SchNews down the years
SchNEWS: how road protesters, ravers and GM activists fought back with direct action tabloid
Richard Purssell & Jan Goodey
29th July, 2011
Established in 1994 in response to Michael Howards' draconian Criminal Justice Act targeting activists, the Brighton-based SchNEWS has become integral to the UK - and global - protest movement, say Richard Purssell & Jan Goodey
Who told you to get out of the kettle before the rest of the press discovered police brutality? Who mocked Bono and Geldof's shameless butt-kissing of the G8, long before the entirely predictable failure of world leaders to come up with the goods over Africa, became mainstream news? And who was described by Radiohead as, 'brilliantly written, bleakly humorous, and essential reading for anyone who gives a shit'? For those not in the know - it's SchNEWS, the weekly direct action news-sheet hailing from the not-so-mean streets of Brighton.
Started in a squatted Courthouse in the pre-internet dark ages as a counter blast to the Tories' Criminal Justice Act 1994 (a hugely controversial piece of legislation which effectively criminalised an entire generation of activists - see below), SchNEWS has gone on to become a permanent fixture in the alt-media world. On the face of it two sides of A4, in style and presentation which would be instantly recognisable to William Cobbett and probably even Gerrard Winstanley, SchNEWS is the heir to the long British tradition of radical pamphleteering.
George Monbiot calls it, 'an integral part of the activist movement'. However it now boasts a movie-making wing and promotes lengthier and more analytical features as well as being a major contributor to UK Indymedia and having the now mandatory presence on Facebook and Twitter. SchNEWS still produces a weekly hard copy, a seeming anachronism, but according to Jo Makepeace, (SchNEWS long-term editor), 'a necessity - it means we can post it free to prisoners, hand it out on demos and leave it lying around for unsuspecting punters to pick up.' The SchNEWS boasts 12,000 e-mail subscribers and over 30,000 web hits a week
The style is incisive, witty and caustically direct. No blushes are spared, but then who really believes good manners get you anywhere; this news-sheet has been stickin' it to the man with more success where it matters - on the streets - than many a Guardian exclusive for 17 years now.
What's crucial to its ongoing existence is the idea of collective responsibility. There's little division between editorial and reporting - everyone in the group edits each other's stuff. There's no party line and a huge range of different issues is covered - SchNEWS is the nexus where a number of single-issue campaigns meet. Recent exclusives include the shutting down of the 2009 Big Green Gathering due to police pressure over licensing, and fracking (extracting natural gases from shale formations) off the Blackpool coast. A typical issue (take No. 779 15 July 2011) covers subjects as diverse as solidarity with migrants, a squat eviction in London and resistance to the English Defence League. 'Our politics are broadly those of grass-roots radicalism - anti-racist, ecological, anti-capitalist - any attempt to reach a party line would probably see the organisation fall to pieces,' adds Makepeace.
There are no exact figures for how many people have been involved over the years. 'We're probably into triple figures by now - some have drifted through, others have stuck around and become real mainstays. What has happened is that SchNEWS has ended up with a world-wide network of contacts - we were getting front-line reports from Nepal when the monarchy there was being overthrown, from Palestine during Operation Cast Lead...'
Nobody at SchNEWS gets a by-line - it's not the place to be if you're precious about your creative input. Where it differs from other publications in the blogosphere is the fact there is a group behind it - not just a lone voice. The cross-editorialising acts as the check and balance. 'We're shamelessly one-sided, we're writing from the viewpoint of anarchist agitator which is what we are. Unlike the broadsheets, we don't have to send someone down to Stokes Croft [an area of Bristol recently affected by rioting] to try and find someone who'll act as a spokesperson for the dissent - we already know who to ring.'
This anonymity and lack of any organised structure obviously gives the group far more licence to go on the attack than other similar publications. 'If you've got an office and named writers and salaries and all the rest of it then you're effectively hamstrung by libel laws and the need to pretend that there are two sides to every argument. In the run-up to the Iraq war we didn't at any stage have to pretend that there was any legitimacy to the government's case. Meanwhile seven years later the mainstream press is still expressing surprise at inconsistencies in Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair's Chilcott Inquiry evidence! Another example - we were able to say immediately that the police killed Ian Tomlinson without worrying about the notoriously litigious Police Federation.'
Another classic example of getting up the establishment's nose was the saga of On the Verge. One of the staples of SchNEWS reportage in recent years has been SMASH EDO: a direct action campaign against a Brighton weapons factory. The film, On the Verge, documented the campaign's struggle against a Protection from Harassment Act injunction. It made extensive use of footage from Sussex Police archives, provided to activists as part of court cases and didn't paint a very flattering picture of the force's attempts to stifle the protests. The consequence was a nationwide attempt by police to visit premises about to show the film and try to warn them off. Jani Franck, director of the Community Cafe in Southampton where the film was due to be screened, said at the time, 'I grew up in South Africa and this feels awfully familiar. This has nothing to do with protecting the public this is nothing but censorship.' Steve Bishop of the campaign added, 'As a result many more flocked to see it and the next big SMASH EDO demo was attended by four times the numbers, completely outflanking the police.'
SchNEWS has always kept its language at tabloid level - early headlines included the classic Police enter Dead Woman's Bottom. Back to George Monbiot: 'I like the way it's written. There are some of the best punning headlines you see - it often beats the tabloids. I certainly use it as a source - every three or four months.' Colin, an early contributor, adds: 'SchNEWS is different from most other anti-capitalist publications in four fundamental ways - it is free, regular, short and funny. A weekly A4 newsletter that made you laugh was miles away from incomprehensible rambling magazines and boring lefty papers trying to get you to join a sect - it was the distilled knowledge of the people it was written for, written by people in the middle of actions, sometimes literally down a tunnel or up a tree or under attack from police in the streets, with stuff phoned in, typed in the office and published. The ban on bullshit was crucial - it was Twitter before the internet.'
One particularly snappy feature has gained a life of its own: Crap Arrest of the Week. It's considered a badge of honour in the activist community to be mentioned in this long-running item. Here's edited highlights from three of the best: for jumping over the fence at Glastonbury and landing on a police landrover. Oops!; for getting run over during an anti war sit-down protest in Bristol: one man who was knocked onto the bonnet and driven along for 50 yards has now received a summons for ‘vehicle interference'; for speaking truth to power: on the No Border demo, one marcher was whisked away for a stay at Crawley custody for allegedly muttering the word ‘wanker' under her breath. Cops tried to get the potty-mouthed protestor to hand over her details for a potential ASBO. She's been bailed out of Sussex to prevent further offences so we needn't fear any more outbursts in the Garden County.
And the future? Well in the current mire the British mainstream press finds itself in, this news-sheet comes out smelling of roses. As contributor Jim Phillips says: 'Another SchNEWS catchphrase which formed early and remains true is "A Drop Of Truth In An Ocean Of Bullshit'": The Sun sells nearly 3m copies a day, The Daily Mail 2m, and the rest - so there's an urgent need for news sources which counter this mass misinformation.' And there you have it, a counter-cultural tabloid which having built up the trust of the UK activist community and beyond is pretty much the only read of the week. Yes there's in-fighting and yes there's arguments over direction, terminology and meaning, but essentially the song remains the same - SchNEWS is a call to action. And what happened in one of the first meetings could equally sum it up today - the talk was of McDonalds when someone piped up, ‘Fuck this let's do something' and the 50 or so members marched down the road and closed down a branch for the rest of the evening!
The SchNEWS In Graphic Detail book (featuring the best graphics from down the years) is out now £5. Order a copy from www.schnews.org.uk
Views from the barricades: founder members, supporters and stalwart contributors:
Jim Phillips - contributor
'I'd been reading SchNEWS for five years before I got involved in 2000, and thought it was the best publication going. Around 99' I realised that after years of going to demos (exactly of the sort SchNEWS covered), I wanted to get much more involved. With the skills I had, I felt that I could offer most if I became involved in the propaganda aspect of all this. I had an opportunity to temporarily come to SchNEWS in 2000 and help produce one of the annuals, which I jumped at, and it went on from there. I guess it has the dual role of a) being a credible independent news source focusing on what the rest of the media should look at but doesn't and b) being a tool to directly prompt people towards environmental and social direct action. I remember in June 2001 we picked up the Yearbook 2001 books from the printer in East London and were driving them in an old van to Cannabis Day in Brixton unwittingly through the "ring of steel" - where we were pulled over by police, and one car quickly became several as police seemed to come from all directions. After announcing that they were searching us under the newly-minted Terrorist Act, they began rifling through the back of the van, and were opening boxes to find them all containing a book with "Terrorist" on the cover (and numerous articles in it about the Terrorist Act). It was a ridiculous sight to see a group of policemen all leafing through copies of the book, but then they began behaving like they'd stumbled on a cache of "terrorist" literature and were discussing confiscating the books. When the sergeant asked me if I realised that they could take the books under the Terrorist Act I nodded knowingly, and if the situation hadn't escalated into this nonsense I might've grabbed the copy off him and shown him an article which confirmed this to be true. The moment blew past when they found magic mushrooms in the van, and the driver was arrested and let off with a caution.'
Colin - contributor
'Schnews grew out of opposition to Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill, a catch-all attack on loads of groups all at once - travellers, young people going to free parties, squatters, anti-road protesters, animal rights activists, loads more. Divide and rule is difficult when you attack lots of people at once - it tends to unite people if conditions are right - and that's exactly what happened, with SchNEWS as the mouthpiece of that movement. Cameron and Osborne are very much Howard's children and there's lessons been learnt on both sides from what happened then. The DIY, in-yer-face but with-a-laugh way UK Uncut is building actions now reminds me a lot of that unity, but on a potentially much broader scale - and with a bit less patchouli oil...There's lots of different views about how Schnews started, here's what I remember. During the courthouse occupation someone asked Women Against Pit Closures to come and give a talk, and it was brilliant, like your mum telling you off for not being militant enough! One of them asked if we had a regular newsletter and everyone looked at their shoes and they said "Well you need one!" and SchNEWS started soon after. We were involved in stopping roads being built and other campaigns across the country so when they killed one of our own (Simon Jones, who was involved in writing SchNEWS) we could hardly stand by and do nothing.'
Peter Styles - founder member
'I was previously involved in the movement after I graduated from in ‘93 with Manchester Earth First! I already had a dozen or more arrests under my belt by the time I moved back to Brighton (I grew up here) and joined the SchNEWS crew. After a certain number of arrests I felt like it was only a matter of time before the criminal justice system was going to come down on me. Writing about direct action as well as doing it seemed like a decent compromise. SchNEWS obviously came from a DIY ethos: the mainstream media wasn't going to give a fair hearing to "marginal" groups, like those who didn't want the countryside to be paved with motorways or those who simply wanted to live simply without excessive state nose-poking. There's one headline I'm especially proud of - "Sheriff sore after seven day shafting" (covering attempts to remove road protesters from tunnels in Fairmile, Devon). The Squatters Estate Agency [1996 at the original Brighton Courthouse squat] started as one person's idea that grew into a world-wide news story. I was in the office the day it broke globally, it was manic but a lot of fun. SchNEWS has brought countless stories to the mainstream over the years - the extent to which it has done this is should probably be studied as a doctorate. I'd be happy to do it if there are any heads of faculty reading this. SchNEWS was supposed to be accessible, actionable and inspirational. I always had a mythical 15-year-old in a bedroom in Luton when I was writing. I recently went to Glastonbury and met just one of those teenagers who relied on SchNEWS every week to keep them in touch with a world they really wanted to be part of. They subsequently became an activist. I was quite moved that we could have that kind of effect for one person - who multiply that by hundreds, or perhaps thousands of people and you've really made a difference.'
Gibby Zobel - founder member, TV/radio/print journalist
'I remember we used to meet at the New Kensington pub each week and we'd read it out - it became a cabaret performance. We would tour the country doing it - SchNEWS had that important oral tradition. Apart from that it's always been free, voluntary, no advertising. In ‘94 when we took over the Courthouse squat in the centre of Brighton, there were no emails and internet to speak of, so we put it together as a list of the protests we'd heard about up and down the country. It was all about Information for Action and we did news for the voiceless, news for action and for protest. They told us about it and we printed it. The annuals were the cash cows - what kept us going. The news was all about road protests the mainstream press were missing or stories about anti-globalisation and mass direct actions. I did it for those first two years, full time and loved it.'
Paul Light - founder member, video-activist
'I got involved by doing the original SchNEWS and CJB [Criminal Justice Bill] live readings in the squatted Courthouse and later every week in the New Kensington pub in Brighton from 1994 onwards... This is where the newsletter eventually sprang from: information for action in a witty and accessible way. The third battle of Newbury in which the CJA arrestometer [a running tally of Criminal Justice Act-related arrests] went off the scale was an important story for us. The Squatters Estate Agents was a good media stunt as well which played with the mainstream media and their portrayal of squatting. SchNEWS is essentially the same but covers more worldwide issues than it did from the start. It still provides info for action but on a more global level and, now with the internet reaches more folk than it ever did in the 90s. The drunken chaos of SchNEWS Friday live readings in the pub in ‘95-96 and the SchNEWS/Conscious Cinema tour of the UK (not so drunken) will always be on top for me.'
Warren Carter - founder member, allotment project coordinator
'It all seems so long ago. The idea of SchNEWS was to make anarchist/direct action politics accessible, tabloid without the phone hacking. So you had catchy front page headlines Crap Arrest of the Week, and "and finally". But unlike the tabloid press we encouraged people to not believe us but go and see things for themselves, if they think something is wrong go and try to do something about it. I started at Issue 2 before we had an office, when the internet was in its infancy, before anyone (apart from those working in the city) had a mobile, before facebook and Twitter. You tell teenagers that now and you sound like someone talking about the war. We had big phone bills, but most of the reports were first hand because people went on the actions. We also had a unique way of writing, where everyone edited each other's work, polishing it, adding jokes, whatever to make it more readable. We led the way breaking stories like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and World Trade Organisation etc. You try making that riveting!'
George Monbiot - supporter, environmental journalist/commentator
'So long ago I almost can't remember now, but I read it from the very beginning - it was an integral part of the activist movement; an essential part like Squall [alt anarchist newspaper] and Undercurrents [underground film-makers collective]. They helped create the movement, pulled it together. It survives well, there's much more competition now. Back then it was unusual to have something that radical and something not controlled by the mainstream press. SchNEWS is highly relevant and a very good source of news and I like the way it's written. There are some of the best punning headlines you see: beats the tabloids. I certainly use it as a source - every three or four months.'
Basil Pesto - head of biscuit logistics
'Although the world is in some ways quite different to the mid-nineties when SchNEWS began (the Internet for one large thing!), many things remain the same; illegal wars, oppressive laws, indigenous repression, animal abuse, corporate rule (even if it did nearly collapse in spectacular fashion) and mainstream media bias to name but a few. Hell, we've even got the Tories back in power again. In that time, SchNEWS has evolved from an A4 sheet providing mostly local and national direct action news that people would struggle to get anywhere else, into a web
and paper service that, while it still champions UK direct action and campaigns, also trawls the vast overwhelming ocean of information now out there, filtering stories, pointing people to further sources of info and commenting on more global issues, all in a condense, intelligent and, yes, often bleakly humorous way. Blessed are the gatekeepers. And after all these years, it's still served up on a weekly platter for our loyal readers to feast on. Is it still relevant? We think so, but in any event it manages to keep us off (and on) the streets...'
Lia Vlahavas - contributor
'I first went into the office to work on an article regarding Greece due to me being from there and being able to translate Greek Indymedia. There was a general strike occurring that week and as I'd been chatting to someone from SchNEWS they suggested it would be useful if I went in and had a look at the site to help out with the article. My first actual issue was 711, 26th February 2010 - Greek Fire. After that they asked me if I'd come back next week and I was really up for doing it as it seemed like a really good thing to get involved in as I'd be able to write about things I got involved in directly and also cover other events that I wasn't directly involved in but very much interested in. They were a good bunch after all. The fuel that keeps SchNEWS going is a constant supply of sugary carb bourbons and caffeinated tea and that is a fact. Plus we may have spent some of our precious time as activists, intellectual writers etc watching quirky YouTube videos, discussing song lyrics comic books and films. I mean we are always really serious with writing and stuff. Hmmm. Since I've been involved stories that stick out in my mind would be Forests sell-off which I think we got before the mainstream, the Decommissioners trial [SMASH EDO legal victory in 2010 when seven defendants were found not guilty after the weapons factory was trashed] was one I felt very personally for with a brilliant result and finally indymedia being infiltrated by police was a good story. As SchNEWS accumulates it acts as an alternative but actually it is a factual history that is not tainted by finance, advertisers, or power hungry heads. Today, as always, it provides information for people; it will always be biased from the point of view of the person writing it, as every individual has experiences and background that mould who they are and how they articulate themselves, but ultimately this is as objective as you are going to get. Each issue gives information to people about campaigns, direct action, resistance that is bypassed by the general media or manipulated in false ways to suit their arguments. Therefore SchNEWS provides an antidote to that sort of media.'
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