Marxist media and communications research

Chapter 11: Mediated Intellectuals: Negotiating Social Relations in Media[1] From Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics by Lee Salter

Marxist media and communications research tends to look at media economics more tan practices. Here we see how radical intellectuals engage mainstream media, and fall to its constraints, and also how they can produce their own media.

Social life is mediated in numerous ways. Ideas, social interaction and practical activity are all mediated in part by communication or media technologies.  Whilst it would be folly to suggest that media technologies mediate most people’s entire experience of political and intellectual life, it is the case that the presence of these technologies in people’s lives is such that they cannot be ignored. To a degree the capacity of media technologies to facilitate critical political and intellectual engagements is limited by the context of their production and use. However, in this chapter I argue that a paradigm shift, the ‘cultural’ or ‘linguistic turn’ filtered through to media and cultural studies, with the effect of sidelining the question of production. Consequently, the role of the intellectual changes from a producer of media messages to at best an interpreter, and at worse nothing at all. The ideas behind the postmodern elements of the cultural turn were in part a response to the perceived reification of ideology as a concept and to a supposed understanding of media communications as ‘hypodermic’. This is to say that postmodern media and cultural studies stylised the Marxist understanding of media as one in which capitalist transmitted their one-sided messages to a passive audience, which then accepted them. In contrast to this, the postmodernists ‘empower’ audiences by arguing that they actively produce meanings in a process of negotiation, often rejecting or transforming intended meanings. The problem, however, is that the so-called ‘active audience’ is never as important as the active producer, and both are constrained by relations of production. I then move to consider Gramsci’s understanding of the intellectual, pointing out that the critical intellectual ought to be practically active and aim to change methods of production. In the next section I investigate the degree to which different forms of broadcasting enable critical intellectuals to participate in media production. In the final part I question how new media technologies may allow an increase in critical intellectual activity in media production, whilst altering the relation of such intellectuals to their publics.

Marxist media and communication research: Consumption and Production.

Some strands of Marxist theory (and recent practice) often tend to regard the academic study of media as something of a deviation. Certainly there is some justification for such concerns over forms of media studies that abstract media from the historical context of development and use, from their overall structuring within a capitalist system of production, and its associated forms of economic and political power. Without understanding the context of media practices, institutions and technologies, we begin to understand current functioning and future potential of media technologies.

            However, in many areas of media and cultural studies, Marxism has been the dominant paradigm for half a century at least. The work of the Frankfurt School, Leicester’s Centre for Mass Communication Research, Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and of the Glasgow Media Group have all been heavily influenced by Marxist thought, in one vein or another. Before these academic schools, communist investigations of media (for example, Eisenstein on Film, Vertov on documentary, Trotsky on Radio, and Brecht on theatre and radio) saw media technologies as tools whose uses could and should be understood in relation to revolutionary activity, albeit under the restraints of the capitalist state (see for example, Trotsky, 1993; Brecht, 1979/80). The aim of these investigations was to think about how to place media production in the hands of workers. Individual scholars in the UK, such as Graham Murdoch, Colin Sparks, Peter Golding, Michael Chanan, James Curran, Mike Wayne and many others have understood media technologies, organisations and workers as integral parts of capitalist economy, and have argued that without understanding media in terms of forces and relations of production, one cannot begin to understand the role and potential of media technologies as such.

            Many such schools and scholars have argued that media production and its embeddedness in more general economic relations must be supplemented by understanding the process of symbolic production, that is to understand media in the context of production, consumption and exchange at the same time. However, in the 1980s, a number of left media and cultural studies scholars began to pull apart this holistic approach, and started to focus almost exclusively on the circulation and interpretation of symbols; the descent into discourse had begun[2]. The central concern of such post-Marxist or postmodern approaches to media studies is to analyse the ways in which different messages circulate, are accepted, challenged or rejected. However, the development of these currents in media and cultural studies, which focus on ‘consumption’, ‘pleasures’, reception/audience studies, identity politics, and ‘domestication’ of media, led to the now normal abstraction from the question of production. This cultural turn celebrates what are perceived to be instances of difference and subversion of meaning that somehow resist something/everything. The general conclusions seem to be ‘look, they didn’t take X at face value’ and ‘not everyone does/thinks/needs everything in the same way’ and so on. On this approach, domination takes place through discourse, discourse can be resisted in interpretation, and therefore domination can be resisted. That discourses can be mis- or re-interpreted (or indeed that the functioning of discourses depends upon the a form of ‘agreement’ on the part of participants) may be interesting, but is limited in its significance. There are some interesting things to be said about how signs, meanings and artefacts are appropriated and changed by recipients, but for these to be of any value they must be linked up to the question of the access to the mechanisms of production and distribution of those signs, meanings and artefacts in the first place. Without understanding the relations between production, consumption and exchange, understanding is fragmented and potential for resistance is undermined.

            The disregard of production and the concomitant emphasis on consumption and the ‘strategies of interpretation’ of audiences limits the explanatory capacity of such analyses. Media and cultural studies that do not understand the full process of production may thus believe that strategies of interpretation provide sufficient bases for resistance to the forms of domination that accompany capitalism. However consideration of the production of ideology leads one to realise that the point is to change production not to just interpret it. In understanding general relations of production we can see how media give rise to hegemonic representations, what the implications of these are, and also what alternatives might be proposed.

            In the first instance, capitalist media organisations produce commodities. These commodities often tend to reflect the broad circumstances under which they are produced and consumed. This is to say that technologies are commodities, content is made up of commodities, workers are commodities, audiences are commodities to be sold to advertisers, but also media organisations themselves are usually tradable commodities. This commodity relation is not, however, complete. Many Marxists (for example, Wayne, 2003: 17-18) argue that intellectual workers, which include those working in ‘the media’, are relatively autonomous, or perhaps less constrained by capital than other workers. However, this relative autonomy is qualified and contextual. For example, if we interrogate the status of ‘autonomous’ (even if only relative), we have to consider what one is autonomous from. At base media workers are workers, that is, they are usually employed by a company that owns many of the tools they must use in order to carry out the work assigned to them and controls the general organisation of production, general (legally structured) parameters of consumption, and exchange of their products. This employment sets the worker in relation to other workers of differing levels of seniority and so on. Eventually we come to see the media worker as situated in an institutional complex which itself is part of an industrial complex of production, consumption, and exchange, from the manufacture and installation of light bulbs (and the electricity required to power them), cameras, ink and paper, to the presentation of newspapers or DVDs in shop displays (so, for example, Kluge and Negt [1993] argue that even public service television is embedded within a capitalist system of production). Control over production equates to control over what is excluded and included.

            The possibility of ‘resistance’ through the ‘production’ of meaning in reception (see, for instance, Fiske, 1987) is perhaps the least one can expect, and becomes a great deal more problematic when applied in more obviously oppressive political systems, such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It is more than a little insulting to suggest that people under such systems merely needed to reinterpret the propaganda in order to change things. A good deal of the motivation of such postmodern arguments stems from deformations of Antonio Gramsci’s and Raymond Williams’ arguments about popular culture and capitalism. For example, there are a number of studies that abstract “cultural artefacts” from the conditions of their production. Such abstractions serve to extinguish the distinction between a commodity (such as a CD of a manufactured pop band) and a traditional folk song; that is, they mistake commodities for what Gramsci and Williams meant by popular culture – culture produced by and in the interests of the people. Indeed, Gramsci and Williams both understood that intellectuals must be deeply involved with class struggle in organised political movements (which few postmodernists recognise). To this end, both joined and became activists in their respective communist parties and in the labour movement. They also understood, against many postmodern uses of their work, that symbolic production is intimately tied to material production; so much so that one cannot simply change one without the other. So, Hall’s (1996: 268) argument that organic intellectuals ‘must work on two fronts at one and the same time’, that they are to ‘know more than the traditional intellectuals do’, and are to realise a ‘responsibility of transmitting those ideas’ should be supplemented with a third front – a more direct physical struggle over the organisation of material production. Indeed, Gramsci is quite explicit about this latter part of the intellectual’s role, and it is this part of the role that we should understand as the missing part of post-Marxist and postmodern media studies.

Gramsci’s Intellectual and Capitalist Media.

A more serious attempt to challenge hegemonic media representations would include paying attention to their production, consumption and exchange, which would involve the engagement of practically active intellectuals of the sort proposed by Gramsci. Whilst Gramsci noted that ‘all men are intellectuals’, to understand his concept of the intellectual, we must remember that he adds that ‘not all men have in society the function of intellectuals’ (Gramsci 1971: 9) and these ‘functions’ of intellectuals are numerous and contradictory. On one hand, the traditional intellectual claims to be independent of the ‘dominant social group’, yet serves to sustain the social order. On the other, the organic intellectual, who grows out of new classes[3] and from the new relations in which they are situated, challenges the existing hegemony. The distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals is not, however, a simple distinction. Gramsci makes it quite clear of the latter that

every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields (Gramsci 1971: 5)

This is to say that organic intellectuals help shape emerging classes and social groups, and develop their self-awareness. The interests of organic intellectuals correspond to those of the class or social group in which they are embedded. Thus there are organic intellectuals who are embedded in sections of the capitalist class and others embedded in the subjugated classes and groups. It is for this reason that Gramsci argues that the ‘most widespread error’ is to look to distinguish intellectuals on the basis of the ‘intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations’ (Gramsci 1971: 8). On this account the traditional intellectual acts as a conservative, representing and perpetuating (sic) continuity. The organic intellectual of the capitalist class organises society so as to ‘create the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class’, working, once established, to perfect and preserve such conditions (Gramsci 1971: 5-6). On the other hand, the proletarian (or ‘critical’ if we are to understand social groups within a class) intellectual seeks to change such conditions in two respects. Firstly, and perhaps what is least often recognised, especially among cultural theorists, the critical intellectual has a (direct) material role, engaging ‘muscular-nervous effort’, in ‘active participation in practical life’ (Gramsci 1971: 9). Secondly, the critical intellectual is concerned with intellectual and physical production to establish a proletarian hegemony though organisational and directive functions. As Hoare and Smith (Gramsci 1971: 4) put it ‘The organic intellectuals of the working class are defined on the one hand by their role in production and in the organisation of work and on the other by their “directive” political role, focused on the Party’.

What is perhaps most important to remember is that Gramsci did not believe that the building of what some (for example, Showstack-Sasson 2000) have called ‘alternative hegemony’ could take place beyond the economic struggle, that is, only in the superstructure. This is to say that, Gramsci’s concept of an Historic Bloc, in which base and superstructure are dialectically unified, serves to counter what he called ‘economism’, in which base and superstructure are separated, often with the intention of reducing the superstructure to a mere shadow of a dominant and quasi-autonomous economic base. For Gramscians, then, intellectuals must be involved in a holistic struggle.

            Understanding media as embedded into a system of production helps illustrate the limits to involving critical intellectuals in mass media. Such involvement is difficult when, as Garnham notes, there is ‘a symbolic system within which both the power to create symbols and access to the channels of their circulation is hierarchically structured and intimately integrated into a system of economic production and exchange, which is itself hierarchically structured’ (Garnham 1992: 373). What Garnham points to is the central problem of media. Though it is reasonable to suggest that media workers and media intellectuals have a degree of relative autonomy, as we have seen, the industry in which they work is bound to a system of capitalist industrial production.

            Thus we are faced with the problem of how critical intellectuals can uncover or produce media space; as Kluge and Negt (1993: 143) suggest, ‘the one-sidedness of the products of the media can only be defeated by counterproducts’ within ‘counterpublic spheres’. This space, particularly in the form of counter- or critical public spheres, is necessary, not just in media but also in the workplace, communities, educational institutions and so on, in both times of stability and crisis, to give voice to the oppressed, articulate problems, circulate ideas, discuss strategy, and so on. It is this space that critical intellectuals must engage. Such spaces – mediated or otherwise – have been part of every great rebellion, created through newssheets, pirate radio, demonstrations, occupations, lockouts and the seizure of communication systems. In more stable times, such (media) spaces tend to be found in public service broadcasting, some newspapers, and alternative (or radical) media projects. In the following section, I will consider the role of critical intellectuals in public service and alternative media projects.

Intellectuals and Activism Under Two Models of Media Use.

I propose that two models of media use may provide the sort of public space in which critical intellectuals may function. These two models are themselves suggested by critical intellectuals in defence of public space; both models are attempts to wrest media away from the state and the economic system.

Nicholas Garnham’s problematic is noted above – media communication is integrated into a capitalist system of production. His position must also be understood through its concern for democracy as self-determination, against the imperatives of the state and economic system. Until the economic system is changed, public service media provides a space in which critical intellectuals can address a general public. The concept of a general public is important on Garnham’s (2000) analysis because it is from the general public that a general interest can be understood. Because of the mismatch between publics and economic power, there must be constructed ‘systems of democratic accountability integrated with media systems of matching scale that occupy the same social space over that which economic and political decisions will impact’ (Garnham 2000: 91)

Garnham points out that the postmodernists in media and cultural studies are right to be wary of the role of the intellectual in perpetuating the use of elitist high culture ‘and its repressive uses in a class society’ (Garnham 2000: 97). However, whilst their ‘dethroning of the expert’ can be ‘a healthily democratizing process’ (Garnham, 2000: 106), they are led to abandon the grounds upon which critique can take place. The result is an abandonment of generality, a focus on difference for the sake of difference (or for commodification, corporate marketers and advertisers) and therefore the loss of any ground for critical judgement, policy intervention or critical pedagogy (Garnham 2000: 98).  For postmodern media and cultural theorists, the intellectual has been replaced by (at best) a ‘populist communitarianism’ in which talk shows ‘militate against rational, critical discussion’, which is condemned as ‘out of touch, ivory-tower, academic’ and so on, and in which ‘only the personal is political’ (Garnham 2000: 106). Against this, Garnham argues for a number of roles for what he calls ‘critical intellectuals’.

            In accord with Said’s (1994) conception, Garnham argues that critical intellectuals, who are active in the public sphere, should aim to dispute images, official narratives, and jusifications of power by providing unmaskings and alternative visions. The intellectual’s role is to overcome or see through ideological filters, which ‘the public’ is presumed not to (be able to) do. Thus, the critical intellectual must undertake a ‘strategy of intervention in the media’ as well as ‘critical media pedagogy’ (Garnham 2000: 102). In the former case, Garnham recommends extending what Jay Rosen (1995) has referred to as public journalism. His concern is less with the connection of the journalist-as-intellectual with the public, but her or his mediation of ‘experts’. In this sense, whilst he retains the objective of making ‘everyone an intellectual’, most people do not possess the ability to transcend dominant ideological symbolic systems and understand generalisable interests (Garnham 2000: 100-101). To this end, the intellectual must be involved in the ‘creation and circulation of public meanings to publics they in part create through their chosen modes of address’ as legitimate representatives of knowledge and the public (Garnham, 2000: 108). The other role that Garnham sees for the intellectual, against those he refers to as ‘the boulevardiers of contemporary culture’, is to lead judgement of truth, beauty and other aspects of media critique (Garnham 2000: 107). To this end, media intellectuals should educate the public and at the same time be involved in the negotiation of media policy and judging media performance at every level.

For Garnham, the expansion of the mediascape and increasingly media-savvy citizens does nothing to diminish the importance of the intellectual. On the contrary, as indicated above, the importance of the scale of intellectual activity increases as the degree and reach of mediation increases. The problem, however, is that as mediation increases in degree and reach, the concomitant increasing commodification of media representations further displaces critical intellectuals, owing to the fact that they do not contribute to the commodification process (or in the case of public service broadcasting to the legitimation of the state). A further problem for Garnham’s approach is that he underemphasises the question of the intellectual involving her or his self in ‘muscular-nervous effort’ in the organisation of production. Whilst Garnham has made calls for reform to media ownership structures, alongside more general economic structures, his lack of attention to the forms and processes of radical media means that for him specifically organic intellectuals – as opposed to those who seek to develop the consciousness of a group or class from the ‘outside’ – play a limited role in the alteration of media practice as such.

Perhaps a more radical approach to facilitating organic intellectuals can be found in alternative or radical media projects. Though it should be noted that alternative media should be considered a compliment to rather than substitute for public service, they exemplify a significantly different way of organising production. Such radical media projects have been historically important in the workers’ and other liberation movements. James Curran and Jean Seaton (1991) illustrate how the nineteenth century radical press struggled against the establishment and capitalist press, and Chris Atton (2001) has shown how radical or alternative[4] media projects attend not only to content, but to alternative relations of production, subverting the normal organisation of production and division of labour. In the same vein, Downing’s (2001) studies of Italian radical media projects found that traditional distinctions between technicians and reporters were eliminated, editorial and policy decisions were taken by all participants in the project and contributions to discussions and decisions were equally weighted (editorial collectives replaced editorial hierarchies), and to the extent that participants in the projects were paid, wages were paid not according to seniority (for this was erased) but at a flat rate. When the radio projects faced financial problems, wages were paid according to need (depending on, for example, number of dependents etc.). Such relations of production can also be regarded in various Marxist publications, such as Socialist Worker (along with the Socialist Workers’ Party’s other publications) and the Morning Star.

            Douglas Kellner shows how the ‘three fronts’ outlined above might be put into practice. In his (1990) work on Television and the Crisis of Democracy he not only analyses the emerging ‘conservative hegemony’ in American broadcast media of the 1980s, but also suggests methods of establishing a counter hegemony with the use of public access cable television. This latter enables intellectuals to take over the production process in television, to give voice to other intellectuals, including ‘movement intellectuals’ who represent the interests of the oppressed and the forgotten, pointing to disjunctures between their experiences and hegemonic ideology, but also propose alternatives. Kellner’s experiences as a ‘media intellectual’ are not uncommon in the US, that is it is not uncommon for US intellectuals on the left (and right) to be involved in media production processes, creating television and radio channels through which they organise and mediate critical discussion and draw attention to (and facilitate production by) critical movements in the US, Latin America and across the globe, from trade unions and workers’ movements to peace and homosexual groups.

The poverty of postmodern media studies is made clear by such exercises, which struggle to control or facilitate the production of representations, led by critical intellectuals. Such exercises also signify the unrealised potential of television technologies in most of Western Europe; few European states allow public access broadcasting. Of course the US experience is not one of media companies simply ceding space to oppositional groups, but, certainly since the US State revoked the legal requirement for the former to make space available in the 1980s, involves the latter struggling for such space. This struggle can be seen not only in cable television but also in the production and distribution of critical documentary films, many of which face serious problems of distribution. The experience that Kellner describes can certainly be understood in accord with the notion of critical organic intellectuals, who undertake practical activities that do change the immediate relations of production and aim to challenge broader social relations.

Technologies, Production and the Intellectuals

The two accounts outlined above relate largely to broadcast media; that is, media technologies, such as print, television and radio, in which closed messages are monologically transmitted to receivers. Such uses are not inherent to the ‘essence’ of these technologies, but rather reflect their historical conditions of development. Any account of the historical development of media technologies must factor in the impact of political and economic regulation of those media, and how this regulation influences possible alternative uses (that is, used to produce). Some restrictions are greater than others, so that alternative uses of printed media tend to be more common than alternative uses of television. This is partly because of the way the ‘institutions and social policies which get established in a formative, innovative stage… have extraordinary persistence into later periods if only because they accumulate techniques, experience, capital or what come to seem prescriptive rights’ (Williams, 1974: 147). It is also because the channels of radio and television distribution are politically and economically (and therefore technically) regulated. These regulations not only limit distribution, but also impose conditions on production in the first place.

            If media have been shaped or formed to accommodate certain uses or forms of production, consumption and exchange, do new or emerging media, especially those, like the Internet, that that only very minimally prescribe uses[5], escape these relations and might then be used to create dialogic critical spaces?

It is not unusual for neo-Marxists to claim that the Internet is a new force of production (see for example, Castells 1996, 2000, 2003; Hardt and Negri 2000) that gives birth to new contradictions between labour and capital (Hardt and Negri 2000). However, whilst there is a lot to be said for this set of technologies, many of the estimations as to what they can do, or more accurately, what can be done with them are based on two misunderstandings. In the first instance, the structure of the technology is misunderstood. For example, Hardt and Negri argue, the Internet is a ‘prime example’ of a ‘democratic network’. However, it is not the case that there is ‘no central point of control’, that it is ‘hard to control’, that it has a ‘nonhierarchical and noncentred network structure’, nor for that matter that it is ‘democratic’ (Hardt and Negri 2000: 299). To be sure, against the dominant understanding, the Internet is not an inherently horizontal, non-hierarchical (Jordan 1999), neither decentralised (Holmes 1997) network, nor is it owned by no one and nor is it beyond the control of the state and the economy (Jones 1997).[6] It is often forgotten that the Internet exists within already existing socio-economic formations, ordered by the state that brought it into being and that continues to exert a dominant influence on its continued development. Notwithstanding this cautionary note, the Internet and World Wide Web are relatively distributed (as opposed to decentralised), interactive, cheap, flexible and multi-directional. These characteristics, whilst not constituting an essential mode of functioning, do afford users with communicative capacities that surpass previous media. Crucially, they lead us to question the function of intellectuals where the medium is not structured in such a way as to privilege certain actors, where access to production is relatively open, flows of communication are multi-directional, where critical public spheres can be produced relatively easily from ‘below’ and where audiences are not necessarily geographically concentrated.

            There are two aspects to the Internet and Web that I would like to investigate in relation to the role of intellectual activity; the openness of the system as a whole, and the openness of particular sites.

Specific technical[7] decisions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in an Internet which was to be open to a massive number of (scalable) connections. This is to say that there is no formal technical limit to the number or the type of networks that could adopt the Internet’s TCP/IP[8] protocol and therefore become part of the Internet as a whole. This contrasts with the controlled environment of broadcast media and, to a lesser extent, print. This openness initially enabled critical networks, such as LaborNet (sic), GreenNet and PeaceNet, to interconnect and be available to anyone connected to the Internet so that workers’ and peace movements could thus be connected and accessible across national boarders. One of the most notable early consequences of this was the use of the networks by the Zapatistas, in particular Subcomandante Marcos, made possible by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) network. The significance of this network for the Zapatistas was made apparent in a report by the US military think tank, the RAND Corporation (see Rondfelt et. al. 1998). They note that the APC was the most important support organisation for the Zapatistas in the 1990s insofar as it, organised in a ‘networked’ fashion, was able to help affiliates support the Zapatista informational (or propaganda) struggle. The utilisation of computer networks enabled members of the Zapatista support network to consult each other and to co-ordinate campaigns inside and outside Mexico, especially by putting pressure on governments and other institutions such as banks by mounting fax-writing and e-mail campaigns and disseminating news and other information (especially the writings of Marcos and other ‘movement intellectuals’). If we compare the Internet to Kellner’s description of cable television we find that there is increased openness of production and distribution on the former. With the Web, networks connected to the Internet became more easily navigable, resulting in greater interactivity, and, potentially, in a greater exposure for content to a greater ‘public’. Thus, Web sites such as ZNet ( have become central nodes for the writings of critical intellectuals, by hosting and linking a vast network of Web sites, and coordinating actions and training in alternative media use. Further to this conglomeration of critical intellectuals, individual intellectuals have taken the initiative in creating their own Web sites and WebLogs (blogs) that aim to make their work available to a far greater audience than had previously been the case.

The general openness of the Internet, however, may also weaken the dominance of particular intellectuals and particular movements as the range of representations disaggregates, fragments and weakens the sense of collectivity, solidarity, compromise and tolerance, that enable collective action. Such openness may result in a pick-and-mix mentality amongst people deciding which particular topics and struggles they are concerned with without being able to grasp the whole. The importance of this is noted in relation to Gramsci’s intellectuals, who were organised around a solidaristic party, collectively organising for a specific agenda. The openness of the Internet may act to reduce monopolies of direct communicative and informational power (and propaganda), though this should not be considered a simple and straightforward good.

In addition to this openness of the Internet, the interactivity made possible by the Web may be utilised to set up a rather different communicative relation between intellectuals and their publics. Configured accordingly, Web sites may be formed to facilitate a ‘horizontal’ communicative space that again weakens the sometimes-domineering role of the critical intellectual. Independent Media Centres (IMC –, are a paradigm example of this sort of configuration, refusing to accept a hierarchical relation within or between audiences, contributors of content, editors and technicians. IMCs are very much egalitarian communicative spaces or public spheres in which anyone can participate or develop the technologies and policies to which use is subject without any form of registration, membership or identification. Perhaps Garnham’s invocation of Gramsci’s ‘everyone is an intellectual’ is approximated on the IMC. Certainly there are no privileged actors, every utterance can be contested, and importantly, ‘muscular-nervous effort’ and active participation in practical life is encouraged within and without the IMC. Again, though, perhaps this form pales in comparison to the organised party with its focussed critical intellectuals, coherence, foresight and a sense of purpose, which are lacking in fragmented movements that have no centre and little cohesive sense of direction, no matter how much they resist what is. However, the Marxist left (particularly outside the US) has been painfully slow in taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by Internet and Web technologies, especially in terms of how critical intellectuals can reach and engage new publics and propagate international class-consciousness.


Postmodern media studies are limited in terms of what they can tell us about its object of study. Its bracketing out of the problems of production and the relations that constrain it leave the intellectual (if the intellectual is accepted) in subservient relation to the system of production. It is only when we consider the arrangement of media production, consumption and exchange that we can understand how media can be configured so as to allow people to produce messages and communications in public space. Whilst public service broadcasting can arrange people into a public, its current closeness to the state limits its capacity to allow critical intellectuals to engage in anything other than a marginal manner. Alternative media projects, on the other hand, provide truly critical spaces, with little interference from state or economic interests, but pay for that with their marginalisation within the mediascape.

            The Internet has made access to the means of media production in this area much easier. Though the scope of the Internet means that the effectiveness of the filters and gatekeepers that plague older media is reduced, at the same time, some forms of mediation that have been conducive to the participation of critical intellectuals have been altered. This should, however, be regarded as an opportunity for the left, and for Marxists in particular. Unfortunately, the suspicion with which new media had been treated by the left, and the Marxist left in particular, outside the US, has meant that they missed an opportunity to use these media for their interests. The unexplored potential of media must be considered more carefully so that movements and their critical intellectuals take advantage of the ambiguous potential of developing media technologies. Further, the role of the intellectual must be examined in relation to changes in the media environment lest Marxists lose out in an important aspect of their politics.

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Wayne, M. (2003) Marxism and Media Studies. London: Pluto Press.

[1] I would like to thank David Bates for his patience, humility, and careful editing!

[2] One of the key texts in this move was Hall’s (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’. This was an excellent attempt to consider the full cycle of a media product through production (encoding), exchange and consumption (decoding). The purpose was to point to the decoding of texts as part of the process of the production of meaning. Thereafter, scholars argued that since decoding depended on the cultural situation of the subject, media messages were not such firm and influential  things, for their meaning was established not just by the encoder, but also by the decoder.

[3] Translations of Gramsci refer to ‘social groups’ rather than classes, though it is clear that the latter are regarded as the fundamental group. Nevertheless, the sophistication of Gramsci’s model leads him to discuss other social groups, such as black people in the US, and their struggles.

[4] The appropriate name for such media projects is a point of contention, with ‘radical’ and ‘alternative’ being the most common adjectives. I will use ‘radical’.

[5]  The TCP/IP protocol – which is the defining feature of the Internet – acts as a thin meta language that enables networks of any sort to communicate, without prescribing the form that communication takes.

[6] The reasons for this have to do with the historical (and contemporary) control over the development of the Internet by the (mainly US) state but also the way that the physical and what I refer to as ‘constitutive’ structures of the Internet (and the Web) are organised. In the case of the Internet, ‘gateways’ were set up to run part of the Internet protocol and mediate between networks. This meant not only that there is a structural hierarchy, but that the Internet is centred around multiple nodes. In terms of the Web, there is a clear hierarchical relation between servers and clients.

[7] To reiterate, it is not the intention here to separate ‘technical’ from other domains. The use of the word ‘technical’ embodies political, economic and social interests.

[8] Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.

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Activist citizen journalism and the law

Indymedia and the Law.
From Allan and Thorsen, Issues for Citizen Journalism – global perspectives, by Lee Salter.

Activist citizen journalism and the law is a key area of researching radical media projects. Without understanding the legal constraints under which media activists work, especially in protests we risk misunderstanding the functioning of radical media.

This chapter considers some of the legal issues facing citizen journalists, especially those engaged in “radical” or activist reporting, in an online context. It suggests that the conceptualization of the citizen journalist must consider the status of this type of journalism in relation to law, the application of which is especially challenging in an online environment that is said to transcend jurisdictions. The extent of legal provisions recognizing citizen journalists as being privy to special protection are in dispute, though there appears to be a growing recognition of their claim to substantive rights as citizens and as journalists. In this chapter, I shall argue that state authority and law is adapting—if rather slowly—to take account of changes in international relations (or globalization) with important implications for citizen journalism’s forms and practices deserving of close attention.

To clarify this chapter’s agenda, allow me to identify three critical questions for citizen journalists to consider:

  1. What rights are assigned and responsibilities required of journalists compared to citizens?
  2. How are journalists recognized as such and what implications does this have for citizen journalists working in an online environment?
  3. What complications are there for the state in assigning rights and demanding duties of citizen journalists in an online environment?


I shall proceed to illustrate some of the corresponding issues, in the first instance, with an overview of legal concepts that apply to journalists. Next, I will discuss material derived from a case study of Independent Media Centers (IMCs) based on my participant observation with IMC UK and IMC Bristol.

IMCs are parts of a global federated network of media centers that aim to provide a space for politically active citizens, or activists, to report their news without the normal constraints of economic and administrative power. They are particularly interesting as projects that attempt to harness the potential of the internet to be used in a way that avoids the implicit and explicit power relations that are said to stymie traditional journalism. As such they are supposed to allow anyone to “be the media,” not least by taking advantage of the perceived deterritorial, immaterial, and anonymous nature of the internet.


Online citizen journalism presents us with a conceptual conundrum: a citizen is the subject of a state, but the internet allows material to transcend the jurisdictional boundaries of the state. This conundrum, in my view, should not be seen as a discrete, novel problem, but rather placed in the broader context of change.

First, multiculturalism, migration, and competing obligations and loyalties create problems in the identification of legal subjects or citizens, on the one hand, and create legitimation problems for the state, on the other hand (see, for instance, Castles & Davidson, 2000). Second, the rise of multi-level governance has created a variety of sources of legal power and levels of citizenship (Held, McGrew, Goldblatt, and Perraton, 1999). Third, the supposed globalization (or perhaps, more accurately, internationalization) of politics and economics has outgrown the national basis of lawmaking, resulting in a profound shift in the constitution of people as political subjects and the state’s claim to authority (Hardt & Negri, 2000; Falk, 2000; Jayasuriya, 1999). For many citizen-activist journalists, such as those working in IMCs, there is the further problem of the legitimacy of the state—many contest that they have a duty to obey what they conceive to be a manifestly and systemically unjust state.

These problems are compounded in the online environment where internationalization, virtuality, and deterritorialization are said to threaten the capacity of the state both to award rights and manage responsibilities as they relate to citizens and journalists. An online citizen journalist’s copy may be written in Malaysia, about an event in Sudan, uploaded in Singapore to a server in Sweden by a German citizen. At what point is the citizen journalist recognized as such, and thereby awarded rights and/or held accountable for certain responsibilities? If rights are only made real by states, to which jurisdiction might the citizen appeal?


Can the journalist choose which state’s right to claim or which responsibilities to adhere to? Should she be held to the Malaysian Press Institute’s adherence to the principles of Rukunegara (the basis of the Malaysian state), which includes contributing to nation-building and upholding the standards of “social morality”? Perhaps most importantly, when can a state claim jurisdiction? Is it reasonable that citizen journalists should adhere to Germany’s Töben ruling, which extends its Holocaust denial laws across all jurisdictions? Whose secrets, security, criminal code, and so on should such journalists obey?

Traditionally, journalists in liberal democracies have enjoyed basic rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom of information provisions as citizens. That is, they have enjoyed generally applicable (to citizens) rights guaranteed by constitutional provisions (whether codified or not). At the same time, journalists have also enjoyed specific rights, awarded to them in recognition of their role in democratic states. As such, the ability to observe, scrutinize, and check power, and report to a public that governs itself, is made possible by journalistic rights and protections—specifically, with respect to questions of access, permissible speech, and legality of certain practices.

Citizen journalists may be concerned to secure rights of access (usually with a press card) and journalistic protection, for these are often not afforded to citizens as such. Access rights are those that allow journalists—usually gaining recognition through their attachment to institutions—to enter certain, sometimes restricted, institutions or areas as journalists. Speech rights for journalists sometimes go beyond those afforded to ordinary citizens, in the form of journalistic privilege — either absolute or qualified, usually offering protection against libel charges.1 In the United Kingdom, absolute privilege only applies if the whole discourse is reported contemporaneously. Qualified privilege is reporting that may break a law, but which can claim a public interest qualification or a notion of duty to report.

The protection of journalistic material (or “shield laws”) allows journalists to collect and store information of public importance. In the United Kingdom, section 10 of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act recognizes the journalist’s right to protect a source but allows an exception if “disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice, national security or in the prevention of disorder or crime,” unless outweighed by “public interest.” Similarly, the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act protects “journalistic material,” defined as “material acquired or created for the purposes of journalism,” but in neither piece of legislation is “journalism” itself defined.

The rights available to journalists are usually awarded to institutions (rather than journalists as such), primarily because they offer some security for the state: institutions function to control workers and their products, especially through


selection and socialization of personnel (Etzioni, 1967; Hatch, 1997). This approach makes the institution a legal subject with responsibility for legal compliance.

Many citizen journalists are not members of institutions or organizations, however. As we shall see, in the case of IMCs, for instance, the boundaries between who is and is not an Indymedia journalist are fluid, and there is no traditional hierarchy of editorial responsibility.

Citizen journalists may well find it difficult to gain recognition as journalists. Consequently, access rights and protections may not be forthcoming. This is especially pertinent when recognition is institutionalized. In the United Kingdom, for example, membership in the National Union of Journalists (whose press card is invaluable for access) is still in large part restricted to those who earn an income from journalism. IMC participants do not. However, a vast array of rights is available to them as citizens. In some countries, such as the United States since the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes judgment, constitutional provisions for free speech prevent the federal government from making a distinction between citizens and journalists, though some states have opted to implement state-level shield laws. Citizen journalists who are concerned to be recognized as journalists in the United States may, then, have fewer concerns than expected elsewhere.

Nevertheless, recognition remains an important issue for activist citizen journalists online. Legal subjectivity is an essential mechanism for claiming rights, yet requires responsibility to obey laws. On one hand, a citizen journalist may seek rights as a journalist. On the other, he or she may seek protection in anonymity, virtuality, and the sense of freedom that stems from exploiting the supposed deterritorialization and jurisdictional complications provided by the internet, especially in states where liberal rights are not forthcoming. In this instance, the citizen journalist may reject the status as either a general (citizen) or specific (journalist) legal subject. These issues will now be illustrated in the case of IMCs.


IMCs are key examples of citizen activist journalism of use of the internet. Born of the traditions of radical media projects that started with pamphleteering in the 17th and 18th centuries, through to radio and television in the 20th and 21st centuries, IMCs provide those excluded from mainstream media with the opportunity to “do it yourself.” IMCs do not depend on any external institutional assistance and only continue to exist as long as ordinary citizens participate in decision making and related aspects of running an online media project. Consequently, issues, campaigns, and events that slip through the mainstream news net take center stage on IMCs and are reported and discussed in a manner far removed from mainstream discourses—reporting is frequently irreverent, controversial,


judgmental, and active. IMC journalists do not consider themselves to be objective or neutral but stand on the side of the marginalized. As such, they are often “embedded” into the communities, movements, or campaigns they write about, embracing their subjectivities. They are not just advocacy journalists, but activist journalists.

IMCs are probably the closest thing we have to an autonomistic citizen journalism movement. Although individual IMCs make their own specific rules, they are held to global Principles of Unity (PoU). The PoU explain that IMCs must adhere to principles of equality, decentralization, and local autonomy. The emergence of new IMCs must derive from the “self-organization of autonomous collectives that recognize the importance in developing a union of networks.” They must be organized on a not-for-profit basis, must “recognize the importance of process to social change and…[be] committed to the development of non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian relationships,” and thereby “organize themselves collectively and be committed to the principle of consensus decision making and the development of a direct, participatory democratic process that is transparent to its membership.” IMCs must consider “open exchange of and open access to information a prerequisite to the building of a more free and just society.” They must be “based upon the trust of their contributors and readers, [and] shall utilize open web based publishing, allowing individuals, groups and organizations to express their views, anonymously if desired.” They must have a strong commitment to openness, by sharing resources, knowledge, skills, and equipment, while being committed to the use of free source code, thereby increasing the “independence of the network by not relying on proprietary software” (IMC, 2008).

As long as the PoU are adhered to, each IMC develops its own editorial policy and mode of operation. Though the degree of independence of each IMC means that generalizations are somewhat difficult, most IMCs can be roughly described as “anti-capitalist,” attracting citizens who tend to be involved with “radical” groups, campaigning and taking actions against the bureaucratic-capitalist state. Taking a position of opposition to the state means that the normal mode of operation of news organizations is rejected. This means that there are no agreements, tacit or otherwise, between IMCs and the states in which they are situated. Indeed, relations are usually ones of opposition.

The fact that IMCs are based on a critique of what they see as a compliant corporate media system that operates in a grossly unfair social system means that compliance with the “rules of the journalistic game” is not forthcoming. This position of opposition to the state leads to conflicts that play out through the medium of law. Legal conflicts illustrate the frictional borders between activist citizen journalism and state power and demonstrate the persistence of the state in an international and virtual media environment, as will be illustrated in the following case studies. While Indymedia arose as an “alternative globalization” movement, it


is arguable that its development from a global site to a network of sites that follow the contours of nation-states that the reality of the nation-state persists.


Because of the commitment of IMCs to the right of free speech, copy on IMC sites (with the exception of some features) has no editorial input, faces no prior restraint, and should only be removed from an IMC site if it breaches editorial guidelines (such as no discrimination, no advertising, and no copy from mainstream bureaucratic organizations). Thus IMCs receive sporadic complaints from institutions and individuals who have been defamed, or from their lawyers. Unlike mainstream organizations, IMCs do not have legal teams but instead depend on volunteers—of which I am one—who might have some knowledge of law, to staff the legal list. Copy may be removed or edited if the charges are considered to be quite reasonable—for instance, the police sergeant accused of being a pedophile without any justification (January 2006), though more “political” cases will be fought.

On September 13 and 21, 2007, IMC UK received letters from Schillings law firm on behalf of the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov demanding the removal of an article written by the former British diplomat Craig Murray. Murray had accused Usmanov of being a heroin trafficker, a thug, and a criminal in his book and on his website. However, the latter’s UK-based hosting company was served with a notice from Schillings. When Murray’s website hosts took down his website, the article in question appeared on blogs around the world, many of which were also served with notices from Schillings, and some of which complied. The article was then posted to IMC UK, prompting the lawyer’s letter.

The legal list was only notified of the letters some time after they were received, but soon initiated a discussion about how best to proceed. The volunteers were split between those who wanted to keep the original article and those who wanted to modify it.

IMC UK is a difficult “legal subject” insofar as most participants use pseudonyms, participation is fluid with people coming and going, and insofar as there is no formal hierarchy of office, participants may be regarded as virtual beings. This initially led some participants to consider themselves secure from such threats; however, it was suggested by some on the list that although most participants could not be identified (IMCs tend not to log IP addresses), an aggressive lawyer might realize that someone with a real identity must sign agreements with the web server company, domain name registrars, and so on. Such persons may be considered liable as legal subjects. However, the main thrust of the discussion was that IMC UK should claim journalistic rights under UK law.


As the discussions progressed over many weeks, participants contacted the original author to try to find out whether the publisher of the original book had had its legal department verify the claims made in it. Murray did not respond. Although no one was able to decide conclusively the veracity of the article, some participants declared themselves prepared to go to court to defend it. However, without verification of the claims, no truth-defense could be made, so some participants argued against the idea. The “Reynolds Judgment” might have offered a public-interest defense had the claims been proven untrue, but the fact that there was no attempt to include the (potential) claimant’s position would have invalidated this defense.

While this was going on, a participant noted that a Member of the European Parliament had repeated Murray’s claims in parliamentary debate. Some proposed that IMC UK could keep the article up and claim statutory qualified privilege. However, the claim was based on a misunderstanding. In the sense intended by some of the participants, privilege was understood as the right to report comments made in Parliament (in this case the European Parliament). However, privilege tends to be considered to extend only to the words directly reported in context and does not then extend to the rest of an article.

Although there was some consideration that it would be unlikely that a court would award significant damages to Usmanov, on the basis that he was a billionaire and IMC UK is a not-for-profit and has no significant assets, most participants (besides some of the more “radical” participants who stood aside) agreed to a proposal to rewrite the article as a front-page story (the original was buried deep within the site) about an attack on IMC UK by Usmanov, repeating the original claims as allegations.

Shillings did not contact IMC UK again with regard to Usmanov, but libel notices from others have continued. In this instance, the institutional virtuality of IMC UK may have prevented effective legal action from taking place. However, libel law has adapted to the “deterritorialized” internet, with countries such as the United Kingdom allowing people to “libel shop” when something is published internationally, that is, to choose the jurisdiction in which libel cases will be heard.


Just as libel law is adapting to internationalization, so too are “security” laws. So-called anti-terrorism laws have multiplied and intensified since 2001. Such laws have had significant effects on the ability of journalists and ordinary individuals to seek information about the state, yet increase the capacity of state authorities to survey and investigate citizens. Indeed they provide some evidence


to challenge the “end of the state” (Ohamae, 1996) thesis that developed states retain an ultimate monopoly over coercive resources.

One of the promises of the online environment was that it would transcend political boundaries, that states would be unable to control it. However, citizen journalists as material beings are legal subjects whether they like it or not, and their tools are similarly subject to laws as material items. Thus, the internet does not entirely transcend jurisdictional control. It may not be as easy to control as licensed media or institutionalized media, but control can be exerted over all material items, especially when issues of security are in play.

On Thursday, October 7, 2004, the Indymedia UK website went offline. Few of the participants were aware of how and why this happened—the site just disappeared. It was not, however, just IMC UK that went down. Another 21 IMC sites were also brought down. The problem for IMC UK was that its site was hosted on the servers of a US hosting company, which had been requested to comply with a subpoena from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 2003–2004 an Italian magistrate was investigating a number of “terrorist” acts committed in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, in particular the attempted bombing of Romano Prodi, responsibility for which was admitted by a contributor to an Indymedia web site. However, the magistrate found that the site was not hosted in Italy, but in the United States—exploiting deterritorialization to receive greater constitutional protection. Therefore, in April 2004, she requested that the US Judicial Authority obtain log files from Indymedia’s web-hosting company, Rackspace. The magistrate had requested that the US authorities subpoena Indymedia Global for IP logs. However, although Rackspace is a US company, the servers in question were physically located in the United Kingdom. This meant that the FBI could not directly comply with the request. Instead it had to make the request to the UK authorities. The important point about these requests is that they were made under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, an agreement among countries to cooperate on legal investigations across borders without necessarily having formal laws in common.

We see here, then, mechanisms in place that affirm jurisdictional control over citizen journalists: they are still subject to law as countries adapt to a changing legal environment. Indeed, the international scope of the internet does not mean that it escapes countries and their laws, but instead that it may be subject to the laws of many countries.


A notable feature of mainstream journalism is that it tends, usually in the name of neutrality, to take a passive relation to the world around it. Neutrality is not,


however, motivated only by principle or professional values. For example, incitement laws effectively prevent mainstream journalists from taking an advocacy role, at least on certain topics.

The promise of activist citizen journalism has always been to report actively from within movements. However, the issue of incitement to commit crime presents reporters with problems. If facts are not neutral, how can a proposed mass trespass of a military base be reported? How can the disabling of nuclear submarines be reported actively without incitement?

Under the United Kingdom’s 2006 Terrorism Act, the issue of incitement has become especially problematic, wherein the encouragement and glorification of “terrorist acts” domestically and overseas constitutes a crime. Indeed, encouragement applies to “a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.” Again, the limit of the supposed virtuality and borderlessness of the internet becomes apparent.

Of course incitement is not restricted to terrorist acts; it is more often applied in relation to crime. In June 2005 the police raided Bristol IMC and seized its web server under the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act and arrested a participant for incitement to criminal damage. The server was seized as the police sought access to the IP log (as did the FBI in the IMC UK case above) to identify the person who had written a story about a “direct action” they had initiated. (In this case materials were thrown at a train carrying cars from the port through the city of Bristol in a protest about climate change.)

In keeping with other IMCs, Bristol IMC preserves the anonymity of participants by deleting IP logs. The police had originally requested the IP logs, but when they were not forthcoming, they confiscated the server. Naturally, even this course of action was unfruitful. As Bristol IMC was merely a conduit, it claimed no responsibility for the posting, the author being entirely anonymous. One of the key arguments that the IMC put to the police was that the server should have been treated as “journalistic material” using the same PACE Act under which it was seized. In the first instance it was immediately clear that because Bristol IMC is not recognized as a journalistic institution in the same way as, say, the Bristol Evening Post, it was not treated equivalently. Its irreverence worked against it.

Further to this, although the argument that its servers be treated as journalistic material was well supported by other organizations that sympathized with Bristol IMC, such as the National Union of Journalists, it was somewhat misplaced. In the first instance, journalistic privilege is not protected in the same way as, say, lawyer’s privilege. Journalistic privilege (in this instance to protect a source and journalistic material) is significantly qualified. Although journalistic material


is protected under the PACE Act, that protection can be easily overturned by a judge or even by the invocation of special procedures. Furthermore, as outlined above, the protection of journalistic material is subject to other issues, especially the “public interest.” It is clear that a judge would see the action as criminal damage, and its reporting as the glorification of vandalism, and therefore there is no public-interest defense.

Bristol IMC has since instituted a system of editing so that when the collective is informed that copy might be considered to incite criminal activity, the particular passages are edited and replaced with a disclaimer.


Looking at activist citizen journalism and the law shows projects like Indymedia will always be at a disadvantage compared to mainstream journalism—politically, economically, culturally, and legally. IMCs advocate causes and actions and may report in ways that do not correspond with the rules of the journalistic game, norms, or laws. Because of this, neither IMC journalists nor other citizen journalists can simply and straightforwardly claim the rights afforded to journalists. It is not enough to claim privilege, for privilege is dependent upon adherence to the rules.

Though adherence to a legal system that is considered to reflect and sustain gross inequalities may not be desirable for IMCs, better knowledge of the law would help IMCs and citizen journalists more generally. Such knowledge would prevent participants from assuming journalistic protections are greater, and jurisdictions lesser, than they actually are. It might also enable them to consider claiming more general laws and rights as citizens rather than as journalists as such.

Some of the characteristics of citizen journalism mean that legal problems are not as great as they might initially appear to be. Though there are figures who are more easily identifiable, it would prove difficult to link them personally to legal transgression. Also, in libel cases, the visibility of the publication counts for a great deal—citizen journalists might claim that the number of people who read a specific story is very small, and perhaps of politically marginal importance, so large libel awards against them are unlikely.

The political decision of IMCs (and many bloggers) to protect participants through the use of pseudonyms and deletion of IP logs has proven effective. However, the question must be asked whether this will be allowed to continue and whether repressive aspects of law withdraw or advance in the face of new media practices. If it does not continue, citizen journalism will lose one of its most potent protections but may, perhaps, gain recognition as a journalistic enterprise proper.



1. While the United Kingdom has some of the strictest libel laws in the Western world, they have been loosened somewhat with the 2001 “Reynolds Judgement.”


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