R*E*P*E*A*T and the new media revolution

July 7th 2005: A series of terrorist explosions strike London with brutal force. Immediately, a sense of gruesome fascination draws many towards the cathode ray tube, and within hours of this defining moment in British history, sketchy eyewitness footage has staged a hostile takeover of the TV newsflashes. Darkness. Smoke. Noise. Panic. Confusion. These images, shot as they happened by unfortunate amateurs with hi-tech mobile phones, provided the most honest, empathetic and memorable documentation of a day most Britons would prefer to forget.

Yet whilst irrefutably dramatic, these videos were simply another manifestation of the upsurging development of citizen journalism. The omnipresence of inexpensive, user-friendly technology in the form of digital recording equipment, desktop publishing software, and the internet permits the masses to document the first draft of history as they go about their hectic everyday lives.

Weblogs, (or merely 'blogs', in the common terminology) for example, are an increasingly noteworthy internet phenomenon. Sites such as MySpace.com and LiveJournal.com (with 38 million and 9 million subscribers respectively) allow anyone to share their thoughts and opinions worldwide, free of charge, in an open-access diary. Comment and criticism from other users is actively encouraged. In the post-September 11th world, political blogs have emerged as a space in which to express polemics from all points of the spectrum. There exists a myriad of blogs espousing views which range comprehensively between the extremes of right and left. High profile parliamentarians such as Conservative jester Boris Johnson operate their own personal blogs as a means of interaction with their constituents.

Richard Rose, a Cambridge schoolteacher, is a citizen media pioneer. As editor of R*E*P*E*A*T fanzine, he has spent the past decade preaching the three Rs: Rock, Roll, and Revolution. The publication started out as a primitive photocopied periodical, stealing its ethos from Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan, who once commented that "Xerox make everyone a publisher". However, its attitude to technological progress is far from Luddite. Its website, a self-proclaimed "mess of zeroes and ones", attracts 120,000 visitors each year, and will soon host a digital record label.

A rapidly growing audience subscribes to R*E*P*E*A*T's inimitable brand of musical, cultural and political propaganda, and its impact has proved to be astounding. Cambridgeshire bands have received attention and acclaim from the national press as a result of coverage in R*E*P*E*A*T, and the Home Counties youths have embraced the socialist, anti-racist and anti-war ethic of the publication. Mr. Rose (or Rosey, as he is known to his fanatical militia) safeguards independence above all things. The closest he has ever been to jeopardising his editorial autonomy was when he accepted a set of guitar strings in return for an advertisement. Surely most would agree that such an incident is hardly the stuff of tabloid scandal, but still he is defensive. "I want to be able to say exactly what I want, and not to worry about who this offends" he explains. "This can be so hard to do once you get sponsors and advertisers." His editorial duties, however, are minimal, because R*E*P*E*A*T contributors are themselves permitted a sizeable margin of liberty. Submissions are seldom rejected. Rosey claims that the only articles which could possibly offend his sense of taste and decency would be those which lauded the British National Party or Coldplay. He concedes to pedantry only by correcting spelling and grammar. "I am a teacher, after all", he apologises.

The cynic will observe that, whilst the public are indeed increasingly influential in directing the content of the media, the channels of distribution remain in the hands of the same rigid, impassive oligarchs. Let us not forget that the July 7th videos were broadcast by the BBC and ITV, and more significantly, MySpace has recently capitulated to a $629 million takeover by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, leaving its powerless subscribers whispering discontentedly about their fears of censorship. The genuinely self-sufficient enterprises such as R*E*P*E*A*T are naught but feeble minorities.

Yet so long as the medium does not mediate to excess, and so long as the message is not lost in transmission, citizen journalists can benefit parasitically, exploiting the might of their hosts to persuade inform, and influence. The citizen journalist may even make the lucrative transition to a career in the professional media. At least one former R*E*P*E*A*T contributor has broken into the mainstream media establishment, producing content for BBC Radio One, and Oliver Kamm, one of most renowned political bloggers, has also turned his pastime into a profession by writing regular column for The Times.

Having considered these developments, we can begin writing the constitution of the new citizen media: "We, the people of all states, united in a global community by the progress of technology, do hereby proclaim the existence of a new democratic media, with access and representation for all". Us, citizens, journalists one and all, may add our own clauses and amendments, until a new shared public media is comprehensively established.

Benjamin Short

This piece was originally written for the Financial Times

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