It’s Bloody Complicated – Progressive Politics and Community Media

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been catching up with the Compass podcast It’s Bloody Complicated. They started being posted each week back in March, just as the lockdown hit. Billed as a weekly conversation between Neal Lawson and Frances Foley from Compass, and selected guests prominent in progressive politics, the podcast aims to “speak with thinkers, writers and politicians from the UK and beyond about current affairs and how to build a Good Society.”

I’m guessing that the format and the style of the podcast has changed to fit with our socially distant times, and it’s all the better for it. As a weekly conversation, it’s based on a live Zoom call with Compass members and invited guests, who can ask questions and explore relevant topics that cross party lines, and which look at practical ways to support progressive and anti-Tory alliances.

The topics being discussed have also adapted to the tumultuous times many have been experienced. In the last six months we’ve had to get our heads around the Covid-19 pandemic, the shock to the economy that has come with it, the Black Lives Matter protests, the collapse of UK government competence, the continuing fallout from the Trump presidency, Brexit, and the many pressing international issues that continue to shape the boundaries of our politics.

Then there are the long-running themes that have been long championed by Compass: the democratic deficit, the circular economy, the information revolution, the precarious nature of work, over-centralised government management, and many more.

Neal Lawson is the host of the podcast, with contributions from staff from the Compass office. The podcast format has benefited from the shift to online meetings and discussions, with the use of Zoom now being seen as mundane. Only a few months ago Zoom and Teams were thought to be extremely complicated, whereas now, the technology is widely used. It’s robust and simple, and feels uncomplicated to use.

Speakers and guests come from across different parties and none. There have been speakers from the Labour Party, the Lib-Dems, the Greens and SNP. Writers and thinkers from outside of political parties have also been able to share their views and ideas. The list of contributors includes David Lammy, Caroline Lucas, Guy Standing, Anthony Barnett, Paul Mason, Clive Lewis, Dawn Butler, Peter Tatchell, Sue Goss, Andy Burnham, Hillary Cottam, Lisa Nandy and more.

What draws these people together, it seems, is that they share a concern about how we do our politics. Either they are interested in electoral reform, and want to update the balance of power between individuals and the state; or they are interested in how power is applied through local, regional and nationally devolved government. They are also interested in how identity and the expression of our identities forms part of our political settlement.

As social life shifts around different ideas about identity, such as black identity, women’s identity or national identity, then what’s commonly discussed in these podcasts, is that politics also has to shift and change to meet those new identities. Compass encourages change in both the structural ways that our democracy is organised, and also the cultural change in the way that we empower everyone to take part in their community life, especially the work of self-governance.

While I’ve been in lockdown it’s been heartening to listen to debates and discussions about the need to reconfigure our civic and political life. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to think about the ways that power can be decentralised. It gives us an opportunity to think about how we can re-build from the bottom-up, rather than imposing solutions from the top. The questions that have been discussed are wide ranging, and aren’t shy of asking how this shift in power can be brought about using participative civic and political principles. What do we need to do to refunction our democratic framework so that it reflects people’s local wishes?

Hearing about the work of people like Hillary Cottam, Sue Goss, Lise Nandy, Andy Burnham, Steve Reed and others, has helped me to put my thinking into context. Mush has been done in recent years to go beyond Westminster bubble, and the narrow set of issues that are reflected in the convenience press and media. It’s been clear for some time that we need to repurpose our politics and our media so that they both reflect the diversity of people that they serve. The good thing about discussing these issues in a podcast, is it gives those of us with a progressive approach to media, to try out different ideas, seek different views, and test to see what is likely to be successful in the long-term. It means that we can draw more people into the conversation about the structural changes that we need to put in place, to make our politics and our media more accessible.

John Harris of The Guardian gave a good account of the need to break out of the Westminster bubble when it comes to reporting politics. What everyone seems to agree on when they talk about social change in the podcasts, is the need to find a way to give voice to the people who have been switched-off by the grinding of the political machine. Those who feel that power is exercised remotely and in its own interests. The challenge that the Its Bloody Complicated podcast tries to engage with is how this problem can be addressed using progressive means, and in ways that maximises, rather than restrict, civic participation.

Examples that are usually given of this process are citizens juries, panels and direct engagement in the policy development, planning and budgeting processes of local government. There’s been lots of talk about co-development, co-production and civic engagement. This is a necessary and increasingly immediate challenge, as the post-pandemic world is likely to look very different from the pre-pandemic world. The climate crisis is growing every day. Structural racism must finally be rooted out, not just in our culture, but in the deep political and economic processes that shape society. Inequality has to be tackled. The avoidance of tax and any pro-social contribution by international corporations needs to be challenged. The list goes on.

Sometimes, these discussion in the It’s Bloody Complicated podcast can feel as if they are being batted around by policy-wonks who all know one another from former jobs in political parties and think tanks. There is a tendency for some of the discussions to feel like the wagons have been circled, and the only issues that can be discussed are those that are recognised by the people who set the wider-remit of policy at Compass, and who are keen to talk with their friends about the things that are most pressing to them at that moment. Hopefully, this focus on the familiar will change over time, as future episodes are expanded, and new challenges become apparent.

It will be interesting to see how the podcast itself develops, and in what way that conversations will be structured and fostered in the future? Will the It’s Bloody Complicated podcast change the way that policy development is done at Compass itself? As different people are able to get involved, because the networks are opened up through the use of online media, then the diversity of voices will also be broader. It’s no longer necessary to jump on a train to get to hear an MP speak at a meeting. As online conferencing has shown everyone this year, it’s possible to meet, talk and then post the recording of the meeting as a podcast. This means that a wider range of people can listen and participate, and they don’t have to be present at a specific time or place to find out what was said.

There are two things, then, that I’m interested in seeing develop with the It’s Bloody Complicated podcast. First, that Compass should recognise that this podcast is itself an example of community media engagement. The podcast brings together a community of interest, around topics and subjects of discussion that are relevant to those people. It encourages participation and engagement, and it shares the media that is captured as part of a wider open commons. Pretty much anyone who wants to listen to these discussions can.

Second, I’m keen to get a sense of whether progressive politics, more widely, is likely to grasp the idea that community media itself is a missing dimension from our progressive political process? Can community media as a model of civic engagement and social value media be used to facilitate and promote the kind of social change that is being called for in these podcasts?

Too often media is thought of only from a perspective of systems, platforms and channels. Even in progressive and socially democratic policy development communities, community media isn’t acknowledge for its potential driving force for building the good society. Hilary Cottam didn’t mention it in her excellent book Radical Help, nor was community media mentioned in the excellent Civil Society Futures report that Julia Unwin helped shape. I love the idea of a gardening perspective on social development that Sue Goss wrote recently for Compass, because it points to a model of media and communications reform that is creative and energising.

If we want people in their local communities to be talking about their local services, and the framework of democratic accountability that shapes those services, then there has to be the platforms and opportunities for people to engage with one another using different types of media. What are the progressive media priorities that we need to invest in if we are to meet the challenges that are well identified in the It’s Bloody Complicated podcast? What’s the shift in our thinking about media that we need to bring about between progressives?

Media tends to be viewed as static and fixed, because it is dominated by corporate and large-scale transnational profit-grabbers. Many progressives can’t seem to think outside of this box though. There is a standard conception that communication can only be based on mass audiences, consumer needs, and transactional information models. However, while we are thinking creatively about citizens engagement and the democratic process, perhaps it is also time for us to think creatively about our media as part of that developmental, mindful and progressive communication process?

What if we start to think of our media as malleable and fluid? What if we defined our media policies, both locally and nationally, around citizens needs and functions? What if we structured political and civic communication regulation and policy around participation and the need for local democratic renewal? What if we gave community media the mission of promoting wellbeing, belonging and democratic engagement?

I might be wrong in thinking this, but those inclined towards progressive politics, often seem to bemoan the control that corporate media has over our political and economic life, while seldom considering that there are ways to organise media differently. Community media has a long and rich tradition of developing independent voices through alternative forms of cooperative and mutual association. Progressives would do well to pay attention to community media and find out more about it.

In community media there is a well-worn adage, that if we want better media, then we have to make it ourselves. Indeed, the tools that we need to make this better media are now readily available to us, in ways that have never been so accessible and easy to use. It’s not complicated, we just need to start using them and getting different types of stories and content out into the public domain.

There are a million ways that we might creatively go about this, as we try to share conversations and stories that demonstrate what a progressive society might feel like. So, rather than training people for a narrow form of public relations management and mass media advocacy, why are we not training and educating people to tell stories about community life? Let’s use the power of video, radio, photos, graphic design – whatever creative form people want to share – to tell the stories of progressive social change.

If we are to bring about deep-rooted change then we also need to redefine the model of participative and civic media engagement with one that is mindful of the nuances, differences and challenges of our lives. We should be doing this at the start of every project that we run, as an integral and vital part of the process of changing our political systems and renewing our democracy in the future. We can’t build back better if we don’t learn how to value media for development and belonging.

To be honest, it’s not that complicated. We just need to join-up the practices of civic participation and activism across all the domains of engagement we can think of – including media. This will enable us to show how life might develop in a more civilised, socially just, tolerant and creative society. We have to remember to be our own media, and to capture and share these discussions, and their associated stories, as we go along.

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