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Following Up

Part 6: An activist guide to exploiting the Media

by George Monbiot

A. Keeping up your contacts

It's a good idea to write down the names and numbers of all the journalists you meet, and maybe make a brief note of what they're like and how they treated the subject. If you're going to be involved in a long campaign, keep the sympathetic ones informed about it every so often, so that when the next event comes up, they won't have forgotten what it's all about. Share your contact lists and experiences with people in other campaigns: it could help them a lot.

B. Complaining

Activists are treated unfairly by the press more often than any other group of people except gypsies, travellers and asylum seekers. The reasons are not hard to divine: we are challenging powerful vested interests, we are prepared to break the law and, above all, we can be discussed collectively without any fear of libel, as we do not belong to incorporated organisations.

So, for example, the Sunday Times could claim that "eco-terrorist" tree-sitters at Solsbury Hill booby-trapped buildings, attacked guards with catapaults and crossbows and dug pitfall traps full of metal stakes, safe in the knowledge that, as long as no one was named, no one could sue, even though the whole bullshit story was refuted by the police. Had it, on the other hand, made the same allegations about security guards, Reliance would have sued the pants off it, even if neither the company nor the guards were named, as Reliance was the only security company on site.

Redressing bullshit stories is difficult, time-consuming and often very frustrating, but sometimes it works. If we don't complain, the media will feel free to do the same thing again and again, so it's worth trying, even if it ends in failure. Here are the options:

i. If you're fantastically rich, have been named in person and have lots of free time, sue for libel. It's not an option for most of us, but if you know a lawyer who's prepared to work for free and the case is a clear-cut one, it is worth sending a threatening letter. If it's sufficiently convincing, it might prompt the paper or programme to issue an apology and settle out of court: and a few thousand quid for your cause never goes amiss. Don't try it without a lawyer: they'll just laugh it off. There is no legal aid for libel cases.

ii. If you or your movement have been slagged off unfairly in the papers, but there's no possibility of legal redress, there are several other options. None of them are ideal, but they're all better than nothing:

  • Write a letter for publication. Make sure it's short, pertinent and not personally insulting. Humour and irony are particularly useful weapons.
  • If you can bear to, talk to the journalist who stitched you up. Be ultra-reasonable and put your case calmly and clearly. Just occasionally, this works, and she or he will relent and write a follow-up piece, putting your side of the story.
  • This is very long shot but, if you've got good writing skills, see if you can persuade the comment editor to let you write a column putting your case.
  • Appeal to the Press Complaints Commission. It's a voluntary body set up by the newspapers themselves and is, as a result, pretty useless, even though most of its members are now drawn from outside the press. Its code of practice includes guidance on respect for privacy, the right to reply and journalists' behaviour.
  • The Press Complaints Commission, 1 Salisbury Square, London EC4 8AE. Fax: 0171 353 8355. Tel: 0171 353 1248

iii. If you've been stitched up by the broadcast media, your prospects are rather better. It's governed by quite a few laws and codes, which are supposed to protect both the public interest and individual rights.

If you've got a small complaint, take it up with the progamme concerned: preferably with either the producer or the series editor. If you don't get worthwhile, as the producers of Channel 4's asinine Against Nature series found to their cost. Following thousands of viewer complaints, the Independent Television Commission delivered one of the most damning verdicts in its history, with the result that Channel 4 had to make a humiliating prime-time apology and the series director, Martin Durkin, had to resign from the company he works for. With luck, he will never work in mainstream television again.

Remember: if they stitch you up and you don't complain, they'll do it to you again and again.

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