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UNDERCURRENTS: Battling Against The Tide

by David Fox

How low-cost video production set alternative news service on the campaign trail.

Undercurrents Productions is a campaigning organisation designed for the camcorder age. It wouldn't exist without video, which it uses as a "legal witness" to deter police violence, or to obtain evidence of pollution or simply to document events (such as environmental and social justice issues) which might not otherwise get TV coverage.

It was founded in 1993 by two "disillusioned" mainstream television producers and two environmental and social justice activists. "Frustrated at the established media's lack of concern and analysis in reporting environmental and social issues, we created a working alternative to challenge dominant news values," says co-founder, Paul O' Connor.

The following year it offered what he calls "Britain's first alternative news service", which was produced and distributed by video cassette. Two new videos have been released every year since. It also runs Britain's only dedicated training programme for people who want to produce their own news and "use video as a tool to bring about real change."

Although based in Oxford, it has been gaining a reputation internationally, and does work outside Britain. Indeed, it's footage has now appeared on 100 stations in 16 different countries. "All the national British stations use our footage regularly," says O'Connor.

Most of the footage was shot on Hi-8 up till [1999/2000], but it is now moving to DV. For editing it has a Fast Digital Video Machine for on-line onto Betacam SP, with an offline VHS suite mainly used for training, and his biggest problem is not having enough facilities to handle the demand.

In the near future he sees Undercurrents reducing the amount it produces and concentrating more on distribution via its alternative news video for already completed videos and developing its training facilities so that more people can do their own camerawork and editing to broadcastable standards. It has also produced a book The Video Activist Handbook, to help overcome the skills gap.

The biggest problem Undercurrents' crews have is "getting arrested a lot (one of our crew has been arrested 8 times and never once charged) merely for reporting from where the action is actually happening (like up a tree) rather than sticking to the mainstream viewpoint - looking over the police shoulder," says O'Connor.

It has been pressing its union (the National Union of Journalists) to start legal proceedings against the police, and has also set up meetings with police representatives, as well as produced a video (Breaking News UC9) "to raise awareness of the increasing number of journalists harassed, beaten up and arrested merely for doing their job." He says the video has been discussed in the European Parliament, as well as getting media and police attention.

Like Greenpeace, O'Connor sees the Internet as an alternative to existing media, but although it has experimented with video on the Internet, he says "the quality is too poor" to be compelling at present. "While we recognise the power of the Internet, we are wary of devoting too much valuable time to it at present - mainly because of lack of resources," he says, although it hopes its website will eventually become an umbrella group for all alternative media.

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David Fox