`Resistance culture' sets up news network

From the outside: anti-road campaigners, hunt saboteurs and other demon strators are now putting their actions on film `A camcorder on a demo can help prevent the police or security men beating you up'
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Britain's "resistance culture" has developed its own alternative news network. The growing band of anti-road campaigners, animal welfare demonstrators, hunt saboteurs and others taking direct action to protest outside the democratic process, is now being filmed by specially trained sympathisers with video cameras. Their dramatic footage is used to defend protesters in court, and sold to television news companies hungry for first-hand pictures. It is also distributed through Undercurrents, a video series claiming to show "the news that isn't on the news" and designed to recruit new activists.

Far more people are involved in "grassroots, radical, environmental and social justice activism" than anybody realises, says Thomas Harding, a director of Small World, the non-profit company that makes and mails out Undercurrents.

"Something new is happening in this country," says Harding, 26. "You're talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of people as a minimum. It's not structured, but you can see symptoms of the size of the movement: 10,000 people turning out at a rally, 2,000 turning out for a protest on Twyford Down, 600 at a conference. You can see protests all over the country, from Belfast to Inverness and Totnes to Watford."

Harding, a Cambridge graduate, has set up the Camcorder Action Network of 100 trained activists ready to film protests at a moment's notice. They were there during protests against the M11 link road in East London; when campaigners attempted to stop a bypass being built through Solsbury Hill outside Bath; and when anti-road protesters climbed on to the roof of the House of Commons.

The latest edition of Undercurrents also includes footage of security men using violence on road protesters, and police seizing a sound system on its way to a rave. Harding himself filmed a protest in Oxford, where he lives, last August: "The police baton-charged protesters. There was no other crew there. That footage was then used by each of the local TV stations, and is being used in a court case to defend protesters against affray."

Small World also offers campaigners training in giving interviews, dealing with the media and publicising their cause. "The idea is to empower the movement," says Harding, who was himself involved in protests at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. "Theseare the kind of people you see on peace protests, sabotaging hunts, on Criminal Justice Bill marches, on rooftops, dropping banners, setting up DIY cultural centres and living alternative lifestyles. These are the people who are suffering injustices butwho are unrepresented. They are active, trying to bring about change, but the media is not helping out."

The presence of video cameras on demonstrations can "quieten things down", he says. "It is useful to protect yourself against the police beating you up. I was on Solsbury Hill when one security guard went up to another and said: `Stop doing that, the guy's filming.' When we went away, it got worse again. That happens all the time."

Not only hard-core activists watch Undercurrents, which is sold to libraries, schools and colleges and shown at public meetings. The latest edition sold out in weeks and 1200 extra copies have just been produced. Harding believes it will be watched by upto 40,000 people, with a far greater impact than standard television. "Camcorder footage is more immediate and emotional. It gets you involved. Our criteria is whether it will bring about change, the concrete political effect of the film."

His real targets are the millions who have already been concerned enough to support groups like Oxfam, the World Wide Fund for Nature or Greenpeace. "People who are interested in the issues but not doing anything about them. Maybe a member of Friends of the Earth, for example, who is environmentally aware but has never been on a road protest."

Contact numbers given out with the videos include local campaign groups and established names such as Liberty or CND, plus others like Road Alert, which co-ordinates protests, and Advance Party, which represents ravers and festival-goers. There's even the Global Network for Anti-Golf Course Action and Greenhouse, a group responsible for "co-ordinating ethical shoplifting of mahogany products".

Small World is financed by the sale of videos and of archive footage to documentary makers, plus personal donations. It also continues to make commercial documentaries. Last year it received a grant of £50,000 from a European Commission project on environmental issues. It has staff of six, who are all paid £160 a week, and an annual turnover of £150,000. There are offices in Oxford and North London, and sister companies in Holland and New Zealand.

Two reasons the stories covered in Undercurrents aren't on mainstream TV are ignorance and the time it takes to overcome the suspicion of environmentalists, says Harding. "We spent eight months with the M11 protesters. No one else is going to do that. When you get them coverage they wouldn't otherwise have got, they love you."