Thursday 28 June 2007

It's wet up north...

By the time I got out of Sheffield on Monday morning, they were already cancelling trains. On Radio 4, a presenter said something about "the wettest day for fifty years" - but I was heading to a conference in Stoke and, beyond the nuisance of having damp feet all day, didn't give it much thought. Or not until the end of the afternoon, when I stopped to check my email and saw the pictures.

It's been a strange week to be out of town. My girlfriend got stranded and had to camp out in her office for most of the first night. My old colleagues at Radio Sheffield were working 24 hour shifts, getting official information out and talking to people on the ground. Even as the flooding went down in the city itself, there have been rolling black-outs, foul mud covering large areas, and traffic chaos with the M1 closed for days.

The Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, gives a sense of the scale of events:

We have witnessed the biggest rescue effort in peacetime Britain by our emergency services, and it's not over yet. Fire crews and officers have been working to the point of collapse. Emergency fire control operators have been under major pressure, with thousands of extra calls for assistance from the public...

The government has not understood the scale, gravity and severity of what has happened.

The same could be said of large parts of the London media (the Guardian included) - which have prioritised not only the Downing Street handover, but such momentous events as the release of Paris Hilton and the Spice Girls reunion. If it were Bluewater [big shopping centre, near London] and not Meadowhall that was six feet deep in water and sewage, there would be rather more fuss.

I was in two minds whether to write this post. It seems kind of petty to moan about the metropolitan parochialism of the British media, when there are plenty of more useful things to be done. But I'm not at home to pitch in - so all I can do is admire the efforts of members of the Sheffield Forum and the local Freecycle group, and contrast them to the BBC producer who could be heard expressing his opinion over footage of the floods: "I do hate the Sheffield Accent with a passion... sorry, I don't mean to be a snob... they sound ignorant." [The offending clip has now been removed from BBC Online, but I heard it with my own ears.]

One piece of bigotry like that, for all it lets down the BBC's staff on the ground, would hardly be worth mentioning - if it wasn't something that us northerners experience on a daily basis. Stuart Maconie, a BBC broadcaster himself, writes eloquently about the same phenomenon in the conclusion to his wonderful 'Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North':

On a rainy drive across the Lancashire moors, I caught a short Radio 4 'issue-based' story about childlessness but, for me, it was the minor detail that provoked the most thought. The protagonist was an academic with a cut-glass accent. She had lost a daughter called Cordelia and her neighbour was a TV producer. At no point was there any suggestion that these people and this milieu were in any way out of the ordinary. This was incredibly telling, I thought. Most people have never met either a Cordelia or a television producer. But as they discussed their (literally) extraordinar lives in voices of crystalline poshness, their remoteness from life as most of us live it was never acknowledged.

If, however, you turn on a Radio 4 play and the voices are northern, it will inevitably be all about 'being northern'. About how poor or cute or funny or indomitable we are. It will never be simply set in Sheffield or Hull or Wigan because it can be and should be. It will never be about an adulterous dentist who just happens to live in Bootle. It will be in some ways about his Scouseness... Some writers may think this is complimentary. In fact, it's patronising. It's in effect saying that you have to have a strong dramatic reason, a 'hook', in order to set your play outside the M25. The fact that most of the country actually lives there isn't good enough evidently.


Sunday 24 June 2007

Black Bloc, White Bloc - Part II

Back to the book I never wrote - the one about good protesters, bad protesters, governments and terrorists...

In the discussion on my post from a couple of weeks ago, Tim reminded me of the (in)famous protests at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999:

The only thing I remember of it is images of chaos, tear gas, bandaned young people throwing rocks, police behind barricades, fires, looting (I may be adding that now to the memory). It was a series of clips which spoke of danger, chaos, anarchy, etc.

Did it happen? Yes.

Did it come close to describing what the majority of people who were at the protest wanted to be seen and heard? My guess is, probably not. But it made for good sound and video bites.

Part of what drew me into trying to write about events like this is that, as a journalist, I felt the news media were peculiarly bad at handling them - and I was both fascinated and troubled by the way this interacted with the agendas of politicians and different groups of protesters.

The Gleneagles summit was the second time the G8 leaders had met in the UK since New Labour came to power. The fact that they met this time in the wilds of Scotland rather than in a major city was a reflection of the bandwagon of international protests, for which the Seattle WTO is often seen as the starting point. However, for the Blair government, there was also the memory of the 1998 summit in Birmingham - where their media managers were wrong-footed by the scale of public protest.

I remember arriving that day with a seasoned activist, a veteran of the anti-road building and Reclaim The Streets protests of the 1990s, who was simply gobsmacked by the coachload after coachload of ordinary people who had turned up to picket the world leaders - 70,000 of them formed a human chain around the city centre. This was the work of Jubilee 2000, a campaign for the cancellation of third world debt (which my School of Everything colleague Paul Miller helped organise), which did an outstanding job of raising consciousness of global injustice and mobilising a new constituency of protesters, many of them white-haired churchgoers, through an alliance of mainstream charities and campaign groups. Ann Pettifor, the campaign's founder, has written about the impact this had on the summit:

In what we thought of as a calculated move to de-mobilise our supporters, (but which they argued was just a security measure) the Foreign Office had made a surprise announcement the Tuesday before: G7 leaders would not be in Birmingham on Saturday 16th...

And so it was, that on the day, at 11 a.m. Birmingham was brimming with 70,000 peaceful, cheerful Jubilee 2000 campaigners, their banners and posters. Present also, were about 3,000 journalists, sent to cover the event. Only the G7 leaders were absent, giving the journalists very little to write about. So naturally they turned to the demonstrators. Overwhelmed by calls from hacks, we had done dozens of interviews by 11 a.m. It did not take long for No. 10’s spin doctors to realise that a major strategic error had been made. Soon the call came. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was flying back from the country-house meeting earlier than expected. Would it be possible to meet with Jubilee 2000’s leaders?

Given New Labour's permanent anxiety about controlling the media agenda, it is easy to imagine that avoiding any such strategic errors came high on the agenda in the planning of the Gleneagles summit. And so, months beforehand, a strategy seems to have been adopted to polarise activists into two apparently antithetical camps - the good protesters and the bad protesters. This was spelt out by Blair himself, in a newspaper interview in March 2005 (republished on Indymedia):

It would be very odd if people came to protest against this G8, as we're focusing on poverty in Africa and climate change. I don't quite know what they'll be protesting against... There will be people who come out on the street in favour of the Make Poverty History campaign and that's a good thing.

This strategy was at once reasonable-sounding and dangerous - dangerous, because all legitimate, non-violent, "good" protesters are represented as supporters of the government, while all opposition becomes associated with violence, irrationality and illegitimacy. (In the same interview, Blair told the reporter he "couldn't rule out" using recently passed anti-terrorist laws against anti-G8 protesters.)

On the ground, for anyone looking for more than a soundbite, it was obvious that this black-and-white polarisation didn't hold. There was a spectrum of dissent, of deep concern and anger at the consequences of the policies the G8 leaders represented, which ran from the white-clad Make Poverty History marchers through the various shades of red and green and no particular colour, to the black bloc anarchists at the other end.

However, the effectiveness of the government's media management was reinforced by journalists' desire for simple, black-and-white narratives.

One measure of its success was the BBC's uncritical presentation of the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts. This was the subject of an official report just this week, which acknowledged that:

the BBC’s involvement with Make Poverty History in 2005 presented challenging dilemmas and was, for some, a difficult experience... there remain, even now, scars which have not fully healed.

Libby Purves, herself a well-known BBC presenter, expresses this discomfort more explicitly:

Personally, I applaud the nerve and passion of [campaign organisers] Geldof and Curtis, but not the BBC’s massive loss of perspective over Live 8. Carried by the vastness and suddenness of the enterprise... senior management rolled over whenever the campaigners – backed by Gordon Brown – pushed. Valid scepticism about Live 8’s demands was ignored. Even when Geldof arrogantly told Paul Martin, the Canadian Prime Minister, he was “not welcome” at the G8 summit unless he obeyed, the BBC continued presenting the event as uncritically as a Prom. It was all very uncomfortable and clearly won’t be allowed to happen again.

What Purves doesn't highlight is the way uncritical representation of the "good protesters" compounded the false polarisation of that wider spectrum of protest.

I spent the day of the Edinburgh march reporting for Make Poverty History Radio - a temporary station with no need for impartiality! But towards the end of the afternoon, I remember ducking into a pub a few streets away to catch some of the BBC coverage. As I watched, they cut from a helicopter view of a small group of black bloc kids penned in by riot police, to a reporter striding side by side with a group of marchers, chatting away to them. Whatever the exigencies of covering such an event, the contrast between the two shots - the embedded reporter with the "official" protesters, the aerial view of the trouble-makers - told its own story, one which chimed with much of that week's coverage.

There are various reasons why the unoffical protesters seldom get a hearing for their side of the story. Some of it has to do with their own suspicion and sometimes hostility towards the mainstream media, and the fact that they often become visible only when a minority start smashing windows. Some of it has to do with journalists' preference for talking to people their audience can identify with or who they themselves feel comfortable around. One big piece in the puzzle, though, is the relationship between the police and the media.

In the ordinary course of news reporting, the police are a privileged source of information. So much of the daily news agenda is made up of crime stories, court reports and other situations in which the police speak with authority. As a rule, you don't see interviewers challenge police officers the way they challenge politicians. This is just how things work, and while not always perfect, it's hard to think of an alternative.

The problem comes, though, when the police become one side of a story. Protests which don't have the endorsement of the authorities are a feature of democracy - a situation in which you can only protest with the government's permission is undemocratic. But such protests are often the scene of confrontations in which the police play a role - sometimes on their own initiative, sometimes on political orders - which is worthy of journalistic questioning. On the whole, however, this is not recognised, and it is common practice for the police version of events to be reported with the same uncritical attitude as in a crime story. (One TV reporter told me how his copy was rewritten to tally with a police press release, with the effect that shots of an activist being beaten by police were accompanied by a newsreader's description of "violence by protesters".)

For activists who see themselves misrepresented, it is easy to buy into conspiracy narratives about the forces which control the media. In my experience, what actually goes on is slipperier and less driven by intentions, though the effect may sometimes look like a conspiracy.

But there are at least two good reasons why anyone who wants to change the world should avoid conspiracy narratives. One is that if you believe them, you might as well give up - since the logic of the conspiracy narrative involves imputing such overwhelming power and capacity for control to the state/the multinationals/the 12ft-high lizards. The second reason is that, if you attribute your failures to conspiracies against you, you're unlikely to engage in the kind of reflection that gives you a chance of achieving more next time round.

The time I spent hanging out with anti-globalisation activists and getting involved with those campaigns was incredibly inspiring, as well as (sometimes) deeply frustrating. Whatever else, it challenged me to do something more constructive with my life than working as a mainstream news reporter. And, while I never got that book published, the process of writing allowed me to think through how you turn good intentions into making a real difference for people's lives - which certainly contributed to what I'm doing now.

But more on that in a future post...

Tuesday 19 June 2007

A Sheffield Icon Under Threat

After yesterday's hopeful news, today brings a more disappointing story - or rather, a challenge to avoid one.

The Tinsley cooling towers stand alongside the M1, England's principal arterial motorway, as it crosses the Lower Don Valley on the edge of Sheffield. Familiar to millions of drivers, they are as striking a roadside landmark as Antony Gormley's rightly famous Angel of the North. But unlike Gateshead's iconic figure, the towers' aesthetic impact is incidental to their origin - as part of the Blackburn Meadows Power Station, demolished nearly 40 years ago.

More recently, the towers have become icons for something larger and less tangible. It happened because of two indecently talented young men, both named Tom, who started a fanzine called Go! Sheffo - a visual and lyrical love letter to an undersung city, and a rallying call to defend its distinctiveness against a tide of blandness masquerading as regeneration. They found a voice which resonated with all kinds of people in the city. And one of the best things they did was to organise a competition to turn the towers into a work of art.

Out of that competition came a campaign that seemed like it might succeed, that gathered media coverage and endorsements from the great and the good. Finally, however, it seems to have hit a wall with the towers' owners, the electricity generator Eon, who announced today that they're going to demolish them.

It's a strange thing to get excited about, a pair of cooling towers. Especially when there's a primary school next door to the same stretch of motorway which should have been moved elsewhere years ago and still hasn't. (Though there's no reason to set the two causes against one another.)

But the message Tom and Tom just sent out gives a sense of what they've come to stand for:

We’ve always said that Sheffield needs something to represent the changes that this city has gone through, and the good things that happen here. A new icon.

We’ve always said that the cooling towers are perfect for this. They’re in a perfect position, and represent both Sheffield’s ugly past and its potentially beautiful future...

This is crunch time. We need someone else to put their money where their mouths are. We haven’t got the resources or the time to mastermind a process that ends up with two old cooling towers transformed into new symbols. We don’t get paid to do this. Maybe the people who do, should.

If the leaders of this city want to see the cooling towers transformed into spaces for international works of public art, like the Tate Modern turbine hall, like the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, it needs to happen now.

If our leaders really want Sheffield to be ‘a Distinctive City of European Significance’ then do something to make it distinctive. This is an organic, positive idea, that only Sheffield can do. No-one else has two massive structures next to the M1. No-one else could change what their city means at a stroke. Not Newcastle, not Manchester, certainly not Leeds.

And here’s a message to the city.

Unless you do something big and bold soon in the regeneration of Sheffield, no-one will care. Literally, no-one outside the city will care. No-one will care about a city with the same shops as everywhere else, the same flats as everywhere else, the same cafes as everywhere else, but slightly uglier buildings.

For the last two and a half years, we’ve been trying to make a good idea happen. We still believe it’s a brilliant idea. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Monday 18 June 2007

Sheffield becomes first City of Sanctuary

City of SanctuarI fully intend to carry on the conversation I've been having with Tim on my previous post, but meanwhile I just wanted to share some good news.

City of Sanctuary is a movement started by a friend of mine, Craig Barnett, to build a "culture of hospitality" for refugees and asylum-seekers. The idea is to work below the (often toxic) national debate, at a level which is closer to people's everyday lives, to change the conversation about asylum. It's modelled on the Fairtrade City movement, which has been extremely effective at raising awareness and changing behaviour by working at the level of the town or city and gaining commitments from all kinds of groups and organisations, with the goal of persuading local politicians to join them.

Well, the good news is that, at the start of this year's Refugee Week, the Mayor of Sheffield has announced the council's support for the campaign - making us the first city in the UK to make a public commitment to welcome asylum seekers and refugees. This reflects a lot of hard work by Craig and others.

In his speech, the Mayor said, 'I'm pleased to announce today that the City Council declares its support for City of Sanctuary, this means that the City Council is now publicly committed to working with others to promote a welcoming city for asylum-seekers and refugees.'

There is still plenty of work to be done in encouraging other local organisations to become involved, and in working with the City Council and others on finding ways to translate this commitment into practice.

But it is a major landmark in the movement to create a culture of hospitality for asylum-seekers and refugees, and we would like to express our thanks to all of our supporters for making it possible. We hope soon to begin discussions with groups in other cities to try to create Cities of Sanctuary around the UK.

Why not come and celebrate this success with us at the City of Sanctuary Ceilidh on Saturday 23rd June, 7-10pm at Croft House Settlement, Garden Street, off Broad Lane S1. Admission free!

If you have the opportunity, please spread this idea - it would be great to see other cities follow suit.

Sunday 10 June 2007

Black Bloc, White Bloc

This blog got its name from a book I failed to write.

It was July 7th 2005 and, as news came through of the terrorist attacks on London, I was in the middle of an anti-G8 protest camp in Scotland. For the past week, I had been weaving in and out of different groups of campaigners, from the Make Poverty History march to a collective of anarchist hill-walkers, from the Black Bloc kids fighting with the police at Gleneagles to the Edinburgh leg of Bob Geldof's Live8 concerts.

After staying for James Brown's last encore at Murrayfield, I ended up spending the night on the steps of Waverley station with a group of teenage concert-goers who'd missed the last train home - and it was there, in the early hours of July 7th, that I had a conversation which brought my puzzlement into focus. "What I don't get," said the girl from Middlesbrough, "is these anti-G8 protesters. I mean, why do they want to stop the G8 making poverty history?"

Here was this intelligent young woman, trying to make sense of the world on the basis of what she saw on the news and read in the papers, and she'd decided that the anti-G8 protests must be some kind of pro-poverty campaign. It was at once insane and an entirely understandable conclusion.

The next morning, back inside the police lines at Stirling, I was still thinking about that conversation when the news from London spread through the camp. The mood changed in moments. People clustered around wind-up radios, listening to the live news reports, or tried to call friends and relatives to check that they were safe. The confirmation came through that this was being treated as a terrorist attack.

A few minutes later, I heard the BBC presenter interview a terrorism expert, a man called MJ Gohel. Yes, he said, this looked like a coordinated attack, but we mustn't be too quick to point the finger of blame: it could be Al Q'aeda, but it was "equally possible" (those were his precise words) that this had been done by people protesting against the G8.

For months, I kept going back to those words. You had to tread carefully, in the context of so much horror and grief, to place significance on one pundit's off the cuff opinion. Yet what I wanted to know was how it became thinkable for a "terrorism expert" to put the anti-G8 activists on a par with Osama bin Laden as likely suspects for an act of mass murder.

So far as I could tell, the only deaths with which the anti-globalisation movement had been associated were the shooting by Italian police of a young protester at Genoa, and the self-immolation of a Korean farmer during the protests at Cancun. Anyway, I had spent months hanging out with these activists - and, while the more militant believed in the destruction of property and picking fights with the police, even this minority had no taste for violence against innocent civilians. In that respect, they stood in contrast to the leaders gathered inside the Gleneagles Hotel, among them the architects of the invasion of Iraq. Anyone suggesting Bush and Blair might have a hand in the London bombings would (understandably, I think) be branded a conspiracy theorist - yet the anti-G8 activists had somehow become plausible suspects.

This plausibility was, I felt sure, part of the same distortion that had confused the girl from Middlesbrough. Somehow the spectrum of protest I had seen on the ground in Scotland was polarised, in the media and the language of politicians, until it seemed like two opposed forces - the moderates and the extremists. I started writing about this, trying to work out how it came about. Plenty of the activists I talked to were happy to believe it was a deliberate policy on the part of the media - yet I had worked in BBC newsrooms and I knew that such "paranoia" (as journalists saw it) was part of why activists were treated with suspicion. At the same time, I was fascinated by the way that elements within the different groups of protesters seemed to contribute to the polarised portrayal - most obviously, in the iconic (if accidental) contrast between the "infamous" Black Bloc anarchists and the white-clad Make Poverty History marchers. (None of which excused journalistic laziness or political cynicism.)

As the summer went on, it became clear that something very similar was happening in the portrayal of British Islam in the wake of the bombings. Muslims were divided (by the media and politicians) into "moderates", whose leaders were happy to be photographed shaking hands with government ministers, and "extremists", who were evil and beyond reason. It was striking how this mirrored the representation of campaigners in the run up to Gleneagles - Geldof with his arm round Blair's shoulder, while police chiefs thundered warnings about the dangerous and irrational anti-G8 protesters...

To cut a long story short, I wrote a first draft of the book over the summer and, after some delay, found an agent who wanted to help me get it published - but as I tried to act on her advice, the project seemed to lose shape. To be honest, I wasn't ready to write a book - I hadn't grasped the disciplines of form which apply to a project of that scale and are quite distinct from the ability to write a half-decent sentence or paragraph. But every now and then, when I watch news reports (such as those from Germany last week) or hear a politician speaking, I am reminded of those themes and find myself wishing I'd managed to give them the treatment they deserved.

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