional political organisation, but they managed to mobilise youngsters in towns and cities from Bournemouth to Edinburgh." Said the BBC man, they were "run through social networking websites, with little centralised control," adding the curious comment that "This DIY radicalism has its own news channels, on Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and blogs, leaving the traditional news organisations and political commentators looking in from the outside." Curious, because it's a rare admission of what is actually always the case with professional media journalism -- always on the outside looking in, usually through tinted spectacles (the kind with blinkers on them).

In short, as I wrote a few days ago, the dynamic of mass protest has been shifted by mobile media and social networking, which now constitute a new extended dimension of politicking. It is not only extra-parliamentary, but also outside of existing associations within civil society, like the National Union of Students -- except that they opening up new networks within civil society, or rather, at its fringes. Probably the best description I've come across of what is happening from inside the movement can be found in a poetically-titled post at Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition, On our chaotic swarm:

The occupations have formed a swarm network. This network is very hard to destroy. For every occupation that is forcibly evicted, five more have sprung up. We do not rely on leaders or student unions. And in doing so we lack weak links. We can afford to lose connections and nodes in this network, for new ones are continuously forming in their place.

As a networked, chaotic group we can act powerfully and unpredictably. We can appear larger than we are. More powerful than we are. From our nodes we can mobilise, organise. Entirely chaotically. We are inspirational. These are not my words. Our movement have been receiving global solidarity, and global coverage. Internationally similar protests are spawning. And they are looking to us for that inspiration. They are looking to us for methodology.

A tad utopian, but I'm an old 68-er, so I'm not complaining!

The presence of video in this chaotic swarming is well represented by the UCL Occupation, which has set up its own channels on Vimeo and YouTube. Examples here include video solidarity messages, addressed to other occupations or delivered by visitors to the UCL occupation. This extends to spots by celebrity guests at the occupations like comedians Mark Thomas and Richard Herring, and the singer Billy Bragg. Longer items include talks by supportive academics and writers, like Michael Sayeau on the power of advertising, or the economist Graham Turner on "The Economic Crisis - Where are we headed?" -- in other words, examples of what was called in the 60s the teach-in.

Occasionally, the scene is shot with a cinematic eye, like this brilliant single-take of the UCL occupation which at the aesthetic level could hardly be bettered.

 

One of the purposes served by these video-posts is to impugn in several respects the coverage of the television news channels (whose choicest bits are of course rapidly posted and tweeted and retweeted, especially when they involve some politician being embarrassed by an interviewer's question). For one, they counter the promotion to front-page infamy by the mainstream media of rare moments of protestor violence, by projecting a different image of the demonstrations, especially non-violent street actions. Flash mobs protesting tax-evasion by Vodaphone and TopShop clearly articulates popular anger. They not only focus "disaffection with the failure of conventional politics to respond to widespread concerns about tax justice", but annouce in symbolic form that there is a different way of funding the deficit.

Second, videos which provide evidence of the misbehaviour of the police, correcting the spin the police try to put on events. Examples here and here. The general rule, of course, that governs the creation of video for the web is to keep it short, but this is not an unsophisticated audience. There's a post of 11 seconds showing a policeman punching a demonstrator; an extended version was posted up in response to a viewer's request to see the context.

Third are videos from inside the occupations, which communicate the enthusiastic atmosphere, cooperative behaviour and positive attitudes which prevail among these protestors. Most of these are made by aficionados -- who doubtless include students on the creative practice courses which, because they belong to "arts and humanities", will have their public funding cut off. But they also include professional work by independent film makers like the Guardian team, such as their video of the UCL Occupation. This is a piece of professional reportage, sans the unctuous voice of a reporter, which corrects the bias of the meagre television reportage of the events. There are several similar videos here.

In short, agit web video serves to re-write the "narrative" (as in the PR man's lament that "we got the narrative wrong"). But it isn't just a trendy accompaniment to a chaotic movement. It not only punctures the dominant version of the mainstream media, but enters into its own circuit of positive feedback, both as counter-propaganda and instrument of mass action.

Overall, what strikes me is that one can see a range of videos here that are strongly reminiscent of the variety of sub-genres in recent activist video movements in Latin America, like indigenous video (video indigena) in Brazil and Bolivia etc., and the movement in Argentina which exploded into action nine years ago, known as cine piquetero. Not necessarily the same subgenres, but appropriate ones for the context. Is there something about the short form of agitational video which predisposes this kind of arrangement?

There is also a currently lesser trend made up of campaigning videos produced to support the new movement. They are mostly semi-professional, or the political work of multimediamedia professionals, lending their talents to the cause. They turn up within this circuit because they provide points of attachment to the wider oppositional culture to which the student movement as such necessarily belongs. Some of them are video lectures by eminent Marxists. Other examples include:

"An important message about the arts" -- a simple aninmated video by artist David Shrigley, which is amusing, but perhaps ideologically a little confused in giving too much emphasis to economic arguments to Save The Arts.

Poet Danny Chivers contributes Shop a Scrounger

and perhaps my favourite, a brilliant music video from Captain SKA:

 

Michael Chanan is a documentarist and film critic. He blogs at Putney Debater, and you can view his video of the Turner Prize teach-in here.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era