Golfball revolution: the life and death of Britain’s alternative press

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John Bartlett had interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims, 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 a 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.  Bartlett and his co-author John Walker’s story 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 pub and was laid up 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 the monthly magazine with legal papers.

“It was the only writ we received in thirteen years of producing RAP, but it killed interest in the story stone dead”, says Bartlett.  “Our barrister advised us that it was a gagging writ, and it certainly never went to court, but Smith was returned at the next election with his majority increased by 4,000.  Rochdale’s voters loved a child abuser, is one interpretation of those events”.

It is a remarkable story (you can read the original in its entirety here) 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-a-go journalists were not trying to produce up 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 the recently published Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices (Routledge £24.99).  “(We concentrated on) going to housing estates and talking to people, writing down their comments and making articles from ordinary people’s lives.  Not many, but 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.  “(Our) editorial process (was that) we would discuss every article.  They were passed around on sheets of paper and as carbon copies.  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.”

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, Friends/z,Oz and Black Dwarf.  Each was on a slightly different trajectory, but all had roots in music, Beat poetry and the cultural revolution that made London swing.

New technology also played a part.  Offset litho presses were cheap, 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 as completely as it did 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 ‘60’s’ 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.  Newspapers’ weekend editions went from being thin and pointless, to being big reads – much of it written by people who had learned their chops on tiny, non-commercial titles”.

John Batlett, now 75, has now retired to the Isle of White 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 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.

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Does the alternative press of the sixties, seventies and eighties have a modern equivalent?  There is little that is directly analogous, but elements familiar from the underground publishing scene are discernible in many modern journalistic initiatives.

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 it certainly covers a similar beat to the inky magazines of thirty years ago.  Its scale is impressive, to be sure, although Harcup’s criticism that at times it content comes across as “bordering on the hysterical” is fair, and few of its UK stories contain the kind of font-line reporting that he championed on LOP.

Manchester Mule, a north-west produced website is far more like Harcup’s former paper.  Mixing 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-can-join-in’ ethos.

Some faint traces of the old alternative publishing culture do endure.  The most impressive example is the West Highland Free Press, which started life on Skye, Scotland, in 1972.  Founded by five individuals, one of whom, Brian Wilson, would subsequently become an MP and a minister in Tony Blair’s governments, 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 pay parity for staff.  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.  The left-leaning listings tile continued to appear until 1993, although the struggle of its final 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 anti-establishment voices, the continuing success of Ian Hislop’s title, is grounds for considerable cheer.

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