Radical media, #Novara10k and free communism: an interview with James Butler

In recent years, Novara Media has gained a significant cult following on the radical left. They are fundraising for £10k, so openDemocracyUK caught up with their co-founder.

Adam Ramsay
James Butler Adam Ramsay
15 October 2015
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"He thought I must be a cop: I had rung him in the middle of Novara". Perhaps this story - told recently by one of my openDemocracy colleagues - is evidence of activist paranoia. But the fact that it didn't surprise me shows something else. Novara Media has permeated the radical left.

Whilst hardly a mainstream broadcaster, its weekly radio show and podcast; snappy films and Buzzfeed style listickles have built up a significant cult following in recent years. From Aaron Bastani's iconic call for Fully Automated Luxury Communism and interviews with Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas to James Butler's sweeping analyses of the world and how to change it, it's played a significant role in shaping the ideology of the young left in the years after the student movement of 2010 exploded. Now, they've launched a campaign to raise £10,000 to fund their efforts, so I sent co-editor James Butler a few quick questions. Enjoy.

When I first got involved in political activism in the early noughties, I was endlessly being told I ought to read and write for indymedia. It was never an attractive prospect. How has radical media changed in the UK since then?

Well, I used to read Indymedia too – but I didn’t really go to it for analysis, more a sense of what activist groups across the country and across Europe were doing. I recall being pretty young and reading about the raids and death in Genoa in 2001 via Indymedia. That kind of reporting now happens in a much more dispersed way – over social media, especially – and can be harder to bring together or track in a single space. Until recently it was also hard to have an equivalent sense of similar projects across Europe, though in the wake of the crisis of the past couple of years that’s now less the case.

IM is a useful comparison point because like all counter-hegemonic projects it bore the imprint of both the establishment to which it was reacting and the political climate in which it was conceived. From the former it inherited a lot of preconceptions about reporting, from the latter various attitudes that seemed to co-ordinate what it would report on or host, and political intuitions about how it should be organised. The vein of radical secessionism, prefiguration, and somewhat subcultural preoccupation that was so much a part of the anticapitalist and environmental movements of that time was obviously part of it. The tension between being a forum for the movement to communicate among itself and actively attempting to reach out was also obvious: I think IM often came down on the side of the former. In the sense of that fundamental issue, not much has changed. We try to do both.

The other thing to say, I guess, is there’s a lot more of it! Even for those of us who make a point of trying to follow it, there’s a dizzying amount out there. I generally think this is a positive thing, but the nature of these projects is that they can be pretty ephemeral, and that often their major difficulty is connecting with the right audience. It’s hard. Sometimes good things get lost in the morass.

How do you think changes in the radical media have interacted with the changes in politics in the UK over the last decade?

There are certain things that are obvious: the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and concomitant rise of social media platforms meant a kind of change in the proximity of journalists, readers, audiences. It’s easy to overstate this, but for politically active people, especially young people, it’s been a hugely useful tool for orientation and organisation in the wake of the crisis. In one way or another, it’s been an essential component of major political flashpoints, across the spectrum, from the 2011 riots through to the Scottish referendum or the Corbyn campaign.

But what these reveal is really the symbiotic nature between social media, radical media and conventional media – a symbiosis that often contains a useful antagonism. There’s a limit-point to talking about radical media as ‘true’ or ‘real’ as if all that mainstream media did was release crude propaganda. There’s a role in pointing out ideological confections, but I think one of the things the short, shareable pieces we do on Novara Wire manage is to point out popular fallacies without descending into conspiracy theory or reductionism.

In that environment — what we could call a ‘hybrid media environment’ if we wanted to feel slick and slightly greasy – I think you have to see radical media as challenging the mainstream but also rebuilding a venue for critical discussion and exploration on the left more generally. Both are essential. In a sense your question is very difficult to answer, both because ‘radical media’ is a large, disparate and heterogeneous group, and because its changes haven’t been driven purely by political exigencies, but technological change, too. Perhaps one major change has been trying to figure out how to use the formats favoured by new technologies: what someone’s going to read or watch on a phone, for instance. On the other hand, a little kicking against that formalism, too: asserting the copious space given us by digital media should allow for full and open exploration of ideas. Basically, you should be able to arm people with five succinct mythbusters on the Greek crisis, but also be able to explore the political ramifications of the Euro struggles for an hour, too. Both those things are needed!

Where do you see Novara fitting into that?

Well, my involvement with the project has always been explicitly political: I think any political movement needs media, along the lines I’ve just suggested. In some circles this has always been a bit heretical, but insofar as media designates the public space in which ideas can be discussed, advanced, argued for, such things have always been necessary for political movements (thus Iskra or Le Vieux Cordelier). It is not in itself a sufficient condition for political change but is an indispensable part of it.

We ourselves are directly descended out of the 2010-11 student movement and subsequent anti-austerity movement: it’s where Aaron (James' co-founder) and I met, and where the impetus for the radio show came from. As such, it’s born out of a context of defeat. At its best, this can produce a kind of questing skepticism willing to probe at dogmas, try to see other ways out of the present situation. But there’s a wider context, too: I think it’s inarguable that the institutions of the left that used to allow for this kind of thinking, education and discussion have atrophied or disappeared entirely over the past couple of decades, partly in the wake of Soviet collapse and neoliberal triumph. Few that survived have really managed to grasp the potential of new media. So we’re also engaged in a project of reconstruction, in a sense. And it’s an important one: we are in the intermezzo between serious economic crises, and building a political culture capable of responding better to the next one is absolutely vital.

Can radical/alternative/independent media ever replace the corporate and oligarch owned media?

No. It can’t: if it were simply to replace it, it would become it. But what is happening with media means there are significant opportunities to change the landscape. The ad-funded model isn’t really working any more, and no-one has really solved the funding problem that results. But one of the knock-on effects of this is likely to be the fragmentation of the media environment: the major newspapers, for instance, are relatively new things – they were preceded by a much more diverse print ecology. I think it’s probable we’ll return to something similar, maybe with legacy titles continuing to exist, but with a much more fragmented public sphere around them. That’s a double-edged sword (what use is a world-changing message or story if it only reaches three people?) but it makes the struggle for hegemony look more exciting and changeable than it has done in decades.

When I say no-one has solved the funding model, by the way, I really do mean it: subscription and fundraising is unpredictable, and doesn’t offer the revenues advertising did. Venture capital does, but how does it compromise your reporting? What decisions do venture capitalists get to make? And what happens five years down the line? Those are more general questions for media, to which there is yet to be a satisfactory answer.

But for us, there are other political questions: one of the reasons I react strongly against terms like ‘radical media’ is because it can be obscuring. Are we making media for radicals, or media that attempts to go beyond the radical ghetto? If the latter, we also have to consider how to use or engage with other media too. There’s also another way to think about this question, which is to say that a consistently ‘radical’ media has to consider how it produces, not only the voices and issues it represents, but whether its work is rightly distributed, what its political effects are. Having said that, radical media ought to be ambitious in its output and aims — especially when so much is for the taking.

It's been a few years since you launched Novara, and you've had some impressive success. What have you learned from the experience that might be useful for others trying to do similar things?

Well, from the start we’ve been hugely supported by Resonance FM, who do amazing things on a shoestring budget. That has helped in terms of audience, and in terms of obligations: you can’t just drop a show because you don’t feel like it. Were I to give advice, it’d be this, and I’m afraid it’s all obvious:

  • - Deadlines. Pick them and stick to them. The success of Novara Wire has been down to the amount of sheer hard work Craig has put in to getting, chasing, editing and promoting articles for it, three times a week.

  • - Work hard. Good shows rely on preparation, and anywhere I feel a show has been weak, it’s almost always down to poor preparation on my part. Some authors we’ve interviewed seem almost stunned that someone’s bothered to read their book before talking to them about it.

  • - Talk to people, go to things, read. Without a sense of what is happening in real life, what people are thinking, and what has happened before, your sense of things will be off. Almost everyone has something useful to say.

  • - Treat your audience with respect. People aren’t idiots, and treating them as such is a turn-off. One of the things we try to do is open up big questions without diminishing them, but also without getting lost in a toxic cloud of scholastic fog. To entertain complexity is democratic and it is essential.

What are your plans for the future of Novara?

Total global emancipation, the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of free communism. But in the nearer term, we have plans to expand the video side of things massively – for instance, I’m plotting a series of 3ish minute videos based around a project similar to Raymond Williams’ ‘Keywords’. Other video work might include discussions on cultural politics, or the politics of urban space and architecture. We’re also planning to host more significant long-form written work, where appropriate. We want to up the coverage we give to areas beyond Europe and the US, and work more closely on documenting and giving a platform to existing struggles in the UK. And we aim to do some #NovaraIRL events, too, ideally not just in London – I think those could be very exciting.

One of the few unalloyed goods we can take away from the Podemos experience is the use of their media channels to disseminate ideas and introductions to concepts that allowed people to name and explain what was going on around them. (There are other more ominous lessons.) Using media like that, and insisting that knowledge isn’t merely neutral or theoretical, but ought to be employed politically, is really essential. And I don’t just mean abstract knowledge, I mean stuff that has direct agitational and informational use as well.

Why should people give you any of the cold hard pittance of an income they managed to prize out of the iron fists of the capitalist system?

Because they believe in what we’re doing; because they like what we’ve done. If you do – if you’ve found what I’ve said above resonates with you, or it’s something you’d like to see – then donate. We put in many hours of unpaid work – that’s unlikely to change – but we can’t conjure equipment budgets out of nothing. Projects like these can’t run on good will alone! We’ve done a lot of good work already on almost nothing. With a little money, we can do a hell of a lot more. I think you’ll like the results.

You can donate to the Novara10k campaign here.


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