I protest ... and it's all on video

The camcorder has become a vital part of the activist's armoury, both to promote the cause and to keep a watchful eye on the police. By Rob Brown
How do environmental and other single-issue campaigners ensure that their actions get covered by television? In the case of the recent Manchester Airport protest, they didn't have to do much. ITN positioned a producer, armed with a lightweight camcorder, in a treehouse for a week to record their demonstration.

That was unusual; national news stations have tended to give fringe campaigners a firm body-swerve, training their cameras instead on the political elite. Over the past decade more and more campaigners have started shooting their own material, which they try to squeeze on to news and current affairs programmes. Switched-on subversives also see camcorders as a way of documenting demos or deterring police violence.

"Video activism" gets a further boost this week with the publication of The Video Activist Handbook (Pluto Press). It may never be a bestseller, but its author, Thomas Harding, believes there is a growing market for his manual.

Hunt saboteurs were among the first British activists to use camcorders, mainly as a means of protection against terrier-men and hunt supporters. More recently they have been widely used by anti-roads campaigners. The power of the camcorder was demonstrated dramatically in Los Angeles in 1992, when a citizen happened to be in the right place at the right time to record the beating of Rodney King by police officers. Video activists in Britain have not captured footage with the force of the Californian episode, but they believe that their use of camcorders has deterred police violence during demonstrations and protests.

Not every protester has welcomed the camcorder. It can be hard to distinguish video activists from camcorder-carrying plain-clothes policemen and security guards, who may also seize footage shot by protesters and use it as evidence against them.

This is acknowledged by Roddy Mansfield, a former shop assistant with Boots, who became a video activist after seeing a Channel 4 documentary about fox-hunting and badger-baiting that used camcorder footage. "Some express concern that any army of activists wielding camcorders increases society's `Big Brother' factor," he says. "If you attend any live action today, you'll be videoed by police, private security guards and detective agencies working for the Government, all of whom are compiling secret files on us. That's spying on people.

"Yet when I see a security guard assault someone, or a police officer use unreasonable force, or a fox being torn apart, or a 400-year-old tree being destroyed, I'll be the first one to video it. That's not spying on people - that's justice!"

One of the biggest kicks for video activists is getting their recordings on to television. But it is a lot easier to get pictures on regional bulletins than on national programmes. Network news bosses have tended to treat tapes from video activists as suspect packages.

"I cannot remember when we last used that sort of material," says Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of ITN. "I know it sounds terribly pro-establishment, but we want to have our own reporters and camera crews on the spot shooting our own pictures."

But ITN did adopt some of the techniques of video activism to record the Manchester Airport protest. After a week in a tree house, Stewart Webb, an ITN producer, had footage of which any video activist would have been proud.

Peter Horrocks, editor of Newsnight, says he and his colleagues are always open to experimenting with news-gathering technology. "However, we're suspicious of people who offer us their pictures. We'll only use it if it's the only way we can cover a story and we're sure of its bona fides. Even then, we'll always be careful to label the source of the material when it appears on screen."

No national news station snubbed the video activist Paul O'Connor on 4 November 1994, when he shot exclusive footage of six protesters climbing on to the roof of the Houses of Parliament to oppose the Criminal Justice Bill, which was being passed that day.

At 28, Thomas Harding is disillusioned with the mainstream media. Just over three years ago, Harding integrated his television career and activist work by launching Britain's first alternative news service distributed on video cassette. The service, called undercurrents, bills itself as "news you don't see on the news", and was hailed as "the Pathe News of the Nineties" by Time Out and "compelling" by The Independent. More than 2,000 copies of each video are sold and it reaches an audience of more than 40,000 through group screenings.

The Oxford-based outfit has trained 500 people on how to use camcorders in their campaigns. Harding hopes that his book will perform the same educational function.

"When I started to use video for change," he says, "I had to learn everything by trial and error. I couldn't find a book that provided the tips I needed for my activist work. There were plenty of guides telling me how to make a wedding video, but none on how to become a video activist. With this book I hope to fill that gap".