Review: Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices by Tony Harcup

Review by Granville Williams, National Council, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and UK Co-ordinator, European Initiative for Media Pluralism

The metamorphosis of the hand-to-mouth production of alternative magazines and newspapers like Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP), the Tuebrook Bugle (Liverpool), Leeds Other Paper and Grass Eye (Manchester) into the objects of academic study must come as a big surprise to the survivors who worked on them back in the 1970s and 80s.

In the nineteenth century the ‘unstamped’ or pauper press – The Republican, The Black Dwarf, The Poor Man’s Guardian, and so on gave a voice to the dispossessed, the powerless and the marginalised, but I wonder whether the editors, writers and sellers of those publications ever conceived they one day would provide the material to engage academics across a range of disciplines in studying their efforts and analysing their significance.

These thoughts are prompted by reading this collection of Tony Harcup’s work. Indeed there are direct connections between the issues covered in his book, which mainly focuses on alternative media and community publishing, and that previous era. He points out Leeds was the birthplace of one of the most widely read oppositional papers of the 1830s and 1840s, and it was also the birthplace in January 1974 of Leeds Other Paper (LOP), renamed later as Northern Star.

His lively wide-ranging introduction leaps from the Sheffield Register published during the French Revolution to Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, and points out ‘times of flux tend to lead to bursts of new alternative media and more widespread questioning of old certainties…’.

Harcup spent ten years working on LOP, and much of the material in this book is shaped by that experience. Reading it reminded me of how I first met him. Back in 1991, after Bob Franklin and David Murphy published What News? The Market, Politics and the Local Press, I approached them and said the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) would like to do a couple of public meetings around the book’s themes. Tony Harcup turned up for the one in Bradford, at which the then Northern Organiser for the National Union of Journalists, Colin Bourne, was speaking, along with Franklin and a local newspaper editor.

The CPBF from its inception in 1979 has been interested in supporting alternatives to mainstream media and so there was a clear connection which meant later the CPBF published both Harcup’s pamphlet on the history of Leeds Other Paper and his chapter on the alternative press during the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the book Shafted, which I edited. These are included in this latest collection in parts II and III, which provide material focused on drawing insights from his, and others, work on LOP to clarify ‘alternative media’ and ‘alternative journalism’ and to analyse the practice of alternative journalism and how it differs from mainstream media.

Part IV of the book takes a broader but very interesting perspective, based on his research into journalists who started out on alternative or oppositional publications, before moving into mainstream journalism. He devotes two chapters to analysing the responses he received to a survey he conducted.

There is another piece of history in this book which connects me with the author and another person. I met Chris Searle in 1969 when we were at Exeter University. He went to teach in Stepney where he did something the school governors considered sackable – he published the children’s poetry in Stepney Words. Harcup writes vividly about this experience and his involvement in the subsequent strike in support of Searle. It was clearly a formative experience and Harcup dedicates the book to him. Later Searle approached the CPBF with the manuscript of a book on racism and The Sun. We were proud to publish Your Daily Dose in 1989.

Inevitably there is mixture of the personal and political, the subjective and objective in this review, but in a sense that is what much of the best writing in the alternative press was about, and this book is a valuable contribution to the exploration of its place in the history of journalism.

Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices by Tony Harcup, published by Routledge, 2012, ISBN 978-0-415-52189-5. RRP: £24.99 

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