EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 15. The Newspaper
Posted by archivearchie on September 28, 2009
Episode 1 of this series discussed how the origins of Big Flame can be found in a Merseyside local newspaper, and included two copies of early issues – one from March 1970 (before the political organisation was formed) and another from June 1972 (the first paper produced by the new group).
By way of contrast, here is the issue from May 1979, split into three parts.
Much had changed over the years, not simply to reflect the fact that Big Flame expanded from a Merseyside-based group to a national organisation. The May 1979 issue is described as a “Facelift” and there are some new innovations such as the half back page which when folded allowed the A3 paper to change into an A4 format for display in bookshops. However, many other changes had come about gradually over a period of time. There was a much wider variety of content, beyond news of industrial struggles. The paper is divided into signposted sections – “News” “Workplace News”, “The Struggle Worldwide”, “This is our Life” (the politics of personal life and culture), “Worth Talking About” (for debates) – and there is a cartoon.
The changes in the newspaper between 1972 and 1979 and those which continued until the last issue of July-August 1983, reflected repeated debates over the years about the readership, content and style of the paper. These are worth considering in some detail as the issues raised are ones which face anyone wanting to publish a newspaper of the left.
In terms of readership, the debate was often posed as a choice between a paper for the “the masses” and a paper for “the movement” or “the left” (usually by those arguing in favour of the former). Others rejected this dichotomy as a false choice. The debate on style might be portrayed as a choice between a “left Mirror” and a “left Guardian” (although I am not aware that these terms were ever used). An explicit discussion along these lines took place a few years later during the early stages of the News on Sunday project (see Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie Disaster!: The Rise and Fall of the News on Sunday Ch. 1).
I will try to give a flavour of this continuous debate by looking at some contributions. First there is a document from 1975 Propaganda and Consciousness. This was written during the period when there were three versions of the paper – a Merseyside, Manchester and national edition. The document is unusual for a contribution of this debate in that it linked prescriptions for the paper with an explicitly theoretical discussion of media and propaganda. Its starting point is that “militants” are the paper’s intended audience. The author believes would be illusory for Big Flame to aim for “the masses”. The document does discuss what might constitute a mass paper, defined it terms of its political reference point rather than circulation level. As the whole aim is to make people active rather than passive, it couldn’t simply echo the manipulative methods of the bourgeois press. The paper needs to reflect the interests of workers beyond work – sex, sport, culture, etc. It has to recognise that working class modes of expression are direct and expressive rather than abstract, and “translate” appropriately theoretical concepts.
Another view can be found in the letters page of the newspaper itself. The North Branch of South London Big Flame contributed in February 1978 to a discussion following an offer from the International Marist Group, then pursuing a left unity agenda, to participate in its paper Socialist Challenge (SC) (an offer which BF decided not to accept). The letter noted that SC was having an impact on the “politically sophisticate left”, whilst the Big Flame aimed to be a “popular paper”, with the litmus test that it could find readers “in the pubs along the Dock Road in Liverpool”. This made it difficult for Big Flame members to sell the paper to their day-to-day contacts. The authors suspected that the readership of the two papers was actually similar, but the SC was more successful in addressing the political vanguard.
By the time of the November 1979 Big Flame conference, the style and content of the paper was along the lines of the issue included above. Contributions to the pre-conference discussion criticised the paper for being focused in “the left” with too many articles on “movement” topics like Beyond the Fragments and the Men’s Movement. They argued for an alternative target readership of “the masses” or, alternatively, the network of working class militants. The then editor of the paper responded with a document How Often a Paper and for Whom? in a Conference Bulletin. He argued that working class militants were interested in more than wages and working conditions, and that, whatever efforts were made, the organisation recruited few workplace militants. The paper “is and must remain a compromise” representing the political space Big Flame occupied. The document also discussed another conference theme – the frequency of publication. The 1979 conference agreed “in principle” that the people should be fortnightly, although practicalities prevented this decision from ever being implemented.
A couple of years later a member of a new editorial collective wrote an article in the April 1981 Discussion Bulletin entitled Searching for a Perfect Paper. This was in preparation for a day school on the paper. He rejected the “tired old polarity” for the target readership, arguing that discussions should instead be based on a realistic assessment of members’ experience of selling the paper and discussing it with those outside the group. He notes that paper tended to b a collection of news reports, and that there needed to be more practical political guidance, articles raising difficult political questions and practical manual type material.
The final document I want to mention was written when a decision was taken to temporarily suspend publication (because of a combination of financial problems and finding sufficient volunteers for the editorial/production group). This is an article The Future of the Newspaper from the July 1983 Internal Bulletin, also produced to aid discussion at a day school. Unlike the other documents referred to here, it does not advocate a specific viewpoint. It sets out the advantages and disadvantages for three different options for a relaunched publication – A3 and more analytical, A3 and more agitprop, and a magazine format. In the event the paper never reappeared before the group came to end, although ex-members did bring out a few issues of a paper of the same name after the group’s demise.
The paper, in all of its many guises, never satisfied all of Big Flame’s membership, and there always some who either found it difficult to sell or were reluctant to try to do so. There were always difficulties in maintaining a broad range of articles. The paper was usually better at news coverage than in-depth analysis or practical tools for militants. Sometimes it imitated the practice of other left papers and parroted lists of demands with no chance of realisation.
However, any criticisms of the paper have to balanced by a recognition of the circumstances in which it was produced. There were never any paid or full time workers. It was produced entirely by volunteers –first in Liverpool, then a nation wide gathering in Liverpool, and finally in London. For articles, it was only able to draw on a tiny membership, and a small network of sympathisers. There were constant financial problems with finding funding for the paper.
Looking back, I believe that overall it was a good product in the light of these circumstances. It was much less hectoring and hysterical than most left papers. There was an absence of predictions of the immanent collapse of capitalism, or denunciations of other left groups. By and large the paper reflected an open and undogmatic approach to politics. Over the years the paper contained many informative and useful articles written in an accessible style.
Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.
P.S. As mentioned in Episode 1, Harvester Press published on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain. It includes just about every issue of series one and series two of Big Flame (but not the mid 1980s reprise), as well as many other extremely interesting publications of the 1970s and 80s. It is likely to be available at academic libraries, such as the British Library and LSE Library in London.
As mentioned in the Archiving Big Flame post, the Working Class Movement library in Salford, has an extensive set of paper copies of the newspaper.