Archive for April, 2007

Vive la démocratie?

April 30, 2007

Had I still been at Reuters, my employer for 11 years up until 2005, I might have ended up in their Paris bureau covering the current French elections.

That would have thrown me into the election’s long build up over months, chasing after candidates, regurgitating their soundbites and trying to produce some sensible if superficial analysis of what the whole thing might mean for France’s future. This, the Reuters public output, is what I would have been doing.

It’s okay in a he-said-she-said sort of way, taking the temperature of the race and providing stand-back analysis of the main twists and turns. If you’re an investor, chafing about the value of your French stocks and bonds or your euro currency holdings, you get a decent enough idea of the latest developments and what’s at stake more widely. If you’re some other sort of civilian, you’ll get a free synopsis of events in a timely manner, albeit under bombardment from various pop-up ads for cars and financial services.

The coverage can’t however claim to be challenging or testing the system it describes, which is the least I would hope to see from journalists and journalism. Anything less means being little more than a court scribe.

I don’t work for Reuters anymore, which means no one is paying me to run around covering the campaign, which is a relief. My journalistic contribution is therefore a more modest, opportunistic one in the form of this French-language interview with former political prisoner Charlie Bauer, who spoke recently near where I live.

Bauer spent 25 years in jail for political acts of violence against the system. He is an eloquent speaker on democracy and revolution. He is insistent that elections are not to be dismissed as pointless exercises given that people fought and died for our right to vote. That doesn’t mean France, or my native Britain for that matter, is anything like a real democracy. He talks of the need to battle against sleepy servitude, of the need to avoid giving a green light to the eventual winner on May 6, be they of the so-called left or right.

He also speaks about the need to be critical of history, to use history to instruct the present and to construct the future, which includes re-inventing the meaning and practice of democracy. That is what he means by revolution, something that needs to be sought aggressively.

The interview would have gone down a storm with my former editors at Reuters, or rather wouldn’t have gone down at all.

Bauer features in a documentary « Marathonien de l’espoir », which you can access here.

The following is my rough translation of the synopsis.

At the end of the 50s, Charlie Bauer, a member of the Young Communists in France, breaks with the party line after its leaders voted in favour of allowing funds for military intervention in Algeria.

From then on, he becomes increasingly radicalised in his struggle against social injustices, practising propaganda through direct action, stealing and re-distributing goods, attacking a train and aiding deserters. He sides with the National Liberation Front against the colonial war in Algeria – re-directing and stealing arms, explosives, collecting funds…

He is arrested, tortured and spends 25 years in prison of which nine were in a high security unit. His intransigence, his radical ideas strengthened and even today, using the force of words, he fights against injustice and imprisonment in all their forms.

His message is revolutionary – using a refusal to submit and a fight for rights as his vehicle – practising the critical role he adopts as a sociologist.


New Standard RIP

April 24, 2007

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This Friday, April 27, 2007, will see the last edition of The New Standard, a pioneering online reporting operation in the United States that tried to live its ideals through both its news, its collective employment set-up and its advert-free financial model. Sadly, it hasn’t worked out.

The staff, Jessica Azulay, Michelle Chen, Brian Dominick, Shreema Mehta
and Megan Tady, announce the news here. The bit I would pick out is this:

“… the five staffers who form the PeoplesNetWorks Collective – the nonhierarchical nonprofit that publishes TNS – have accepted that the news publication we envisioned cannot be achieved without a greater level of support. We do not believe we will be able to obtain that support in the foreseeable future, and as individuals, we have reached a point at which we are unable to sustain the long hours and stress that publishing TNS entails.”

I met Jessica and Brian (pictured above) when they lectured on the Z Media Institute alternative politics and journalism course in 2005. They were mines of information, humble, passionate – damn good basically. It’s a shame to see their project bite the dust. There will be a post mortem, and valuable lessons to be drawn for anyone interested in real journalism. They will re-emerge somewhere else, I have no doubt.

My own thought on the demise of TNS is that we didn’t do enough to support it and didn’t appreciate the boldness, novelty and importance of its efforts. My own, inadequate, journalism model for now is to do whatever it takes to provide my share of household inputs, and grab whatever spare time there is to report, blog and write talking about a revolution for free. Not great, but that’s all I have for now. That’s why I’m particularly sorry to see the TNS crowd shutting up shop.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t spend more time on the TNS site was that my take on alternative journalism is a bit different. In addition to the TNS efforts to provide an objective dissection of daily news, I am more inclined towards how we recalibrate news reporting to focus on the poor quality of our underlying political systems.

That would mean reporting that includes reference to the weakness of the underlying decision-making structures related to the story and presents what policies might result from using alternative structures. It would be hard work, and a challenge not to end up with very dull reports of use to no-one. The aim would be to de-power the voice of the few in favour of the powerless many (err, that’s us folks). Any report featuring politicians or policy would give equal if not more play to what ordinary people want, not just from opinion polls but also from ongoing participatory democracy sessions.

Sounds a bit wooly perhaps, I’ll work on it, but I hope you get the gist for now.

There is an alternative

April 19, 2007

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I am a native English speaker, living in France, trying to get my head around my personal politics and professional journalism, and vice versa. It means my source materials are in English and French, bit of an audience killer really, but there you have it.

In the political activism that engages me here, 45 minutes south of Toulouse, people often ask themselves the question: “What are the alternatives to capitalism?”

This picks up from Margaret Thatcher’s (pictured left, with her statue) infamous TINA, acronym for “there is no alternative”, the idea that “free” markets, “free” trade, and capitalist globalisation are our only option.

Tomorrow, I am going to a showing of “Marathonien de l’espoir” a film on the life of Charlie Bauer (pictured centre), a Frenchman who robbed shops and gave away the booty as an act of political protest against the system. That was his alternative. His prize? About 25 years in jail, including nine of them in solitary confinement.

Is that the way to act in opposition? I hope to find out from the man himself what he thinks now during the debate after Friday’s showing and maybe to get an interview with him to post up on YouTube. We’ll see. In the meantime, this is an excellent French-language podcast interview with Bauer.

Meanwhile, in English, Michael Albert of ZNET and parecon fame speaks on the excellent Democracy Now! about a life spent seeking such alternatives. You can watch a video, hear the audio or read the transcript here.

He was on the programme to promote his new book “Remembering Tomorrow – from SDS to a life after capitalism, a memoir”. It includes details of his decades-old relationship with Noam Chomsky.

My humble alternative, for the moment, is (slowly) writing a book on democracy and journalism at the same time as trying to have a life.

Memo to mediocrity

April 19, 2007


Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s senior spook watcher, uses his employer’s pages for a bit of self-puffery for his play about Tony Blair’s Iraq war lies. This is an important topic, which deserves much better than a theatre piece.

As hotairhead (why did I ever choose such a dumb name as my Comment is Free identifier?) I throw in my contribution to the debate, which you can read and join at the above link.

The nub of it is basically that journalism should be about dissecting our public figures and governance systems and asking how they can be improved, which Norton-Taylor could usefully do a great deal more of in his day job. Theatre in Britain, while sometimes ever so slightly risqué, is hardly going to set the political world alight and effect any radical change.

Norton-Taylor reckons it plays a useful role, as he explains here. I don’t question a play’s limited educational usefulness but I don’t buy the idea that that is a subsititute for what he or others could more usefully do as journalists.

The question is whether conventional media are capable of the necessarily sustained assaults on the powerful that we need. I rather doubt it, for various reasons, including journalists’ personal mindsets and the commercial demands of the products/newspapers their employers peddle. The Guardian might do this sometimes on some stories but never enough and never with the necessary coherence and clarity to make it stick. We must think more on alternative journalism, what it is and how we can sustain it. I haven’t any clear answers yet but I believe those are the questions.