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.
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).
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.
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]
Stephen Peacock: a balance needs to be struck between control by the council and an opportunity for ‘heavyweight’ corporations to profit.
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);
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”
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.
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.
Here’s something I didn’t know before a different local (self-funded) journalist told me; Each council has to produce spreadsheets of all invoices over £500. They need to publish these quarterly but I never knew of this requirement.
Two things strike me about local reporting, which can be applied to most situations:
there is legislation that covers all/most activities;
there are other people doing what I do.
Nothing is new under the sun, which isn’t exactly encouraging for trying to find a new topic to write about. But not everyone writes about your patch.
Another thing that struck me as I was reading Gary Younge’s article about the changing role of media, and then watching my children’s YouTube shows with millions and millions of subscribers and views; advertising is still there. It hasn’t disappeared. It just goes to where the eyeballs go.
These advertisers have found a new source of revenue — note the backward nature of that statement in relation to what we are used to hearing about the media.
Newspapers and the media are there to provide viewers and consumers for the advertisers. That’s their job. One thing I noticed in the G&M piece I cited yesterday was that another reason for the breakdown of the left-wing papers is that they did not attract the type of consumers that advertisers were interested in — i.e. lower-income consumers.
You can’t advertise a Rolex watch to people who can’t even afford a holiday, for example.
In the same article, Younge (who has had access to a media platform for decades and so doesn’t consciously think about, I suspect) is quite disparaging or unenthusiastic about social media:”
I try not to reply to people… people I don’t know, or don’t care about. And whenever I violate that rule, I usually regret it. I don’t think Twitter is the real world. It is a part of the world, but it is not the world. And I worry, quite a lot actually, about younger journalists, activist-journalists for whom it is their world.
Similarly, you get these stories about a Twitter storm. I think, well, did it rain anywhere else or was it just a storm on Twitter? And it is very alluring. I understand that people can build big followings, big profiles, and I would never say don’t do it. I use it sparingly.
I see mostly younger journalists get into furious battles and I want to tell them, read a book, take a break, go on holiday. This is taking up too much time and too much energy. You are using it as a proxy for the world. The world doesn’t need a proxy, there is the world so go out.
He takes a very specific position here about ‘journalists’ getting into ‘furious battles’ and by the ‘world’ he I would suggest means the readership. Or at least that’s how it makes sense to me.
The journalists in this case seem to have a platform. They have somewhere to publish their work and have it read. More importantly, they already have access to prominence. Younge was The Guardian’s editor-at-large and long-time U.S. correspondent, [he] left the newspaper recently, after 26 years as a staff writer and 20 years as a columnist.
That’s a long time to have access to something that those of us in the deviant spheres, who can barely get any hits or readers, will never have a hint of. The journalists he talks to are not the journalists I talk to. They are not the ones scouring public-spend spreadsheets out of interest and a desire to do something useful. They are the ones who are paid to do it. If advertisers aren’t interested in the kind of people who care about where councils spend their money, then those journalists [who are told to go find the real world] don’t care either.
The issues once you’ve got a platform are different to when you don’t have a platform. There is a legitimacy to that writing. The topics have been approved by the paper itself. The person with a platform still gets insulted and dismissed but before that, they get heard. They get read.
So when we use social media and blogs to publish what sections of the media with narrow interests [consumer friendly advertisers of a certain demographic] wouldn’t touch then we see things differently.
Which brings up another theme for me. If the media are primarily vehicles for getting consumers to advertisers, then how do local media and national media affect local political participation? What is the literature on that?
One of the first articles I encountered in the communications literature about this tested the hypothesis of a link between property ownership and the local media. The idea is that those who already have a vested interest in the effects of local governments, will be more interested in participating. This makes some initial sense [link].
the idea—vocalized by many political scientists—that demographic variables and ideological differences explain most of the variance in people’s involvement in politics and attitudes was not supported by our data. Ties to the community, social networks, and other communication variables also played a key role. Both the direction and the extremity of ideological beliefs were related to the strength with which respondents held their attitudes on a local issue. Even when these more stable predictors were controlled for, we again found strong influences of heterogeneous discussion networks, local newspaper use, and local political involvement.
The idea examined in this research was whether those who were already interested in local politics would be the ones who participated. The conclusions were that ones social networks and their engagement with the local press affected their political participation.
A question: if there is no media that represents your political leanings are you less inclined to be politically active, and are those who are widely represented by the media, the right-wing capitalists, then more inclined to participate?
There is some data on the variability in ‘non-voters’ in terms of political choice.
So one question I’ll take away with me from this exploration: which topics, suggestions and solutions about topics, do not get coverage in the local press?
Concentration of the media has been accompanied by an ‘obliteration of a left and social democratic tradition in the press’ (Golding and Middleton 1982 — Images of Welfare: Press and Public Attitude to Poverty: 217).
This happened in three ways:
the death of individual titles
the deradicalisation of the surviving working-class press, and
through barriers to entry by new titles.
Market dynamics did this.
“Several left-wing titles closed in the 1960s, not because they had insufficient readers but because they had the kind of readers that failed to attract enough advertising revenue — those in lower income groups (218 of original as cited in Basu). Increased concentration of ownership” diminished the “range of newspaper opinion (219). At the same time, production costs were high, barring new titles from entering the market.”
“due to market forces, ‘the contemporary press is predetermined to lack a political commitment to the poorest and weakest in society (222)” (Basu, 206)
Some ways this manifests is which media sources turn up on search engines (see Redden 2011 as cited in Basu). On Twitter, some 0.5% of users attract 50% of all attention — probably those with the resources (Freedman 2014: 96).
This probably explains why topics get coverage only as suggested by officials rather than in-depth coverage of topics from other sources. Basu explains how in her research of examining all news articles from main news sources over a few weeks of the financial crisis in 2008, only suggestions that had come from official sources received any prominence.
This line of thinking and research helps with some of the methodology I’m thinking about. Dr Tessa Coombes has just been awarded her PhD for an examination of the “Agenda setting during the Bristol mayoral election in 2016: a multiple streams approach”. “
The research identifies how mayoral candidates operate across the streams, seeking ideas and solutions, from within and outside of the party system. It illustrates the strategies and tactics used by policy entrepreneurs to bring their issues to the attention of the candidates.
The articles I have written touch upon housing in Bristol. The mayor’s faith adviser has seemingly gone on to work for Nat Wei — an entrepreneur evangelical Christian who is a Conservative peer and who hires many ex-Bethel graduates, according to him. Nat Wei’s company, the Shaftesbury Partnership is a partner in the Bristol Housing Festival.
I wrote about Monastery 2.0 and how the mayor has been convinced to provide 20 sites in the middle of Bristol for this attempt at bringing the city back into the monastery.
In another article, which was more of a brief extract than anything else, the mayor talks to a congregation about how due to the stories that ran about his faith adviser and his links to evangelical churches, he should tone it down a bit. He refused to do so but note that the story about the faith advisor was not mentioned in any other media source apart from what Hallin would call the ‘deviant’ sphere. It was not on the BBC, Bristol Post, Bristol247 or Bristol Cable.
This seems one way of assessing the social media effect on politicians. However, the thesis question is ‘what is the effect of social media on local political participation’ and that hasn’t been assessed yet.
The mayor did not change his behaviour although the information did make the agenda for his office discussion. Unless he has to act on it though, does it affect the public?
Also, when confronted by a cabinet member on my housing story — with admittedly more PR denials than anything concrete; the concrete information I had was in a video so it could hardly be refuted — there were members of the Twitter public (users who had followed me for a long time) who sided with the cabinet member.
This seems to be a clue as to who people rely on for authoritative news. They will go along with the articles for a while but are not always happy to change their minds when authority figures tell them so.
Freedman, D. (2014) The contradictions of media power. London: Bloomsbury.
My topic is “what is the effect of social media on local political participation and knowledge, compared to local and national mainstream media”.
One way to explore this was to measure the different effects. I published a few stories within the following types of media:
social media alone (including blogs)
social media and local media
social media, local media, radio
all the above and national media.
The idea was to see which stories were accepted by the local readers and which weren’t. And when I say accepted I also mean, which stories had informed people and which weren’t even registered.
Things I hadn’t considered when creating this methodology, dispersal or decay rate of information; i.e., people may have read about it at the time and then forgotten about it or dismissed it. How long does a media effect last? Do the effects diminish over time?
How local does the radius of information have to be?
How authoritative does it have to be? Does a well-known newspaper have the same decay effect? I wasn’t sure if decay effect was even a real term but it is: [link]. It makes sense, much like propaganda is said to need constant repeating to be remembered. [Bernays]
The delayed effects of marketing campaigns have been well understood and have been successfully leveraged to measure short- and long-term effects on revenue and brand equity.
The above article might not be relevant enough so I’ve look at others: Trends in Social Media : Persistence and Decay
Social media generates a prodigious wealth of real-time content at an incessant rate. From all the content that people create and share, only a few topics manage to attract enough attention to rise to the top and become temporal trends which are displayed to users. The question of what factors cause the formation and persistence of trends is an important one that has not been answered yet. In this paper, we conduct an intensive study of trending topics on Twitter and provide a theoretical basis for the formation, persistence and decay of trends. We also demonstrate empirically how factors such as user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation. In fact, we find that the resonance of the content with the users of the social network plays a major role in causing trends.
This isn’t a topic I had considered before.
As with all new papers, I have learnt to look at the earliest sources in the references to help me find the literature. All the references in this paper are set in the 2000s bar one. That one is from 1993 so this seems the most useful to me.
M. E. McCombs and D. L. Shaw. The Evolution of Agenda-Setting Research: Twenty Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas. Journal of Communication, (43 (2)):68–84, 1993.
Surveyors presented a variety of “maps” of the agenda-setting process, including the competition between direct and mediated information (D’Alessio, 19921, decay of memory for TV news (Watt, Mazza, & Snyder, 19921, and personal versus social issues (Weaver, Zhu, & Willnat, 1992). Other maps documented linkages between the media and public agendas, such as media cues about issue importance (Schoenbach & Semetko, 1992) and agenda competition among issues (Brosius & Kepplinger, 1992). Researchers also presented new explorations in two major areas, political advertising (Roberts, 1992) and the consequences of agenda setting for subsequent behavior (Brosius & Kepplinger, 1992). These scholars-from China, Germany, and the United States-are contributors to an international marketplace of ideas.
Citizen journalists are often hampered by lack to official information and delays with freedom of information requests. Social media often gets blamed for fake news and councils’ comms teams are often the first to blame newspapers and social media for fake news.
One example FOI request is useful at showing how communications and statements can be sought and produced very quickly when needed. Interest from the national press helps in this feeling of urgency. And it’s also an excellent example of how a newspaper item is called ‘fake news’ by the council but in fact is found to be fake news by the council itself.
Also, note the different power balances between the roles in councils and the speed with which some questions are answered.
In March 2019, a video was taken of old streetlights being removed from Bedminster — a poorer area in the city — and being installed in a wealthier area — Sneyd Park.
The FOI requesting emails about the situation showed the mayor’s assistant fervently chasing up responses from officers and getting lengthy replies.
In contrast, the cabinet member responsible was identified as someone different from the Cabinet member who asked questions about what was happening [he was the central ward councillor Kye Dudd]. The cabinet member responsible did not ask any questions at all in the emails and is not seen to have been involved.
This shows a curious balance of power. When talking about local participation, I refer to types of participation such as voting, participating in public meetings, writing to councillors etc.
The public facing and policy creating part of the council is vested in the cabinet members and mayor. Politicians decide policy and civil servants/officers implement it.
The mayor’s assistant is a political role. They are not elected. They are accountable to the council’s code of conduct perhaps and to their boss, the mayor — also to HR? I’m not sure. [research]
Cabinet members are appointed by the head of the cabinet and as councillors are elected by their constituents.
The streetlight example highlights who has what power to achieve which aims. In this case, the aim was to identify whether a practice was taking place and who benefited.
The first article came from the Bristol Post, which, according to the council emails, said that “(nice)” lamps were being taken from poorer areas and being placed in wealthier areas. This would in consequence benefit the wealthier areas to the detriment of the poorer areas.
The first statement from the press office was intended to dispute this fact.
They at this point had already been contacted by the Mail Online:
From the Public Relations email account to the mayor’s assistant, executive director of Growth and Regeneration and others redacted: “Just to add that Mail Online have also called about this now. They are obviously all going for the ‘class war’ angle, which is not helpful.”
To who and why the ‘class war’ angle is not helpful is not mentioned. I would guess that feeling under pressure from enquiries by newspapers and residents, it was not helpful for the council having its own perspective believed. The writer may have other interpretations of ‘not helpful’.
The beginning of the first press statement was drafted as follows:
“It is totally inaccurate to suggest the council is stripping some areas of the city of historical assets to benefits other areas.
It is as simple as needing to replace the lampposts as they don’t work well anymore and this is a health and safety risk. There are no plans to put the old lampposts anywhere else. We would not usually consult residents regarding changes to the type of lamppost, however are happy to chat through any concerns they may have.”
The response to the statement is as follows:
“Have spoken with Kevin [mayor’s assistant (MA)]– He is clear that we need to go further than the highlighted section”
This can clearly be seen as taking directions from the MA.
The director of place and management, in a follow-up email just minutes later [between 1pm and 2pm], explains what is happening and concludes with:
“They are certainly not being reused in Clifton or Redland”
Between 4pm and 5pm, there was a follow-up email about what had been happening.
The next day, after the context of the situation had been deduced — a historical policy decision to replace rotten lamplights but with the decision to also maintain the style of the most lamplights in the area, if most are new replace with new, if most are old (nice) replace with old etc. — the MA issues a policy decision:
By the time the final press statement was released, it had lost its aggressive stance that affectively called the Bristol Post liars (purveyors of fake news) — “totally inaccurate” –and acknowledged wealthier areas had benefited from a historic policy:
This has had the long term effect of concentrating heritage lampposts in affluent areas. The final press line we arrived at yesterday was: “We have suspended the streetlight replacement programme while we fully explore its consequences. For decades many areas of Bristol have lost their older lampposts while some areas have retained them. We intend to have a policy that ensures all areas are treated equally.”
Local news doesn’t have a ‘fake news’ issue so it was surprising to go to a Points West filming news anniversary and see them invite along someone from Cardiff University (they have an excellent media department) and Kerry-Anne Mendoza from the Canary to talk about the fake news issue.
Fake news is usually associated with fake websites or memes being spread across social media in the same way other news article are and, therefore, people believe them. [add definition]
In local news, there aren’t that many other news sources — certainly not enough to be populated by people spreading false messages. There is the Bristolian, which has been running and published for years — the writers are generally (always?) unaccredited and they attack power, which is the council and corporations in the city. They are often forceful in their language (euphemism for ‘swear a lot’) and their targets and topics are quite different to the mainstream local media (MSLM).
While the MSLM often report on stories by and about politicians, they report on senior officers less often. [Data on this would be useful]. The conflicts of interest or the story have to be quite dramatic — such as Colin Molton, the executive director of regeneration and growth being paid £1500 a day for an interim position. Even when the position was filled by a full-time employee, he is still on the payroll.
The first story, about his daily pay, was newsworthy — It may have made the front page. The second story about his continued presence, and continued excessive pay, has not made as prominent news. Issues to do with SEND payments and education, often need to be linked to something like a failed judicial review or a letter of complaint from a meeting against other officers.
On their own, these issues of highly paid senior officers and their failings are not deemed ‘newsworthy’. They are seen as too complicated to be covered easily and some local papers have no budget, others have reduced numbers of staff, and for others it just doesn’t come up.
Back to fake news, it was astonishing to have a program that finally had a chance to look at local news, giving so much of its time to issues that weren’t really part of the many problems that local media are facing.
Mendoza, the editor of the Canary was there seemingly as a way to be made an example of. One of the Canary journalists quite rightly at the time had pointed out the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s links with the Conservative party. His censure for not getting a quote from her really was a way of saying don’t raise issues about the establishment. The chair of the session, when introducing Mendoza, referred to her media channel’s ‘inaccuracies’. Instead of disputing it, she confirmed it and said we have dealt with it, apologised — or similar. Kuenssberg’s own inaccuracies in one of the most widely read media sources in the world — the BBC, never came up.
In the News at Six report, Kuenssberg said she had asked Mr Corbyn “if he were the resident here at Number 10 whether or not he would be happy for British officers to pull the trigger in the event of a Paris-style attack”.
He was seen to reply: “I am not happy with a shoot to kill policy in general. I think that is quite dangerous and I think can often be counter-productive.”
The BBC report faked an answer to a question from Kuenssberg, which had been given to a different question. This is quite clearly fake news but would never be labelled as such.
Fake news in local media often comes from the administration itself. For example, In replies [purportedly] by the mayor in public or member forum or in the chamber itself, inaccurate figures seem to be repeated with no censure.
In a question about local democracy, the mayor refers to the arena project he cancelled as “a situation that would have exposed BCC to £160m worth of debt.”
The Value for Money report that the council and tax payers payed £100,000 for, states the following about the arena costs:
“We note there is no ongoing revenue cost for the Council:
There is “a total estimated cost (excluding land contribution and car parking) to develop the Arena of £156.3m”
£53m of that cost come from south west LEP as a grant. £65.6m would come from the public works loan board.
“After BCC’s own capital contributions of £38.4m, including land of £12.5m and the borrowing costs associated with the PWLB lending are factored in the Arena delivers a small nominal terms surplus of £1.3m in BCC’s own financial projections.”
The figures to justify the mayor’s claim of being ‘exposed to’ £160m debt do not seem to be in the VFM report that Bristol tax payers paid for.
What has come up is the next project for which the administration has lined up the land at what would have been the arena. The contract with L&G guarantees 40 years of office rents and a 250 year lease of the land. There has also been no procurement process.
As mentioned in one of my previous articles, the mayor has a declared policy of ‘not engaging’ with the ‘trolls’, which doesn’t seem to include not calling people trolls, as he is alleged to have done.
He has allegedly called activists or people who write opinion pieces in local media, trolls in public meetings, and at least in one case is alleged to have called a person a troll to their face in conversation with others.
Trolling comes up a lot in relation to the mayor because not only has he emphasised it, but he also paid £90,000 of tax-payers’ money to find out what people were saying about him on Twitter — mostly.
An example of how he refers to Twitter can be found in an interview he gave at Christ Church, Clifton. He was asked about combining his faith with politics.
As part of his answer, he said: “There was a discussion in my office because we did begin to get some heat, yeah. It was all Twitter and all that kind of nonsense about ‘look Marvin’s trying to introduce a theocracy.
I challenge anyone who wants to challenge me for engaging with faith organisations; well, you step up and offer the level of solutions that are being offered by the faith community. Then you’re welcome through the door. But if all you wanna do is come and moan, and make snide comments on Twitter, I ain’t got time to expend my emotional energy on that.
Interestingly, the issue of Rees’ involvement with faith groups or the way of running public services through volunteers and churches is not a topic that gets covered on the BBC or the local Bristol papers/magazines. It’s not seen as newsworthy presumably. [sources]
So while noting the purported lack of engagement the mayor has with ‘that Twitter nonsense’, the council pays £3000 a month to get analysis on what social media are saying about the mayor.
We can know that it’s information gathered about the mayor specifically because of the keyword search used. Further information is available in the following article [link].
Bock, M (2011) Citizen video journalists and authority in narrative: Reviving the role of the witness. Journalism 13(5) 639–653
Access to the public sphere, however, is not equivalent to authoritative power within it. Citizen video journalists (VJs) do not have the power of news organizations behind them, nor can they claim the authority of membership in a socially recognized interpretive community.
Unlike typical news websites, community video websites do not use balanced language or make claims to journalistic objectivity. Their purpose is to give voice to new and discernible points of view (Coffman, 2009).
To claim authority is to claim legitimate power. In the public sphere, authority is claimed as a discursive power to make declarations: to name things, frame things, or present them as ‘true’. Journalism is a specialized discursive practice that presumes to tell the truth – that is – to act authoritatively. Max Weber (1947) identified three sources of authority: rational, (rooted in law or social sanction), traditional (rooted in established social beliefs), and charismatic (derived from exemplary behavior or heroic acts on the part of an individual). Carlson (2006) noted that conventional journalism can claim all three legitimating dimensions.
Citizen VJs, however, cannot claim rational authority because they operate outside of, and contest with, conventional journalistic institutions. Because they challenge traditional journalistic boundaries, they are also unable to draw upon Weber’s notion of ‘traditional’ authority. All that remains for the citizen is the charismatic authority that rests in the individual.
how, in practice, is such authority claimed?
Two primary bodies of discourse can be identified: first, the discourse surrounding practice, and second, the products of that work.
professional journalists continually defend their ‘territory’ as cultural arbiters of truth through discourse about their own work (Bennett et al., 1985; Carlson, 2006, 2007; Zelizer, 1990a, 1993). Studies of journalists at work find that members of the profession share an ideology based in the norms of objectivity and public service, and they delineate their territory through discourse regarding those norms (Carlson, 2007; Deuze, 2005; Zelizer, 1990b, 1993). Citizen VJs similarly delineate their boundaries through discourse, but it is a discourse of contestation, of working as outsiders to ‘big’ or ‘mainstream’ media (Garcelon, 2006; Platon and Deuze, 2003; Rosen, 2000).
The second discursive arena for establishing authority lies within the stories themselves, which are the focus of this article. Here the everyday decisions for crafting a story are elements in constructing authority: the choice of facts to include or emphasize, the choice of literary voice, the choice of quotations or soundbites, the choice of visuals and sound, and the employment of vocal narration all become part of the way a story represents the authority of its creator (Allan, 1998; Chatman, 1978; Hall, 1973; Knobloch et al., 2004; Montgomery, 2006; Raymond, 2000; Van Dijk, 1985; Zelizer, 1990a).
… matter of factual and self-assured, with little or no trace of self-doubt, emotionality or uncertainty about the material it presents. It conveys seriousness, and where appropriate, urgency and even light touches of irony. News talk is confident talk, secure in its professionalism. (Dahlgren, 1987: 42)
Textual narrative theory notes that writers can assume various forms of narration, and that these choices change the audience’s perception of the identity of a narrator and author: (Chatman, 1978, 1990).
Hiding the creator is one way to shore up the story’s authority, as the subjective nature of human choice is subsumed by declarative narration.
Discourses of witnessing — eyewitnesses vs secondhand sources.
Only actual acts of physical viewing constitute ‘pure’ witnessing as conceived by Durham Peters (2001). Witnessing in its purest form is imbued with a moral imperative to give testimony, whereas mediated witnessing does not (Ellis, 1992; Sontag, 2003, 2004; Taylor, 1998; Zelizer, 1998).
The analytical method was adapted from propaganda scholar Siegfried Kracauer (1947) and allows for the examination of the verbal text, the images, and – significantly – their interrelationships in terms of diegetic and mimetic dimensions.
professional journalists are presumed to have the authority to tell news stories; in contrast, citizen VJs must use other strategies for establishing authority.
The literary voice becomes more fluid.
The creator is more likely to be known through script and image.
Testimony of witnessing takes a more subjective tone.
Using elite voices to claim authority?
Traditional journalistic narrative blends testimonies of witnessing with the language of objectivity. A reporter is expected to observe, not participate; to report, not feel.
video has long functioned as an evidentiary tool for activists, but it is fast-becoming a part of community organization strategy
[interesting point. Might this be a clue as to which methodology to follow?]
In the conclusion: Citizen VJs changed authorial voice in the middle of stories and they mixed performance and observation without explanation. Such presentations have come under fire by one Columbia Journalism Review critic for turning ‘even the most compelling footage into a mish-mash’ (Massing, 2009).
A more significant impediment to full participation in the mediated public sphere for citizen VJs is the matter of time and money.
One non-professional who runs a local news website in San Mateo was initially enthusiastic about providing an alternative to the mainstream, but quickly discovered that, ‘I wish I’d known how hard it is to do journalism well. I’ve now learned by doing it how time-consuming it is to report, write, edit and fact-check news stories with integrity’(Parr, 2005).
The democratization of video technology, therefore, is only part of the equation: without significant support and resources, it is difficult for the occasional, unpaid citizen journalist to consistently produce counter-narratives
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how reporters understand the media spheres (Hallins) — do they even have a concept of it?
Are citizen journalists more likely to be aware of the media spheres because they are more likely to be participating in the ‘deviant’ sphere?
Sea-lioning as a tactic by the council administration for dealing with criticism. To be followed up in part II.
I have written before about how official communications now make up a big part of the narrative found in newspapers and any media. Reasons for it can include fewer staff in papers, fewer staff in other other countries, cutting costs, a need for a simplicity in news since reporters often cover topics they know little about etc (Laura Basu — Media Amnesia; Hallins).
So what are the interactions with official businesses and authorities when you are a citizen journalist and aren’t part of the press conferences or on any mailing list with press statements? The comms team do not reply to requests made to the newsdesk so how do they interact?
To see this it is important to examine how information is found in the first place. Councils produce a fair amount of information as standard. [check legislation about the democratic requirements for councils and the council’s own constitution]
Each meeting has rules about which items go on the agenda, who allows them, how democratic services at the council are involved, how the public can interact and what information they can ask for.
There is also the freedom of information act and then recourse to the ICO with any complaints. The issue with these avenues is one of time. It takes time to make FOI requests and a very long time to hear back. The responses are meant to be made within 20 working days but I have FOI requests that have been outstanding for 6 months to over a year. The ICO then takes its time as well. One complaint lodged in April 2020 is still outstanding with them now in November.
The benefit of having access to the newsdesk is that when the council want to, they provide a quick response. Various FOIs of the internal workings of the council press team show that they can provide replies quickly.
One downside to relying on the administration’s (as it seems to be rather than the ‘council’s’ comms team) is that the veracity of those responses might not be complete.
In one example when the Bristol Post editor asked the press team/comms team about an issue concerning street lights being moved to rich areas from poor areas, the response came almost immediately from the mayor’s assistant and the reply was ‘fake news’. [foi link]
And this is all part of the reporter/comms team relationship. Other ways of noticing the social capital and connections between them is seeing the small niceties in the emails — tiny bits of information from ones social and daily life in between the ‘routine’ work questions.
Political editor: “Sorry, I’ve been suffering from a horrendous migraine over the past two days.”
Comms: “No worries. Are you feeling any better?”
These parts of the conversation are not only naturally arising because the people in conversation have probably been in touch a lot. These are social relationship skills that we naturally pick up. [see citations in transaction analysis]
But the pleasantries also help separate the requests.
The niceties are who I am, we are fine, friendly, have a good relationship.
When I ask work questions that may seem critical of the administration, It’s not personal, I’m just doing my job.
And it maintains a relationship where newspapers can get the information they need quickly and can go to press. There have been complaints from journalists about the council not replying and therefore the story not being able to be published. [two sources]
One way of dealing with this is to go to print and state the council have been contacted for comment. For some stories, however, this might not be possible.
The Bristol Post FOI had many interesting things in it but one that stood out was the quote provided by the council comms person very quickly, even when not required. It was a general quote so it may have been seen as trivial. But that compares to no responses at all from the comms team to citizen journalists like myself.
Information Commissioner — very slow responses and a bias towards councils during lockdown (and at all times?)
Getting information from the council can be very slow. FOIs are meant to be answered within 20 working days but I still have some FOIs that are outstanding now for over a year.
The council ran one consultation for a too-short length of time to be officially called a consultation, for a project we couldn’t read the official report about and they wanted us to fill out the local plan consultation without reading the Arup report that advised them about a certain area — the Western Harbour. I have written about this before [link] but it’s useful to note that access to information is not given and is not a given.
The council paid £90,000 to gather information about what residents and the public in general were saying specifically about the mayor on Twitter. I discovered this in December 2019, wrote about it in February 2020. I put in a subject access request to find out what information the council held about me and they refused. In September 2020, the ICO told Bristol City Council that they had to fulfil my request. The council wrote and told me they would answer my subject access request but had identified 3.5gb of information so it would take some time. By November 2021 they still have not sent me any information.
Two issues that come up with this are
Timeliness of news. When is news new and how long before it no longer has any purchase?
The obstructive force of local councils and other government departments and officials. This plays into how journalists need to maintain some form of impartiality and friendliness even with communication officials.
There is an asymmetrical relationship at times between officials and journalists. The government/council officials can be rude, unhelpful, aggressive and defensive and yet the journalists have to maintain some form of politeness.
One part of this is about time. Journalists who have been in the job long enough see administrations come and go. New administrations come in and get reports written up [see Bundred but this is not isolated] about how bad the previous administration handled things. They then go on to handle things just as badly until the next administration gets voted in and they do the same.
Aggression in this current administration is particularly marked but it’s not only seen in the mayor but also in the staff at the council, and not only the comms team.
In one way, it’s handy because citizen journalists are perhaps not impacted as much by having access to public information. They don’t get the press releases or the zoom calls.
This then brings us back to how much the public information/official information serves to indicate to the public that the journalist has the authority to be writing about any of the things they do.
The other point about news is that there is a seeming bias towards simplicity (Hallins). One factor that reproduces this need is the staff cuts and the need for reporters at regional papers to write about many things and often without leaving their desks. The turnover is quite high, and the latest changes at Reach Plc, for example, show a propensity for centralising news and all local papers covering some of the same topics but occasionally with a regional slant.
One reason given to me by an editor of a regional magazine for why he couldn’t publish my article about the mayor’s faith advisor was that it was too complicated for their readers.