Tickling a dead elephant

The protests at Twyford Down, indeed most of the environmental resistance of the 1990’s, took place before the internet or mobile phones were in common usage.

Spreading word of the protests, letting people know what was happening and even getting press coverage was hard, hard work.

Instead of emails and social media, campaigners relied on stalls at gigs, knocking on doors, leaflets and posters, information at festivals and a huge network of free-newspapers, information sheets and zines distributed across the land.

Sending a press release involved standing by a fax machine for half a night, sending it to one media outlet after another, often with no response.

Simon Fairlie, one of those involved in the protests, likened this to “tickling a dead elephant”.

He describes the scenes at the Twyford Down Alert! offices – one that will be familiar to many for campaign offices:

Much of our time was spent stuffing envelopes — recycled ones where you had to scrub out the old address and stick them up with sellotape. In 1993, email and the internet were in their infancy, and Facebook and Twitter were unheard of.  Instead we had snail mail, a list of addresses and a phone tree. The protest camp was carrying out minor acts of direct action on a daily basis. But the big national days of action were advertised by sending out photocopied posters to a list of several hundred activists throughout the UK. 

It was hard work, compared to sending out an email circular, but it was fun, and it was effective.   People came from all over the country in their hundreds to participate in acts of civil disobedience. On one occasion, on one of the marches   I overheard a resident of the protest camp saying, “Isn’t it magical how all these people have come down here spontaneously?” Little did they know the long office hours spent getting them to come.  The success of this postal campaign has made me rather sceptical of claims that social media help to foment protest. What matters is word of mouth, and it doesn’t make much difference what is the dominant medium by which that word is conveyed.leaflet3 

The other main activity was sending out press releases — again a more time-consuming business than is now the case, as they were either sent by post or by fax. We sent out about two a week and for over two months the mainstream media wouldn’t bite. I remember the excitement when we got a little mention in Private Eye about Winchester schoolboys on the protest, and The Guardian gave us a few column inches. But mostly it seemed we were sending these press releases off into a black hole.

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