Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

Big media screws small nobody?

December 26, 2007

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Photo:Emad Bornat, Foix, France, November 2007./Patrick Chalmers

I thought that headline might be the best angle for a hard news story to capture the tale of Emad Bornat, a Palestinian cameraman I met the other day near where I live in France. Emad was the story’s sometime stringer and “nobody” while Reuters was to play the part of big bad media. But then I hesitated for reasons some people, not least fellow journalists, might criticise.

Emad has been hit by rubber bullets, arrested and beaten while covering protests against Israel’s illegal land seizures in the West Bank. Last year he spent 60 days in jail and under house arrest awaiting charge for alleged violent acts against Israeli border guard. Since then, he says, Reuters has put him on hold, failed to renew his press card and denied him any form of compensation for the time of his detention.

I checked out what he said informally with Reuters but stopped short of going straight off for an on-the-record response from my former employers. Time will tell whether I was right to tackle the issue directly with them instead of trumpeting it via other media.

The reason I met Emad in the first place was that he was being interviewed on Radio Transparence about his film Bil’in against the Wall, which tells of his village’s non-violent campaign to reclaim its land. I went along as the programme’s English/French interpreter.

Emad impressed me deeply with his commitment to journalism and his faith in the power of video pictures to present the truth and to prevent injustices against the innocent. He became a cameraman only in 2001, after losing his gardening job in the second intifada, when he could no longer cross the border to work in Israel. By 2005 he was stringing for Reuters, feeding them footage as Bil’in came to symbolise Palestinian protests about the Israeli separation wall.

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Photo:Four maps show (L to R) Palestinians’ loss of land to Israel from 1946 to 2006./Patrick Chalmers

The 36-year-old was arrested in November 2006, accused of throwing stones at a border guard with one hand while filming him with the other. Emad had a head wound that needed several stitches by the time he arrived under army escort at the nearest police station. Officers escorting him in a jeep said a radio set fell on him.
He was held in prison for 20 days and under house arrest for a further 40 before being freed on bail of nearly $4,000. His case remains pending. He told me Israeli soldiers had beaten him while he was under arrest, pointing to a scar under his left eye. “They took my camera and they beat me, the Israeli border guards,” he said.

I’d watched Emad’s film on the net before meeting him. I began by wondering at the futility of wave after wave of demonstrations over a series of weeks. As a political activist myself, a claim I’m almost embarrassed to make when I see the commitment of those in the film, it made me chew over the eternal “what’s-the-point?” question. Yet the imagination, passion and sheer persistence of demonstrators’ non-violence, just by themselves, taught me a real lesson about taking action in the face of apparent hopelessness.

Again and again they approach the barrier cutting them off from their land only to be repulsed by soldiers firing rubber bullets and percussion grenades. Particularly striking was the image of one man’s impassive face, shown in close up as he lay prone in the dirt with Israeli soldiers pinioning his arms behind his back.

Emad, the father of four boys aged between three and 12, is an able ambassador both for his village and his chosen craft as a journalist. He doesn’t stop his children going to the regular protests after Friday prayers, where he often films.

“It’s dangerous for them but they want to go. All the kids from Bil’in they want to go,” he told me after the radio interview.

“I film my kids, I film my brothers in the protests. Many times they beat my brothers. My brothers were arrested by the Israeli army and I kept filming [knowing] I cannot do anything for them. With my camera I can protect them, to show the reality of what’s happening.

“In the Israeli court, the soldiers can lie, they say they threw stones. With my filming, I can show the truth.”

A genuine example of good journalism’s power to influence, something beyond the celebrity fests and PR puffs that pack out most media space.

Yet Emad has barely worked since his arrest more than a year ago. He says Reuters backed away from him – saying they said they didn’t want more trouble with Israeli authorities.

He still posts stuff on YouTube, so it gets a limited airing, but he can’t feed his family or buy equipment with page views.

His position, as a stringer rather than salaried staff, puts him in the shaky employment world of those doing most of the dangerous work for international media companies such as Reuters. These people, usually low-paid locals, not only pass where their generally white, male employers cannot, they’re often far more knowledgeable about the story and all its subtleties.

I had thought to write about Emad’s plight for a UK publication such as the Guardian or at least a trade publication such as the UK Press Gazette or the NUJ’s in-house magazine The Journalist.

I haven’t done yet for various reasons, not least of which is that one of the Reuters staff involved is a very good friend. I am also reluctant to profit from the story of someone I may or may not help by writing it. More fundamentally though, which surprises me given my usual conviction about journalism’s potential to influence, I’m not sure if a journalistic approach would be in Emad’s best interests.

“Big media screws small nobody” might make a decent enough, if fairly predictable, story. But it would also distract from the main story affecting Emad and his fellow villagers, which is Bil’in’s loss of territory and the bigger picture of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My dilemma begs the question of whether journalists should always publish and be damned or sometimes hold their tongues and allow calmer reflection in private. I hope my instinct proves right.

So I’ve written this blog entry as a public record and passed an email with Emad’s detailed comments to Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Alastair MacDonald. I hope that they can sort something out between themselves, so that Emad can keep on doing his work. We’ll see.

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Things can’t only get better

October 31, 2007

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"Help me, I can't breathe"

I have spent the best part of the last two months (total blog posts = 2, including this one) renovating my house, a project that is likely to continue into mid next year. In the meantime, writing my book and doing the journalism necessary to support its creation are among the activities that are suffering. I don’t fool myself that that is in the least bit consequential to anything beyond the immediate arena of my family, friends and bank balance but it is personally and professionally frustrating.

From the furtive moments spent browsing the news in its various internet-based forms, I can’t see much in the way of hopeful signs of solutions to our growing global mess.

The coronation of Gordon Brown in place of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister can be fairly encapsulated in this piece from the Observer’s Henry Porter, a neat dissection of Brown’s sleight of hand when it comes to Britons’ rights. Brown’s will-he-won’t-he election shoe shuffle was also illuminating both for its cynicism and for the voluminous media coverage it engendered at the expense of more pressing subjects.

Those subjects would include the global rate of species loss and a welter of other measures of planetary health.

They would also include our near-total immersion in commercial messages, a process identified and attacked by the doughty warriors at adbusters. I at least managed to find the short amount of time required to sign up to their media carta.

Alternet’s summary of some things being done worldwide to try to reverse our environmental self destruction process was also worth the read.

From my rooftop slinging tiles, hunched under a stairwell hacking out old wood or emptying the site’s composting bog, these glints of light are encouraging.

Talking sh**te

August 31, 2007

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Talking about politics is arguably easier than blogging, while both are much easier than doing something concrete. Shame that really. So it proved with Sabbar 2007, the second edition of a political festival of resistance organised in my local village of Montbrun-Bocage here in southwest France.

I have spent quite a bit of time this last year helping with the organisation of this event, going to meetings when I could have been with my family and friends, setting up the site and taking part in the event itself. My hope was that it would help to give concrete form to my thoughts about democracy and journalism and allow me to be involved in something local dealing with those issues. The result? Mixed at best.

On the downside, there weren’t that many people who came, the debates were a bit all over the place and their timing and organisation were pretty messy, many people who took part couldn’t do much more than the jobs they were assigned or chose and so got little out of the event. Given how much I’d hoped would come out of it, the outcome was disappointing.

I say that and then the optimist in me kicks in, I see the couple of debates which did seem to go well, one on alternative media another on alternatives to capitalism, I see the few people that I met that I would hope to work with and stay in touch with over the next year, I see my first internet-generated meeting, with a musical group who contacted me having watched my YouTube films. I hear and see a fantastic rap group from the “Mirail”, one of Toulouse’s rougher suburbs which gets plenty of predictablly negative media coverage. I see these things and think Sabbar wasn’t as rubbish as all that. As a novice activist, I have yet to get used to the ups and downs of all this.

One, small success, hence the headline of this piece – the composting toilets. Last year, the Sabbar bogs were a disaster, a septic tank designed for a village of three inhabitants and their chickens swept away in a sea of crap. This year, composting toilets, the inspiration of a militant plumber friend of mind – the Didier mentioned in the photo above – which worked well, which didn’t smell nearly as bad as I feared and which meant that while we might have been talking some unrecyclable stuff at times… well, you get the idea. Composting bogs as militancy – you be surprised.

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.

Happy day

January 9, 2007

I had been wondering over the past few days about whether to write anything about Saddam Hussein’s execution, caught between adding my tiny voice to the cacophony versus keeping quiet and getting on with some paid work or God forbid, my book.

I needn’t have worried, having been sent a link to this blog, written by a UK-resident US citizen journalist who practises yoga and meditation. I think he covers all the bases. It’s great to come across someone thinking along the same lines, none of us can do everything.

The Economist – a dangerous smarty pants

December 14, 2006

You could do this pretty much every week with The Economist, though you would need a lot of spare time. The “this” I’m talking about is to demolish their slick but intellectually dishonest arguments.

The December 9-15 edition is a classic, featuring the cover headline “Good food? Why ethical shopping harms the world”. Guaranteed to grab readers’ attention? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Backed up by solid arguments inside? Do me a favour.

Why should we care? Just the little matter of a million-plus copies sold weekly to the world’s richest and most powerful people (and to me, I see it as an essential exercise to rebut their arguments, if only to myself).

Let’s look at the editorial, which I’ve pasted below, along with my numbered, notes. This post is long, the notes break up its flow, but I hope you find it’s worth the effort.

Article starts here:
If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse (1 – already the front cover claim “Why ethical shopping harms the world” is toned down. Not feeling so confident now?)

“You don’t have to wait for government to move… the really fantastic thing about Fairtrade is that you can go shopping!” So said a representative of the Fairtrade movement in a British newspaper this year. Similarly Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, argues that “when you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies.” (2 – Except it’s not similarly at all, it’s three totally separate points to the first one, none of which you address at all in this leader article)

The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket trolley instead. (3 – This is The Economist’s summary of what Fairtrade is about, backed by one fragmented quote from an unnamed Fairtrade “representative”: ignore politics and just shop.) Elections occur relatively rarely, but you probably go shopping several times a month, providing yourself with lots of opportunities to express your opinions. If you are worried about the environment, you might buy organic food; if you want to help poor farmers, you can do your bit by buying Fairtrade products; or you can express a dislike of evil multinational companies (4 – So belittle the argument by characterizing its proponents as naive attackers of “evil” multinationals, again this is The Economist’s summary. This editorial technique is called the “straw man” – you build up an absurd argument that you can then tear down) and rampant globalisation by buying only local produce. And the best bit is that shopping, unlike voting, is fun; so you can do good and enjoy yourself at the same time. (5 – Again, summarise your opponent’s argument but only so as to infantilise it)

Sadly, it’s not that easy. (6 – Oh really? And who was it that said it was?) There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of “ethical” food: organic food, Fairtrade food and local food. People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics (7 – So these naïve shoppers will have to think for themselves, do you think they’ll be OK? No one said people can’t do both, other than you, that is).

Buy organic, destroy the rainforest
(8 – Should read “Eat soya-fed factory farmed meat, destroy the rainforest”. More in the vein of ridiculous, provocative and unsubstantiated)

Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation (9 – Let’s forget, shall we, the uncharted health effects of the chemicals released into the environment and left behind in foods, let’s forget the topsoil loss, let’s forget the unsustainable use of water, let’s forget the destruction of soil life and farmland species, let’s forget the unsustainable use of hydrocarbons used in industrial food production and their attendant climate change effects. Is that enough to be started with? Much of the “green revolution’s” output has been to raise more animals for meat). Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world’s current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest (10 – That’s your justification for the sub heading? You guys are a complete joke. How about eating less meat?).

Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers’ incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction (11 – Have we got time to get into this one? Agricultural overproduction, from the aforementioned “green revolution”, occurs mainly in Europe and the United States. To use this as an argument against Fairtrade is facile. Where there is overproduction in fair-traded products is usually due to the unpayable debts poor countries have built up due to The Economist’s friends in the IMF etc. and which they have to service by pumping out whatever they have to earn foreign currency. It’s complicated but you started this) By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do. And since only a small fraction of the mark-up on Fairtrade foods actually goes to the farmer—most goes to the retailer—the system gives rich consumers an inflated impression of their largesse and makes alleviating poverty seem too easy (12 – Inflated impressions are hardly uncommon, and it’s you saying they exist whereas consumers aren’t necessarily that naïve. The argument doesn’t detract from the benefits that fairtrade farmers do indeed reap, by for example having floors under prices that relate to the cost of subsistence).

Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain’s food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff (13 – Or, it may not. Most people in Britain (share of world population, maybe 1%) may live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, or rather maybe most people in southeast England. You have chosen one example here, heavily conditional, and extrapolated it to the entire local food argument. Let me do the same. What, for example, should we make of a “free” market that has Scottish prawns airfreighted to China for processing and airfreighted back to bathe in the thousand island sauces of European consumers? What headline might The Economist put on that? Prawn destroys glacier maybe or Prawn-induced tornado tears down London house).

What’s more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive (14 – Yes, if it’s shipped with full account taken of the externalities of the transport mode, particularly the bunker fuel’s CO2 emissions and other pollutants, then why not? But when will that happen?). And the local-food movement’s aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce (15 – No they don’t silly, when did you last see coffee growing in Kent? Or cocoa pods in Slough. Get serious, I’m thinking a very low mark for you at present). But since the local-food movement looks suspiciously like old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point (16 – It might look that way to you, I suspect that’s your free-trade mania talking and a million food miles away from what the average Joe or Jill Public is thinking. You just lost one of your few remaining marks).

Appetite for change
The aims of much of the ethical-food movement—to protect the environment, to encourage development and to redress the distortions in global trade—are admirable. The problems lie in the means, not the ends. No amount of Fairtrade coffee will eliminate poverty, and all the organic asparagus in the world will not save the planet. (17 – That’s true. Now, I can’t remember who claimed it would. Err, oh yes, it’s coming back to me, it was you.) Some of the stuff sold under an ethical label may even leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be (18 – Though you haven’t shown a shred of evidence that that is the case. All you’ve done is to extrapolate some suppositions from one example to damn an entire movement).

So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments (19 – Oh right, and so in the meantime we should stop eating completely? Or should we blindly consume the factory farmed stuff instead. Free trade not free range, ra ra ra?), in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe’s monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market (20 – I agree with all of this but sadly it is you who are getting into “when pigs fly territory”. All of this is what governments should do whereas most of this leader has been about consumers. See point 19). Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers (21 – Which brings us to The Economist’s undefined nirvana of “proper free trade”. You need a book to answer this one. My short point is what about externalities? Don’t kid yourself that accounting for these is possible). Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world’s governments have so far failed to do. (22 – And show no sign of ever doing)

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them. The idea of changing the world by voting with your trolley may be beguiling. But if consumers really want to make a difference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote. (23 – A facile conclusion that no one can dispute. Shame that our political systems are so rotten that our governments can go to war in Iraq, renew nuclear missile systems, privatize everything etc. etc. without us getting a look in. If this is an argument, I’m a fairtrade banana)

Who said the mainstream media were rubbish?

October 11, 2006

Well, me, quite a lot of the time. In the spirit of flexibility of opinion, however, I post here a link to a more-than-decent article in the Guardian’s technology pages on Google’s snaffling of YouTube for $1.6 billion.

The piece, further down, gives some good stuff on the political effects of YouTube along with some great links to videos.

I predict soldiers with attitude and cameras having a big effect on the ease with which our politicians send them out to kill people.

I predict many more alternative journalists asking political candidates and politicians the sort of questions that source-and-relationship-protecting journalists would never dare. This is a very good thing.

What democracy?

October 5, 2006

I am a frequent reader and sometime contributor to the Guardian online’s Comment is Free section. It’s as big a time waster as other addictive behaviours but let’s just say I think I’m handling it.

The site is usually more interesting than the news section, not particularly because of the original pieces that launch debates but more because of the astute posts that follow, though there’s a lot of rabid garbage too.

Signing up to post was a tentative first step into blogging, and a way to find my feet for this book/journalism project.

Various posts I’ve since made, under the name of “hotairhead” (Yes, a bit dumb but the first thread I posted to was on climate change), have been about democracy.

Usually I have been stumped when confronted with questions about what exactly I am banging on about.

This is where my thinking’s got to as of today.

Firstly, you’re generally lucky if you live in something called a democracy, the alternatives are invariably worse in terms of your personal freedoms.

Before we get too excited though, the conventional democracies we have are pretty rubbish. An occasional vote to choose between a handful of barely distinguishable parties is no great shakes. Those parties each present us with a shopping list of policies/promises which they tend to lose as soon as they get elected. For the Swiss sorts amongst us there is the chance of building enough momentum for a referendum every now and then but it’s hardly that much better. None challenges the fundamental economic system under which we now live, which is basically Wild West global capitalism.

And none of the national democracies, as they stand, offers much prospect of tackling global poverty, hunger, environmental damage or economic inequity. Most also do a poor job of serving their citizens.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure in detail but I hope it lies somewhere inside the Zapatista project, the efforts of a southern Mexican rebel group to revolutionise their democracy.

They have stirred things up since their armed uprising of January 1994, with effects that have already gone way beyond their borders.

This link gives as good an English language summary of what’s been happening as I’ve found.

What talking, what revolution?

September 24, 2006

Hi, my name is Patrick Chalmers and this is the public face of my efforts to contribute something to the development of real democracy at the local, national and global levels of our society.

I am 40 years old, was born in Scotland and am living in France having left a staff reporting job with the Reuters news agency in April 2005. I will get into more detail about all that in due course.

What revolution do I mean? The one needed to transform our existing democracies into something worthy of that name.

And what talking? Basically, the journalism – underpinned by the necessary honesty, integrity and humility too often missing in my trade – needed to support and nurture democratic revolution at every level of our societies.

Part of that process will be to research, write and publish a book on democracy and journalism, offering anyone who fancies it a chance to contribute their ideas and suggestions.

Another will be to try to walk my talk by learning how to be an independent multi-media journalist, outside the embrace of conventional news organisations. This process is in no way unique and I will reference, credit and draw on all the examples that I think are useful.

For the French speakers among you, here is my first attempt at TV news reporting, which came about during a three-day TV training session I did in Brussels in September 2006 :

Low bandwidth and high bandwidth.

Chuckle if you must, it’s no Pulitzer winner.

I look forward to hearing your views/ideas/abuse with one request – if you want to criticise feel free but please pause a moment to think of a better idea that you might suggest.