Each morning, a worry pops up that I’ll have nothing to write that day, and each day I find a new insight without fail. It isn’t until I write out all that I know that I am able to discover what I didn’t know I knew.

So I keep showing up every morning. The showing-up part reminds me of the process in becoming a citizen journalist. It took over a year of publishing articles I considered to be newsworthy pieces before I could do it without supervision and without feedback from others.

It’s only ever in the doing, in the praxis, that we can become. It was in David Graeber’s brief history of anthropology that I first heard of the idea of anarchy as praxis. It’s the notion that you have to live and practice your beliefs and not only espouse them

As “David [Graeber] was at pains to explain, anarchism was a praxis: it was the doing, and the living of the thing, which counted”. [link]

With citizen journalism, you have to become that public voice but then you also have to deal with the consequences. When you spend a lot of time criticising decisions by decision-makers, it becomes difficult to feel comfortable [at least it was for me] to then ask them questions that are not criticisms.

When I was invited on BBC Radio Bristol to discuss the mayor’s secret social media harvesting exercise, I was introduced by an ‘impartial’ reporter as the ‘mayor’s critic’. I was then framed in a way that anything I was about to say was going to be biased towards being a criticism. This was not because of anything the mayor has done but because I was a ‘mayoral critic’.

Another example was in December 2019 when I covered the election count for Bristol South. It was a fascinating practice where I got to speak to candidates, kept up with the news of what was happening. I got home after 5am, saw journalists go and talk to candidates, get photos, and maintain a jovial detached aura from any consequences to the elections or to the candidates, etc.

If a political figure was there then they would talk to them. They could do this because they were from the ‘impartial’ BBC. They reported what they heard and not what they thought.

I won’t get into the realities of this impartiality, save to note the very useful work done by Tom Mills on neoliberalism and the BBC as a public service.

You can report as impartially as you like but when you use voices from business such as the owners rather than the workers, then your choices quite clearly state who is the voice who should be heard.

When you are reporting on Israel bombing Palestine and have killed 1500 people, including 550 children, and the person you allow to speak is only the Israeli prime minister [as the BBC did with operation iron sky] then you again make a value judgement on who is allowed to speak, have an opinion, and allowed to justify their actions.

Regardless of this, the BBC reporter had the type of stance of ‘open friendliness’ to everyone. It was a detached friendliness perpetuated with the ability to speak at length but not too long on one’s own personal needs, questions, queries, comments, etc. It’s a style one adopts at academic conferences, the art of friendly small talk. I often note it with BBC Radio Bristol people, journalists on camera, editors of Bristol24/7 etc. It’s one I can use as well.

However, it’s not an easy persona to use when you have a legitimate criticism or anger at decision-makers, and this is what drives me to an extent.

If you need to be detached, impartial, and have the aura of ‘nothing to do with me, guv’ then what about those who can’t help their anger because their 16-year old son has just been killed on an Avonmouth waste management site?

What about those whose children haven’t had a school place for over two years because the council failed to account for it? Or those who have stayed homeless or who had no health care because of council failings?

It’s important to note that powers such as local councils have the ability to withhold resources. Citizens/residents and political powers are not equal. They can’t be. While councils are meant to represent the people they serve, often they don’t even communicate with those people.

The lack of response to FOIs and subject access requests is an example of this imbalance of power. The refusal to publish reports in time for the public and for scrutiny committees to scrutinise them is also an example of an imbalance of power and a failure of democracy.

The other quite clear imbalance of power is when those in charge can be rude, aggressive and display bullying behaviour but then don’t accept ‘rude’ behaviour from the press or from citizens.

The forces towards becoming a citizen journalist might indeed be ones of constraint. If you expect the council to reply to you then you might think you need to be polite. You might think you need to cultivate a friendly relationship with the press office, as I mentioned in a previous article, and keep everything just slightly detached.

Well, what if you don’t do that? What if a rude person or an aggrieved, hurt, injured, and insulted person had exactly the same right to ask questions and report on the centres of power?

What would you need to begin to embody that?

My very first piece, which I think was an attempt to hold the centres of power under account was about the mayor’s faith adviser. The process was as follows:

  1. Was it newsworthy? Was I ‘allowed’ to write it and say it in public?
  2. Research: Was the story complete? was there anything missing from the narrative?
  3. Was it libellous? Would my house be at risk?
  4. What was the official process? Who did I have to contact for comment?
  5. Did I need a comment before I could publish? [the advice was “it’s not mandatory but if you’re going to slag someone off it’s only polite to give them a right to reply” — not that my piece slagged anyone off.]
  6. Was it publishable? Did it read ok?

For the first article, I waited months before publishing and then had a professional journalist read over it, edit it, and had them assure me it was publishable and of public interest.

One thing I’ve noticed is the ‘learned’ (?) lack of reflection on one’s practice when it comes to professional journalists. To understand what is in the public interest, and what one could and should do, I reached to a friend who did a PhD o public relations and who often writes about the media. The conclusion was pretty much that those in positions of power are open to scrutiny; private individuals should not be, etc.

strong coffee (series U)

Published by Joanna

A collection of fleeting thoughts that tend to focus around Bristol, food, movies, music and photography.

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