Alternative journalism or same-old, same-old?

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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.

2 Responses to “Alternative journalism or same-old, same-old?”

  1. Daniel Simpson Says:

    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.

    Heartening to hear it!😉

    That’s what’s so often lacking in dissections of mainstream media shortcomings.

    [W]hat is lacking … is the richer, subtler, contextualised coverage of proceedings. That is where alternative journalists and alternative journalism can shine and where it is sorely needed.

    Absolutely – but the real challenge seems to me to be to incorporate the same approach back into a comprehensive attempt to report news, in the conventional sense of daily developments. A sort of redefinition of the paradigm you describe Reuters and its rivals filtering their inputs and outputs through. That way it might be possible to conceptualise a transferable throughput model…🙂

    In non-corporate babble, we need to figure out what ought to make news and why, and how at the same time to make its coverage as convincing as possible. So I think you’d ultimately need to feature Monsanto – not in that cloying “give them a chance to put their point of view” kind of way that pseudo-objectivity suggests, but in a “this is what i’m publishing so what have you got to say for yourselves” kind of doorstep. The point wouldn’t be to air it all either – but to try and make your report address the strongest criticism they could make of it. That’s how really powerful news gets made, in my view.

  2. david law Says:

    Good work .

    The CRS presence and the 8 Bové cars are enough in themselves, surely ?

    Our local spokesman for Monsanto is longtime Senateur for Avranches Jean Bizet.

    The rest of us know already what thoses spokespeople will say; the voice of the manifestants is NEVER heard.

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