Rory Bremner as Ahmadinejad: The Purity of Alternative Media

Curator's Note

There is much talk about the ‘purity’ of alternative media. But are we simply to think of alternative media in terms of their opposition to a mainstream (whatever that is)? Alternative media can be just as subject to the same economic and political pressures that are present in more dominant forms of media. In addition, alternative journalists and commentators do not necessarily reject all existing forms of representation (there is, after all, relatively little avant-garde or experimental newswork going on in alternative media). Moreover, when alternative media producers want to preach to more than just the choir, they often need to adopt and adapt dominant media practices. The British satirists who came to prominence in the 1960s through programmes such as That Was The Week That Was and magazines such as Private Eye (now in its fifth decade of publication) might be considered as alternative media producers. Some of them, such as John Bird and John Fortune, are still active today. They have been joined by a younger generation of satirists, such as the impressionist Rory Bremner. Bremner’s routine in this clip has all the acuity of the most effective satire: it is closely observed, the product of a shrewd political intellect. It is concise and to the point. I find it very funny. But some might argue that the programme from which it is taken - Bremner, Bird and Fortune - should not be considered as an example of alternative media at all. Its writers and presenters are now seasoned professionals; it is broadcast on national television (on Channel Four, a commercial channel with a public service remit). It has little to do with the radical democratic and horizontal communication practices that characterise most theories of alternative media. Yet it seems to articulate many arguments and positions that we would find in ‘purer’ alternative media. What does this say about its ‘alternativeness’? What can it tell us about how we categorise, define and explain alternative media?


I tend to think of media as being alternative along a number of dimensions, including content, aesthetics, production practices and relation to audience. At the same time, I tend to give primacy to alternative content in my definition and understanding of what is alternative. Comedy and satire are one area where alternative and non-hegemonic concepts find a niche on television. It would be interesting to look at theories of comedy and to think about this intersection. Such theorizing might help explain some of the power of fake news, culture jamming, political cartoons, and other genres that adopt mainstream aesthetic forms to introduce ideas that otherwise would be unacceptable within mainstream media. I also think that in the US context the present space for alternative ideas and aesthetics within the mainstream is so narrow that satire and comedy may be the only way to penetrate the fortress. These observations suggest the value of thinking about alternative media not as a fixed set of definitional points, but as something that does in fact exist in a constant dialectic with the mainstream, which is itself a moving target. As an interesting aside, check out the Long Johns (John Fortune and John Bird) piece on the subprime mortgage debacle on YouTube. This video has become viral within the US business world and offers a remarkably critical analysis that has not been voiced in mainstream media.

Both Chris' and Allison's comments make me think that it is not just about defining a concept, but also about nurturing a field of study. The mass media, commercial media systems have always been accompanied by a robust field of study. Hundreds if not thousands of scholars, academics, grad students, researchers, government experts research the mass media, their distribution systems, legal systems, content, audiences, everything. Twenty years ago only a handful of us insistently focused our research on alternative media. I find it quite ironic that now that the field is taking off, many people attempt to re-define mass media, commercial programs, networks, etc. as "alternative." I am not saying it is appropriate or not, just thinking that some years ago that would be unheard of, because the field had so little legitimacy--was so marginal. So, makes me think it's a good thing that now everybody wants to be part of the "alternative" crowd.

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