Friday, 19 April 2013

David & Goliath in 'The Journalist'

DOZENS of witnesses and victims were interviewed by David Bartlett, who had obtained five affidavits from abused boys and combed over his story with one of London’s foremost barristers.  But as the magazine carrying his biggest-ever story came back from the printers, his heart was still in his mouth. 'Everything that I owned, even my house, was at risk; it would have finished a less secure marriage than mine,' he remembers. 

It was May 1979 and on the eve of a general election. The story by Bartlett and John Walker accused Rochdale’s sitting MP Cyril Smith of abusing a succession of boys in a children’s home that the Liberal front bencher had helped to found.

Bartlett and Walker were not trained journalists – both earned their living lecturing at a local FE college – and the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) that they had founded eight years earlier held editorial meetings in a pub and was laid out in a cellar.

'When the magazines arrived, everything went crazy, taxis descended on us from all over Manchester with people looking for copies,' says Bartlett.

'We had already briefed a couple of national newspapers, so we were expecting the story to make waves. Reporters from all the major papers arrived in the Lancashire town in a frenzy.  And then Smith issued a writ.  It was the only writ we received in thirteen years of producing RAP, but it killed interest in the story stone dead.  Our barrister advised us that it was a gagging writ, and it certainly never went to court, but Smith’s majority at the next election increased by 4,000.  Rochdale’s voters loved a child abuser, is one interpretation of those events.'

It is a remarkable story and unusual in that only now, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, is it being followed up. But it is one of thousands that were being produced at the time by a burgeoning alternative media sector. By 1979, as many as 100 papers and magazines were being published by collectives, co-operatives and less formal groupings, all trying to provide a perspective on the news that differed from mainstream offerings.

From the Aberdeen People’s Press to the Exeter Flying Post, via the Hackney People’s Press and Alarm in Swansea, there wasn’t a major conurbation in the UK where have-ago journalists were not trying to produce a different kind of news. There were also a few titles like City Limits in London and Spare Rib that served an even broader constituency. And yet, despite the surge of imagination, enthusiasm and cow gum that drove this DIY publishing boom, by the mid-1990s, after a decade of attrition, the scene had almost entirely evaporated. It begs the question, what killed the alternative press, and does it have a modern counterpart?

Bartlett and Walker in Rochdale had set up RAP as an antidote to the boredom. 'We were loosely Marxist and wanted to do something about social change at a local level,' Bartlett remembers. 'We met once a week in a local pub and asked along anyone in Rochdale who was interested join us.'

Despite undertaking delivery to newsagents themselves as well as editing and managing the magazine, Barlett and Walker’s RAP sold as many as 8,000 copies an edition; pretty good going in a town of 95,000.  RAP’s bottom-up approach to news was one shared by much of the alternative press, says Tony Harcup, then a
mainstay of Leeds Other Paper (LOP), now senior lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s department of journalism studies and author of Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices (Routledge £24.99). The ‘alternatives’ concentrated on going to housing estates and talking to people, writing down their comments and making articles from ordinary people’s lives. Some of the ‘ordinary people’ would even come along to
meetings and get involved in discussions.

Harcup evokes a heady atmosphere of idealism, ideology and the seemingly effortless potential of off-set litho printing. The editorial process was that they would discuss every article. 'Somebody would go out and get a few beers and we would then talk long into the night about what should go on the front page and what should go on the spike.'

Tim Dawson considers where Britain’s once powerful alternative press came from...and where it is going.
Does the alternative press of the sixties, seventies and eighties have a modern equivalent? Indymedia, the global network of more than 150 websites that grew out of anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999 is an obvious candidate. Providing an open-access platform for native reporters, its staple fare of protests, boycotts and campaigns covers a similar beat to the inky magazines of thirty years ago. But Tony Harcup’s criticism that at times its content comes across as bordering on the hysterical is fair, and few
of its UK stories contain the kind of fontline reporting that he championed on LOP.

Manchester Mule, a north-west produced website mixes campaigning stories with an interest in the cultural life of the city and its built environment, it promotes a clear commitment to social justice and an anyone-canjoin-in ethos.

Some faint traces of the old alternative publishing culture do endure. The most impressive example is the West Highland Free Press. Founded on Skye in 1972 by five individuals, among them subsequent Blair minister Brian Wilson, it was clear in its commitment to social justice. In 2009 the weekly paper, which generally runs to 40 pages and costs 65p was bought by its ten employees. It thrives to this day beneath is famous Gaelic strapline: ‘An Tir, an Canan sna Daoine: The Land, the Language, the People’.

London’s Time Out, first published in 1968, long ago lost its alternative credentials, when owner Tony Elliot abandoned collective decision making and commitment to staff pay parity. The title was, however, inspired by the listings included at the back of International Times. A strike over Elliot’s changes came in 1981, followed by former Time Out staffers setting up City Limits as a radical alternative. That left-leaning listings tile continued to appear until 1993, although the struggle of its fi nal years did little for the quality of the magazine.

The greatest survivor is, of course, Private Eye. Now a couple of years past its fiftieth birthday, it was a child of the satire boom of the early 1960s. Its impeccable commitment to investigative reporting and comic send-ups is more popular now than ever before, selling nearly 230,000 copies a fortnight. Against a backdrop of struggling print media, and scant mainstream space for antiestablishment voices, the continuing
success of Ian Hislop’s title, is grounds for considerable cheer. 

It was not just the news agenda that was different to the mainstream press either. If LOP was covering a local strike, for example, they would rarely speak with either the employers or the union full-time staff.  'We would spend ages going out at unearthly hours of the day or night to talk to people on strike. Just by doing that you would get better quotes and a different perspective, as well as some of the shared humour of a workplace.'

Much of the radical press of the 1970s took at least some of its inspiration from a group of relatively short-lived publications that appeared in London during the late 1960s, among them International Times, Oz and Black Dwarf.

New technology also played a part. Cheap offset litho presses dramatically expanded the graphic possibilities of hot metal and could be operated by self-taught printers.  IBM golfball typewriters served as make-shift typesetting machines. In those days, when we talked about copy and pastes, we meant doing exactly that, remembers Nigel Fountain, a writer on Oz, sometime editor of City Limits and author of Underground, London’s Alternative Press 1966-74 (about to be republished as an eBook by Ink Monkey).

Quite why the alternative media scene disappeared so completely by the mid-1990s, just before the widespread arrival of the internet, is a matter of conjecture. Bartlett in Rochdale grew tired of sustaining a magazine largely by himself. Indeed, exhaustion and lack of resources probably accounts for a great many small titles giving up the ghost. Harcup cites the grind of Thatcherism and the related industrial defeats as extinguishing the last flame of radicalism among the ‘60s generation.

There are more prosaic possibilities, too. Paul Anderson, editor of the Labour newspaper Tribune in the early 1990s, and now a lecturer at Brunel university, suggests that the mainstream media sucked talent and ideas from its alternative counterparts. Listings were a mainstay of the alternative press, but were adopted wholesale by the conventional media. Newspaper weekend editions went from being thin and pointless, to being big reads, much of it written by people who had learned their stuff on tiny, noncommercial titles.

Daviid Bartlett, now 75, has retired to the Isle of Wight and is busy building a socialist alternative in the charming seaside town of Ventnor. He is wistful about the passing of the radical alternative press, but he hopes that at least some of RAP’s spirit is evident among today’s campaigning bloggers. He even has a story lead for any who choose to follow it up. During his time in Rochdale, Bartlett discovered that Lancashire police had, in 1970, prepared a case for Cyril Smith’s prosecution on child abuse charges. The file setting out the case mysteriously disappeared before the charges were brought, however. Bartlett believes that the order to drop the case came from the then Home Secretary James Callaghan. It’s a cover up that is still waiting to be uncovered, he says with a chuckle.

The next issueof the printed issue of NORTHERN VOICES No.14, will soon be available for sale with a blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of Sir Cyril Smith written by John Walker, one of the former editors of the Rochdale Alternative Paper, it can be obtained as follows:
Postal subscription: £5 for the next two issues (post included). Cheques payable to 'Northern Voices' sent to c/o 52, Todmorden Road, Burnley, Lancashire BB10 4AH.
Tel.: 0161 793 5122.

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