Using news tools and making lists

I’ve been reading about digital forms of narrative recently. The impetus for some of the new topics is the advent of Alexa and other voice-reactive media sources. One worry that came up was that if the airwaves/alexa waves were controlled in quite specific ways then entire topics might be ignored by listeners. Then came the idea of using different tools to attract listeners to stories — who chooses, who is the curator and arbiter of what is in the public interest?

“Data can be abused,” says Brendan Sweeney, director of new content and innovation at KUOW public radio in Seattle. “And it’s simultaneously true that the myth of a journalist’s or an editor’s gut being the all-supreme thing, that’s also problematic.” The challenge, Sweeney says, is not to assume listeners avoid entire topics, but to instead look at the data more closely to see if something else might be turning them away.  “If an important story isn’t finding the audience it deserves, we need to adapt how we tell that story. Experiment with leads, framing, tone, etc.,” Sweeney says. [link]

Getting people to pay attention to what you want them to listen to is a topic about ‘newsworthy’ all of its own. Do newspapers reflect public perceptions or do they guide and reinforce them?

And in that vein, how does social media guide, reflect, and/or reinforce them?

Mirkham [link] writes that the very structure and use of social media determines the output and not in the freely determined way that Castell perhaps posits:

“the last thing posts on social media are is representative of reality: indeed they are nothing more than the overdetermined products of the commercial, or neoliberal,
logics that drive the design, promotion and management of these platforms.”

He points out that social media platforms such as Facebook get you to identify and describe yourself in relation to consumer goods — favourite films, products, holidays etc. You reflect your consumer identity more than anything else.

I’m trying to assess whether this is something that can be modelled. My process has been very much about Twitter so far. Facebook has a more obvious way of tracking consumer links but Twitter is not so obvious from what I can tell.

This brings me back to Gary Younge who writes that Twitter is not the real world. Journalists see it as a proxy for the world but the world is out there not on your phone. Twitter storms happen, he says, but does anyone outside Twitter even notice?

This is checkable — do politicians notice? do they reference it? do they change policies?

In the case of the faith advisor story, the mayor did notice it and made disparaging remarks to a congregation of people who gathered to hear his interview. No policy changed, which is the criteria Chomsky states as being a useful tool to assess things.

One of the latest Twitter storms is about the Canary — a left-wing media site that has taken up a position against mainstream newspapers such as the Guardian, Telegraph, Times etc. Mostly the Guardian, I’d say, because that is the paper that says it is on the left — it is the book end of left mainstream thinking and writing.

There seem to be two issues about the Canary’s authority [and I write this from a distance because I don’t read the Canary; for various reasons]:

  1. the topics the Canary covers range between legitimate opposition and deviant spheres (Hallin); they covered the Julian Assange trial while no other paper gave it much space at all, for example. The Assange trial is arguably one of the most important trials for journalistic freedom;
  2. The style of the Canary’s writing and processes don’t conform to what mainstream journalists are used to producing. There is no immediate sense of ‘authority’ because the guidelines of what counts are not there. Some pieces are emotive, topics are covered there that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, etc. The fact that you don’t get an ‘impartial’ examination of issues makes it difficult to assess the value of the news item. You need to trust the authority of the journalist and media source rather than the content. But the media source and the writer aren’t immediately known. (that’s not well phrased I know but my point is that because the content can’t be trusted on its own, it needs to gain its strength from the authority of the media source or its writer — neither seem to have enough journalistic professionalism or tools to make that possible). I think this needs a little more thought about its phrasing.
  3. In contrast, the socialist newspaper the Morning Star may cover topics that aren’t covered elsewhere but the style of writing is similar in tone and shape to what other professional newspapers produce.

Hypothesis to look at: style and practice give authority.

A Twitter storm or at least lots of Tweets went out yesterday, 16 December 2020, about Jeremy Corbyn giving an interview to the Canary. Guardian columnist Owen Jones said Corbyn should not be giving interviews to the Canary.

I tried to find reasons for people disliking the Canary but there was really only one that came up — singular, not plural — the Canary is anti-Semitic in the same way Corbyn was anti-Semitic.

Not one mention of the professionalism or behaviour of its writers other than anti-Semitism.

This is an interesting reason because of its one-sidedness. The people making the accusations don’t apply the same reasoning to other media sources. Kier Starmer was on LBC and didn’t address the white supremacy comments from a listener, for example.

Mainstream newspapers have over time justified bombing Kosovo and Iraq and Syria and Lybia, shown support to Saudi Arabia etc. [link] But killing millions of people doesn’t fit in the same reasoning as the alleged anti-Semitism of the Canary even though one is quite clear.

But the point is that the professionalism and writing style of the Canary doesn’t really come up in people’s complaints. Is this because it’s an unconscious understanding of which are the professional and authoritative news sources?

In Google’s patent for its algorithm, it mentions that local news is of lower quality than national newspapers. Why is that?

Anyway, on to lists. I have been making lists of the topics I have written about over the last month or so and I have been doing it in Word rather than on the blog. While I believe that being transparent with my work processes is important so I can not only explore what it is to be a researcher but so others can see it too, the list work is too immense to post each day. The first attempt at pasting all my work in one document was 68 pages. I then made the font smaller until it was 52 pages. I’ve deleted parts and made bullet points of other notes and yet it’s still 32 pages.

It’s not as quick as I’d imagined!

painting of moonlit Christmas night in village

Plurality and working up a first draft

“At the heart of plurality concerns is a conviction that healthy democracies depend on the circulation and intersection of diverse voices and perspectives.”

“One look at Google’s most recent patent filing for its news algorithm reveals just how much size matters in the world of digital news: the size of the audience, the size of the newsroom, and the volume of output.

Here’s the patent for google’s algorithm https://patents.google.com/patent/US9037575?oq=google+news+systems+and+Methods+for+Improving+the+Ranking+of+News+Articles

From the patent: “CNN and BBC are widely regarded as high quality sources of accuracy of reporting, professionalism in writing, etc., while local news sources, such as hometown news sources, may be of lower quality”. https://inforrm.org/2016/03/06/tightening-the-grip-why-the-web-is-no-haven-of-media-plurality-justin-schlosberg

The wording of the Google algorithm fits in with my thoughts about the statistical model I wrote about the other day. I was talking to someone about democracy last Thursday and being from academia, she mentioned a useful technique to try to sort out my data issues: maybe I could apply for a grant or funding of some type to get a survey done by Survation or one of the other survey companies such as YouGov. It’s a thought.

As I keep writing and finding more topics that extend from my original ideas, I realise they are all relevant but I’m worried I’m not circling back enough to complete an article outline.

Just in time, a blog post from a writer who focuses on academic writing, was published [link].

Some strategies for writing up a first draft

I had read about this technique when I’d first started out all this so it feels like a bit of a revelation coming back to it. It might have been in Dunleavy’s book about Authoring Your Frist PhD.

  1. Compile all your notes and random thoughts into one document. Name it.
  2. Make these random thoughts into a long list.
  3. Group the things that seem to go together into larger pieces.
  4. Write up the things into bigger chunks — use sentences.
  5. Shuffle the chunks around until they seem to have some sort of order.
  6. Note any missing chunks from the narrative. Write those in.
  7. Then keep writing up the other chunks from the list.
  8. Turn the writing into more complete thoughts, one paragraph/chunk at a time. You don’t have to do it at once.
  9. Read through and then leave it for a few days.
  10. Read through again and see if your argument feels strong enough, you may need to refocus on a type of reader or journal you have in mind. Maybe the text needs reordering.
  11. Decide what needs to be changed – “Make sure you add something like a bit of an introduction and conclusion if it isn’t there – remember that these have to ‘shake hands’ and refer to each other.”
  12. Transfer it to a new document and name it first draft. And remember it is still a first draft.

I love this and can use my writing time to do it. I have been reading through Schlosberg over the weekend, and then found Tim Markham’s work as well — a Birkbeck colleague of JS’s.

Now and then I look through PhD funding and applications. The most relevant one for me seems the government loan scheme of £26k. You pay back after you start earning £21k and more. One of the pieces of advice always given for any PhD applications I look through is to find an adviser you think would be suitable to supervise you, and Schlosberg was one of those. I also looked through other staff members and began to read through Mirkham’s work.

Finding other research links like this also convinced me to take a step back and see how to put my list of topics together into a semblance of a first draft.

I’ve used output from some similar researchers — Tom Jackson, Mills, Schlosberg, Mirkham, etc. to identify some journals I think would be relevant to my work. Journalism Studies and Journalism Practice both look relevant as a first choice. And so it was time to start putting together the ideas for my first article.

I highly recommend following Pat Thomson’s blog. She consistently has great advice for PhD/research students. Even when I’ve read the advice once from other sources, I find it useful to revisit research and learning methods. Going back to basics as a refresher rather than a distraction can be invigorating.

I have put together my daily notes from 18/11/20 to 14/12/20. Quite pleasingly, that is almost a month so it seems the right time to gather my thoughts into a list. I’ve written 16,232 words. I’ve circled back over some topics but always at the end of each piece of writing added something I hadn’t known before I began to write.

That’s the beauty of writing; you can offload your conscious thoughts and reveal what has been simmering below. Sometimes I’m surprised at what comes up next.

During a lot of this work into citizen journalism and authority, I keep coming back to the article on Mexican journalists and anonymity plus danger. When the topic you are covering is vital for your audience — it may literally save their lives — then the risk in believing that information drops. If your life is already at risk, for example, then you will have less to lose by trusting an anonymous account.

I’m not sure that’s quite the right analogy here but there’s something about how newsworthy an item is and why.

There was a collaboration between the Huffington Post and the Bureau Local a few months ago where the HP explained why it was important to pay attention to local council cuts.

The idea of this is ludicrous from those dealing with the cuts but perhaps obvious to those who never have to deal with them.

If your child has been out of school for years because council funding cuts and basic mismanagement has meant there are not enough school places, then you don’t need an explanation for why it’s important. You know.

In that same paper, on a previous day, a murder was featured in the headlines without needing to explain why this was important. We know, or have been trained to know, why some news is evidently newsworthy.

This is a question I used to ask a journalist I know quite well — one I see every day, in fact — is this news? is this headline news? Is this newsworthy? Are you writing it? Are you assigning it to someone else?

After knowing this journalist for years, I now very rarely ask. Instead, I have internalised to a small extent what is newsworthy and if I now spot something that seems newsworthy, I pass it on. This would be the same as how you would internalise it in a newsroom but when your livelihood depends on it you internalise it a lot quicker.

We can see this ‘risk’ effect in how quickly pandemic language has been picked up during the last year. Within a day or so of a new term being introduced, it circulates effortlessly in the population and the media: social distancing, bubbles, travel windows, the R rate, etc.

And this brings us to Parenti, Medialens, learned behaviour and “Nicholas Johnson who was the former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He said, quoted by Parenti, that there are four stages that journalists typically go through in their career:

‘In the early stage, you’re a young crusader and you write an exposé story about the powers that be, and you bring it to your editor and the editor says: “No, kill it. We can’t touch that. Too hot.”

‘Stage two: You get an idea for the story, but you don’t write it and you check with the editor first and he says: “No, won’t fly. No, I think the old man won’t like it. Don’t do that, he has a lot of friends in there and that might get messy.”

‘Stage three: You get an idea for the story and you yourself dismiss it as silly.

‘Stage four: You no longer get the idea for that kind of an exposé story.

‘And I would add a stage five: You then appear on panels, with media critics like me, and you get very angry and indignant when we say that there are biases in the media and you’re not as free and independent as you think.’”

There’s a well-known journalistci cliche that I first learned from my dad; dog bites man is not news; man bites dog, well that’s news.

How do you make the cliche into news however? Terry Pratchett, ex-local (Bristol) journalist covers that brilliantly in Truth, the story of Ankh Morpork’s first newspaper.

He’s no longer with us however so I’ll have to use what I learned from him.

How does one reverse the cliche and become a journalist while having to navigate the spectrum of what journalists are from stenographer to power to citizen journalist? Parenti says of those who perpetuate the mainstream media’s biases, ‘you write what you like because they like what you write’. How do citizen journalists get the implicit authority from readers to write what they like because the people like it?

How does a citizen journalist become a ‘journalist’ –from both sides, their own internalisation and from readership and then extended to trust enough to affect local political participation?

human hands knitting sheeps (Rkl painting)

Who controls the internet (controls the world)

The internet was created out of public resources — it was a military project worked on at universities. It is now (almost?) exclusively owned by corporations.

I went to a 5G talk at the Watershed last year hoping to understand more about what the concerns were but instead got to hear the benefits of it. These were not benefits for residents or users but for those who control the means of production and distribution. There was talk of the companies who were set to make money from its use and those would benefit from increased surveillance of the public (states/corporations).

The health concerns did not really come up. In fact, the man giving the talk (a computer scientist university lecturer who had written books on computer science) was quite frankly confused about the spectrum of concern about health. He put up a reference or two to public health England or some other health organisation and then carried on about the ‘real’ issues.

There are two reasons why this is interesting to me:

1. there are two clear sets of argument and concern about 5G; identifying the spread of these separate discussions/arguments would make a good case study for checking demographics and media sources–whose narrative gets amplified?

2. One of the solutions proposed by our speaker was a separate internet infrastructure that was not controlled by corporations. Someone at the meeting piped up to say that he had been part of a collective in Bristol that actually tried to do this. I went to speak to him afterwards and it turned out to be someone I already knew well from Twitter! How’s that for a small world? or probably it just shows how our similar interests brought us both to the same place.

So my intention in this article had been to point out this separate network. I had not at that point, and still haven’t, seen any official media narrative about creating a non-corporation controlled internet infrastructure.

“technologies that do not provide gateways to news content but facilitate access — internet service providers, browsers, mobile operators and app platforms — are also dominated by huge corporations. They have no direct bearing on news consumption, but they do have varying degrees of power over traffic management (Schlosberg 2016: 134–5). Even the cable and routers forming the internet backbone are owned by private corporations.” The internet “has been privatised at the deepest levels (see Curran, Fenton and Freedman 2016).”

Back to 5G:

The coverage of 5G issues has almost uniformly painted the situation to be about health concerns by tinfoil hat wearers who believe we are to be controlled by very rich Martians who now probably live in Silicon Valley. It is almost exactly the same narrative now foisted on those who question the various vaccines on Covid: ‘microchips by Bill Gates controlling my grandma’ etc. This seems the only allowable response to questions.

Re:5G, Issues that are not covered — from anecdotal memory recall and so I will check this — are increased surveillance, who benefits, how they benefit… and other issues within this remit of surveillance.

Full disclosure: I know people involved in the university 5G research — I feel very positive towards these people. Some are Greek, they are friendly, open and easy to talk to;

I know people who are campaigning against 5G for health reasons. I can guarantee they understand none of the actual health issues. These are not well-informed people.

However, I am not dismissing the questions about the health issues because of who the campaigners are.

I haven’t explored the literature either on the health issues or the surveillance/privatisation/control issues. I am agnostic to an extent but my biases lead towards giving prominence to narratives hidden by those who would benefit, and it’s always capital that benefits because capital owns the means of production. But this is not an answer towards what is happening, it’s a disclosure on my beliefs, evidence and biases.

As a case study, it would be useful to look at which media in Bristol have covered which of the 5G narratives, and how.

In the Pervasive Media talk, one of the companies that was discussed was Alphabet, which owns Google and many more companies.

This brings us back to Schlosberg’s research on who controls the media (output). In fact, it’s quite a fun case study because the media facilitators and owners would possibly both have reasons to want to control the narrative about 5G.

Looking at it through a local lens is quite fun in a way because this is a situation split over different boundaries of control. Bristol City Council have said they have no strategy about 5G, they take money/£millions for being part of the pilot for installation of the masts, they have the University of Bristol as city partners/leaders, the masts now apparently (check) need no planning permission to be installed so the council would have no remit over 5G, but it is a local issue. It is happening in the local area and affects residents.

So who do the media report on and from when writing about 5G? It could be the ideal case study. Of course, the detriment to its case-study worth would be the overpowering narrative from the media suggesting that anyone who even mentions 5G is a tin-foil hat wearing Martian apologist/lover.

novel writing on ancient a typewriter

Social media is not just for citizen journalists

When I was envisaging this research, I only saw it from a citizen journalist’s perspective. The picture goes something like in Figure:

Figure 1: the media effects of different types of media, social, local and national

But reading Basu, I have seen there are more elements to how ‘voices’ get amplified. The amplification and trust in the news is filtered through algorithms.

“Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are among the new intermediaries through which millions of us access news. Media scholar Justin Schlosberg (2016) refers to them as ‘gateways’. Manuel Castells (2009), though critical of global media corporations, argues that social networking sites offer the means of ‘mass self communication’. They enable users to produce meaning interactively. Anyone can tweet, post or upload a video.”

The literature, however, shows that “gateways actually tend to lead users back to mainstream news brands. For example, Schlosberg (2016: 120–2) reveals that Google’s news algorithm systematically favours large-scale and incumbent providers. Its ranking of stories is not only matched to the keywords of a search: it gives prior weighting to news providers based on a range of what it considers indicators of news quality. These include the size of audience, the size of newsroom, and the volume of outpout. When it comes to volume, it favours providers that offer a breadth of coverage over specialist media, and those that produce a lot of coverage on topics that are also receiving a lot of attention on the web as a whole. Thus, the algorithm favours established providers that pursue a dominant news agenda.”

“There’s a feedback loop at work here. Because these outlets are dominant, Google prioritises them, which, in turn, reinforces their dominance. As Schlosberg points out, given its stated preference for sources like CNN and the BBC, it may also be reinforcing a news agenda with a ‘western’ bias (122).

So how does a feedback loop get modelled and measured?

I keep leaning back to my data analysis as a a solution but I’m not sure that’s right. What if the data collection method was more aligned with journalism? How do journalists get data?

Vox pops? radio station call-ins? letter pages? The last two would hardly be a guarantee of an unbiased representative sample but a vox pop might be useful if it was done long enough and with a broad enough selection of locations.

It could be simple — have you heard of the mayor’s faith advisor, diesel fleet of vehicles, Bristol Housing Festival?

Do you rent, own, etc.?

Could their demographics be assumed by the questioner? how much bias might that introduce to the data analysis?

And time would need to be added as well! I’ve written about the dispersal rate of information — a decay effect in essence.

References

The economics of social media news — modeling

The economics of running a news platform at either social, local or national level affect the process and capability of news production.

National papers have more resources than local or independent media. Local papers have more resources than independent media.

Independent media often doesn’t have the ability to go out and find a consistent set of news. With no access to public information — e.g. when it has been blacklisted from the council’s press communications — it can’t report on many local issues with the same level or before any bigger media centres.

The inability to gather their own news means that the local and national media can’t be ignored. Independent media does (often? always?) not have the resources to replace other forms of news. (Basu)

Independent media often has a different relationship to advertising than do bigger news sources.

I feel like I need some kind of chart here. Or some statistical model.

If I were to model the effect of local participation, what would my independent variable be? what measures local participation?

If I were to include say, number of statements or questions to public forum as an dependent variable, that might affect the independence of something like likelihood to vote at a local election;

I could have a combined variable of political party activism (leafletting, phone banking, election night attendance etc), voting intention/action, activity at city council.

Some of the model’s dependent variables might be:

  • number of articles produced
  • number of ads
  • number of reporters
  • topics covered
  • revenue
  • Type of advertisers
  • readership — number of hits?
  • social media share

I will check the UKDA.

Where would I get the data though? British Household study? do they have any local election data? I think the British Election Study has a question about whether people voted in their local election and to which party.

References:

Hardy, J. (2014) Critical Political Economy of the Media. Routledge.

autumn park (series C)

Article writing

Adding a bit more substance to my article outline:

From a post written on Friday but posted yesterday because for some reason WordPress didn’t publish it on Friday —

Gaining and examining authority as a citizen journalist

  • There are two types of authority — one assigned to a journalist by their audience, and two, the authority a citizen journalist internalises as part of their practice.
  • From an audience perspective:
  • News is divided into three spheres of what constitutes writing; There’s the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviant writing (Hallin). The deviant sphere is occupied, “according to Hallin (1986: 117), by ‘those political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard.’ The other two spheres are basically the book ends for how far you can go on a topic.
    • You can mention the mayor is Christian but you can’t discuss his faith advisor who is an alumni of a church that thinks you can heal the sick, raise the dead or such the souls from graves. These don’t come up in the pages of the media.
    • So how do you gain authority as a citizen journalist?
  • Practices geared towards validating information can include:
    • FOIs
    • ICO
    • Practices consistent with what are considered to be best journalistic practices; e.g. two independent sources, primary material, evidenced material, public evidence;
    • Validation from the political parties being discussed. Do they acknowledge the fact, do they deny it? accept it? etc.
  • Having past work published in national and local papers might provide validity.

Journalism as providing a memory is a topic that might be useful.

“As Thomas Kuhn (1964) argued long ago, what we know has a social life that privileges certain ways of knowing. Inquiry depends on consensus building and on developing the kinds of shared paradigms that name and characterize problems and procedures in ways that are recognized by the collective.” (Journalism and memory by Barbie Zelizer, p.2)

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” Milan Kundera.

“in collective memory studies, [o]nce scholarship started to
amass and journalism was nowhere inside it, it became more difficult to find a place to include journalism down the line. And yet, the lack of consonance between how we think memory works without journalism and the evidence by which journalism engages in shaping our version of the past is troubling.” (Zelizer)

The suggestion in Zelizer’s work, is that the current media’s role in informing the readers of how current knowledge is presented — what is newsworthy (Hallin) — needs to be added to any argument of how to gain authority.

I need to read a little further to understand the exact nature of the memory/media literature. Basu does a great job explaining it in Media Amnesia and she cites a few of Zelizer’s works. There is no direct link, from what I remember, of authority and memory, however.

Citizen and independent journalism is seen not have the same prominence, to have different techniques and these question the process of making news — the need for simple narratives, the rushed writing, the reduced staff numbers, the emphasis on profit rather than investigative news and holding power to account — etc.

Ascertaining authority might benefit from an examination of the following:

  1. the process by which the writing is produced
  2. the length of time the author has been visible [see Mexican example of assessing validity of anonymous accounts]
  3. The importance of the information; i.e. see Mexican article – -if your life depends on knowing what’s happening and staying anonymous, then it might be easier for readers to accept one’s authority.

In local councils, however, the issues are rarely immediately dangerous in terms of being murdered, but cases of abuse (child protection) are under the auspices of the council and so they can be life-threatening.

Zelizer, B. and Tenenboim-Weinblatt, K. (2014) Journalism and Memory. Palgrave Macmillan, UK.

Nygaard, L.P., and Solli, K. (2021) Strategies for writing a thesis by publication in the social sciences and humanities. Routledge.

F

Extract from the Times, 1905

Showing up and documenting — praxis

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)

Structuring a paper

I am aiming for a thesis by publication so my writing is meant to contribute to actually getting something published. 30 minutes a day for five days a week, minimum.

The topic that initially stands out the most for me at the moment is the authority of citizen journalists.

Some thoughts on structuring this argument.

There are two sides to the coin of authority in citizen journalism — there is the way the audience and readers decide what is authoritative news, and enough so it can be believed and acted upon (in my topic, in reference to local political participation).

There is also the citizen journalist’s perspective of feeling they have enough authority to not only take on a public voice but also to cover topics that the ‘sphere of consensus’ and ‘legitimate controversy’ won’t touch.

I have two case studies for this topic and I might just stick to one of them. In July 2019, I wrote about the mayor’s faith advisor who was an evangelist Christian and linked the mayor to types of Christianity that thought getting evangelical Christians into politics is the best way to Transform Cities. No ‘consensus’ local media covered the topic in full. Bristol247 news editor did write about it in passing when the mayor was elected.

During the mayor’s reelection campaign, however, Rees told a congregation at Christ church Clifton, that the topic of his links to evangelicals had been discussed in his office when it came up on social media and he was told to tone it all down. As he continued to say, while accepting the story was true and had merit, he would continue to pursue these links because the church brought money.

So the arguments based on the literature are as follows:

  • From an audience perspective:
  • News is divided into three spheres of what constitutes writing; There’s the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviant writing (Hallin). The deviant sphere is occupied, “according to Hallin (1986: 117), by ‘those political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard.’ The other two spheres are basically the book ends for how far you can go on a topic.
    • You can mention the mayor is Christian but you can’t discuss his faith advisor who is an alumni of a church that thinks you can heal the sick, raise the dead or such the souls from graves. These don’t come up in the pages of the media.
    • So how do you gain authority as a citizen journalist?
  • Practices geared towards validating information can include:
    • FOIs
    • ICO
    • Practices consistent with what are considered to be best journalistic practices; e.g. two independent sources, primary material, evidenced material, public evidence;
    • Validation from the political parties being discussed. Do they acknowledge the fact, do they deny it? accept it? etc.
  • Having past work published in national and local papers might provide validity.

From the citizen journalist’s perspective, what gives them the sense of being the right and valid person for taking on this public persona? How does that transition work in the face of silence from public officials and at times disbelief and criticism from the audience?

For the faith advisor story, everything I wrote could be found publicly and was clearly evidenced in FOIs and public documents.

For my Housing and Monastery 2.0 story. Everything I used was in the public domain. The video I quoted was in the piece. The information was clearly visible and available and yet there were people who perhaps did not want to bother reading it or watching it, who joined in with criticism.

What might be necessary in these stories is trying to find ways to make them relevant to public processes.

One story that has been covered in the media about the government’s handling of covid is where do key contracts go — with no appropriate procurement — and who gets appointed to key roles — without proper recruitment? These same issues happen in Bristol but are not covered.

sitting on the bench in autumn square (Uma painting)

Public private partnerships

City Leap could be a useful case study of the effect of social media on local political participation.

It’s a topic that on the face of it seems quite vast and full of buzzwords; so much so that it’s barely understood — but is part of a broad wave of practices through globalisation and neoliberalism brought in to increase the profit of capital. It’s a mechanism to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector.

Now, these concepts aren’t normally brought up in the local media. On a search for the use of the word neoliberalism — the label for this group of mechanisms including deregulation, lower taxes on capital, wage cuts, insecure wages, hollowing out of the state while public services are carried out by the public sector, gives an initial but crude look at how the media perform:

My assumption from past reading of the Bristol media, but not from evidenced research, is that these aren’t topics for local journalists. To quote Gary Webb, the local journalist who uncovered CIA involvement in the drug trade on the streets:

“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking.”

Alas, then, as Joseph Heller wrote, “Something Happened”:

“And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” [medialens]

In 1996, Webb wrote a series of stories entitled Dark Alliances. The series reported how a US-backed terrorist army, the Nicaraguan Contras, had financed their activities by selling crack cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles to the city’s biggest crack dealer.

I have talked to journalists from the regional press, I am married to one, they are part of my life day to day and I have yet to come across anyone who thinks they are suppressed or censored or even not 100% impartial. They don’t write anything important enough to suppress. And yet some topics are just not covered. So there’s that.

From Media Lens again: “journalists are selected on the basis that they are unlikely even to attempt to report “dangerous ideas” of this kind – troublemakers are quickly identified and filtered out as ‘committed’, ‘biased’ and ’emotionally involved’.” 

But City Leap is big money in a little pond — the entire Bristol budget is around £1b and Bristol is considered one of the core cities. There are many financial interests in the city.

The Bristol Port, which can be considered part of another very important practice in neoliberal mechanisms might be another useful case study.

The Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and Avonmouth Severnside Enterprise Zone are part of regulatory zones that give tax breaks and business rate breaks to capital, often at the disadvantage and harm of the local community.

“The ward is the biggest in Bristol but has some of the highest reported health issues, lowest social provision, high unemployment, low skills and some of the lowest satisfaction ratings with way of life and the mayor.”

But topics like this aren’t newsworthy for local media.

painting of heautiful green village on white background

Narrow range of options

Basu writes about how the media have managed a near total media amnesia about the 2008 financial crisis and its causes. She identifies three factors at play: a narrow range of elite perspectives, a lack of historical context and a lack of global context.

We can see similar at the local level. We see it not only the media but also in the narratives used by the local councillors.

One example is of the city council partnering with a company or consortium of companies to deliver a way for those companies to make a profit.

Or, as the brochure tells us, they are partnering with a multinational company in order to ‘drive’ Bristol’s decarbonisation. This project is called City Leap and initially contained the loss-making Bristol Energy (BE) company as well. BE, however, was sold off with losses at over £20m.

How has the setup of City Leap been described in the local press? [further research needed but there has been no mention of a transfer of wealth at all]

One of the first things that comes up about City Leap is about how confusing it is — this shows a lack of global context. These neoliberal structures of helping corporations profit at the cost of communities, and the very deep pockets of local and national governments. In England, local councils are so underfunded that much of their revenue comes from having to apply for grants for different streams of work.

I don’t know, but I assume and need to check, that the council are counting on money from the government for renewable energy and decarbonisation. This is also what corporations are waiting for as well. Someone with deep pockets — whether that be residents (shallower pockets but over the longer term) or government funding (deeper pockets of public tax payers’ money).

In the meeting of the overview and scrutiny management board, the executive director seemed to have a much clearer understanding of global context. In fact, with barely a relevant question from the councillors, he came up with the following points.

  • the companies themselves have been asked to draft the terms;
    • Stephen Peacock said, “what we have effectively done is given bidders and, to an extent, members, the opportunity to input into what is actually a draft document now”
  • The companies want to make a profit from this investment. The council wants the work done, is quite happy (note they’ve lost £20m in BE and no one has been fired) to use other people’s money to do this, but want to keep some control.
    • Stephen Peacock: “the challenge is the balance between allowing the commercial partners to have the freedom to operate and for this to be an attractive opportunity; whilst also keeping a level of control over those things that the council feels it needs to but obviously the way to get a billion pounds of investment in is to make this an attractive as an opportunity for, you know, some serious heavyweight companies so they will um you know I’m sure looking very closely at those issues of control to make sure that they can see a pathway to in effect making some money whilst hopefully decarbonising our energy system

The global context is very clear. There are few heavyweight companies with billions to invest. There are instead countries with this kind of funding but the Conservative government has shown that it does not intend to fund infrastructure from the public purse in situations where corporations could be benefitting from the profit instead.

This is standard neoliberal ideology. In global neoliberal critiques this would be followed-up by asking how much of the state and council’s wealth will be transferring upwards to the 1% — i.e. those who control corporations big enough to have a £1 billion to invest. For how long would Bristol be paying? The partnership would be for 20 years but as we saw with PFI, will the payments continue on past that?

No one asked about these things.

The questions were about the following points — with no one mentioning Bristol Energy and the £20m loss. I wonder if with a £1billion cooperation, what kind of public funding would be involved.

  1. Question about governance. What oversight will the council have of the work these companies/consortiums will be doing? How will the risk be managed seeing as the costs have gone up? [Paula O’Rourke Green Party]
    1. Stephen Peacock: a balance needs to be struck between control by the council and an opportunity for ‘heavyweight’ corporations to profit.
  2. What kind of companies are these — can they be checked since the council will be in partnership with them for 20 years. (this question was from Labour cllr Jo Sergeant);
    1. The answer was that along with checking how much money they have and if they can invest in Bristol £1b, are they involved with any criminal charges, modern slavery etc.
      • “as a councillor I don’t want my council personally associated with people who don’t run a good ship and aren’t decent employers”
    2. No one brought up the fact that Sumitomo corporation own a coalmine in Australia (81%), that they manipulated metal futures in London between 1991 and 1997; “The Sumitomo Corporation manipulated the London Metal Exchange (LME) copper price, which forms the pricing basis for the world copper market” [link] — they only recently sold their copper mine to Mazda; etc.
  3. The third question was how to make sure the huge corporation wasn’t stifled in its ‘innovation’ by the council [LibDem cllr Negus]

I don’t know long the councillors had to research City Leap but these are not questions the scrutinise very deeply and they will not have made any of the dangers more visible, at least not to a great extent.

Tomorrow: The Racket by Matt Kennard. Why we need to understand what has happened previously (historical context — what have other councils done? also BE) and around the world (global context — Latin America), to see that this very narrow perspective of how to proceed has no alternative options.

Note that no one suggested the government might fund this; in fact, Labour MPs and the mayor and his cabinet in Bristol pretty much seem to espouse anti-socialism as a way of getting ‘stuff done’. They were happy when Starmer became leader. Socialism does not come up at all as an option. Now, maybe that’s rational because this government would never fund it, but there has been no mention (sources) of how this would be a cheaper option for tax payers and with less risk.

At the end of the OSMB meeting, the cllrs all seemed to be agreed that this was a positive project with potential but needed some oversight.

pumpkin house
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