Fresh Flavour In The Media Soup
The Story Of Squall
"So what does it actually mean?......... Squatters Action for Lively Livers?"
Well no, it's a word, rather than an acronym. The dictionary offers its definition as a sudden strong wind or commotion (CoMotion). Attention all shipping. Sea area Dogger Bite, squally showers. Gale force 8. The office lexicon also proffers the Scandinavian root word 'skvala' meaning 'to shout'. There is a need to be heard.
"So what does SQUALL mean?"
We risk an incomplete picture and apply the minimum of spray paint. It lies written on the wall thus: SQUALL is a storm, the course of which disturbs the choking waters, unsettling the sediment, preventing stagnancy, and providing breath to a gasping truth. Bit grand yer think? Well lying behind the poetry is a diagnosis of malaise and a prescription of medicine: Global media is now increasingly owned by a small number of media barons who despite assurances to the contrary directly influence the news agenda on the basis of their market intent. And from the barons to their editors to the staff to the career freelancers, this economic sub-agenda looms large in the reportage. Neither is the voice of national media comment in Britain remotely representative of a diverse nation - rather it is the distilled opinion of a select clique of mostly Oxbridge journos who feel dutybound to protect their monopoly on social comment. SQUALL is a serious attempt to provide a more socially relevant representation, unfettered by the usual sycophancy to advertisers and spin doctors; an attempt to rejuvenate the independence, accuracy and liveliness of British journalism. phew!
The five year history of SQUALL magazine has been fuelled by such outrageous and grandiose aspirations. Each new generation contributes to the achievement of what was previously thought impossible - simply because they did not consider it so. We have not reached our destination but the journey has already borne significant fruit. And who said all the romantics had been drowned in the mire of nineties' cynicism?
A journey of a thousand miles begins with.....
Kenneth Baker doesn't deserve much of a mention in this story. But as Home Secretary in 1992, he stood up at the Conservative Party Conference to utter words significant to the history of farce: "We will get tough on armed robbers, tough on rapists and tough on squatters."
It was a laughable juxtaposition of course, and coming from the mouth of a British Home Secretary, one deserving of scornful media criticism. There was none. Instead it was left to the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph to dredge up nightmare after manufactured nightmare in order to lend weight to the demonisation. Armed robbers, rapists and.......
For one group of north London squatters leaning on their brooms, Baker's words breached an already stretched threshold of tolerance. If casual demonisations like this passed as acceptable political currency then the gap between reality and rhetoric yawned in emergency.
Operating under the name lowLIFE?!, this collective of squatters had been the prolific organisers of large cultural events in London squats since 1989. Their regular Arts Feasts brought together diverse performance from all round the world, their Cooking Club presented live music, their galleries were packed with photography, painting and sculpture, their all night parties offered both live music and djs, whilst their free lowLIFE?! magazine provided a forum for community art and writings.
The entire operation was run by volunteers, with the aspirational rollercoaster kept on the rails with passion, commitment and the money collected in a donation bucket at their free events. They were nutters for a cause, and the cause was financially accessible communal culture.
So it was with brooms in hand that the lowLIFE?! team read the Daily Telegraph's appraisal of squatters and travellers as a "swarming tribe of human locusts" and then observed the political dribble build into a hysterical flood.
Our space to live and celebrate in ways outside the official market formula were being legislated away along with basic necessities like the only affordable roof over our heads. And there to facilitate this cultural attack was and is the likes of the Daily Telegraph with its sales figures of over a million a day, the Daily Mail with over two million a day and the poorly written Spectator magazine shoring up the prejudices of its 50,000 readers with fortnightly dollops of right wing pseudo-intelligentsia. After operating for over two years, the members of the lowLIFE?! Collective felt a long way from "armed robbers" and "rapists", and a far cry from John Major's reference to squatters as "creators of municipal rubbish dumps".
By 1992, however, the lowLIFE?! project had run its course. Having started with very little money and few possessions, the project was left with even less after Labour MP Frank Dobson and 35 coppers forced their way into a Camden warehouse, confiscating speakers and injuncting the venue two days before a lowLIFE?! event. What little money the project had was lost, leaving the group with nothing but a sleep debt, two years valuable experience and a small computer.
Published in 1992, the first edition of SQUALL magazine was constructed on this computer. Its front cover cartoon depicted a snail leaving its shell.
Issue one - now lodged in the British Library - was with hindsight a modest affair; a photocopied A5 eight-pager, lovingly (ney determinedly) assembled by pressing over binding staples with reddening thumbs.
It has to be said that this collector's item was not greeted with the expected uprising of the oppressed; the eradication of injustice and a revolution in British journalism's willingness to investigate the truth behind the spin. Instead the conspicuous chirrup of uninterrupted cicadas was only punctuated with a few head-pats and a trickle of feedback suggesting it wouldn't mean a thing unless there was an issue 2,3,4......... In word and indeed, there was plenty to publish, as the political demonisation of squatters proved to be merely the tip of a large dirty iceberg. Within a few months of launching SQUALL, it became apparent that the Government's intention to stamp out squatting was just a part of a much larger assault on British culture. Contained within the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill's 181 clauses were new police stop and search powers, the removal of the traditional right to silence, as well as criminal sanctions against travellers, ravers, festival goers, public assemblies and political protests.
Issue one of SQUALL Magazine described itself as "a magazine for squatter/homeless", a strap line which evolved into "a magazine for squatters, travellers and other itinerants" by issue five, and then to "a magazine for sorted itinerants" by issue ten.
By issue 14, the magazine's brief had galloped full pelt into a vast unpopulated savannah of British journalism we referred to as 'the missing agenda in culture and politics'.
The list of the unrepresented quickly grew wider than those targeted by the Criminal Justice Bill.
Social ills resulting from a compassionless politics were rhetorically reapportioned as blame on single mothers, itinerants, homeless people, dole scroungers and disrespectful youth. Single mothers were a classic example. According to both John Major and the then Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley, women were having babies out of wedlock to ensure that they got a higher priority status on the housing waiting list as single mothers. Those involved in the growing SQUALL team observed such farcical rhetoric appearing in national newspapers with barely a sniff of journalistic dissent. And yet it was laughable that a woman would gestate a child for nine months, go through the trauma of childbirth and accept the responsibility of looking after a child simply to put a few extra points on their housing priority status. And yet even if they did, what did this say about the availability of affordable housing!
Nevertheless, this "burden on the welfare state" was deemed unacceptable and the single parents benefits premium is to be taken away by legislation originally drafted by Peter Lilley and brought before parliament by the new Labour government.
The old testament origin of the word 'scapegoat' proved more than apt as a commentary on current circumstance: A goat used in the ritual of Yom Kippur was symbolically laden with sins by the authorities and cast into the wilderness to die. The people were led to believe that the ritual of sending an innocent goat to its death relieved the populace of responsibility for their own sins.
According to John Carlisle - then Tory MP for Luton North - "All gypsies should be banished into the wilderness". Once again it was difficult to believe that such racially inflammatory comments could pass from the lips of a British MP during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill and not become the subject of media outrage. It is more than ironic that the Bill itself included a clause which created a criminal offence out of racially inflammatory comment!
Nevertheless Gypsies, like most of the social groups targeted by the Act, had little by way of access to a media reply. No champions in the media, no press releases, no media spokespeople, no lobbying power in parliament, no significant economic clout. And, being the object of a historical prejudice easy to re-inflame in the pages of the Daily Mail, they were perfect scapegoat material.
When Alan Travis, The Guardian's home affairs' correspondent approached me after a press conference, I asked him why none of the media seemed interested in the plight of Gypsies - given the kind of bigoted comments emanating from parliament. "I don't know," he said before changing the subject, though in reality nothing was changing except for the worse.
As a result of SQUALL's coverage, one of its journalists was invited over to the Czech Republic by some prominent British-based gypsies, in order to attend a large family christening. During the course of her visit, she was warmly welcomed by the entire community; hearing countless tales of gypsy mythology, all whilst ably aiding the families with their customary demolition of countless bottles of vodka. Squatters Action for Lively Livers after all! She also took part in the ceremony of pouring some of the precious spirit on the graves of dead gypsies. One more for the road. Her subsequently written 'international special' was published in the pages of SQUALL 12, and left readers in no doubt that "banishing gypsies into the wilderness" was tantamount to a crime against humanity.
And yet in every direction SQUALL cast its investigative eye, it found such scapegoats being fattened up with manufactured sins ready for the wilderness and certain slaughter. The goat needed kick.
Despite a series of disruptive personal evictions, possibly exacerbated by the climate- change engineered to precede the Criminal Justice Bill, SQUALL's co-editors attended night classes in journalism and pressed on with issue 5,6,7........ Several members of the team cut their political teeth on activities surrounding the Criminal Justice Bill. Whilst some of the co-editors were heavily involved with meeting MPs, drafting potential amendments and attending interminable committee stage meetings, others were familiarising themselves with publishing techniques and building liaisons within the so called 'underground' movement.
This 'movement' was emerging from its subterranean status as a prominent voice of political dissent. Groups representing the different minorities targeted by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill began organising themselves and disseminating more representative information. The term 'DIY' movement sprang up and found resonance as an encapsulation of the notion of not sitting around just waiting for things to improve. In reality though, 'DIO' (Do it ourselves) is a more accurate representation of the communal rather than individual response.
The two anti-Criminal Justice Bill marches held in London in 1994 attracted unusually large numbers of people, including many not normally seen at such protests. Though often ignoring the underlying issues of concern, the national media began passing comment on this new political phenomenon. Even parliamentarians slumbering through the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill began taking notice. Something unusual was happening in the state of Britain; the goats weren't accepting the load. Meanwhile, now blind to their own indiscretions, politicians were revelling like Caligula in their own warped sense of decadent social injustice. The only rule now was not to get caught and, except for a few rare incidences, the national media were failing miserably in providing the investigative background information essential for such exposure.
It was both educational and alarming to meet MPs during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill. Those principled enough to stray from the regurgitation proffered by the usual party line, admitted there were reasons behind the legislation which had little to do with the farcical rhetoric used to present it to the public. None of them, however - much as they might realise what was happening behind the scenes - would risk their political necks by standing up for travellers, squatters, ravers and the rights of public protest. Labour MP John Battle - then shadow housing minister - had a history of representing travellers and homeless people. We were actually thankful for at least his honesty when he told us that he was unable to risk his neck and create too much of a fuss. The climate for principled speakers in the Labour Party, we were told by several of its MPs, was becoming more rarefied by the minute. We were advised and duly wrote to the shadow Home Secretary, asking for a meeting to discuss his response to the Bill.
"I'm afraid I don't have time to meet you at the moment," wrote back Tony Blair. "But I can assure you I will oppose anything that is wrong." Rest assured? We thought not. The Labour Party refused to oppose the Bill, allowing the new law through with a casual ease, pin-pricked only by the 43 principled MPs prepared to risk the rungs of their career ladder and vote against it. Noone was impressed by Tony Blair's honesty even then.
It was more than ironic when several of the MPs whom we met during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill arrived to our appointment carrying books on media and politics. We did not remark upon it and neither did they, but it left a notable impression.
Ever since the power-dressed Margaret Thatcher refined her Grantham accent to beat the laconically attired Michael Foot in the 1983 general election, the sacrifice of substance for salesmanship has become ever more prevalent as political currency. We've all seen them, driving up and down the M1, salesmen with their selling suits on coat hangers in the back, ready to be donned at the crucial moment in the cause of unconscious consumer persuasion. False and phoney by any definition of the words. And so to politics with its increasingly formulaic oratorical techniques, profuse verbal obfuscation and an increased political power base afforded to spin doctors and image makers. Presentation oozing from every photo-opportunity to plaster the face of politics with cheap foundation.
And the medicine for this malaise.......
The majority of people enjoy good presentation, indeed it is an art form in its own right. But when used as a duping technique, its art is harnessed to the cause of falsity, its techniques used to sugar coat a poison. Hearing persuasive words, gestures and pictures only to find them lacking in reality, serves only to rob us all of language. Our aural and visual sensitivity readjusts to cope with the onslaught of hidden agendas and, whether we realise it or not, we begin to switch off. To steal back the significance of language simply add at least as much substance to the recipe as garnish. In the subsequent pursuit of this aspiration, the designers and production staff at SQUALL began adapting and absorbing the best creative techniques around whilst inventing a few of their own. Were the magazine to lie on the shelves next to any other, the casual browser should not immediately be able to tell that one was produced by a fully paid commercial staff and one by a bunch of committed volunteers. Despite very little formal training, SQUALL's designers learnt on the job and, with the introduction of high quality photography to the magazine in issue eight, began producing a magazine second to none.
The resultant presentation served the message well, although problems have arisen when some of the magazine's diverse readership consequently assume SQUALL must be running with a full staff on wages. To this day few people realise the core staff at SQUALL numbers about six, all of whom are voluntary and all of whom work for a publication which survives on donations, subsriptions and magazine sales, having eschewed the usual deluge of advertising.
Attending the standing committee stage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was also an instant education in the processes of parliament. Almost every new law goes through such a stage, the aim of which is to consider and vote on every clause and potential amendment. The process involves 30 MPs supposedly chosen according to their 'interest' in the subject and apportioned according to party political divisions in the House of Commons. The sessions are held in a committee room within the Palace of Westminster which, with its swinging gates and two small wooden grandstands, bares resemblance to a wild-west courthouse. In contrast, the public gallery consisted of two tight rows of plastic chairs only a matter of feet away from the Government MPs on one side and the opposition (although they provided little of such) on the other.
Being so close to the (in)action provided a close-up view of what we are taught to respect as democracy. It was possible to see MPs pondering over the crossword in the Daily Telegraph, doing their constituency work, reading the sports results and falling asleep during the passage of the debate. Triple-chinned Tory MPs would suddenly blurt "here, here, here" whenever their minister spoke, even though it was patently obvious they had not been listening. I wanted to stand up, stop the proceedings, and ask these MPs what it was that they had just given their vocal consent to. I also wanted to speak up when MPs confidently littered the debate with factual inaccuracies and I twitched with the desire to berate the acquiescent 'opposition' benches; this was my life and the lives of many others they were legislating over.
But the public were only allowed to observe, they were not allowed to take part. And so in the cause of observation, I sat on my tongue, knowing that if it dared articulate the truth of what was occurring before me I would be evicted forthwith. Better to observe now and reveal later.
A live debate on Granada Television provided SQUALL with a rare opportunity to call an MP to account. Granada had originally promised us a face-to-face with Home Office minister, David McLean - Michael Howard's Field Marshal on the Government benches during the committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill. Having reigned in my tongue whilst observing him at work during committee, I relished the prospect of having it out infront of a live studio audience. However, much to my disappointment, he refused to appear at the last minute. Instead the TV station hired in local Tory MP, Geoffrey Dickens, a red mass of a man, whom, I was told, had appeared on the programme several times previously to talk about whatever they wanted him to talk about for an appearance fee. Dial-a-comment!
A first class train ticket awaited me at King Cross station - costing more money (£150) than I usually lived off for three weeks. I was put up in a Manchester hotel at a further cost of £100.
In front of a live studio audience I listed the organisations who had strongly expressed their reservations about the Government's extreme measures against squatters. They included the Institute of Housing, the Metropolitan Police and the Law Society. I then asked Dickens to point out who, beside the right-wing compliant press, were actually in favour of such draconian measures. On live TV he pulled an envelope out of his back pocket and proclaimed it to be a "long list of organisations which supported the measures".
However, I knew, because I also had such an envelope in my back pocket, that the document he was waving was in fact the appearance fee cheque we'd been given for coming on the programme. Bang to rights - or so I thought as I informed the Granada audience that this was the case. Immediately, however, the boom arms swung away from me and the presenter of the programme - ex-head of Factory Records now media careerist Tony Wilson - asked the studio audience if they had any further questions. I could hardly believe the speed with which they'd made a decision not to put the MP on the spot. Dicken, meanwhile, looked over at me out of camera, and smiled. In the hospitality room afterwards I sat sipping a glass of rough red wine and watched as one of the blonde cropped female presenters - who had hosted a debate about Barbie dolls in the second half of the same programme - flashed her eyelids and doted on the reptilian MP. Media and politics inseparable, in league, insufferable and insulated.
One of the prescriptions offered by SQUALL as a contribution to journalism is its insistence on accuracy. This was considered an absolutely essential prerequisite for two very important reasons.
Firstly, given the deluge of information and message now available in the media and on the world wide web, a reputation for accurate source material will become ever more important if organs like SQUALL aren't simply to drown in the media soup. It is sometimes said that journalism is the first draft of history. And yet from the word off, it became clear to SQUALL that the national media's commitment to factual accuracy is temperamental.
Only by developing a reputation for researching published material thoroughly, can any sense of faith be worthily reinvested in a media source. Information is your weapon but what use is a blunt sword?
However, a reputation for sharp observation and accuracy is not something achievable overnight. It is necessary, quite rightly, to do it again and again before such a reputation is earned and it has to be said that such an aspiration produces a huge workload of research and double checks.
Secondly, the last thing anyone in SQUALL wanted to get tied up in was a lengthy legal battle over a careless libel. British libel laws are a lengthy and costly business even before they get to trial, rendering them a tool largely at the disposal of the wealthy. As a consequence they are commonly adopted as a political strategy designed to intimidate truth tellers into silence.
Rather than compromise ourselves however, SQUALL decided to print without fear but to always go armed with a sharpened lance of factual accuracy. To accompany the lance, a shield......
If you print what you know, when in fact you firmly believe there to be more, individuals and organisations are less likely to sue you if it will inevitably result in the exposure of more than what has already been printed. Running the gamut of this fine line takes considerable care.
Not only does SQUALL aspire to be more accurate than most of the national media, but we have so far managed to do so without the much needed services of a trained libel proof-reader. We simply studied hard and learnt on the job.
To this day, and much to many media professionals' amazement, no attempt has been made to counter attack SQUALL with a libel suit. We are, however, in no doubt that certain quarters would rather the magazine wasn't around to stir the sediment. Preventing careless juxtapositions of potentially libellous words from becoming the rope with which we are hung is another major behind-the-scenes task.
At least some of the credit for this clean libel sheet must be extended to a small group of people who set a powerful precedent with their stance on behalf of free speech. Driven by Helen Steel's and Dave Morris's tenacious refusal to apologise, and more than ably aided by a support group co-ordinated by Dan Mills, the McLibel team provided SQUALL with both extensive investigative material and an intensive course in British libel laws.
When SQUALL visited Helen and Dave at each of their homes, it was difficult not to view them as modern day heroes - a tag they themselves would strongly disapprove of. Files bulged from the shelves of their small living spaces, sometimes spewing across their bedrooms to invade the sanctuary of their sleep. As a single parent, Dave was forced to digest mountains of relentless documentation whilst also looking after his eight-year-old son Charlie. Meanwhile, whilst co-defending her way through the longest court case in English legal history, Helen worked nights in a West End bar to earn her living. Dan Mills, on the other hand, had left his job with a top UK legal firm in order to support Dave and Helen's stand. Throughout the four years he has co- ordinated the McLibel Support Campaign, he has slept on the floor of the tiny McLibel office, his dreams punctuated with bulging faxes and late night international telephone calls.
Their legal struggle began with the service of a libel writ by McDonald's in 1990 and went on to engulf Helen and Dave's lives until a decision was finally delivered in mid- 1997. As they emerged from the High Court following a mixed verdict, the media pack surrounded them like scrabbling paparazzi. Despite this flurry of attention, however, coverage of the serious issues raised in the case were largely ignored by media analysts. True the McLibel team had generated copious amounts of attention; with McDonald's twice offering to give money to charity if Dave and Helen would agree to apologise and put an end to the Corporation's increasingly troublesome PR disaster. However, the media often treated the story simply as an oddity in the British justice system, playing heavily on the David versus Goliath connotations whilst largely steering clear of the gritty issues raised in court.
Yet from the very start the national media had every reason to view Helen and Dave as champions of their cause. Previous to the McLibel trial, Channel Four and The Guardian were among a long list of organisations and individuals forced to apologise to McDonald's under threat of libel. With the massive financial outlay involved in defending libel cases, no-one could afford to fight the formidable McDonald's legal department, even if published allegations were true. Up until Helen and Dave's stance, this policy of persistent legal intimidation had created a climate of paralytic fear. Even those parts of the national media prepared to publish mildly dissenting material steered well clear of criticising the way in which McDonald's conducted its business, despite the international significance of the information.
Helen and Dave, on the other hand, not only remained standing where all others had backed down, they also seized the opportunity to force court disclosure of huge amounts of primary source material about the workings of the world's largest fast-food corporation. In essence, Helen and Dave had turned a libel suit directed against them into a unique opportunity to force a long required degree of corporate accountability. They had also halted the domino effect of retractions and public apologies which had stifled public debate for so long.
The significance of this tenacious extraction was made even more apparent by McDonald's powerful connections in politics. When the corporation withdrew from purchasing British beef during the BSE crisis, they took £350 million out of the British economy. By the end of this century McDonald's will also be one of the biggest employers in the UK, after doubling its expansion plans in 1996. McJobs for all! By way of courting this economic clout, Margaret Thatcher opened McDonald's new UK headquaters building in 1982, whilst Michael Portillo and Tony Blair have both since posed before the press serving McDonald's burgers to children. SQUALL published photographs of each of these episodes. Meanwhile, ministers at the Department of Health, in line with the World Health Organisation, continue to urgently recommend a less fat, less salt, higher fibre diet; in direct contradiction to the political endorsements freely given to McDonald's high fat, high salt, low fibre food. With transnational corporations assuming ever increasing global political influence, companies like McDonald's are largely treated like powerful nation states. Despite the appalling human rights record of China for instance, the United States - home of land and free and self appointed protector of the democratic principle - still proffers the country with a 'most favoured trading nation' status. The nuns and monks of Tibet, who have long suffered both torture and cultural destruction at the hands of the Chinese are just some of those who most keenly feel the hypocrisy. With human rights and justice so readily cast aside for financial reasons, such a situation merely confirms to the world that for all the gallant rhetoric, economic clout prevails as the main currency of political respect. Transnational Corporations now have similar globally significant economic clout.
Whilst McDonald's may not use instruments of torture to enforce its message, there are still major inconsistencies between what is officially deemed healthy for a nation (employment, food, environmental and advertising standards) and the way the Corporation strategically plans to dominate the world market regardless of social consequence. In the McDonald's Corporation's 1995 Annual Report there is even a chapter entitled "Strategies for World Dominance".
As James Cantalupo, president of McDonald's International, said recently: "I don't think there is a country out there we haven't gotten enquiries from. I have a parade of ambassadors and trade representatives in here regularly to tell us about their country and why McDonald's would be good for them."
As SQUALL sat with Helen and Dave watching the television coverage on the day of the McLibel verdict, I could only sigh with exasperation when the election of William Hague as Conservative Party leader, and Tony Blair's decision to go ahead with the Millennium Dome folly, pushed the McLibel verdict story into third place on the BBC's main news. Contrary to so many other national issues, media analysis of the wide-scale implications of the mixed verdict did not appear and the issue was almost completely forgotten about within a couple of days.
And yet McDonald's were deemed by the judge to offer poor quality employment; they had also been deemed "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals, for the deceptive promotion of the quality of their food and for "expoiting" children with their advertising. Big issues kept at bay in the subsequently sparse media coverage. Helen and Dave on the other hand seemed less bothered and were almost immediately planning their appeals and helping to facilitate the continual dissemination of information released by the trial. A SQUALL journalist once asked Dave Morris whether, given the significance of the information uncovered by his and Helen's stance, he was ever disillusioned by the small number of people willing to help. He replied: "If you call a public meeting about an important issue and only ten people show up, don't worry about the hundreds who didn't or you'll completely waste the presence of the ten."
The copious quantity of investigative articles written about the McLibel trial in SQUALL were partly an attempt to redress the national media's selective deployment of its blind eye. "We see no sugared chips"!
We are lingering much on the McLibel trial with due deserve...... Many of the issues raised by the trial were ones which concern us all both culturally and politically (as if these two criteria could be separated) and illustrated much about the nature of media. Given that McDonald's had successfully applied to remove a jury from the trial, it was - we felt - partly our responsibility (respond to your ability) to present the issues to a wider jury. (Respect is also due to the incredible McSpotlight team (http://www.mcspotlight.org) written about elsewhere in this book). Like much of what appears in SQUALL, this presentation had to be done in such a way that anyone with a mere glimmer of an open mind would be impressed by the significance of the subject.
Indeed, it was always SQUALL's intention never to get stuck as a ghetto magazine. From the outset, the projects' intentions in this direction were articulated as 'a presentation to the unexclusive bridge'; the bridge between diverse backgrounds and social sensibilities. Good quality writing, photography and production, mixed with factual accuracy, helps attract people of all backgrounds.
It is a guiding aspiration rather than a claim of arrival, although the project's successes in this area were most graphically illustrated to the team after 400 replies were returned from a postal survey of SQUALL's subscriber base.
The analysis of responses surprised us. Not only did the majority of subscribers own their own homes (none of the SQUALL team do!) but their backgrounds were even more multifarious than the team had supposed. Doctors, teachers, legal professionals, social workers, nurses, librarians, academics and politicians were amongst an eclectic list of readers. Being annual subscribers of course, the survey sample was largely confined to readers with stable addresses, about one seventh of the magazine's readership.
The survey also revealed that an average of 5.5 people read each single copy of SQUALL, with the majority of respondents tending to pass the publication around; an inspiring communal network. Multiplied by the 7000 copies printed of each issue, the survey thus suggested an extrapolated overall readership of around 35,000. SQUALL was going places, even without the usual marketing campaigns associated with media source development. What is more, the survey also demonstrated that readers tended to keep their copies of SQUALL rather than say lining their cat's litter tray, wiping their bums in lieu of toilet paper, or feeding the council recycling bins etc. With bookshops, newsagents and grapevine networks all steadily increasing their orders, the last three issues of the magazine have sold out bar the few we keep for specific requests.
Amongst this swelling readership is a fair quotient of national media journalists interested in the "unusual angles on a plate" offered in the magazine. When some of these began picking up on SQUALL's stories, it introduced a dilemma. For whilst dissemination of accurate information is a yoke behind which SQUALL willingly volunteers its shoulder, national journos were ringing up the office for background material on stories and then using our work to make themselves money. Precious few ever remunerated the project for either the story or the often extensive help with research and, although respect is due to the few who do support the source, the majority simply rode on the project's back acting as if they were doing us a favour. Many never even paid for copies of the magazine sent to them whilst some directly plagiarised SQUALL word for word without either accreditation or remuneration. After a couple of years of battling with this rankling situation, the sheer quantity of insistent parasites reached a point where the SQUALL team now has to firmly insist on a better quality of respectful interaction. On the inside front cover of every issue of the magazine are the words: "Open copyright for non-profit making use only". We mean it.
There was little point in fighting for respect on a societal level if we then put up with disrespect in our own backyard, and the scurrility associated with professional journalism is largely a well-deserved reputation.
Nevertheless, as long as respect is afforded, SQUALL does interact with national media in a profuse way. Indeed, some of the team earn a partial living from freelancing in the nationals. Spokespeople from the team have also appeared on almost every terrestrial TV and national radio station in the UK, in nearly every national newspaper, as well as on many cable and local media outlets; talking about subjects ranging from homelessness to youth crime, dance culture to current legislation. The glare of the lights and the intimidating environment of a live studio were never easy to overcome in the delivery of a calm yet cutting message. However, members of the team threw themselves into the task and once again learnt on the job. One of the most laughable requests amongst many, came from a staff feature writer at the Daily Telegraph. She was keen to write an article on squatting and wanted to know whether we knew any "middle class squatters" she could interview. Asked what she meant by the phrase, she replied: "People who earn a high wage and squat for fun." She was told that SQUALL had never heard of a high wage earner who squatted for fun but that we might be able to put her in contact with some real squatters. She replied: "Well, er, unfortunately, you know how it is, this isn't what the Telegraph readers want to read about. Do you know any that earn a wage, are articulate and preferably good-looking."
We laughed and told her we'd do what we could, and then promptly did nothing in the hope her phoney agenda would choke on its own lack of reality. However, although the Telegraph never ran its feature, the Daily Mail picked up on the farce with a two page spread published a couple of months later. Written by "undercover investigative journalist Helen Carrol", the article was headlined: "Camcorders, cannabis and Earl Grey tea. Welcome to the world of middle-class squatters - The phenomenon of the well-educated youngsters who prefer to live in filthy squats."
It is unlikely that theDaily Mail bug the Daily Telegraph's Canary Wharf telephone lines, and more likely that their similar pre-agendas arise from a mutual penchant for news manipulation.
Now, all this shit - when it's so in yer face - can sometimes get you down..... On the back cover of SQUALL 13, we printed a quote from gay South African satirist Peter-Dirk Uys, encapsulating what the team had always thought: "Politics on its own is deadly dull. Entertainment on its own is deadly irrelevant." Indeed, much of the politics SQUALL was required to understand in the development of a socially relevant magazine, was and still is incredibly boring. So boring in fact that it seems almost designed to keep the subject an exclusive preserve for those who derive perverse pleasure or foster perverse financial ambition from learning its terminally turgid intricacies. And yet much of the serious behind-the-scenes manipulation in politics is achieved through convoluted means, most of which are a nightmare to articulate to a reader in an attractively accesible way. And yet it simply has to be done....politics matters that badly.
Most of us of course, would rather live life than argue about it but whilst ignorance might be blissful in the short term, it's downright dangerous in the long term. For, unfortunately, whilst a few million people are still recovering from their 'cultural' weekends on a Monday morning, corporate and political strategy departments are already having their first meeting of the week. Paying no attention to the hidden intention is perilous....... but then again so is excessive yawning. 'Act up', 'Lively up yourself'. 'Stoke it up' and 'All fired up' have all been phrases used on the front cover of SQUALL. And whilst the magazine is undoubtedly political, there is no desire from any of the SQUALL team to cease our cultural celebrations. One of the many facets which singled out the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act as a particularly draconian piece of legislation was the legal definition it placed on the terms 'rave' and 'rave music'; the now legendary "series of repetitive beats". The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 had already been preceded by the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990, and then succeeded by the Noise Act 1996 and the Public Entertainment (Drug Misuse) Act 1997. This avalanche of legislation targeted against festival and dance culture revealed just how out of touch politicians actually were with modern youth culture, and just how far they were prepared to go in legislating against something they had no understanding of. And yet when asked to make speeches at raves during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill, SQUALL was often heckled: "Fuck politics, put the music back on." With necessity breeding ingenuity, SQUALL speakers began asking for the music to be left on at a low level and for reverb and phaser effects to be put on the voice. As a result the speeches became that bit more enjoyable to both deliver and receive. Just as politicians seemed hell bent on squeezing the joy out of people's lives, so SQUALL was increasingly interested in the ways and means of reincorporating it as a necessary partner to social awareness.
Despite the initial prevalence of a dismissive dance-floor attitude to imminent dangers, a new consciousness began emerging from the rave and festival scene. Those who realised that culturally destructive forces were plotting strategically behind the scenes, began to speak and act up in defence of diversity and cultural space; and there is none so powerful as the combination of consciousness and culture. The most striking example of this new spirit emanated from the Luton-based rave organisation, the Exodus Collective. Ever since SQUALL paid a visit to Exodus's housing projects following a brief meeting with some of its members at a Welsh festival in 1993, the two teams have liaised extensively. For just some of the reasons why this interaction has induced such considerable inspiration, the chapter on Exodus written elsewhere in this book is a well recommended read.
Such dances with new dimension offer entertainment that isn't deadly irrelevant and socially relevant politics that isn't deadly boring. The inspirational Reclaim the Streets and a host of spirited road protest campaigns provided further examples. Both these persistent and well populated enviro-political stances mix music, theatre, sculpture, craft and ingenuity with serious and urgent political consciousness. As a result, much of the dour laboriousness associated with politics dissolved in a potent concoction of imagination, celebration and dissent. You need a laugh to live, you need a life to laugh; with celebration as an essential pre- requisite for personal health, especially when involvement in urgent political campaigns can often leave a person run down, cynical, angry and unhopeful. Health, afterall, is the confluence point for the huge diversity of urgent single issues represented in the magazine's pages. Common ground.
Throughout its journey SQUALL has sought to spotlight those who overcome the debilitations, desperations and restrictions of a disrespectful world in order to deliver fresh fire, spirit and solution; those who weave blessings from curses and help twist the mangled environments around us into something emanating more health. It is not possible to say and even seems rather unlikely, that in fifty years time a copy of SQUALL Magazine issue 300 will lie on the newsagents' shelves with "est. 1992" under its title. However, there is little doubt that the actively deployed ideas presented in its pages will have already offered a contribution to the achievement of what was previously thought impossible; a better quality of media, a better quality of mutual respect.....
For more articles about Squall itself see here