How can media academics fight the rise of the right?

Menow2 @bethanyusher

AT the international Celebrity Studies Journal conference in Amsterdam Brexit dominated  conversations with British colleagues as we struggled to come to terms with the rise and increased visibility of the far-right at home.

Most delegates were shocked. “No one on my Facebook on Twitter timeline was voting out”, they said, “I never see any of the stuff about immigration. I honestly vote it would be a Remain landslide.”

The insinuation was clear. The people who voted out are simply not who we, in the Ivory Towers of academia, would associate.

This has been very different to my own experience over the past few years, where I’ve watched far-right rhetoric about immigrants increase on the Facebook pages of people I know.

Shortly after Brexit I wrote about the rise of the right in my hometown Sunderland – the first place to announce for Brexit.

I argued that when Labour stopped speaking for the people of the post-industrial North and seized the neo-liberal middle ground, they left a vacuum into which stepped first the BNP and later UKIP.

They poured poison into a people who felt abandoned and were looking for someone to blame for social and economic insecurity.

As I was due to present an analysis of party leader’s social network accounts during 2015 GE election campaign, I decided to refocus the work to try and make some sense of the Brexit vote, with particular focus on Farage’s successful use of Facebook.

My research explores how the conventions of the news industry – alongside the techniques of online ‘micro celebrities’ and celebrity marketing – have influenced digital electioneering.

Farage and the UKIP team were particularly adept at adapting familiar cultural discourses and images for their own ends, such as this play on the famous ‘Labour Isn’t working’ poster.



On Facebook, Farage won the day, with more people ‘talking about him’ and ‘liking’ his page than Labour, The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and The Green Party combined.

His church, like Facebook users, was broad.  Young and old, from the Northern unemployed to Middle Englanders, shared his messages about the dangers of immigration and the abandonment of ordinary people by the establishment.

Many of their methods, for any one who studies journalism, are all too familiar. In the late 1970s, Stuart Hall discussed attacks on young black Britons by the National Front in 1975 as a direct result of tabloid newspaper’s portrayal of them as muggers and benefit “scroungers”. He concluded that behind the attacks were white fears about the decline of Britain as an economic power and the ‘othering’ of groups by the press.

The similarities between this kind of news discourse and the way Farage and other right-wing groups such as Britain First construct their own content are clear. But rather than it being engaged with once and then cast aside, like a newspaper, it has tentacles which grow as it is shared again and again.

Often framed as a conversation between ‘Me’ and”You’ against the dangerous ‘them’, content created for social media can suddenly reappear after several weeks or months, finding new currency on new timelines.

And the popularity of the far-right on the site can not be ignored. Britain First, Farage and the UKIP’s Facebook pages boast a combined total of more than 2.7 million ‘likes’ – a million more than Cameron and the Conservatives. Farage’s post-brexit video alone racked up 1.45m views in three weeks.

So, the question becomes, what is our role, as educators and researchers, in challenging this rhetoric?

I’d argue that it is a significant –  and it is time for us to focus.

First, we need to understand it better and to do so we must emerge from our social media echo chambers and actively engage with people whose views we might find unpalatable. The limited audience and lofty language of media research means that those who it could benefit most, rarely engage with it.

Secondly, and for post 1992 institutions particularly, we must do more to ensure that young working class people are both politicised and educated during their time with us.

The Miners’ Halls and picket lines of my childhood – where I was politically educated – are gone. Surely we are better placed than the far-right to try and fill these kinds of spaces? I am often surprised that there is so little political debate or demonstration on our campus and know I should do more to help instigate it.

Our students need to understand how both neo-liberal and far right ideologies are constructed, maintained and impact on them. When they do it can be a fulfilling experience for them. On the morning after Brexit I watched with pride as one graduate picked apart Nigel Farage’s statement using ideas discussed in seminars.

She also told a friend who complained that her Facebook was “too political” “that she should “look up Habermas so they could understand was social media was really all about.”

These kinds of discussions on social networks are important because they too can be shared, giving our teaching extended life.

Across England, voting Brexit meant many working class people felt they have a voice and their anger has been focused directly on people they perceive as different.

It’s up to professions like ours to convince them there is another way for them to feel politically empowered. Surely we are capable of being better communicators than the likes of Nigel Farage and Britain First? We have the skills to unpick this rhetoric and we must work harder to do so.

The right are on the rise and we have an important role in the fight back.




Blogging assessment: Different student approaches

AS discussed previously, I’m currently working with second year students to develop their journalism through blogging.

Each student has set up an individual publically facing blog where they’ve explored principles of branding, usability, social media optimisation and, of course, producing content.

Some interesting work coming out through the process. Hand in is on December 10th. Can’t wait to see where they’ve got with them.

One student, Leonie Garlick, produced this video as part of her blog My Little Charitees, which  encourages students to do charity.

Another Matthew Brown has really considered branding and consistency with his blog Northern Tone.

Lucy Moody has had fun at a Tea Dance, learned how to make Corn Dollies more than 1000 views since launching her Undiscovered Middlesbrough Blog.

And through Natalie Devonshire’s Preppy Couture, I learned the crucial skill of learning how to polka dot nails. I have a 15-year-old sister who’s going to think I’m really cool this Christmas.

And I really enjoyed her coverage of a Vintage Fair last week:

“QUESTION everything. You’re the eyes and ears of the public.”

While this rule runs through journalism, how do you teach students how to become more inquisitive and to challenge authority?

Some students appear to have been indoctrinated from childhood not to challenge authority and to accept orthodoxy.

Whether it comes to their practice or to their academic reading of the media, teaching them to question what is front of them isn’t always simple. It involves much more than standing in front of a class and telling them what they should do.

The fact you need to involve students to really get them to learn was illustrated no better than when we considered media’s ability to create mass hysteria this week.

In the run up to this year’s Halloween, I got them to listen to Orson Welles’ famous 1937 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds (Which you can listen to here)  and asked them to consider why the broadcast caused mass hysteria.  This was given context by a lecture examining the history of sound and vision for journalism.

WELLES’ WAR: Recording the famous Halloween broadcast

I told them  people killed themselves because of the broadcast because they were so convinced it was true and that the opening credits were before the hour so that those who tuned in on the hour thought it was the news.

I also asked them to bring other, more recent, examples of media’s ability to cause mass hysteria, and be ready to discuss what the implications are.

The following seminar opened by showing students video of  Orson Welles himself discussion the reported panic shortly after his broadcast.

Immediately, the students were able to offered reasoned and interesting discussions about why people panicked. They placed it as a new technology which was suddently in people’s everyday lives, and could see why a hybrid of news constructs and fiction could be accepted as fact.

However, what they didn’t do was challange the reporting of the panic itself. That, they accepted as fact. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence from Welles himself, shown in this video recorded some 30 years after the original broadcast.

What none of the students spotted immediately was that in Welles’ later account he, himself, is exaggerating and sensationalising the public’s reaction. They don’t even pause when Welles’ describes how his friend, the actor John Barrymore, realeased his Great Danes into the wild.

BARRYMORE BLUFFS: The king of Gothic tragedy released his Great Danes into the wild?

They didn’t even question it when Orson Welles himself, at the end of the clip, said the point of his work was to make the public challenge what was fed to them through radio and television.

And none of them realised that I, myself, had lied to them, when repeating the myth people had been so terrified that they’d killed themselves.

As one student said, when I told them to question everything, they hadn’t thought they meant me or things told to them by teachers. In fact one of them couldn’t get his head round the fact the panic may have been exaggerated for several minutes.

What I hope now is that it will have a postive impact on their practical journalism work and make them more willing to challenge the authority of official sources. An interesting day’s work!

MY wonderful second year students at Teesside University are currently setting up their blogs as part of their large practical journalism module,

Last week Anthony Vickers from our neighbours the Evening Gazette gave a guest lecture on writing for audience and building community.

His blog Untypical Boro has become the most popular in regional newspapers. And we certainly had fans amongst the student audience, keen to soak up his wisdom (and some secrets from The Riverside’s dressing rooms).

Today the wonderful Chantal Taylor – a Teesside journalism graduate and Multimedia PR officer at We Do Marketing – gave a fantastic lecture on how she turned the blog she did in the same module into a career.

It was incredible to see this amazing consummate professional give advice to students who just four years ago she was among, as her presentation shows.

And it was also a joy to see how her craft has developed as she has turned her passion for vintage fashion into a job, leading developments in the local scene including coming up with the idea for Boro’s new fashion quarter Baker Street.

SHE WEARS IT WELL: Chantal’s blog became her ticket to employment.

As I watched Chantal’s fantastic presentation I felt like a proud Mamma. The young women before me was so talented, but also had an amazing ability to turn great ideas into product.

Her latest blog What Chantal Wore Today has garnered praise from local media and fashion magazines. Go, have a look!

Both these media professionals really put me to shame. Since I had my baby last year my blogs are infrequent, to say the least.

And as I’m teaching blogging, it really just isn’t good enough.

Today I’ve given my students the task of writing their first blog entry in which they will make promises to their audience about what content they will be producing between now and Christmas when they simply hand in a link.

I hope some of them will continue like Chantal, who was the only one in her class to keep up with her blog after assessment, and brokered it into a career by establishing a niche for herself as one of the best fashion bloggers in the Boro.

However, as they have got to produce at least one blog a week, it’s only fair if I do the same. So here it is, in black and white. Laziness, life and infant child aside, my promise to you, Dear Reader, is that I will produce content at least once a week.

And if I don’t please feel free to bombard me with fury…..

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