The offices of Budapest daily newspaper Nepszabadsag, in Budapest, Hungary,October 8,2016when the independent newspaper unexpectedly ceased publication. Jan Woitas/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Familiar to openDemocracy readers as a former editor and writer for Our Kingdom, Jamie Mackay is Press Coordinator of European Alternatives (EA) and a writer and editor at PoliticalCritique magazine. In October he organised a transnational media meeting at European Alternatives’ Transeuropa festival, a cultural and political encounter that took place in Madrid. Independent media practitioners discussed the opportunities and obstacles to collaboration, established avenues of cooperation and came up with concrete ideas for mutually beneficial fundraising. In this interview, Jamie shares their plans for the future.
Joan Pedro Carañana (J.P-C.): What were the main objectives of the meeting?
Jamie Mackay (J.M.): We met as a group of about 25 independent media from across Europe, firstly to share our experiences of working in different national contexts, and secondly to establish a strategy for new forms of collaboration among our magazines. We presented our respective platforms and shared some of our most interesting and unique stories, from Istanbul to Lisbon. We began with the audience and the question of whether we were aiming to cultivate a small readership for activists – the left or another pre-defined constituency – or a more general readership. There were a lot of different answers, but I think we all agreed on the need for some kind of pluralism.
J.P-C.: How do journalists set about promoting pluralism?
J.M.: So much power sits with the commissioning editors in choosing what, who and how to cover issues. Making sure this is always a conversation, and being actively challenged, is a vital point for democratic media. Ramy Al Asheq, a Syrian writer based in Cologne, made a really important intervention in the meeting. For years he’s been involved in various refugee-run initiatives, working to establish a voice in German civil society beyond simply talking about journeys and the trauma of fleeing war. Now they are building spaces in which they can be empowered to talk about music, books, cooking, domestic politics, etc., as a challenge to the tokenistic use of refugee voices. For most of us, listening to and working with these kinds of initiatives would be a good start.
It’s worth re-iterating a point made by the journalist Ismail Einashe too, that while it is great to work transnationally across borders, between languages and so on, we can’t lose sight of who is writing the stories and the power dynamics in play. If we cover precarious worker struggles from an international perspective, for example, that’s all well and good, but we still can’t lose track of who is doing the reporting, and framing it. White middle class journalists: or a more diverse editorial team? Finally, who, going back to the audience question, actually reads this stuff? Consciously reaching for new audiences is, I think, one of the most important ways of developing a pluralistic editorial practice.
J.P-C.: What agreements for collaboration did you achieve?
J.M.: The most successful part of our meeting came from a discussion about how to cooperate to tell stories transnationally around key themes. The right to housing has been one of the areas in which this cross-border approach has been able to work effectively so far. A sort of first test of the loose network we’ve been working together to build.
To give you an example, a few months ago the Italian magazine il Salto set up a pan-European inquiry into problems with all kinds of housing struggles across Europe, commissioning articles from Portugal and Italy. These were published in Italian. Then they got in touch with Political Critique and we translated the pieces in-house into English. On top of this we contacted the Czech magazine A2larm, another of our partners, who gave il Salto a piece from the city of Kladno, so it appeared in Czech, Italian and English. And so on and so on. The meeting also helped fuel this: Novara media gave a UK perspective, La Grieta a Spanish one and now there’s a piece from Amsterdam too. The whole series is free to be retranslated or posted within the network.
We talked about other possible themes and inquiries of a similar nature, and had the idea of organizing something similar looking at feminist experience, or working lives. Cristina Mari, an editor at Kosovo 2.0, mooted an idea that I found really interesting: to commission a series of pieces across the network about how a single EU policy affects a local context, and then put them together in a single space. So choosing, for example, a reform to workers’ rights, looking at benefits and problems of the measure in Poland for example as compared with say Greece. Another practical suggestion was to coordinate some kind of cross-border, cross-platform crowdfunding campaign among us; to raise money for a ‘translation pot’ to keep up the momentum of the cross-border work.
J.P-C.: What objectives did you agree to pursue?
J.M.: The main thing was to stay in touch. And in the weeks after at least some of us, an expanding group, have been communicating on a daily basis, on a social media page. Making sure we have some aspect of community and debate is really important, to stop our collaborations becoming just bot-like aggregators. Though even this would be a start…!
As for my own personal takeaways I’d say the main priority is to amplify each other’s work, re-contextualising stories in transnational ways for different audiences and so bringing arguments, information and perspectives where they were previously lacking. Building links across borders in a very tangible sense.
At Political Critique we’re trying to put this objective at the heart of our editorial process with a big emphasis on translation, and a thematic organization of our site which is conducive to thinking beyond nation states alone. But different publications and individuals have their own perspectives on how it can look. The most important thing for now is that we develop a process between us where editors can quickly and efficiently find authoritative and trustworthy perspectives on issues outside of their national contexts. This is really a question of trust, and as much about internal processes as front-end presentation to readers. The end result, provided we all keep talking, will be a drastic improvement in the quality and nature of all our international coverage.
J.P-C.: How do you view your connection with the mainstream media? Do you aim to compete with them? Will you conduct critical analysis of mainstream media content?
J.M.: I can only speak for Political Critique here, but I wouldn’t use the word compete, no. To me that suggests we are trying to build something that resembles them. Not only is this impossible from a resource point of view, I also think we start from quite different principles. By mainstream media, as a broad term, we usually mean information and subsequently power wielded by billionaires, who in most cases set a press agenda while, at the same time, using their vastly superior resources to present politicized information as something neutral.
Add corporate advertising into the mix, lobbying and individual business interests, and you can see why so much of the ‘mainstream media’ works so hard to keep their funding deals secret. Then of course there’s the fundamental relationship with government and the state, lobbying, yes, but also the overlap with intelligence services which openDemocracy has covered for many years. Other members of the network are involved in serious interrogations of mainstream media too, like Kosovo 2.0 who have worked really hard to challenge stereotypes about the nation, for example the factually inaccurate presentation in global media – e.g. The NYT – that it is Europe’s number one hotbed for jihadi recruitment (see the response by Florian Qehaja for an eloquent corrective).
What we want to build is something counter-hegemonic, where we are accountable only to our readers, and committed to providing a space that holds power to account. This means an explicit political commitment to democracy. No hidden games. We want to be free from corporate interference, transparent about our funding and, with cases like the Kosovo story above, committed to rigorous fact checking. For me personally there are some great bigger magazines, like Internazionale in Italy, who regularly publish the network’s pieces in their print edition, or eldiario in Spain who we also have ties with. I do think there is space within a certain kind of large audience journalism to resist the dominant trends of the corporate media. As smaller independents we can play a role in that, but it’s just one aspect of what we do.
J.P-C.: Do you have any plans to promote broader reforms in the mainstream media systems through forms of regulation?
J.M.: As a network we don’t have a ‘plan’ as such to promote specific reforms no, though many of us are involved in initiatives in our respective countries and at the very least we aim to communicate the conversations about mainstream media reform to one another’s audiences. For this reason there are many different answers, but some common themes do emerge: tackling monopolies, taking action on lobbying, the need for genuinely independent press regulators to name just a few.
In Europe today, though, we are living through extraordinary circumstances, like the situation in Poland. I was talking with my fellow Political Critique editor Dawid Krawczyk from Krytyka Polityczna about this the other day. There are still mainstream newspapers and TV broadcasters who are independent from the government there. But he told me there is also a reasonable fear that a next step after dismantling the judiciary system may be an attempt to take over the media. Not many people expect it to be some kind of brutal intervention by the state. No one will send troops to a TV station or newspaper offices like in some cartoonish totalitarian regime. What might happen, though, is that the ruling party passes a bill demanding that media companies are owned by Polish shareholders. Investors connected with the government would probably be incentivized to invest in shares of those media companies and then control the content produced by them.
Looking at the situation in Hungary where most of the mainstream media is now controlled by oligarchy with ties to Viktor Orban it’s clear that problems with the mainstream media system are arising from similar pressures, but with quite vastly different national manifestations. Any conversation about reforming the mainstream media has to be connected to the larger international issue of how to tackle the excesses of corporate and oligarch power. And that’s the conversation our network pushes forwards every day, against all kinds of adversity, on our various platforms. By the way, we all hope openDemocracy will be an increasingly important part of this network or similar.