Decoding the New (s) / Medway Free Skool

This was my first workshop as part of Medway Free Skool, which came about after several conversations with Phil Kane re community education and in particular horizontal learning and anarchist free skool / university projects. Phil had been put in touch with the people from AntiUniversity Now, who were look for people interested in running activites, workshops and experiments between the 9th and 12th June. Most of the activities happen in London and we thought it would be fun to add a bit of a Medway Fringe.


On Thursday Phil put together Local Culture – A Symposium, which took place at Poco Loco, involving some beers, games, speed debating and interesting conversations about culture and cultural activities in the towns.


Continuing frustration with the quality of journalism, and in particular the tendancy for sensationalised media that stirs up hatred, rather than reporting the facts to constructively inform people inspired me to put something together to examine this problem, this Decoding the New(s)


I didn’t want it to be just another stodgy lecture and debate about the subject, especially as some of the inevitable conclusions, when facing the monolithic power of corporate news, can be quite depressing. Instead, I wanted to leave people feeling a bit more empowered to deal with all the pressures and negativity. I split the workshop between an open discussion, looking at stories picked from the days papers and a pleasantly disrespecful bit of cut up art / ad busting. Taking the headlines apart and rearranging them to undermine and change the original meanings. This is nothing new, but its always a lot of fun and the results can be quite cathartic.


I arrived at Rochester Library somewhat nervous of what to expect. Being a new thing, Medway Free Skool isn’t massively well known, and despite a lot of interest, the Facebook event and a couple of Eventbrite bookings, I realised there was a high chance of me spending my afternoon on my own reading the papers. Fortunately, I love libraries and would have been completely ok with this. As it turned out I was soon joined by my first two participants, who had booked on Eventbrite. We dove straight into discussing some of the days stories and the inevitable subjects of bias, omission and the predjudices of various publications.


It is impossible to read a paper at the moment without wading through the whole Brexit thing, with what seems to have become a competition to see who can write the most offensive or fear mongering article. It was interesting to see the efforts the Mail went to in order to bring a story about football violence in Marseilles round to Brexit, but at least they seemed to condemn it. The Sun seemed postively chipper about what they made sound like a nice little a punch up in the park with their headline ‘Biere we go’.  Their background imagary of St George’s flags and people enjoying themselves almost seemed to celebrate the clashes.


During one of these conversations we were joined by a library member who only approached because he was after a copy of the Times. We offered for him to join us, but he declined, preferring a private read. However, after a few minutes of listening in, he was clearly gripped and joined us at the table for the rest of the event. This is the real sucess of holding events in public places like libraries, people outside your normal networks get to find out and join the conversation and as we weren’t exactly quiet, plenty more will have heard our conversations, which may have been good or bad for them. Personally, I welcome the livelier approach libraries are taking, but do recognise the need for quiet spaces sometimes.


One thing that has caused me a lot of reflection this weekend (especially after attending other events with AntiUniversity) is my position leading workshops like this as a white, British, straight male, who lives a fairly middle class lifestyle, despite pretty much working class roots. I haven’t felt this more keenly than at the Strike! magazine party on Saturday night, with posters declaring white, middle class men ruin 1000% of everything, accompanied by performances backing this up. The simplistic instinct is to complain about this, because its not how I feel. I recognise the priviliges I have been born with and see the harm that has been caused, but I also see the harm and stupidity of arguing the ‘but we aren’t all like that’ case. Reflecting on my own potential for real and cultural violence isn’t meant to be fun, more a reminder to keep my priviliges in check.


I also highlight this because all the other Decoding the New(s) participants were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and I would prefer to recognise this difference, rather than pretend to be colourblind and not think about my own advantages and predjudices. In this instance, difference opened up conversation, we discussed experiences of Ramadan, with all its struggles, its positivity as a discipline and mark of faith, as well as covering the media and subjects like the relationship between immigration and Brexit. We talked about the demonisation of Islam in western culture and particularly how this is effecting young Muslims in Britain, how incidents and negative issues are increasingly generalised to a whole religion and culture, especially when a scapegoat is needed. In the case of the child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, for instance, it is worth asking to what degree clearly un-Islamic acts might be more associated with mysogynistic gang cultures than the religion of disseffected young men from deprived communities. Race or religion corellating more with deprivation as a result of inequality than belief systems.


We also talked about the tendancy to homogenise groups of people, applying the same characteristics to all members of a race or religion, despite how a brief examination of the diversity of opinion within our own communities shows how ridiculous this is. This being as true whether it’s white people assuming all Muslims support ISIS or Muslims assuming all Jews are Zionists. The main result of all this is hatred and division. When the mainstream media works so hard at achieving this, its only sensible to question their motives and what they (as large businesses) get for their trouble.


The internet has a key role in how we receive news and opinions. It enables wider and more international conversations than ever before possible. Yet the act of communicating online can also dehumanise and political or philosophical debate can quickly fall into name calling and abuse. When put in a room together people have far greater potential for listening and respectful communication; it is much easier to consider someones feelings when you can see what is happening on their face. I think this is the beauty and power of events like this. As consumers, on social media we talk in our closed groups, confirming our existing beliefs, bias and predjudice, but when people with no other connection are brought together they create new possibilities to listen, learn and understand and maybe even make change.


After all the serious conversation, we got down to the fun of destroying the headlines and making our own. Everyone took a different approach, whether continuing with analysis, cutting up and using individual words or juxterposing larger chunks of text with contrasting or ridiculous images. I had wondered whether this approach would work or if it might be too odd, but it turned into something quite exciting, full of laughter and occupying us all for the remaining 3 hours!


Medway Free Skool hopes to continue running events throughout the year. I will definitely be running some more, but more importantly we are looking for others who would be interested in putting together an experiment, workshop, activity or similar that we would happily help promote and organise. If enough people get involved this has the potential to be something quite special and benefit anyone who gets involved. The main criteria are that any events should attempt to be inclusive, celebrate participative approaches to education and run in line with anti-discriminatory practice. Activities could be anything from serious philosophical or political debate to radical hat making or the science of cheese, you don’t have to be an expert teacher, just have an interest in sharing your passion or starting a conversation. Contact us on the Facebook page or email: to express interest.


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