In the media tent
The Camp for Climate Action has attracted masses of media attention in three or so years it’s been around. It was arguably the first direct action movement to engage with the UK mass media in many years. This series of articles looks at how the Climate Camp deals with media. It tries to answer questions on whether the Camp makes compromises as a result of mass media interest, how it deals with media in an non-hierarchical environment and what role independent activist media plays in the Camp’s strategy. These are mainly revised extracts of research I have been conducting well writing a dissertation for my degree, partly in an effort to bridge a gap between student academia and activism. The views by no means represent the diverse ranges of opinion that exist in and drive the movement. However any conclusions, when not personal, aim to represent the movement’s consensus or practical experience.
This article is the first of a few interviews with participants in the Camp’s media team…
Interview with Isabel Michel & Steven Milligan on the 17th of Feb 2009
Steven is 30 and a freelance writer and researcher
Isabel is 35 and a media lecturer.
Lewis: So, how did you get involved?
S: I have a background of studying environmental issues for my degree and post grad and eventually working as in environmental management within the system. I became frustrated with the slow pace of change compared with what was needed. I went to the Climate Camp in 2006 and was completely inspired by it and just got sucked into the process of it and became more involved in that and less involved in everything else in my life.
L: What brought you into the media team?
Interest really. I'm no good with marquees or practical things but I can talk and write. I think there was a point in the Camp when we went 'ok we need a media team', so a bunch of us in the networking group did media stuff and I just ended up being one of those people.
I: I was politically aware, but not politically active. I fell in love with someone who had been very active in the anti roads movement and was also inspired through books. I got involved with the Anti G8 protest and went to the camp in Sterling and was really inspired by the self running process. After the G8 we were burnt out but a friend of my partner said come to the Climate Camp. At first we didn't want to go, but we did and loved it. It was amazing. 'I just looked around and thought, we are really fucking cool' it was a collective thing and you can feel it in the air.
People at Drax did something that has never been achieved in a radical social movement before in the UK. The movement that the climate camp comes out of was Dissent and the anti roads movement, they were the movements that said the media are part of the problem and not part of the solution and Climate Camp managed to change. The Camp at Drax was the first one and they had five or four front pages. They had already made the Q & A, the 12 page media team bible and they had set in motion a really brilliant process. So when I joined there was nothing to invent, they had already stated everything.
L: How has the Camp learnt things from other social movements before it?
I: Through people who have been very very involved in these movements. The people who came up with the idea for Climate Camp were people who were very involved previously, got burnt out and took time to reflect. Some of the movements that people have been involved in, like for instance reclaim the streets had quite a dire end. I think people also reflected on some of the terrible aspects of Dissent. So people came to the Climate Camp with an open mind.
L: Why does the Camp differ to past social movements like RTS in terms of its more active relationship with the media?
I: RTS still did press releases but their media wasn't very thought out. I think it came out of the fact that RTS became insanely criminalised in the media. Personally I thought it was because they were winning, on the up and they were held back. But it wasn't too well managed...
S: It’s about accepting that whatever you do the mainstream media are going to report on it especially if it’s exciting and audacious and radical, which is exactly what we want to be. So it’s just attempting to have at least some input and some measure of control over that rather than just letting them say what the hell they like. Then, well, the next step beyond that is to say let’s make an effort to get some of our messages in, the things that we want to say, the things we want to reach people with and let’s try to use the media as best as we can. We have to accept that they'll never tell the stories as we want to tell it, they’re never going to represent us as we truly are and they'll always be those that do horrible hack jobs on us, we can’t control that, but we can do the best to get some stuff out there and its quite powerful from that point of view
L: RTS is different to Climate Camp in that CC has a very clear issue and choice of targets. The issue, climate change, demands mainstream media attention, no?
S: I think RTS had a great story to tell but it wasn't articulated very well through the media. The front page would focus on some protest nightmare and i t would be quite rare that it would be any more sophisticated than that.
I: But it was a different time as well. RTS came out the free party scene and the anti roads movement. I think the media hated them because they came out of a culture that really disturbed them and I think that we’re not necessarily less radical but we have a cleaner image. We’re a lot nicer and proper than RTS. RTS didn't want to be that. I don't think we can compare the two movements.
L: Do you think CC gains a sense of legitimacy because climate change is an issue that is quite well debated and discussed?
L: Does the CC have a long term strategy?
S: Stop climate change?
L: Ha, ok, well are there people in the movement who have quite clear ideas about social movements and social change?
I: Definitely. It’s always difficult to talk about the Climate Camp which is quite internally diverse, as if it was homogenised block but I think that the Climate Camp has political views, it’s not only about climate change. It’s not like some NGOs who look at climate change but will not go beyond that. I think the Camp is very clear that climate change is actually the symptom of a systemic problem and we want to change that system. What we don't have is a ten point manifesto as to what the new system should look like. But I think we can say the political frame work of the Climate Camp tends to be very much inspired by anarchism. It’s not to say it’s an anarchist movement at all, but it’s very much inspired by the philosophy of anarchism. In the end there is trust in people's capacity to self managed and that will be the path to addressing climate change. We have in our key messages that we don't trust governments and corporations to find the solutions. Some of us think that. Unfortunately, they probably will have to be part of some of the solutions because climate change is so urgent. But actually in the pure ideal world of the Climate Camp I think we would like to say they're not the solution. So it’s dealing with climate change but with a systemic critique.
S: Some people see Climate Camp as the environmental end of the anti-globalisation movement or the anti-globalisation end of the environmental movement. its interpreted in different ways. There are people involved in the climate camp that are very mainstream in there views but are quite radical in the methods that they think are required. Allot of the core people, who gave it a texture, and the process itself made ties with anarchist principals which inform the whole thing and that's quite exciting really.
L: People can be anxious to call it an anarchist movement but we can say broadly the camp is informed by anarchism due to the processes the camp works by.
I: The only reason I would be anxious to define the camp as that is because quite allot of people do not recognise themselves as that and feel a bit like anarchism is shoved down their throats.
L: Is that the same reason you don't say that to the media?
S: It’s also an invitation to be misrepresented.
L: Does the media have a systematic or ideological bias?
I: Although structurally, yes, ideologically, definitely. At the same time there are individuals who are defiantly on our side. You always want to be interviewed by X who lays out the questions for you beforehand and asks you things you agree with. There are journalists that are on side like that but generally quite allot of them feel the need to give this balanced thing.
L: So if you don't oppose bias in the media do you have to translate your messages into a known discourse?
S: It’s a difficult balance to strike. It’s quite obvious that we don't use the words anti capitalist in the media and anarchism and things like that but more importantly you have a limited amount of time and you want to minimise the opportunity of being misrepresented, and at the same time there's no actual point talking to the media if you’re not getting across a useful message.
I: It’s difficult though because what we've ended up doing is being a bit scared of actually using those words or pushing that radical message in order to be heard, and we have been heard. But what we've ended up doing too often in my view is actually ending up almost on a single issue
We're defiantly a movement, I have no doubts about that. I think people who come to the camp feel it like that, but there is still work to do. I think quite often it’s because were too timid of pushing that message because we’re scared and because it’s hard. Anyone that's been cornered by an evil bastard [journalist] will know it really takes it out of you, you feel really vulnerable, you feel humiliated. its also because we all care so much for this - we're not paid PR agents. There is a feeling that your letting people down when you fuck up an interview and I think sometimes we end up playing a bit safe with what we say.
S: Its struggling with language and its learning as we go along. I think we are slowly getting better at it and I think we could have done allot more especially at the last camp to get that message out. We had a clear message that we wanted to say about the system of economic growth and how that's related to climate change, we had prepared our messages, and to be fair we made some effort to get these things out there and we'd say three things to journalists and they would chop it out because it doesn't fit their story. But at the same time there was probably allot more we could have done to weave it in and bring it in there. But then we also got caught up in talking allot of rubbish about police...
I: because we are not professionals, we don't spend all our time rehearsing interviews, which is what we need. In a way with all our shortcomings I feel really smug. With the bunch of ten of us, untrained unprofessional, we keep these big corporations that hire entire teams of professionals on their toes. The ideological bias comes into that, the questions are always framed in such a way that they corner you in not addressing systemic issues and it’s really hard to shove the anti capitalist message. In a way better training would be needed to learn to flip every question into what it is that you wanted to say in the first place. With the camp 2008 the police messaging hijacked the rest of the message.
L: Right, we'll get onto the police later. How does the mainstream media influence what actions take place?
I: I think there is a real effort from the media team that we do things at the service of the Climate Camp. What we are there to do is talk about the Camp to the media, not serve the Camp to the media. I think that DA nowadays always has some media awareness but I think we are really trying hard not to turn the camp into a media stunt.
S: It does come up in discussions and gatherings, somebody always says 'you know we have to think about how that would look in the media' and then someone else says 'we cant base our whole strategy on the media'
I: and both things are true. At Kingsnorth the GRRR [Great Rebel Raft Regatta] was very much devised, not as a media stunt, but with media in mind. It would be fun, it would be visual, it would be something that the media would like, but then it would not just be a media stunt. I think this is what the camp tries to do generally.
S: I would be really interested to talk to those handful of people that got over the fence and were arrested at Kingsnorth. They leaped over the fence and into the arms of police knowing they wouldn't be able to shut down anything or do anything and id be really be interested to find out was it the whole 'we did it we got in' and being able to put that message out which was really fantastic for the media team that was that going through their minds when they did it?
L: What does the Camp use the mass-media for, regarding that the Camp has its own media?
S: People get into it because they saw it on TV. Its about broadening the movement, its about reaching out to new people, it has to be. And its about trying to influence public debate and public opinion and attempting to get some more radical messages out there. In terms of also opposing specific bad things its very powerful to play the media battle and embarrass the government and the corporations.
I: I don’t see the Climate Camp as a radical lobby group but it also plays that part. I think it would be very naïve to try to pretend that’s not the case. But it is also about being prepared when they come, because they’re going to come.
S: It’s also part of our defense to have images on ITV of people being beaten by police. In terms of how we are trying to portray the story that we want to tell its negative, but in terms of keeping people safe and reducing the amount it happens it’s a strength. That’s another role for the media team.
L: What does the Camp give to the media?
I: During the Camp we send press releases once a day generally. We had a plan of what we would be saying every day but then everyday we had to talk about the cops. We have photographers and videographers on the camp and we try to make that available. The media team is not involved enough with the technical side that makes that work possible though. We work with group of genus heroes who basically make computers work on no energy. The availability of photographs and videos is always a problem [on site] because the availability of power needed to send them. But that’s what we try to do.
L: Do you ever find the mass media picking up on what you have given them or will generally produce their own stuff?
S: Sometimes it’s a case of phoning up jornos that we know and seeing if there interested. Depends what’s going on. This year we were spending allot of time responding to the police with some stupid press release or something like that and getting dragged down a side ally of nonsense. It depends on the publication, you obviously have some media that have the story that they want to tell or some journalists that come with an idea in their head of what the story is going to be and then trying to make us fit into it. We were in quite allot of different media, magazines documentaries etc, where we would give the story and yer ok quite often they wouldn’t’t get it right and we were misrepresented somehow but none the less it was coming from us.
L: Do you ever find media outlets just using everything you have given them virtually unedited?
S: It tends to happen more at the begging when we knew what was going on and no one else did. […] and as soon as events start to happen and once the different jornos get a sense of what's going on and get different stories from different places it changes.
I: This year was very much a battle of press releases [cops and Campers] and the editor would pick from both sides. I think when they come and they interview a couple of people and get a sense for things themselves. Only the really lazy journalist copy the PRs. They use the quotes though.
L: How do you accommodate journalists on site?
I: I think the media policy says allot about the movement and what we have to balance. It’s a nightmare.
S: We could have had a very simple media policy of no media on site. But it got to the point of media sophistication where it wasn’t what the movement wanted. The feeling was we needed some coverage of what we are doing here and it was only a minority that wanted no coverage at all.
I: There were more people who were into the idea of having media anywhere at any time, which I remain convinced that they just didn’t’t know what they were wishing for. If that was the case I'm almost certain the whole media team would have walked out.
L: At Kingsnorth this year you had passes for Journos to stay on site – did you get many to take them up?
I: Some played the game and found it was a really useful experience. Maybe 6 did that
L: Did you find them more positive when they spent a longer time there?
I: Yes definitely. The longer they spent the more positive they are, that’s almost a rule. We also smooze them like crazy...
S: It’s interesting how we have been increasingly confident of letting journos talk to campers. There’s this image of the media team trying to control the message, to have the confidence to say no you can talk to anyone on sight and we believe most people here will have the ability to articulate why they're here and actually journos prefer to talk to people who have thought about there answers before hand and who will give them something useful.
I: They always want both. Especially those that come several times, the more they come the more positive they are but only the journos that are vaguely interested and vaguely positive are going to come several times. The Sunday Times guy that has already decided what he's going to write about you in any case doesn’t want to get involved because he doesn’t want to have his own ideas - his or hers but its generally his - have their own ideas changed, they don’t want to take the risk of being confronted to how wrong they are. So they only come because they have this journalistic integrity because they say ‘well I have to go.’ In any case they write the story they are going to write any way. Most journos will be happy to have someone who is quite articulated but they also want to have some random person to check this isn’t just some slick message because journalist are very use to dealing with spin.
L: Do you prioritise journalists and media and do you block out others?
S: Yer it’s an experience thing. Getting to know different journos, which are worth the time.
L: Evening standard hate the Camp. Do you just block them off or do you give them some sort of standard reply?
I: We try to have the most trained people give them a response. Some people feel disrespected as they feel they could talk to journalist like that but don’t know what it is actually like to be cornered ten times by one and knowing what it feels like and being able to get over it etc. With the Evening Standard we say a bare minimum. You think mostly about what you don’t say.
L: On who can or can’t talk to the media - do you think there is a hierarchy present in the media team?
S: It’s the same as you wouldn’t want me to put up a marquee, its about finding people who have got the skills, the experience and the training to do the jobs. If I want to put up a marquee then brilliant I’ll get together with some experienced people and get involved but I wouldn’t be expected to put up the biggest marquee in the middle of the Camp by myself. In the same way people can join the media team take on a small role to begin with and get experienced but you don’t have someone on the first day and put them on TV. It’s what's best for the Camp but also for the person
I: The word hierarchy is interesting. What we really try not to have is relationships where people end up being cohearsed into doing things or not doing things, where decisions are made that are really not transparent. At Heathrow there was a tendency to end up in a little bit of a bubble but at Heathrow it just never stopped. We got completely taken over and no one expected that. It was the biggest shock ever, people got upset. It was more manageable at Kingsnorth. It’s not an easy to find a balance and we're learning, it’s a very young movement.
S: On the one hand its about who speaks to the media and then there’s the question of what we are saying. There has been times when we have to make a decision with only three people in a tent at midnight about a message and not having time or a clear remit to know where the line can be drawn.
I: People want the media team to make a clear remit before the Camp but when we are there and people see how it works and we go to the meetings and say can the media team have an open remit for today people say yes, good luck, deal with it.
S: It is difficult. You go on TV and your seen as reps for the camp. Though we are not trying to set up ourselves as that. We need allot more advanced discussion especially in relation to this year and how we are going to make connections between finance and climate.
I: There is still a reproduction of the social organisation of society. There is a very scary concentration of PHD’s going on. That’s a real shame. There are loads of people who don’t have PHD’s who could do the job and who can also put up marquees, do cooking, etc. The problem is that because there is a skill shortage they are too busy.
L: How do new people approach the media team and become involved?
S: We have bursts of activity when we make an effort. We run training before the Camp and at the Camp.
I: But as soon as there is training organised at the Camp ten journos turn up. We have to make it up as we go along
L: Does the media team ever attempt to seam official or use levels of cultural status, for example titles such as doctor or dress in a particular way?
I: There is no agreed language. This year was the first time there was some form of agreed smart appearance. One person decided to put himself forward as a doctor but would only do and say certain things. Otherwise there is no code beyond the key messages.
L: So if there is someone who might be dead good at handling the media who insists on wearing a mask…
I: It happened. There is nothing you can do. At first I thought it was a disaster but then I thought that’s the Camp and there are masked up kids here. Maybe sometimes we are being too cautious, probably its not the end of the world.
L: How does the camp make itself heard, does the Camp often provoke a story or is it reactionary?
S: Both. We are careful not to make the only reason for taking action is media coverage.
I: We don't have that much work to do. We're not in the position of PR people who have to make something out of nothing. There is always something to talk about.
L: So, let’s talk about the Camp's bessi mates - the Evening Standard...
I: Well at Heathrow they printed an article that said we were preparing hoax bombs and the journalist lied. The story was picked up by other papers. We filed a complaint with the PCC which is a long bureaucratic process and is pretty toothless but eventually the Standard printed an apology and a withdrawal. It was three people that dealt with that and took six or eight months. The Evening Standard has a long history of having a direct line with M15 and that is being used very clearly.
S: The positive result, the retraction, didn't make much difference in terms of what the public saw but it keeps them on their toes and it shoes that we are prepared and organised enough to fight back.
I: For us it was a very good lesson and we were very well counseled on that by someone with a large amount of experience. We made a shift from this quite typical activist reaction, which is a bit victimised, to actually say there is no reason why we should take this lying down. It made a difference in terms of confidence. For example in terms of the media policy, quite allot of them complained bitterly about that. Journalists are managed all the time by everybody, corporations to political parties etc, but when it’s us they just can’t stand it. Because we are activists with public discourses they feel they should have access and I feel this shows a lack of respect that they show for people positions of authority that they don't show to us. The PCC episode gave us more confidence.
S: Now we can say the ES lied as proved by the PCC.
I: And we do say it, and use it as a threat.
L: Has the camp built up a profile so that it is sought after for a response on certain topics?
S: Yes. Journos have the Camp phone numbers and they often want a quote from the 'radical edge' as they do from the NGO or the resident etc
I: Yer we're on the map now.
L: What does Indymedia and the media of the movement contribute to the Camp?
S: Communication between activists. But more than that people are more networked online, people go home and disseminated information amongst their networks...
I: Indymedia needs to rethink its role anyway because of all these blogs and other networks. They have a tendency to be frustrated as they can be seen to be a service provider but at the same time they are. Yet there are too many people who use Indymedia [on site] to gain access to their emails. It’s one of those things that will be missed if it’s gone and is moaned about when the quality is down. However Indymedia is a collective responsibility, if you don't like what it is then write something better on it. I think it shows the lack of training that we have to be well self managed because we're so use to having services being provided for us.
L: There is a clear distinction between Indymedia team and the mass media team in the Camp, do you think that's true
I: Yes, and I think it should not be. We do not work enough together and to be honest I think its the media team's fault. We tend to be really busy and we work too well together. Its when you have done four hours of interviews you just don't want to do any more.
S: We made a start this year by sharing the space and sitting in on each other meetings.
I: It has ended up them providing services for us though.
S: Yer, there would be an emergency and we would be like 'find an IM person', and they would come and save us.
I: Like when there has been no sun for two days and somehow they would still have power.
L: Do you think there is a problem in the capabilities and potential of Indymedia, for example compared to the Camp's own website, is there really not that much use for it?
I: I think there is a use. For example there is very few reports from all the brilliant workshops in the Camp. If that was written up that would be picked up by the media and make our lives easier. At the Camp everyone has experiences of magic, there are moments like that everywhere, if they were recorded on Indymedia it would give the Camp a different texture.
L: So, on the Police and their slander campaign. I'm interested in how you handled it and reacted to it?
I: With great frustration. It was so frustrating because first of all they would keep coming at us with the most ludicrous inventions that we knew had the capabilities to bite in the media, like the cash or the weapons being found apparently hidden next to a road which they said we were going to use to hurt horses. Then you realise that some journalists believe that rubbish and you end up in the nightmare situation when you talk about anything but the issue. Attacking animals on a vegan camp! There is no logic.
[At this, Dan leaves and we have some amazing dinner!]
L: …Ok back to the po po
I: For us it was frustrating. It felt we were fire fighting in terms of messaging all the time. We kept on having filters coming through that prevented us from being able to talk about what we needed to talk about. The camp's media team aren't just employers that are paid to do what we do, we are activists and we care about what we do, we really are fighting for social justice. To be criminalised is hard. We want to do good and we are being treated like criminals when we know that the criminals are the people we are trying to stop and we don't try to criminalise them. We really have to avoid that the story doesn't become the police and we end up with the usual connotations associated with the Camp, 'there out of control', 'they are slightly anarchist', etc. They want to pile all these connotations on us and we have to get rid of them. It narrows even more the space to have the systemic critique.
L: Where is your frustration and anger placed, of course on the police but what about the journos who picked up on that rubbish?
Yes it is frustrating. That's where hegemony comes in, there is this hierarchy of credibility, if the police say something then they will give more credibility than what we say. Its frustrating to see allot of journalists play into it.
L: And it puts you on a defensive consistently
Yes it does. But it makes you realise that our society is structured like that. We have everything to prove, that strictly the journalist will come with an attitude that they need to be wary of us, that we have hidden agendas, that we are the ones who have something to hide, not the police, not the corporations, not the government spokespeople. Even educated people like journalists don't question that.
L: Can you use the police situation to our advantage, such as their own statement showing they stole our crayons?
We managed to flip it a little bit but we were not talking about climate change or the capitalist system. We managed to fire fight ok but we couldn't turn it round to talk about what we wanted to talk about. I don't think it’s our lack of experience I think that the space isn't there.
L: Does the Climate Camp media peeps attempt to gain a sense of legitimacy attained by corporations, police etc, if they do how do they do that? Do you seek to associated yourselves with the world’s poor for example?e
We don't want to claim more than we can. There is a whole reflection about the politics of representation. We don't claim to represent x or y. We don't claim to represent anything other than us as people there and then and we don't even do that. We try to use the legitimacy of the discourse rather than that of the people and I think more and more events are proving us right. Its quite rare that we have an opportunity to do something like News Night but what we go for is not who will be the most credible or have the most status it is who can hack it, who can take facing Paxman, we need someone who wont collapse etc...
L: On the messaging, if you could say anything what would you say?
It would be an anti capitalist message. The root of climate change is not coal or aviation, it is the capitalist system and that being an anti capitalist is not being a backward weirdo. Its possible to be an anti-capitalist and be happy and normal. For me that's the message the Camp is trying to get to. Anti capitalism doesn't not have to be this impossibility, its not only just possible but more joyful and healthy.
L: What is the strongest message you push, stopping climate change or starting social change or are they completely interlinked?
I think it’s totally interlinked. That's the message of the Camp, you can’t have one without the other.
More articles to follow – interviews, examples of other movements media use and analysis. Watch out…
See http://www.youtube.com/climatelife for almost all of Climate Camp’s broadcast news coverage from 2008.