The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted for us all the issue of social marginalisation and voice poverty. If you need evidence of how divided communities in this country are, the proof is staring at us in the form of the smouldering shell of a tower block that was once home to hundreds of families who had settled in London in the hope of building a better life.
But if people living in the richest borough in London are not being heard or understood, how many other people and communities up and down the United Kingdom are likewise not getting heard?
The shock of what has just taken place in London should be a worry for us all. Not just for what it says about fire regulation and social policy, but for what it says about communities that have important issues to talk about, and who want to contribute to the ongoing debates about what makes us stronger.
After years of vilification and whipped-up hatred by politicians and newspapers, often to suit narrow political or business interests, it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to see through the deception that being poor isn’t, and never has been, a free-ride.
The stark fact has come to the fore, that people and communities across the United Kingdom are seemingly powerless to act against entrenched local authority bureaucracy, especially when it is entwined with deregulated and unaccountable commercial business interests.
Having been excluded from national debates, vilified for their social differences, or worse, disregarded as legitimate citizens, the anger that is being expressed on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea is understandable. If you push down on people for long enough, eventually they will push back.
This means that the challenge of living together in harmony, in integrated communities, for the mutual benefit of all, is back on the agenda as the defining worry of our age. However, after almost a decade of austerity, the absence of practical support for shared social cooperation, which promotes understanding and mutual engagement, has meant that our communities are more divided and more disenchanted.
None of this is helped by the centralised, concentrated and narrow model of media regulation that we have in the UK, which is clearly not fit for the purpose of community self-representation. The market-based model of local media is letting us down.
Everywhere there has been a hollowing-out of local representation. Local newspapers are put together from press-releases in distant towns. Local radio stations regurgitate nostalgic chat and play-listed music that is a comfort blanket for some, but an irrelevance for many.
Social media is the disrupting influence in this process, as social media platforms are able to demonstrate a proliferation of voices, issues, creativity, obduracy, concern, and anger. Social media has given a platform for many different alternative voices to come forward, though this is a process that can work both ways.
The expression of consternation and indignation that is being voiced, however, is as likely to come from the right – with those who want to exclude marginalised communities and demonise them – as much as it comes from those on the left, who want to embrace and celebrate social differences.
The alternative to a trusted and responsive media, we are so often told, is to share our own news and ideas on social media. But this has also highlighted that many of our traditional media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters, have too much in common, and are chasing the same narrow expectations of shareholder value and profit.
The concentration of ownership of British media, in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations, that are all chasing the same advertising revenues, means that audiences are only ever considered in ways that are constricted, homogenous and static, all to please their sponsors.
It’s frustrating then, that community media is seldom acknowledged as a practical and sustainable alternative to mainstream media. Especially as community media is well placed as a community movement that embraces diversity, self-expression and shared cultural understanding.
Had community media been able to provide a space for voices blocked by the mainstream media and political parties, then the simmering resentment that resulted in the Brexit vote might have found an outlet. Instead, the mainstream media where preoccupied by a wave of jingoistic nationalism that failed to pick-up on the experience of many people living in the left-behind communities who have not shared in the new prosperity offered to only a few by the free market.
Community media in the United Kingdom, however, is desperately underfunded and actively marginalised by speculative commercial interests. If young people and others are turning to extremism as they search for radical answers, because they can feel that they are part of something, then we need to invest in alternatives media spaces that cuts-off extremism and renews our sense of community as an active and enriching set of social practices.
In Germany, the Federal Agency for Civic Education gets federal funding in order to promote understanding of political issues, intensify awareness of democratic cultures, and promotes the political process as something that all citizens can participate in.
Clearly, work needs to be done so that communities are able to share information in responsible ways, be media literate, and learn to question what they are told. But it is only by investing in community-led solutions, that offer people a chance to learn about each other, founded on the ability to participate in the life of their neighbourhood, its civic life, that we are able to renew and strengthen our sense of community.
Community media is a movement of people who want to see change through locally empowered and self-determined voices that are accountable through local participation in media of all kinds. Community media is a movement of people who think globally, but act locally. Community media is a movement that calls for all parties aspiring to government to invest in social and civic spaces that they can cherish.
Community media is about recognising and supporting the right to speak out, about giving back control of media to local communities. Allowing communities to hold their representatives and administrators to account. Investing in support for high quality, grassroots journalism. Including young people in the democratic process. Valuing all voices, from all backgrounds and abilities. Demystify media and the structures built around it. Changing the broadcasting regulations to support wider debate is now essential.
Access to community media should be seen as a right, and not dismissed as a hobby or plaything. But community media can only contribute to the building of a better society if people have time to volunteer, and the resources to discuss, debate and question issues that are relevant to them.
By offering widespread community media opportunities everywhere, and for all people, it will be possible to reach people who are held at the margins, especially those who other media do not understand or cannot represent. Community media is about promoting access for everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, income or any other factor.
This means maintaining the core principles of community radio, which means that there is an alternative media movement that is not run by the state, that is not for profit, which is locally owned and accountable, and which can lead the way in bringing about deeper social change. As media technologies change, such as community television, or small-scale digital radio, we have to ensure that communities have priority over narrow commercial interests.
Funding for community media has to be increased substantially. Ofcom presently gives £400,00 each year to support community radio in the UK, but the BBC spends ten times that on taxis each year. We need to establish flexible and dedicated funds for all types of community media projects, channels and groups, that support reasonable and fair payments for the services community media provide, through training programmes and the promotion of community development campaigns.
Investing in education and learning opportunities through and with community media means recognising community media’s contribution to our civic and social life. Celebrating and valuing the achievements of the community media movement in a way that cherishes the positive impact we can all have on the wellbeing of individuals and communities, is essential.
By working closely with government and community focussed partners it is possible to embed and secure new opportunities for community media participation. Being included in all important conversations about regulation, legislation and resource planning is essential.
Principally, this is about promoting the development and use of existing and emerging media platforms for sharing the creative work of communities. This is not just about mirroring the way that mainstream media works, but instead, it’s about how we understand and support the artistic and creative value of community media, in which we are able to provide physical and virtual spaces for communities to take creative risk and find their voice.
Those of us in the community media movement know there is a different way, and that ordinary people can collaborate, work together on independent platforms, that are owned and run by local communities. Community media has been quietly growing in the background across the United Kingdom, using alternative business models that are not driven solely by advertising, but that embrace the work and the vitality of social enterprises, that increase access, thereby earning money from training, running inclusive membership schemes, and much more.
Community media has been desperately underfunded. The community media movement has to fight for the meagre resources that it’s got. However, community media tells us something about the way forward. That the ownership of media needs to be with everyone and not just a few. People need to tell their own stories, recognising that our differences and our diversity are our strengths.