The crisis we are living through, as we lock-down to protect ourselves from the indiscriminate effects of the coronavirus, are stress-testing us on many levels. The need to protect our health service has been paramount, which is followed by the need to protect jobs and the economy, which is then followed by the need to protect the well-being and social capacity of the people we live with in our communities, so that the have something to worth holding on to when this is over. Rightly, the priority is to save lives, so anything else can follow later.
My area of interest is community media, so I’m drawn to looking at, and thinking about how community media is coping given the circumstances. There are many examples of successful adaptation by community media projects and groups, who have changed the way that they work, and the way that they have maintained their services.
Go onto twitter and follow the #radiofromhome tag to get a sense of how adaptable, on a limited budget, many community radio stations and broadcasters have been in the past few weeks. There are some great examples of how community radio stations across the UK have been forced to drop their normal programming, but have been able to pick it up again only a few days later, with presenters working from bedrooms, studies and sheds.
There are also many examples of people setting up social media groups, such as the Mutual Aid networks that have spontaneously sprung into action across the country. Using Facebook, WhatsApp, phonebanks, and simply putting notes through our neighbour’s letter boxes. There has been a spontaneous use of media, with people keeping contact with their families, work colleagues, friends and neighbours using simple and at hand online conferencing and chat tools like Skype, Zoom and Facetime. These tools have really come into their own, despite only being widely used in the last couple of years.
The question I’m now starting to think about, however, is what will the reconstruction look like? Not everything is working well. For every positive message on Instagram of community volunteering, there is a tacit indication of systemic social failure that is not being addressed. For example, for every person that is being delivered a food parcel, there must have been a breakdown in the administrative and social care duties that our public welfare services are able to provide in a time of emergency.
The enquiries that will take place after the initial virus overload has past, must be open, honest and supported with frank public discussion. We can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. We can’t afford to avoid the difficult and frank discussions about what we contributed during the lockdown. If we avoid the difficult topics because we don’t want to lose face with our peers, or look weak in the eyes of our employers, funders or social superiors, then we will be doing our fellow citizens a disservice.
My concern is how this discussion will apply to community media? There is an essential need to look at how community media has risen to the challenge of the lockdown, but there is also a need to look at the way that community media groups and organisations have failed to rise to the challenge. This examination, however, should not be a matter of judgement, shame or blame (unless there has been criminal neglect). Instead, the enquiry into the role and effectiveness of community media, as a force for social good and social value, needs to be open, honest and free.
Any reflection needs to be free of even the smallest hint of potential scorn. Self-honesty and reflection, even in normal circumstances, is a difficult thing to offer to the world, so the environment and the techniques that we use to encourage a thorough examination of our actions and efforts, need to encourage and not diminish that openness and honesty. We will need to be sure that we are in a trusting environment, so that examples of what went wrong, as well as what went right, can be freely discussed.
Where has there been local failure? Where has there been systemic failure? What was the cause of that failure, and what were the expectations of individuals and groups who ran towards their problems, and those who felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were unable to meet these challenges and were overwhelmed by them?
There is no point in trying to face a tsunami in a canoe. We need to plan for better equipped boats of all sizes that are designed to weather any future storms. We will need more effective civic emergency planning and coordination, greater social resilience capacity building, and a long-term focus on the operational reality of risk management and mitigation. This will mean building capacity and capability in the form of social capital, technical expertise, management expertise, content production training and civic governance.
Our aim should be to learn the hard lessons so that the input of the many volunteers who have wanted to contribute, but might not have had the right skills to suit the right jobs, would still be able to do so. There will be a need for a massively expanded training capacity for community media, and it needs to be rigorous, focussed and open to everyone. There is a positive role for everyone in community media, but some roles are strategically more important than others. The question is, how do we build up our decentred social resilience so that communities can take control of their own media response, independent of the state, and independent of the transnational media corporations who control much of our access to platforms and content ?
The challenge is, to ask who is going to build our social capacity to enable as many people as possible to speak for their neighbourhoods in locally accountable, collaborative and inclusive ways.
We need, then, to capture and collect as much evidence now, as we go along, day by day, week by week, during the crisis. We need to collect and note this evidence so that when the time is right, we can feed the testimony, data and stories into a wider reflection and review process. It will ask some simple questions:
- What was the role that community media played during the lockdown?
- Was it realistic to expect volunteer-based community media groups to play this role?
- Has it been a mistake to ignore the potential contribution of community media volunteers as an embedded part of civic society?
- What alternative opportunities have we missed that would galvanise the social and community response to the lockdown in more multidimensional ways than big media corporations and institutions can usually offer?
I define community media by three simple rules of thumb. First, the programming serves matters of community interest, well-being and social development. Second, a community media project or group serves a specific community, with a specific set of social needs. Thirdly, those people who the projects are aimed to support are valued as contributors, co-creators, co-decision-makers and co-developers of the project and the media they produce. The people who support community media want better media, and they are prepared to make it themselves.
If a service is designed to provide programming and content for people, and not by those people themselves, then there are no embedded community development values at play. Social capital that stays in the hands of small numbers of experts and cliques of decision makers, is not what community media is about. Community media is defined by its accountability to the public, and communities of interests and identity that support each group and project. Community media is not a way of solely protecting or promoting private or commercial interests.
Who controls and defines the editorial agenda of a radio station, a newspaper, a video channel or a group on Facebook, for example, is vitally important. There has to be a core element of democratic accountability at the heart of any community media project.
My call here, then is to ask the large charities, foundations and research organisations to start thinking about how this enquiry might be supported and established. If the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Carnegie UK Trust, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Locality, Social Value UK, Civil Society Future, the Media Reform Commission, Internews, and the many other groups who have an interest in facilitating positive and sustainable social change, are able to come together to ask these vital questions, then we might be able to build and future-proof a model of community media that is resilient and adaptable to change (both immediate and long-term), that is sustainable (offering better stewardship of our communities and our world), and which forms an integral part of our stock of social insurance (as it alleviates risk and monological thinking).
We might then be able to do things differently in the future, when we are inevitable faced by problems of climate crisis, insecure food supplies, extreme inequality, nationalism, ignorance, fake news, and all the other ills of our age. This needs to be looked at locally as well as nationally and transnationally. We can start by collecting our evidence, and get ready to share that evidence when the time comes to look back, reflect and share what we have learnt about what we got right and what we got wrong leading up to, during and after the lockdown of 2020.