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Can't Surf, Won't Surf!
By Danny Crossley
Review of Media, Culture, Voice: Tackling inequality and marginalisation,
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 separation.

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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© D Crossley, 2013