Archive for March, 2007

Frontline World – another journalism model?

March 30, 2007

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I came across a short film called “Seeds of Suicide” today while researching Indian farmer deaths from the effects of trying to make a living by cultivating genetically modified cotton. GMOs are a big part of chapter 2 of my book, talking about a revolution, serving as a thread to explain the global justice movement’s anger towards multinational corporations and capital.

The film is a clean, 13-minute take on the problem of farmer suicide, explaining how they buy the technology without knowing about the necessary extra investment required to make the crops thrive and then run into big money problems when they fail. The filmmaker, Chad Heeter, also provides an in-depth background interview on the project, which is interesting and useful.

The film is part of an initiative, called Frontline World, by PBS in the United States. This is the private, non-profit corporation founded in 1969 whose members are the country’s public TV stations. Judging by their front page, Frontline has some excellent films that we don’t generally get on our TVs, not that I watch mine much here in France anyway.

My only concern is that there is a large ad by Shell on the front page, something that at the very least does not inspire my confidence in the robustness of its model.

Alternative journalism or same-old, same-old?

March 16, 2007

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I have been half-chasing French activist José Bové around for a few months to interview him about the global justice movement and the links he draws between his own actions and those of other movements around the world. My intention is to use his remarks to kick off chapter 2 of “talking about a revolution”, which I’ve mostly written, tackling what the global justice movement is about. He’s a busy man, mixing GMO direct action protests with related court appearances and, now, a bid to become French president.

I myself have to juggle my book writing, which is unpaid and more like a personal research project, with being a father, husband, house-husband and sometime, I hope, money earner. That means my timetable can often seem as impossible to manage as that of Monsieur Bové, to me at least. So I jumped at the chance of a definite sighting of the Asterix-look-alike in court on March 7th, 2007, where he was due to appear along with four others accused of preventing Monsanto employees from going about their business.

This was the film, in French, that ensued.

It was interesting to go on a reporting assignment pretty much for the first time since I left Reuters in April 2005. Going as a video journalist was one thing, I’d done some TV work with them but had been mainly in print, going as an independent, without an agency deadline or editorial instructions, was another.

My loose objective was to meet Bové and to set up a future TV interview, sort of insane given that he is trying to run a presidential election campaign. I went with Corentin Charpentier from Tv Bruits, an independent TV association from Toulouse, who brought a camera and sound equipment.

The practicalities of this unpaid journalism work were a 280km-round trip by car, road toll costs of €7.80 each way and probably €25 in petrol. The time reporting was 12ish hours twice, plus editing and internet work of another 12 hours or so, say 36 person hours in total. We re-used an old DV tape and paid nothing in equipment rental.

We arrived at the Carcassonne court house without much in the way of a plan, just as Bové and the four other accused climbed the steps to the entrance. I didn’t know Corentin that well, had never worked with him before, and decided that I’d leave him to film the crowd while I disappeared into the court to see what was happening. I had my NUJ press card to blag my way past the police cordon and to allow passage of my basic digital camera into court to grab a few still pictures.

French courts, like British ones, don’t allow filming once the sitting judge is present though they do seem to give some freedom to take shots before and after proceedings. It would have been good to have known this in advance, or to have had two film cameras, as the courtroom and its surrounds proved the best place to get Bové for spot interviews. What we lost in courtroom footage we gained in protest shots, as Corentin captured all that as I sat in court.

I followed proceedings without any certainty as to what I would get – a news agency-style spot report, a feature article, nothing? The formality of the process struck me more than anything. The accused, all grown men, were called before the judge like so many naughty schoolboys to identify themselves and declare their monthly incomes and assets. The officious style would probably be intimidating to ordinary people but these ones are probably pretty used to it, having used non-violent direct action many times before.

I needn’t have worried about the story, which told itself in the end. Bové’s defence lawyer, François Roux, got up and laid into the prosecution for what seemed to be a fairly cut-and-dried case of a dodgy police report (we didn’t get to see it). He said it cited various people as having been at the Monsanto action on April 13, 2006 – whom he said hadn’t been there at all – and listed the presence of eight vehicles belonging to Bové, some of which had been scrapped years back. The prosecutor complained of not having been told of this earlier but said nothing as to the substance of Roux’s complaints, and proceedings adjourned. When the judge returned, he postponed ruling until March 21, ending the trial business for the day.

The basic story was that five people, part of a group of a few dozen who had conducted a “citizen’s inspection” of Monsanto’s Trèbes facility in southwest France, were accused of having prevented Monsanto employees from going about their daily work. This was a highly unusual use of a law forbidding interference with people doing their jobs, which generally relates to picketing activities. The penalty they risked included fines and possible prison terms. The five are all leading figures in the French “faucheurs volontaires” movement, who symbolically destroy GMO crops and seeds in protest against their cultivation in France. Bové, the best-known of the five, is also running for president, though as yet he lacks the necessary political support to stand as a candidate.

The day’s proceedings didn’t add much in concrete terms to the broad story of GMOs and would not, probably, have made the grade as far a Reuters TV news piece was concerned. The story elements that motivate Reuters generally relate to politics, or rather political risk from an investment perspective, in this instance the French presidential elections. Another would be the involvement of Monsanto, a publicly listed company. There might also be some general news mileage in the fact that Bové is a media personality in his own right and also in the GMO story itself. None of these would be particularly compelling for Reuters editors, though, or certainly not sufficiently so to hire a crew locally or to send one down from Paris. The same would be true, for a variety of reasons, of Reuters’s opposition outlets Bloomberg, AP and the rest of the international media with a presence in France.

That leaves the field to the national, francophone media, the newspapers, radio and TV outlets, even just the regional and local ones. Their focus, however, would tend to be on the narrow politics of the case in a French context rather than the broader global story of GMOs, which is the kernel of this story. So what is lacking in all this is the richer, subtler, contextualised coverage of proceedings. That is where alternative journalists and alternative journalism can shine and where it is sorely needed.

These subtler elements, routinely missed or ignored by conventional media, are what interest me. I can hear the Reuters editorial grunts about a story such as this, essentially justified by reference to a core target audience of investors and financial markets. These are the drivers of Reuters resource allocation decisions, which govern what gets covered.

Do these editors and others like them also ignore these questions because of censorship, conscious or unconscious? Is there an unseen hand, a hidden conspiracy among those in the mainstream media to shield us from reality? Who knows and, frankly, why would we be surprised if there were? I am more interested in thinking about how we can fill the information vacuums they and others manage to leave unfilled despite their prodigious daily outpourings.

The questions I wanted to answer this day in Carcassonne were: Who were the accused? Why were they doing what they were doing? What did that say about the state of French democracy and about GMOs in Europe? Why had they bypassed conventional political means to achieve their ends? What was the nature of the French justice system that examined their actions? What was a presidential candidate doing in a junior French court on such charges? The way I chose to address these questions was by using an extended interview with one of the accused, Michel David and excerpts from various other actors.

The film I produced was my first, imperfect stab at alternative news. As described above, it was done pretty much on the fly. It comes without a commentary, mainly because I believe people can speak for themselves. What interests me is having them explain why they do what they do and showing the heavily policed context in which they do so. It is about showing the old grannies, the mothers with children marching in the rain on a weekday to protest against something that most French people don’t want.

From a practical perspective, the film mixes shots and still pictures taken on the day with some archive digital photos I took at a Monsanto demonstration at the same site in December 2005, something I clearly flag on the film itself. I edited it on Final Cut Pro, exported the result to Quicktime and then out to the wider world as a compressed .mov file which I loaded onto YouTube.

I wondered about including a response from Monsanto but decided against it for two reasons. The first was that they get plenty of mileage for their views already, via mainstream political support, conventional media “balance”, broad industry front groups such as Europabio and the rest. The second is that, despite being a multi-billion-dollar multinational, their French website publishes no email address or telephone number for media contacts, inviting the curious to write by conventional mail instead. Right! Very 21st century. If you’re interested, this was their press release on the day of the trial.

Finally, the film is in French. I’m a native English speaker without the facility to write fluently in French, so that’s the way it has to be with my journalism for now. I could subtitle the thing but I feel there are more important things to do with my time.

José and friends in French legal farce

March 13, 2007

I spent an eye-opening day in court the other day at the trial of five rebel reapers charged with hindering Monsanto employees from going about their work of spreading GMOs across France from their base in the southwest French town of Trèbes.

Presidential candidate José Bové, Michel David et Olivier Keller of the French small farmers’ union Confédération Paysanne, Arnaud Apoteker of Greenpeace, and Jean-Baptiste Libouban, founder of the rebel reaper group “faucheurs volontaires”, were accused of the offence in relation to an action they undertook on April 13th in 2006.

Bové’s lawyer François Roux came out firing at the trial in Carcassonne, accusing police of having made up their evidence, a charge the presiding judge will rule on on March 21. Among the contested elements was the little matter of the police assertion that there had been eight vehicles owned by Bové at a car park near the Monsanto site on the day, when more than half of those listed had been scrapped years ago.

This film, in French, wraps up the events of the day. In due course, I hope to write in more detail about the mechanics of reporting as an independent journalist as opposed to covering the news for an organisation such as Reuters, my former employers. Practical stuff about how much it cost, the time it took and the value of still having a UK press card to hand.

I worked with Corentin Charpentier, who did the filming and who is a member of the alternative TV association Tv Bruits in Toulouse.

Blatant copyright infringement – sorry Noam

March 9, 2007

The article below was available to the Guardian’s Comment is Free readers for only 24 hours on March 9, 2007 due to some bizarre copyright decision. I thought it deserved to live a little longer in cyberspace.

At least this Chomsky picture is mine:
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Take it away Noam:

A predator becomes more dangerous when wounded

Washington’s escalation of threats against Iran is driven by a determination to secure control of the region’s energy resources
Noam Chomsky
Friday March 9, 2007
The Guardian

In the energy-rich Middle East, only two countries have failed to subordinate themselves to Washington’s basic demands: Iran and Syria. Accordingly both are enemies, Iran by far the more important. As was the norm during the cold war, resort to violence is regularly justified as a reaction to the malign influence of the main enemy, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Unsurprisingly, as Bush sends more troops to Iraq, tales surface of Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Iraq – a country otherwise free from any foreign interference – on the tacit assumption that Washington rules the world.

In the cold war-like mentality in Washington, Tehran is portrayed as the pinnacle in the so-called Shia crescent that stretches from Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon, through Shia southern Iraq and Syria. And again unsurprisingly, the “surge” in Iraq and escalation of threats and accusations against Iran is accompanied by grudging willingness to attend a conference of regional powers, with the agenda limited to Iraq.

Presumably this minimal gesture toward diplomacy is intended to allay the growing fears and anger elicited by Washington’s heightened aggressiveness. These concerns are given new substance in a detailed study of “the Iraq effect” by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, revealing that the Iraq war “has increased terrorism sevenfold worldwide”. An “Iran effect” could be even more severe.

For the US, the primary issue in the Middle East has been, and remains, effective control of its unparalleled energy resources. Access is a secondary matter. Once the oil is on the seas it goes anywhere. Control is understood to be an instrument of global dominance. Iranian influence in the “crescent” challenges US control. By an accident of geography, the world’s major oil resources are in largely Shia areas of the Middle East: southern Iraq, adjacent regions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, with some of the major reserves of natural gas as well. Washington’s worst nightmare would be a loose Shia alliance controlling most of the world’s oil and independent of the US.

Such a bloc, if it emerges, might even join the Asian Energy Security Grid based in China. Iran could be a lynchpin. If the Bush planners bring that about, they will have seriously undermined the US position of power in the world.

To Washington, Tehran’s principal offence has been its defiance, going back to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the hostage crisis at the US embassy. In retribution, Washington turned to support Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran, which left hundreds of thousands dead. Then came murderous sanctions and, under Bush, rejection of Iranian diplomatic efforts.

Last July, Israel invaded Lebanon, the fifth invasion since 1978. As before, US support was a critical factor, the pretexts quickly collapse on inspection, and the consequences for the people of Lebanon are severe. Among the reasons for the US-Israel invasion is that Hizbullah’s rockets could be a deterrent to a US-Israeli attack on Iran. Despite the sabre-rattling it is, I suspect, unlikely that the Bush administration will attack Iran. Public opinion in the US and around the world is overwhelmingly opposed. It appears that the US military and intelligence community is also opposed. Iran cannot defend itself against US attack, but it can respond in other ways, among them by inciting even more havoc in Iraq. Some issue warnings that are far more grave, among them the British military historian Corelli Barnett, who writes that “an attack on Iran would effectively launch world war three”.

Then again, a predator becomes even more dangerous, and less predictable, when wounded. In desperation to salvage something, the administration might risk even greater disasters. The Bush administration has created an unimaginable catastrophe in Iraq. It has been unable to establish a reliable client state within, and cannot withdraw without facing the possible loss of control of the Middle East’s energy resources.

Meanwhile Washington may be seeking to destabilise Iran from within. The ethnic mix in Iran is complex; much of the population isn’t Persian. There are secessionist tendencies and it is likely that Washington is trying to stir them up – in Khuzestan on the Gulf, for example, where Iran’s oil is concentrated, a region that is largely Arab, not Persian.

Threat escalation also serves to pressure others to join US efforts to strangle Iran economically, with predictable success in Europe. Another predictable consequence, presumably intended, is to induce the Iranian leadership to be as repressive as possible, fomenting disorder while undermining reformers.

It is also necessary to demonise the leadership. In the west, any wild statement by President Ahmadinejad is circulated in headlines, dubiously translated. But Ahmadinejad has no control over foreign policy, which is in the hands of his superior, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The US media tend to ignore Khamenei’s statements, especially if they are conciliatory. It’s widely reported when Ahmadinejad says Israel shouldn’t exist – but there is silence when Khamenei says that Iran supports the Arab League position on Israel-Palestine, calling for normalisation of relations with Israel if it accepts the international consensus of a two-state settlement.

The US invasion of Iraq virtually instructed Iran to develop a nuclear deterrent. The message was that the US attacks at will, as long as the target is defenceless. Now Iran is ringed by US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the Persian Gulf, and close by are nuclear-armed Pakistan and Israel, the regional superpower, thanks to US support.

In 2003, Iran offered negotiations on all outstanding issues, including nuclear policies and Israel-Palestine relations. Washington’s response was to censure the Swiss diplomat who brought the offer. The following year, the EU and Iran reached an agreement that Iran would suspend enriching uranium; in return the EU would provide “firm guarantees on security issues” – code for US-Israeli threats to bomb Iran.

Apparently under US pressure, Europe did not live up to the bargain. Iran then resumed uranium enrichment. A genuine interest in preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran would lead Washington to implement the EU bargain, agree to meaningful negotiations and join with others to move toward integrating Iran into the international economic system.

© Noam Chomsky, New York Times Syndicate

· Noam Chomsky is co-author, with Gilbert Achcar, of Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy

(Due to copyright restrictions this article will only be available for 24 hours)

Lords reform – a start

March 7, 2007

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MPs have finally caught the wind of reform, let’s hope it blows all the way through to the electoral changes Labour promised before coming into office in 1997.

The Guardian gave its modest interpretation of this in an instant leader. I gave my modest reply along with other CiF posters.