Video Power

By Peter Sibley, James Hartzell and Robert Morris

At the end of the 1980s makers of political film or video, if they were working at all, were likely to be producing for TV and targeting news, documentary or current affairs strands. However, under the impact of deregulation and changing programming policies, activists are rethinking their priorities. Old questions about the merits of working inside or outside the mainstream are resurfacing and, not surprisingly, receiving more than one answer. Here Vertigo looks at responses within the environmental movement from two groups of filmmakers and a major campaigning organisation.


Peter Sibley

In September 1994 World Environmental News, a commercial production company, launched a series of one-minute programmes sponsored by WWF International and broadcast on MTV. Peter Sibley, one of the company’s directors, previously worked within Greenpeace. He sees the MTV initiative is an example of how committed film-makers can work within the new TV structures.

World Environment News was established in 1991 with a mission to keep environment, development and human rights issues at the top of the international broadcast agenda.

There was definitely a feeling a few years ago that these issues had been compartmentalised into (cynically) the worthy ghetto of public broadcasting or the small, specialised audiences of smaller broadcasters, and we felt that we should work on ways to make them available to larger, mainstream audiences.

We began by producing an internationally syndicated 10-minute weekly news programme. Subscribers included CNN, Euronews (translated into five languages), TVE (Spain), MTV (Finland), ORF (Austria), RTBF (Belgium) and other European broadcasters who dipped in and out of subscription (these included ITN and Channel 4.) It was also transmitted through Transnews, the CIS and Eastern European news agency. In a few months it will be transmitted to the whole of the USA, Europe and Latin America via Intelsat.

video-power-2.jpgPaul interviews Phil from the ‘No M11 link campaign’ on a recent demonstration outside the Department of Transport. Photo: Nick Cobbing/Small World Undercurrents. 

The MTV concept was our own and came out of producing the weekly programme.

We have had a presence at the international programme market places over the last couple of years, particularly MIPCOM and MIPTV in Cannes and NAPTE in the USA and we had entered into discussions with MTV Europe about taking our weekly 10-minute programme. The outcome was that they wanted the content but not the presentation so we were forced to come up with an idea which suited them. We were interested in reaching MTV’s growing audience (they say, 139 million potential viewers in their European footprint) as any programme concept, if successful, would be a valuable campaign visibility tool to the powerful youth lobby which is rarely hit by the more mainstream non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam or Save the Children.

There were a number of possible partners for the project, which we had agreed with MTV would be a sponsored series, and WWF International proved the most enthusiastic.

Music and creative support came from Realworld Records who donated their World music catalogue’s rights to the series and Realworld’s creative director, Mike Coulson, plays a role as adviser.

It was decided that we needed a completely new approach and we enlisted the help of students from the Middlesex School of Art, St. Martins School of Art and Wimbledon School of Art. Their brief was to take our traditional 10-minute news programme and turn the material into a one-minute news/issue programme that they would want to see on a channel like MTV.

After a successful pilot, which was presented to MTV earlier this year, the production schedule is now in place and a database of student artists from around Europe is growing. We believe that these relationships that we are making with young opinionated programme-makers will turn into other international series.

video-power-3.jpgPhoto: Nick Cobbing/Small World Undercurrents. 

The programmes, launched at the start of September, are transmitted up to 25 times per week. We have negotiated a permanent text service to run alongside the series whereby the audience can react either by contacting the sponsor directly for more information (there are no requests for money) or by contributing video artwork to the programme.

In terms of politics we believe strongly that using the most successful commercial channels (and most watched, of course) as a platform to interest, inform and educate the generation who will be responsible for solving the world’s most pressing environmental issues in the next 50 years is a useful exercise. The MTV series is an attempt to deliver serious issues in a way that will be watched and, hopefully, acted upon.

James Hartzell

Small World Undercurrents media co-operative is concentrating on exploring alternatives to broadcast TV. James Hartzell explains:

What do you do if you think that TV no longer covers the stories that matter? How much are you prepared to self-censor in order to get that commis­sion? How bad does TV have to be before you stop working in it? At Small World, we decided to publish and be damned. TV didn’t want it. So we did it ourselves.

Up until last year, Small World was a commercial production company producing environmental films for TV and the better-funded environment and development agencies. Increasingly, we felt that we were making films with tightly-controlled messages that weren’t reflecting what was really going on in Britain today. We knew that the camcorder was a powerful political tool that could give the under-represented a voice. But nobody seemed to be doing it. So we took a risk. We invested in a camcorder and a Video Machine computerised edit suite, cut our salaries to £125 a week and went ahead with what we wanted to do – whether we had the money or not.

We quickly discovered that the camcorder revolution had been quietly taking off, without the support of the professionals. Camcorders have become a crucial part of non-violent direct action. They are being used to deter police violence, as legal evidence in court and as a morale booster for dogged campaigners. It was easy for us to find a role. We train activists in the basics of camcorder use and in how to deal with the media, and we edit together some of the most powerfully direct footage we have ever seen into Britain’s first-ever ‘video newspaper’, Undercurrents, which we distribute ourselves.

We want to make films with people, rather than about them. Over the last 15 years all routes to power for the individual have been cut. Media messages come from tightly controlled, centralised sources. We are hoping to develop a new form of media access. A video-owning democracy in which people feel they have control over the messages put out. This not only helps people to feel they can participate in the political process. It also produces the kind of positive, personalised programmes that many people would rather watch.

video-power-4.jpgPoliceman ‘guard’ McDonalds from a peaceful demonstration against the Criminal Justice Bill.
Photo: Nick Cobbing/Small World Undercurrents 

We have no doubt that it can work. Undercurrents has sold close to 1,000 copies in five months. Activists we have trained are now calling local news stations and selling them their footage, without us being involved. When Undercurrents was reviewed on the Little Picture Show, the telephone in our office rang solidly for two weeks. We have been commended by everybody from politicians to feature film directors to anarchists. People, especially the young, want what we have to offer.

The hardest part, of course, is distribution. The worst television programme, if it goes out on one of the big four channels, is virtually guaranteed to reach close to a million people. (Mind you, to feature in the ratings you only have to switch your television on for one minute – just long enough to decide that you would do better to read a book instead). When you are distributing on cassette, it is nothing short of a very hard slog.

We’re trying everything. Subscriptions, mail order fuelled by reviews, independent book shops, video-hire shops, asking the unemployed and the campaigners to sell in the way The Big Issue has done, placement in public libraries and colleges, sales at talks, screenings and festivals, leaflets in campaign circulars, selling completed programmes and footage to cable, satellite and the Gang of Four – if you can think of it we will try it. We’ve even thought about getting our own transmitter. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. It’s a learning process.

In reality Undercurrents is far more than a video news programme. The work that goes into its making is helping to build a growing movement for political change in Britain. So we’re not too worried about TV. We’re waiting for the day when TV wants to talk to us in our language. And we believe, particularly with the rise of cable, sooner or later it will.

Small World can be reached at: 1A Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ. Tel: 071-272 5255, Fax: 071-272 9243. Copies of Undercurrents are £5.50 unwaged, £9.50 individuals and local groups, £25 institutions.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris, from the media department at Greenpeace, describes a recent change of strategy.

The use of film and video images has always been central to the Greenpeace ethos. Originally founded by a group of Canadian activists who sailed into a nuclear test site to ‘bear witness’, our activities have always been filmed, both to document environmental abuse and publicise our response. In the beginning it was comparatively easy to get the media to accept our footage – what we were doing was new, dramatic and made good TV.

The high point came at the end of the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher gave a ‘green’ speech, the Green Party polled 15% of the vote in the European Elections and the media began appointing specialist environment journalists. Greenpeace – always adept at captivating broadcasters – was at the forefront of this wave of interest and our footage was regularly shown.

Instead of simply pointing to an issue with a Greenpeace intervention we began to develop more sophisticated strategies. A Communications Division was set up in London and professional journalists producers were hired to create Video News Releases (VNRs). These packaged an issue into a self-contained unit that broadcasters could freely use, combining footage of the topic with interviews with Greenpeace campaigners. These were immediately successful since they handed cash-strapped broadcasters images on a plate and guided them into telling the story from our viewpoint.

video-power-5.jpgGreenpeace survey of oil pollution in Kuwait. Campaigner Paul Horsman surveys burning oil wells at Al Burgan. © Greenpeace/Hodson 1991. 

This method is still used, alongside traditional Greenpeace direct actions, to gain broadcast coverage. But as media interest in environmental issues began to wane it became harder to use video as a medium for reaching an audience. It also became clear that a simple reliance on VNRs had drawbacks: the most significant being that coverage depended on a strict adherence to broadcast news agendas and production values. Whilst Greenpeace had the expertise to deal with this we began to feel that continual mediation of our message often diluted its power. It was difficult to convey anger or polemic when the media demands ‘reason’, neat arguments and sound-bites.

In order to circumvent this dilemma we established a new way of using video to inform. In many ways a return to grass roots campaigning, we began to create ‘Direct Communication’ videos that attempted to do exactly that; communicate directly to an audience without third-party intervention. Technically and structurally these proved to be liberating. No longer bound by the need to film on expensive Betacam equipment, we handed Hi-8 cameras to roving activists who recorded public responses to our messages. Powerful expressions of opinion were captured, edited and sent to politicians, cutting out the need for balance and moderation. Videos are being produced that will never be shown on TV, but which selected audiences (from company directors to Greenpeace local activists) will see and hopefully be affected by.

Greenpeace will continue to use traditional TV output to inform, but we are planning to increase our Direct Communications work as new approaches are developed. The challenge of new technology can be harnessed and used to assert positions that the mainstream media may find unpalatable or not newsworthy. We will continue to ‘bear witness’ and expose environmental abuses by whatever means necessary – Hi-8 included.