Watch this film

June 1, 2007

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Interesting looking book, interesting looking film, with screenings around the UK detailed here.

The work gives a series of examples of how ordinary people’s civil liberties have been trampled. They could be you, they could be me.

The film’s website urges people to take action and also asks these three questions:

How can we get the government to sit up and take notice?
What can we do to get our voices heard?
What can we do to make people realise what is going on in front of own own eyes?

These are good questions.

In answer to the first, I would say: “Don’t kid yourself or waste your time, conventional politics is a farce.” We must start exploring and learning about real democracy instead, with a view to spreading it widely from the ground upwards.

For the second, films like this undoubtedly help but we need to go further by, for example, learning from the likes of the zapatistas in Mexico and from countless other movements in Latin America in particular. Though I haven’t yet read the book or seen the film, I wonder how well the human examples used illustrate their root cause, which is the poverty of our political system, as represented by the conventional right and left alike and as captured by big capital and capitalism. And no, the answer is not to resort to extremes on either side but to promote and practice deep democracy.

In answer to the third, I would suggest that we cease trying to follow the mainstream politicians and their daily PR shows, Sky News can cover the live events for all they’re worth to anyone. (Witness Blair’s day long I’m finally saying when I’ll leave announcement). We should direct our journalism towards alternatives to conventional government, towards people stepping outside the mainstream. Not just to victims of the state, as described in this film, but also to activists who are trying to do something outside the state and in spite of it.

It’s great to see films like this being made though. Good luck to it, with the minor caveat that I haven’t yet done more than watch the trailer and read the website details of the individual cases covered.

Football? Beer? Sex? Nope, a UK constitution

May 25, 2007

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The title may help non-traditional audiences to find their ways to this fine article on UK constitutional reform written by Neal Ascherson. For the many talkingaboutarevolution regulars, both of you, please excuse the puerile foolishness.

The article is part of openDemocracy’s launch of a conversation about Britain’s destiny, which sounds stuffily grand but which certainly interests me.

Ascherson mentions how difficult it will be for any real progress to be made towards anything approaching a real constitution for the UK or parts thereof, despite what our new Dear-Leader-in-waiting Gordon Brown might say. Silly headlines like the one above probably don’t help much.

This was the nub of my response:

My appreciation of this article is more for the clarity of its information and historical context than for the quality of its conclusions. I share more sympathy with the brief postings of jdoucette5522 and douglas jones than with the author’s views. We’re talking re-arranging the roof terrace furniture on a very tall building here – our systems of power themselves are at fault, as are the economic environments in which they operate.

All of our democracies are miles away from anything approaching true popular rule, which would require much more transparency, accountability, and, let’s face it, time invested by ordinary people to make the systems work. That time is unlikely to be forthcoming unless there is the promise of some satisfaction through influence. Hmmm.

In the meantime, the most satisfying alternative is to explore local systems of exchange and politics rooted outside the mainstream.

You can join the debate here.

Reut…eurgh

May 4, 2007

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Well, well, my former employer Reuters is showing a jaunty garter to its Canadian information-provision rival Thomson Corporation. How are the mighty fallen, or bought rather.

There is no better time to see what price gives for the Reuters claim to “independence, impartiality, integrity and freedom from bias”, one of the more preposterous lines in media land when seen from the perspective of a majority of the world’s people.

I swallowed this line somewhat uncritically during the early part of my 11 years there before realising that the demands of Reuters’s core clients for timely business and uncritical market intelligence would win out every time over any fluffy journalism ideals that you might care to mention.

One small example. I have verbatim shorthand notes of a conversation I had with a senior Reuters editor in 2004 about my proposal to morph the world trade correspondent post in Geneva into one giving a broader, deeper take on globalisation in all its bitterly contested glory. I was told nice idea, fat chance, by someone whom I actually rather liked. That person said the Reuters editorial budget for the year could stretch to the creation of a half-post for additional foreign exchange market reporting in Tokyo.

That same budget did stretch, albeit a couple of years later, to the creation of an online news bureau correspondent in Second Life, the rather absurd online game. Thankfully, that was after I had leapt on the chance of voluntary redundancy, though the verb “to leap” may not be strong enough.

There are some great journalists at Reuters, in print, video and pictures, and some great former ones who got killed in pursuit of their work. They are, or were, far better journalists than I could ever hope to be. Their organisation, however, is not the unblemished force for good that it likes to project as its image. It fails miserably to bring the independence, impartiality, integrity and freedom from bias that is needed to throw clear light on the world’s problems. That, in the very least, would demand unrelenting analysis and criticism of the issues presented by global capitalism and the holders of capital, most of whom are Reuters clients past or present. It can claim to do a better job than many other media organisations but that’s hardly difficult.

I will not join the mourning party if Reuters falls to the Canadians, reserving my journalistic condolences instead for The New Standard, which closed last Friday. Brian Dominick, one of the five members of the TNS collective, talks here about the reasons for their demise on Pacifica Radio’s uprising programme.

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

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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.

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.