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politics

The Radical Media School Training a Generation of Left-Wing Pundits

The New Economy Organisers Network is making sure critical voices reach the news.

by Casper Hughes
11 January 2018, 9:45am

A NEON training session (Photo courtesy of NEON)

In the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, economic experts and TV pundits were incredulous.

In a testimony to a government committee in 2008, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, one of the key proponents of bank deregulation and a titan of neoliberal economics, confessed he didn’t "fully understand why [the crisis] had happened". Scrabbling around to make sense of the chaos, many experts blamed a few "bad apples". Others, like Greenspan, were more honest, admitting to the committee that there was a "flaw in the model of how I perceived the world works". As our television screens, our radios, our broadsheets and our tabloids communicated this collective meltdown, voices that were truly critical of the economic system were absent.

Things are different now, with an increasing number of left-wing voices appearing on TV news and across the airwaves. That’s no coincidence.

Founded in 2013, the New Economy Organisers Network (NEON) is dedicated to training up a new generation of media pundits to shift the national discourse on economic inequality, racism and migrants’ rights, as well as coaching organisers and connecting activist groups. Where, before, TV producers and commissioning editors might not have had the networks to find left-wing voices to talk on these issues, NEON’s training and infrastructure have provided a roster of experts ready-made for media appearances. Since its inception in 2014, NEON-trained spokespeople have made over 700 appearances on shows such as the Today programme, Channel 4 News and Sky’s Morning Papers.

"We’d often hear a recognition from TV news producers that [in the past] there was a lack of progressive voices on their shows," says Rosie Baines, 33, Press Officer for the NEON. "But then they’d say this was because they’d struggle to find people willing to go on TV – and I think there’s an element of truth in that."

Originally a part of influential left-wing think-tank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), NEON was co-founded by Daniel Vockins, 32, as a reaction to "progressive causes losing across the board" in the wake of the financial crisis. From his experiences organising against the marketisation of education at the University of Sussex, to campaigning against climate change for organisation 10:10, Vockins came to believe that the left were fractured around single issue campaigns and needed to coalesce around broader, more systemic answers to the problems they were trying to solve. Moving onto the role of the Head of Campaigns in NEF, Vockins began working on a project called "The Great Transition", where the seeds of NEON were planted. Tasked with researching social movements to find the best solutions and forms of organising to create fundamental change, Vockins and his team found much of its inspiration in the very ideology it was trying to replace.

"The amazing thing about the neoliberal project – for example, the Mont Pelerin society and the Atlas Network – was how methodical they were," says Vockins. "They created 450 think-tanks around the world, about 80 of them who shared the same mission statement. They had thought really consistently: how do you do the policy, how do you influence the politicians, how do you have the civil society groups that are going to be out there opening up space around this stuff? They systematically created the infrastructure to essentially rule the Western world."

"The civil rights movement is a great example of the kind of organising that we aspire to," says Vockins. "Very few people know that there were training institutes that trained Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to be the organisers and spokespeople that they were. Parks didn’t just sit down on the bus one day – there was a whole movement ecology and infrastructure that happened there."

New Economics Foundation spokesperson Alice Martin appears on the BBC World Service. (Photo courtesy of NEON)

Expecting another economic crash around the corner, NEON’s spokesperson plans to capitalise on right-wing economic failure and develop a left-wing hegemonic project in its wake. "We thought, and still think, based on what trusted economists are saying out there, there’s going to be a financial crisis on the way at some point," says Vockins. "So from the start of NEON our thinking was: what’s going to put social and economic justice campaigners in the best position so that the next time there’s a crash we don’t get another lost decade?"

For NEON, the problem hasn’t just been a lack of progressive voices, but a lack of range and diversity. "Our main focus is shifting the debate in the mainstream media," says Rosie Baines. "But it's also about diversifying the voices – we really wanted to get away from the position we were in, where producers and bookers would only go to [Guardian columnist] Owen Jones to get a progressive perspective. He’s obviously great, but he can’t be on every news channel."

NEON’s two-day programme ranges from basic technical knowledge – where to look while being filmed, how to sit, how to project your voice – to the more tricky prospect of conveying radical ideas in a way that is digestible for wider society. "If you move in lefty circles, there’s often a lot of jargon that people wouldn’t understand and would make them switch off," says Baines. "Our job is to teach the spokespeople how to convey these often complex ideas in ways that are common sense."

One technique that NEON teaches is what’s known in the game as the pivot – essentially acknowledging the question that an interviewer asked before moving to what you actually want to talk about. "You see politicians do this quite frequently, and it can get annoying," says Ashok Kumar, a lecturer in International Political Economy at Birkbeck University, a NEON trainee and a regular pundit on Sky News and the BBC’s World Business Report. "Someone asks a question, you immediately see an acknowledgment, a pivot, and then they’re able to get their political point across, which may be more relevant, or something they might be more comfortable talking about."

However, this tactic is put under much less scrutiny, Kumar says, if you’re an academic, rather than a politician who a presenter feels they need to hold accountable. "On the BBC World Business Report they’ll ask me questions where the hegemonic terms of debate are this unalloyed commitment to profit and capital accumulation," says Kumar. "But I’m often taking what they’re saying, pivoting and trying to get a political point across that isn’t completely left field, but is perhaps something more radical and outside the terms they have set. I’m perhaps able to get away with it, where maybe presenters would be a little harsher on elected politicians."

Not all guests on rolling-news get an easy ride, though, and NEON has drafted in Ed Miliband’s ex-spin doctor Tom Baldwin to role-play as a tough interviewer.


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Polly Trenow, 32, a member of the management committee of the Women’s Budget Group, has, with the help of NEON, developed a routine to get her through appearances on shows such as Women’s Hour, the Today programme and perhaps the most demanding of all, Nick Ferrari on LBC. "One of the most important things we learnt was to be able to fit all your prep on the back of an envelope," says Trenow. "I write down the name of the presenter, a reminder to smile, three key points, two stats to back it up and a memorable ending line that’ll sum up my argument."

Physical warm-ups are also an essential part of the pre-interview routine. "I’ll do this thing called a power pose, where I’ll stand with my arms raised aloft," says Trenow. "I look like a dick, but the psychology is that by standing there and taking up space you boost your endorphin levels and raise your testosterone levels. It’s silly, but I really like it."

For Trenow, though, the most important way to nullify an interviewer like Ferrari is light-heartedness. If you lose your cool, he’s won. "He tries to rile you to make you come across like a squawky, angry feminist," says Trenow. "But if you maintain good humour, smile, make some jokes, take the piss out of him a bit, he’s normally manageable. It’s important to remember that’s his job, and to not take it personally."

Kumar also sees humour as an underrated tactic. "Being able to have a bit of bants isn’t really respected enough on the left," he says, "but it allows you the space to then come quite hard in, say, critiquing imperialism. I’m going to make fun of a presenter’s love of cats – or whatever dumb thing we end up talking about on the Sky morning paper review – and then I’m going to talk about how British colonialism was a monstrosity. You want to be personable, but then give a very understandable, palatable story about something that’s tangible."

If another crash does come, thanks to organisations like NEON, maybe there’ll be a constructive way out of the chaos. For organisers like Daniel Vockins, the response to such a catastrophe will have been years in the making. "People think that large scale political and economic change comes about at the point that the election happens, or at the point that you get some seismic shift," he says. "But there is normally ten or 20 years of history that have led to that moment being possible."

If the stock markets crash, and the world stands still again, the ground has been readied for change that could determine the course of history.

@casperhughes2