New Internationalist: the first 50 years – and the next
It was early 1988 and I was in Nicaragua. I had taken three months’ unpaid leave from New Internationalist to travel to the beleaguered country in solidarity with its revolution, then under siege from US-backed Contra rebels. I travelled independently but there were brigades of ‘internacionalistas’ from all over the world wanting to help. Some picked coffee while others worked on construction projects. At the time it felt like a peaceful equivalent of the international brigades that flocked to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, though doubtless we were bigging ourselves up unduly by casting it in that light.
On the upé (plantation) where I was picking coffee beans, a delegation of Canadians from the United Church in Alberta arrived as part of a two-week study tour. Their plans sounded fascinating and would mean the kind of access that no independent traveller could hope to achieve so I asked if I might join them. I was pushing at an open door given that half of the group turned out to be New Internationalist subscribers. One said: ‘You’re not the Brazier?!... Now I really feel like I’ve met a celebrity.’ And, when we joined up with the older half of the Canadian group and I was introduced, a squeal went up from my right and an elderly woman rushed up to embrace me with the words: ‘Really, oh you’re my hero!’ She then stuck a tape recorder under my nose to catch every precious word I might utter.
As I wrote in my diary at the time: ‘Embarrassing though this was, it underlined what it is too easy to forget sometimes at the New Internationalist, that there is something of a family out there which depends on us and delights in us. There are plenty of subscribers who come and go. But there are many others who have been and will be faithful to the magazine for years, to whom it is a genuinely important resource and contributes much to their view of themselves and the world. Back in the Oxford office it often seems very pretentious to think in this way. But meeting readers like these Canadians makes it real again.’
Running from rock’n’roll
New Internationalist has been my life. Although there is an element of journalistic hyperbole in that, in work terms it is pretty indisputable. When I retire in June I will have worked here for 37 years. Needless to say, when I arrived in 1984 I could have had no inkling that I would remain here for the rest of my working life.
In a very real sense, the magazine rescued me from the paralysis that engulfed much of my twenties. I had been remarkably lucky in landing a job immediately after university that many people might have sold their souls for – writing for Melody Maker, then one of the weekly ‘newspapers’ covering popular music seriously in the heyday of punk.
Nothing in my subsequent working life – neither the magazines or books I have written for New Internationalist, nor the global reports I have worked on for UNICEF – has tended to impress strangers as much as mentioning those heady few years when I interviewed Bob Marley and John Lydon, or went on tour with The Clash, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. Plenty of my contemporaries opened doors then that delivered them fame and fortune but I actually found the hedonism and excess of the music business hard to take. And, for all that I tried to convince myself (and everyone else) that there was a real political dimension to the punk uprising, it was ultimately what George Melly called a ‘revolt into style’. Asking teenagers about their politics when all they were really interested in was sex, drugs and rock’n’roll was only going to take me so far.
Eventually I retired hurt, bruised in part by the requirement to entertain by putting artists down (always easier to shine that way than painting in judicious shades of grey). I tried social work, travelled in Asia and joined the collective of a radical magazine, The Leveller, that soon went bust. By the time I saw New Internationalist’s job ad I had been underemployed for almost a year and was preparing to train as an English teacher.
The job of co-editor at New Internationalist fitted me more neatly than I could ever have dreamed. It drew together all the various strands of my life – writing, commitment to social justice, travel in what was then called the ‘Third World’, working in a co-operative – and gave me a cause to throw myself into heart and soul.
On the crest of a wave
By the time I joined in 1984 the New Internationalist had survived its first difficult decade and was beginning to thrive. The birth of the magazine is sometimes dated from its emergence in 1970 as the termly publication sent to members of the student organization Third World First (now called People & Planet) and sometimes from its launch as a national periodical in 1973. But essentially it has now been in existence for 50 years.
The New Internationalist was born in a completely different era. Despite the two ‘oil crises’ in the 1970s, that decade was still one of remarkable optimism, particularly among the young. There was a pervasive sense that the times were a-changing and that progress towards equality and social justice was almost inevitable, not least as younger generations with a more egalitarian outlook gained power in the world. The effective US defeat in its war on Vietnam – contributed to by a burgeoning peace movement at home – helped to give an internationalist dimension to this impulse towards progressive change.
But there were more substantial grounds for optimism globally on which the New Internationalist was uniquely placed to give voice. The post-World War Two period had seen scores of countries achieve their independence from colonial rule, and those new nations were starting to assert themselves through the United Nations. It is hard from today’s vantage-point to conceive of how UN conferences could have been seen as signposts to or even mechanisms for meaningful change, but that is very much how it seemed in the 1970s, when new ideas were explored at a series of such symposia on food, environment and population. The most radical of these calls was in 1974, for a New International Economic Order that would address global inequalities through both aid and more equitable trade.
The New Internationalist played its own part in feeding this, with its journalists sometimes participating directly at conferences to produce the official daily UN newspaper. In addition, the editors at the time came up with the idea of producing press packs on behalf of individual UN agencies containing ready-to-go features and fact sheets with creative graphics, all translated into multiple languages to maximize the chances of stories appearing in the world’s newspapers. For UN bodies without much experience of communicating directly with the public these were a godsend – and the fees for this work were ploughed back into the magazine.
By the end of the 1970s, though, it was evident that the widespread optimism about a changing world had been misplaced. Rich countries largely ignored the new ideas flowing from the UN General Assembly (where they were outnumbered) while keeping their iron grip on the UN Security Council. The notion of a New International Economic Order was one of the first to go, being clearly not in the interests of Western governments or of transnational corporations.
The post-War consensus in the rich world on the need for greater equality and a welfare safety net also fell apart at this point – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power on either side of the Atlantic and their brutal neoconservative ideology became supremely influential worldwide in the 1980s. It would have astonished all of us who lived through the 1970s to realize it, given how unjust and unequal social arrangements seemed at the time, but we were living through the high-water mark of social equality in both Britain and the US. With every passing year between then and now, as neoliberalism and unfettered globalization have taken hold, the rich have become richer and the gap between rich and poor has increased.
But though the New Internationalist could no longer consider itself a harbinger of inevitable change, its function as a platform for disadvantaged and marginalized voices became all the more vital. There was a hunger for alternative sources of information to set against the rightwing drift and throughout the 1990s subscription numbers climbed to ever-headier heights, reaching a peak of 75,000 worldwide around the year 2000.
South Africa under apartheid
Those were heady years and I was fortunate to have been part of them. As co-editors of the magazine, we were able to follow our passions and our instincts – and could often travel to the other side of the world, where we could avail ourselves of the unique privilege of the journalist to dig beneath the surface and unearth the stories that mattered, focusing particularly on the poorest and most disadvantaged.
Among my most memorable trips were two to South Africa under the apartheid regime – the first in 1986, to give over the whole magazine to black writers and artists (a much more novel approach back then than it seems now), and the second the following year, to help make a film profiling two 16-year-old girls, one from an Afrikaner suburb and the other from Soweto. Although those two experiences were little more than a year distant from each other, South Africa was in a very different state. In early 1986 there was a ferment of local resistance that seemed to hold out genuine hope of some kind of revolution whereas in 1987 a state of emergency had been imposed and we were dodging roadblocks and switching hotels, Le Carré-style, in an attempt to evade the security forces.
I felt particularly privileged to meet the activists and thinkers I spoke to on the first trip. I particularly remember an evening out with Neville Alexander, who had been imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1974 for having co-founded the National Liberation Front. Another excerpt from my diary will give a flavour of the encounter.
‘I’d sought Neville’s opinion about the state of the Left in Europe and been delighted to hear him say that he felt easily the most creative options for us were in feminist, anti-nuclear and Green politics. Considering his analysis of the South African situation is a revolutionary Marxist one, this is very encouraging and makes me respect his insight all the more. We agreed about the generally poor awareness of women’s issues in the [South African] liberation movement.
‘But then Neville recalled how he’d once set the cat among the pigeons on Robben Island. The prisoners had read a newspaper report in which Julius Nyerere [Tanzania’s then leader] had been asked his opinion of beauty contests. Nyerere had answered something like: “I don’t care for beauty contests – all African women are beautiful.” The response of the prisoners was to mock the sentiment as absurd but Neville did what he described as “quite a brave thing, really” and said that he thought the whole concept of beauty was something reactionary, something imposed on the African woman. The other prisoners scoffed but the issue became the subject of regular serious debate and Neville eventually produced a paper for the group on the subject. And, he recalled, Nelson had been quite disconcerted when he’d read it because he’d realized that the case was convincing.
‘I underline “Nelson” because of the awesome effect that was achieved by his mentioning Mandela’s name in this way. Neville may or may not be aware of this – Mandela is to him, after all, just a man, a comrade, with whom he was in very close proximity for 10 years. But to the rest of us he is a mythical figure and I think I can be forgiven for lapping up this kind of anecdote.
‘I asked if that kind of intense political discussion and study was a common phenomenon in those prison years. Apparently it was – they all studied hard and discussed politics seriously, on quite a formal, disciplined basis. Neville and Nelson, for instance, would meet at the same time each week to discuss a question for two hours, taking up where they’d left off and having thought about it in between.’
The magazine that I edited on my return was full of hope for change in South Africa – unrealistically so, in the view of my colleagues. Yet, four years after its publication, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid regime crumbled soon after – a timeline even I would have considered fanciful.
Floods in Vietnam
Another unforgettable trip was to Vietnam in 1990. At that point the country was effectively off limits to the world, still being victimized and isolated by the US, paying a heavy price for having administered the superpower’s most humiliating defeat in a war that had finally ended in 1975. I started in Hanoi and travelled the length of the country to finish in Ho Chi Minh City. In an era when Vietnam has become a standard destination for young backpackers, it is hard to convey how intrepid this month-long trip seemed at the time.
The most memorable episode took place in Huê, which was struck by the full force of a typhoon while I was there.
‘This morning,’ I wrote at the time, ‘the typhoon has finally subsided – it is still raining but the wind has dropped. In its wake have come the floods: the Perfume River has broken its banks and Huê is flooded on all sides as far as the eye can see. Driving a car is impossible and even on foot the water soon gets up to waist height. So Binh [my interpreter] and I hire a canoe. This is not the easiest of boats to travel in – very flimsy, it tilts to the side with the slightest change of balance. There is only one seat; Binh has it while I perch on what turns out to be a US soldier’s helmet reclaimed for peaceful purposes.
‘We glide down street after street of flooded houses – some with their floors just covered; others with water up near the roof. Everywhere I cause great merriment: this is not exactly the mode of transport associated with Western visitors. We heave to beside a couple who have piled themselves, their three children, an aged mother and all their key possessions onto a double bed that is raised above water level. Like everyone else I talk to, they are unfazed by the disaster.
‘“We simply have to wait for the water to go down,” shrugs the father, Hoi. “How do we live usually? We buy vegetables in the countryside and then sell them in the city market. We’ll lose a couple of days’ income through this but we won’t starve. This is the second time we’ve been flooded like this – the other time was in the big typhoon of 1985.”
‘I ask why they don’t move to somewhere a bit less vulnerable to such disasters. He looks at me like I am stupid. “Of course we only wish we could – but you live where you can afford to live and we are poor.”’
You could still get the same response in any Majority World country that is prone to natural disasters: in the shanty dwellings built on the edge of the ravine in earthquake-prone Guatemala City, for example. The poor have no choice about where they live and find themselves inevitably in the marginal, dangerous positions that no-one else wants – and New Internationalist writers have continued regularly to report on their plight through the decades.
Interrogated in the desert
A further mission that was memorable for all the wrong reasons was to Western Sahara in 1997. In a way it was remarkable that the New Internationalist devoted one of its monthly main themes to Western Sahara – the ‘experts’ I consulted beforehand seemed to agree that, while its people had justice on their side, theirs was a lost cause. ‘You would be crazy,’ one of them said, ‘to devote a whole magazine to such a hopeless struggle.’ Faced with this kind of response – a people ignored by the mainstream media and the powers-that-be – my fellow editors agreed that we had to proceed, that this was exactly the kind of topic that the magazine existed to take on.
The people of Western Sahara are the only Africans whose right to self-determination has not been fulfilled. When Spain, the former colonial power, withdrew in 1975 a referendum was supposed to take place on whether the people of the former Spanish Sahara wished to be independent. Instead, the territory was invaded by Morocco from the north and Mauritania from the south. Half the population fled into the desert and eventually took refuge from air attack (including napalm) in the barren southwestern corner of Algeria, where their descendants remain in refugee settlements to this day. The other half of the population remained in the occupied territories under Moroccan rule.
A guerrilla war waged by the liberation movement, Polisario, forced Mauritania to withdraw but led the Moroccans to entrench their military occupation, constructing a fortified wall that encloses two-thirds of Western Sahara.
In 1990 the UN came up with a peace plan aimed at holding a referendum and established its own mission to oversee this. And then… nothing. Aided by its ally France, Morocco frustrates all progress, exploits the mineral deposits and abundant fish resources, and rules the occupied territory with an iron fist. The UN has been utterly feeble, unable even to bring itself to monitor human rights abuses.
My main goal was to visit the refugee settlements in the Algerian desert. But I could not see how I could write a whole issue on Western Sahara without also visiting its occupied capital L’ayoun and reporting on the plight of the people left under Moroccan rule. Somewhat foolhardily, I decided that the only way to do this would be to travel there overland from Morocco as a tourist. A couple of days after arriving, I experienced the most terrifying night of my life. I had been tipped off as night fell that I was to be arrested at first light – I realized later that the contact who told me was probably an informer and that the tip-off was likely a deliberate ploy aimed at inspiring fear. If so, it was very successful.
‘My heart is in overdrive, an audible, thumping backdrop to the racing anxiety of my mind. The police are coming for me first thing in the morning.
‘As I lie here in the darkness, the bare box of my cheap hotel room, with its one small window high in the wall, seems like a prison cell. I am utterly alone. Here there are no embassies to turn to for protection, no phone I can use to let people know about my situation.
‘Escape is impossible. The road out runs hundreds of kilometres through arid desert and at least 10 Moroccan police checkpoints.
‘Rationally I know it is a good sign that they are not coming till the morning. Surely if they were going to inflict anything like my worst imaginings they would have swooped on me at whatever hour of the night? But reason does not loom large in the darkest hours of the night and as dogs howl and yelp incessantly in the streets of this desert city I stare wide-eyed at my nightmares.
‘I curse my own irresponsibility. Why had I so blithely assumed that if the Moroccan police or military found out I was a journalist rather than a tourist I would simply be thrown out of the country? Two alternative ways of treating me suddenly seem all too possible. They could lock me up as a spy – after all, any serious search of my papers will pretty soon reveal that I am on my way to visit the headquarters of Polisario, with whom Morocco is notionally still at war. Alternatively, I might end up with drugs planted in my luggage.
‘And yet the most awful prospect of all is not that of a Moroccan prison, though I know how brutal conditions in one of those can be. It is the idea that I might not see my family again for years, that I might not see my children grow up and that suddenly they might be deprived of their father. It is a long, long night.’
When the police came, it was in the shape of a tall, balding man with glasses who introduced himself as the ‘Controller of Foreigners’. For about an hour of questioning, I kept up my pretence that I was just a tourist. But eventually I concluded that if I withheld the truth any longer I would be courting more danger. So I told him the name of my magazine, that I had been sent to report on both sides of the dispute, and that I would be meeting Polisario in Algeria.
Having got what he wanted, at this point he chose to raise for the first time the possibility that they might treat me as a spy. My heart naturally started racing again but he was only toying with me – and eventually released me to ‘hotel arrest’ on condition that I took the next plane to Casablanca.
Within a week I was in the ‘liberated zone’ in the company of a Polisario military unit, examining the Moroccan berm or fortified wall through binoculars from the far side of the minefields.
Every subject under the sun
Notwithstanding this episode, the work of being an editor of New Internationalist has not generally involved being at risk in this kind of war-correspondent sense. Given the meagre resources at our disposal, we are less able to travel than we once were. But even investigating a multiplicity of topics in depth from home has been a remarkable privilege.
The very first magazine edition I put together, while I was still in my trial period, was on whether violence or nonviolence offered a better pathway to social change. It was an immediate lesson in how different New Internationalist was from other media. In my first proposal meeting I came up with a number of ideas for interesting articles but was sent back to the drawing board because I had not thought deeply enough about the subject. It seemed harsh at the time but the criticism was sound. I had not gone the extra mile beyond my research to think through a coherent argument – the four or five key points that I might want the eventual reader to retain. Only once I had done that was it possible to divine the articles that might fit the magazine best and put colourful flesh on the ideas skeleton.
Over the years this discipline has served generations of New Internationalist editors very well. It has allowed me to investigate subjects as diverse as world hunger, the International Monetary Fund and what an anti-sexist masculinity might be. Once I had learned how to apply the method I started to become more ambitious, reaching out into areas well beyond my comfort zone. The most hubristic of these adventures was making up my mind that I was going to try to condense the whole of human history into the (then) 28 pages of the thematic section of the magazine, what we would now call The Big Story. I was defeated in the sense that I had to persuade the co-operative to give me more than double that number of pages but the magazine did appear on time – and was ultimately put together with another of my magazines looking back over The Radical Twentieth Century to form a book (the No-Nonsense Guide to World History) that ultimately sold more than 50,000 copies.
View from an African village
I consider my most significant journalistic achievement, however, to be my reports on the life of a single village in Burkina Faso to which I have returned every 10 years since 1985.
This began by accident. We were making a film about how women farmers in Africa were neglected and I had been dispatched to Burkina Faso – then in the ferment of a revolution led by the inspirational Thomas Sankara, who was to be assassinated two years later. My task was to seek out a woman in a rural area who would be able to talk to camera about the myriad burdens involved in her daily work. Once the film crew arrived and we had established ourselves in our chosen village, however, I was largely free to wander around the area in the company of the only young woman who spoke enough French to act as my interpreter. Over the ensuing weeks I felt like I gained a real insight into people’s lives that went well beyond what a journalist would normally be able to glean from a cursory visit or series of interviews.
The experience completely changed the way I looked at the world, as I explained when I returned to the village in 1995.
‘I was staggered by how much I had in common with the people I met. Here I was in a village in one of the poorest countries in the world, where people did not even have animals to help them work the land and simply scraped at the bitter earth with their backs bent. I was in a place on the far side of a cultural as well as economic gulf – a society in which polygamy was the norm and in which girls routinely suffered genital mutilation. And yet across this widest of all gulfs I made a connection with people, a connection of common humanity transcending all borders, difficulties and differences.
‘The longer I live, the more I learn that what you see depends on your vantage-point and not on any absolute truth. Look at Africa from a rich country and you are likely to see a kaleidoscope of suffering and mayhem. Look at the African countryside from one of its capital cities and you are likely to see poverty, backwardness and ignorance.
‘But spend a few weeks in any one of those villages and you soon see the world in a very different way. You not only know that life is possible here but also that it has its full quota of human drama. People come alive for you. African villagers stop being statistics in a thesis, cyphers on a printed page. They have real bodies, real feelings – lives that have a beginning and a middle, not just some horribly painful end. Their loving and their laughing, their dancing and their dreaming, their pain and their joy are not that different from our own.’
My trip back to the village in 1995 was motivated primarily by a desire to communicate this sense of kinship to readers of the magazine. But the return visit revealed something different that might be called development in action. The word ‘development’ was once common currency in New Internationalist and is now less used – not least because of the assumption often built into it that poorer countries are to be assessed as to how far they have made it down the particular track established by the rich world. But development once connoted everything that mattered about people’s basic needs, from food and water to health and education. And while I still found the material gulf between my own life and the villagers’ shocking, 10 years’ distance provided all kinds of evidence of improvement in the conditions of people’s lives.
The same was true when I returned in 2005 and in 2016. To take just one example, the village clinic was just the shell of a building in 1985, with no nurse and no medicines. By 1995 there was a resident nurse and my former interpreter, Mariama, was working there as a midwife. By 2005 the clinic had more staff and a new annex dedicated to maternity care that had been funded out of debt relief.
There have been similar positive changes in education, while wells with pumps have been sunk in multiple places in the village – where in 1985 girls and women had to walk miles to fetch water and carry it back on their heads, now that water is much closer to hand, releasing literally hours of their day.
By 2016 there was no question but that the village, notwithstanding the vast economic gulf that still separates it from rich countries, had become a part of the globalized world. There was electricity in the nearby town, people used mobile phones to communicate with their sons or daughters working in neighbouring countries – and money from those who had made the difficult and often dangerous migration to Italy or France was finding its way back to family members.
Anyone who is interested in reading about these changes and what has happened to individual families in this community can find all the stories I have written and the photographs I have taken over the decades at the ‘African Village’ hub on our website. I cannot think that any other media organization in the world would have enabled a journalist to report in such depth on a single African village four times over a period of 30 years. This is one of the many things that make New Internationalist unique.
The next 50 years
The years since the Millennium have been infinitely more difficult for New Internationalist. Almost every year since 2000 subscription numbers have fallen. The proportion dropping out each year remained exactly the same as in our heyday but we found it impossible to replace them with an equivalent number of new readers – all the old forms of marketing simply ceased to work.
The story was similar for all media, whether mainstream or independent, as the impact of people seeking information online for free took ever greater hold. Given how tech-illiterate I generally am, it is strange to remember that I actually took responsibility for creating the first online version of the magazine back in 1996. At that point I wrote a paper for the Co-operative arguing that the expenditure would be worthwhile – that while there was no way of recouping the investment at the moment, within a few years a means of earning money for our web content was bound to emerge. Twenty-five years on, it still has not, and the magazine is still dependent for its income on a diminished band of faithful subscribers.
Even though subscriptions had begun to creep upwards again until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, income from this alone has been insufficient to balance the books. Over the years we have explored all avenues to find ways of supporting the magazine – publishing our own calendars, diaries and books, and launching an online ethical shop that sought out fair-trade products from around the world not just for our own readers but also for other like-minded organizations, such as Amnesty International. It’s fair to say that none of those endeavours have carried us to sustainability and, by 2017, it had become evident that New Internationalist was not going to survive unless it pursued a radically different course.
New Internationalist is clearly an idea much bigger and more important than the small group of staff who co-operatively run it – its mission to explain the world, to campaign against its injustices and to offer a platform to marginalized voices from all countries has become more vital with every passing year. And I have long felt that the responsibility for sustaining this mission should fall to more than just the few people who work for the organization at any given time.
In 2017 we made this a reality by becoming a reader-owned media co-operative. In what turned out to be a remarkable campaign, readers and supporters from all over the world invested their own money in order to become co-owners of New Internationalist. It was a humbling month for all of us, as messages of support poured in from all over the world, from people who had been touched over the years by our journalism or who were simply passionate about the need to sustain independent media in a dangerous era of demagogues and conspiracy theories. In a way it brings me full circle to the Nicaraguan episode with which I began this article, as we discovered anew how much what we did was valued by thousands of people from multiple countries.
But the sad reality is that independent media can now rarely survive by their own resources alone. Despite so many positive changes since 2017, it has become clear that if we are to continue to produce a magazine to the high standards we expect, and to chart a sustainable path into what we hope will be the next 50 years of New Internationalist, we are going to need help once again from our co-owners, supporters and readers.
I would love nothing more, as I bow out having contributed to three-quarters of those first 50 years, than to know that the torch had been successfully passed to the next generation, and that I will be able to rely as a co-owner and subscriber on the unparalleled insights of this remarkable magazine for decades to come.
This article is from
the May-June 2021 issue
of New Internationalist.
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