Can't Surf, Won't Surf!
Media, Culture, Voice: Tackling inequality and marginalisation,
By Danny Crossley
a panel debate held at Northumbria University, 15th July 2013
What common problem affects less affluent people in the North East
of England and poor people in India, but has different causes?
The speakers of The Great Debate: "Media, Culture, Voice: Tackling
Inequality and Marginalization" pointed to low
uptake of internet usage in both of these places. This has been
variously termed as "Digital Exclusion”, "Digital Inclusion”,
"Digital Divide” and "Information Poverty” but essentially the
meaning is the same. It refers to the way that relatively poor
people aren’t benefiting from the advances in technology in a way
that they should. As technology advances and becomes an essential
and integral part of everyday life, it overtakes many such people,
contributing to greater inequality.
What is perhaps surprising is that this problem exists within the marginalized
groups of two very different societies and cultures: one within the post-industrial decline
of an established powerhouse which once fuelled its empire with coal, steel and ships
and another within a developing and expanding economy: Newcastle-upon-Tyne and India
are very different places and scales, but their people share the problem of marginalization.
The evidence came from the two speakers, with first-hand experience of the communities
they were speaking about.
Professor Vinod Pavarala
is UNESCO Chair on Community Media at the University of Hyderabad and
founder-President of the Community Radio Forum of India.
Tony Durcan, O.B.E.,
is Director of Culture, Libraries and
Lifelong Learning at Newcastle City Council.
Although Professor Pavarala spoke on "The Poetics and Politics of Community
Media” and Tony Durcan on "Arts, Culture and Lightning Austerity”, both speakers expressed similar
concerns and wanted to address the problem that the poorest people weren’t gaining full
access to the technological tools that would reduce their inequality.
What emerged was that there were somewhat different reasons behind why this problem
persisted, depending on cultural, societal and historical factors. For the North East,
Tony Durcan drew attention to the high likelihood of unemployed people
in Newcastle not having access to the internet. The three main reasons
he gave for this were a lack of: (1) Skills (2) Access (3) Confidence.
In India, localized communities made use of community radio in innovative
ways to attain a voice. They were not content to be passive recipients of
information delivered by the mainstream media. They used it a vehicle for
empowering women with information, inspiring confidence and even keeping
alive their culture, identity and tradition by singing folk-songs, for example.
There was an explosion in local community radio stations to facilitate this
with the potential for many more springing up.
Lack of skills clearly does not act as a barrier to these people, as it does
in the UK. Professor Pavarala said that training in community radio took only
two days and was not "rocket-science”. As for lack of access to the technology
presenting a barrier, these people in India have less access to it than citizens
living within walking distance of their local library in Newcastle. Yet people
in the North East who still do not use it, despite the fact that advances in
technology make it more affordable every day. Neither has cost hindered the
rapid adoption of other technological improvements such as widescreen/HD TVs in
poorer households. As for lack of confidence being one of the contributive
causes to the problem, can the same argument be used when there are people
joy-riding round some of the estates of Newcastle? If people can learn to drive
a car, why can’t they learn to use a computer? Perhaps people are more comfortable
with cars because they have been around for a lot longer and they perceive the
benefits to be more immediate. Finally, if a lack of skills, access and confidence
are the main barriers to poorer people using the internet, why has the problem
persisted so long after its causes have been identified?
There seems to be a will and enthusiasm to get involved actively in community
media in India that is perhaps lacking in Newcastle. There are only two community
radio stations in the city and interest in these is small when compared to the
size of the population they serve. One is limited to 50 online listeners but in
practice has two to six online listeners at any one time. Regulations limit who
can become involved with and set up a community radio station, which can be another
barrier in Newcastle, but neither this nor technology is limiting who can listen.
In India, they face problems with external influences of a different nature,
though this alone does not explain wholly the vast difference in proliferation
between the two societies. Professor Pavarala referred to attempts by the
government to control community radio stations from the top-down in the post-colonial
era of nation-building. After India got its independence, its new political leaders
tried to use community media as a way of imposing their ideological model of a new
nation on the people.
Although they are different in each case the problems of lack of access to media
are the same, be it called "Digital Exclusion”, "Digital Inclusion”, "Digital Divide”
or "Information Poverty”. The solutions will be different as well and must take into
account wider problems in society, such as apathy, low self-esteem, deprivation and
politics, which open up a gulf in access within a community as wide as any geographic
In my view the causes of the problem go deeper than were mentioned in this debate.
Here in the North East of England, they began with the closure of the industries
upon which the region depended. Before that, there was job security. When I was
at school, there was more social mobility than there is now. Even children of
manual workers could do well and progress in society by entering the civil service,
for example. Jobs like this were then assumed to be for life. They gave people
status and pride. With that came self-respect. Nobody with self-respect wanted to
inflict damage on the communities which had nurtured them. There were opportunities
for all. Those who were not academically inclined usually went into apprenticeships
in the shipyards, steel-works or mines. There was a sense of social responsibility
that maintained community cohesion. Families were held together by the tradition of
someone, usually the mother, being at home while the main bread-winner went out to work.
There was no need for the minimum wage because workers were protected by the trade unions
which Thatcher was determined to destroy. People felt rewarded and valued for the
work they did. It prevented them from going off the rails.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she destroyed those industries upon
which these societies relied. Her famous statement that "There is no such thing as society”
has been used many times to sum up all she stood for. Individual profit came first
at the expense of communities. People were encouraged to become more selfish. Those
who could not afford it were under pressure to acquire. Often this could only be
done by theft, as there were little opportunities otherwise. The lack of hope was
inherited through generations. This led to increased drug-taking, alcoholism,
suicides and other forms of delinquency.
The first major recession began when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
We are now enduring another one and there has been one in between. I have lived
through them all and have seen policemen being attacked in the street by members
of their own community in the 1984 miners’ strike.
To me, very little has changed since those early days of Thatcherism in terms of
the political and economic landscape, but I did notice that these adverse changes
began with Thatcher. Thatcher may be dead but Thatcherism lives on.
The scale of the problem in the more deprived areas in this country is huge.
People feel they are not being listened to but, more importantly, feel they are
not part of the solution. To get people engaged we need a much bigger toolbox
than just community media.
Danny Crossley, July 2013
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