Local journalism isn’t working

 

We’ve known for some time that local journalism is in crisis, partly because people don’t want to pay for news and largely because media owners are trying to extract as much money as possible from their titles, accelerating their inevitable closure by sacrificing quality.

This is a problem because local journalism is about the only thing that can hold local councils to account. The nationals simply aren’t interested, even when they do local sites: for example Trinity Mirror’s Glasgow Live is very good at telling you if there’s a crash on the M8, but much of what it produces is rewritten press releases from property developers and restaurants.

In an attempt to address that, the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters funds local journalism specifically to cover local politics. In Glasgow and its surrounding areas, the money goes to the publishers of the Herald and the Evening Times.

Let’s see how that’s going, shall we? In a piece promoted with the exciting news that Glasgow will get a new tree-lined avenue, The Evening Times reports on a new, sizeable development that’s just been given planning permission.

Get Living have approval for the development on derelict land to the east of High Street close to the train station, in a historic part of Glasgow.

It will create a new city centre residential community with a new public square.

Work will also involve a new tree lined avenue through the development connecting the Merchant City out towards the east end.

Exciting! And yet, as the excellent A Thousand Flowers blog points out, not so excellent. The development deals a fatal blow to the Crossrail project, which hoped to solve significant problems with Glasgow’s public transport.

…any future proposals to develop Crossrail have today been dealt a fatal blow after Glasgow City Council approved a major mixed-use development on the “High street curve” site that would be vital for creating the link. The £200m high rise plans – from Get Living Group (Glasgow) Limited – are for 727 build-to-rent homes, 99 student studios and more than 3,000 square metres of retail, leisure and business space on a former goods yard site.

The blog also points out the shady financial status of the developer, whose Glaswegian-sounding company is registered in one tax haven and has a parent company registered in another tax haven.

Still, a development of this size will include affordable housing, won’t it?

Won’t it?

Unsurprisingly, the Section 75 planning agreement between Get Living Group and the council makes no reference to affordable housing provision nor rent levels in the flats being developed. Get Living Group currently operate two similar build-to-rent schemes in London where flats are on offer for between £1,650 and £3,856 per calendar month, which provides an indication of the market segment that they will be aiming for.

This story represents a failure on multiple levels, and it’s exactly the sort of thing we need local journalism to report on. But what we’re getting isn’t journalism. It’s churnalism.

Update, 12 Dec: The ET has returned to the story, quoting one MP’s criticisms. Credit where credit’s due – but the time to question planning is before the applications are approved, not afterwards.

There’s something rotten in Auchtermuchty

This, from the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, is really alarming: the UK government is running a “psyops” propaganda programme from a mill just outside Auchtermuchty. The stated aim is to fight terrorism and Russian political interference, but it appears to be fighting the UK government’s local political enemies too.

On the surface, the cryptically named Institute for Statecraft is a small charity operating from an old Victorian mill in Fife.

But explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

The “think tank” is supposed to counter Russian online propaganda by forming “clusters” of friendly journalists and “key influencers” throughout Europe who use social media to hit back against disinformation.

But our investigation has found worrying evidence the shadowy programme’s official Twitter account has been used to attack Corbyn, the Labour Party and their officials.

…David Miller, a professor of political sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, added: “It’s extraordinary that the Foreign Office would be funding a Scottish charity to counter Russian propaganda which ends up attacking Her Majesty’s opposition and soft-pedalling far-right politicians in the Ukraine.

Update: on social media, allegations are flying that the newspaper has been hoodwinked by shady propagandists. More will no doubt follow…

“The men seem strangely cured, not like medicine but like meat”

I’m a big fan of Laurie Penny, and this piece about a cruise with cryptocurrency speculators is incredible. It’s not a tech story but a human interest one, and it reminds me very much of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (posted here under a different title, “Shipping Out: On The (Nearly Lethal) Comforts Of A Luxury Cruise [pdf document]).

The whole thing is incredibly quotable but I particularly liked this bit:

John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.

It’s a long read but it’s well worth settling down on the sofa with.

Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

I’ve had the misfortune to share airtime with writers from Spiked magazine on a few occasions now. I’m not a fan: the magazine is reliably on the wrong side of any issue you care to think of, rushing to the defence of the world’s worst people. I fear that giving them airtime helps legitimise often appalling views, and I now refuse to go on a programme if they’re part of the so-called debate.

It’s the kind of publication that regularly churns out nonsense of the “surely the real racists here are the people calling racists racists?” variety.

Spiked writers variously argue that climate change is scaremongering, that feminism has gone too far, that women being abused on the internet need to grow a thicker skin, that trans people are dangerous to society and that Tommy Robinson is a true hero. It appears to have a very similar agenda to thinktanks such as the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, organisations with opaque funding  pushing what can best be described as a hard-right agenda.

They remind me of the Sirius Corporation imagined by the late Douglas Adams: “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

If like me you’ve ever wondered how a publication that began as Living Marxism became a mouthpiece and apologist for the hard right, a friend of climate change deniers and an enemy of equality, the answer appears to be simple.

Money.

Lots and lots of money.

I’ve always thought Spiked was a shill for somebody, but I didn’t know who that somebody was. Enter George Monbiot, who Spiked really, really hates. Writing in The Guardian, he notes that Spiked has received at least $300,000 from the Koch brothers. As he explains, the Koch brothers are:

…co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

If you were making a story about corporate villainy, it’d be hard to invent a better pair of bad guys. And these particular guys are using their money to try and change the world through a three-stage model of social change.

Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Thinktanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”… They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements.

Spiked’s editorial stance fits very well inside that: it fights for the implementation of policy change, change that just happens to be entirely in line with the objectives of its funders. Again and again it supports policies that would benefit rich industrialists and rails against policies that might inhibit their ability to make enormous sums of money.

Monbiot:

Above all, its positions are justified with the claim to support free speech. But the freedom all seems to tend in one direction: freedom to lambast vulnerable people.

And its political stance is consistent with that: if it’s good for vulnerable people, then Spiked is against it.

$300K is the figure Spiked has admitted to, but dark money gets its name because it’s hard to trace: it’s highly likely that there are other sums from other organisations that just happen to share the same agenda.

This isn’t just about a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. It’s about the growing use of dark money to pervert media and politics. Dark money appears to be helping fund Spiked, and it appears to be funding the parade of think tanks that get so much airtime. It funds far-right rabble-rousers and social media astroturfing. Enormous sums of money are being spent to advance the interest of a tiny group of exceptionally wealthy people.

As Monbiot puts it:

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

As Finley Peter Dunne famously said, journalism’s job is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Dark money turns that on its head.

That’s not to say journalism shouldn’t have a viewpoint. I like John Harris’s argument:

Even partisan commentary can be rooted in the principles of good journalism, so long as it does not ignore uncomfortable facts, blindly offer support to parties or leaders, or distort actuality to score political points.

But that’s exactly what dark money wants to pollute. As soon as you accept dark money, all of your output becomes suspect.

This is important, and incredibly dangerous. We call the media “the fourth estate” after Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1787 that “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In a civilised society the media is there to hold power accountable, not to act as its apologist or its cheerleader.

No platform, no problem

To borrow from Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone to read about the fall of Milo without laughing.

Milo, if you’re lucky enough to be unaware of him, is a vicious right-wing troll (and former Telegraph journalist) who managed to build a very lucrative empire by saying and doing hateful things. “Feminism is cancer” was one of his hits.

Milo discovered that the more hateful your views, the bigger your profile becomes – and the bigger your profile, the more money you can make.

His rise demonstrated that despite what people in the media may have you believe, terrible views don’t die when you expose them; the people with those views just gain some more followers and make the world a slightly worse place. The same trick is working for the stupid man’s philosopher Jordan Peterson, and for former Trump strategist and human bin fire Steve Bannon.

For example, this week Holyrood magazine did its bit to fight the rise of neo-fascism by, er, giving Bannon multiple pages to spout his awful opinions without challenge. This is the same Bannon who the BBC recently invited as the honoured guest at a conference. In a sane world Bannon would be a sad, lonely character whose only audience is a long-suffering pet. But this isn’t a sane world.

We’ve seen again and again that giving vile populists a platform just makes everything worse. But what if we don’t give them a platform?

Milo knows. He built much of his notoriety on Twitter, and when Twitter finally booted him off the platform – for encouraging his followers to abuse a black actress, the last of many awful things he did on the service – his empire began to shrink.

What started as a slow decline became a rapid one when he made awful but hardly untypical comments about underage boys, comments so bad that Breitbart let him go. They also played a part in the cancellation of his book deal with Simon & Schuster, although I suspect it was more to do with the fact that his book was bloody awful. Racist, misogynist, and every kind of -phobic you might imagine, it should never have been commissioned in the first place. Being filmed singing karaoke in a bar with infamous white supremacists didn’t help much either.

What happens to a public figure who is no longer so public?

The answer appears to be imminent bankruptcy. A few days ago, leaked emails and documents indicated that Milo is more than 2 million dollars in debt and that his creditors are running out of patience.

Yesterday, Milo turned to social media to help fund his “comeback” – despite claiming he was pulling in $40,000 per week and financially stable.

The comeback lasted one day.

As a spokesperson for the funding site Patreon explained: “we don’t allow association with or supporting hate groups on Patreon.” Milo’s crowdfunding campaign was removed from the site.

Just to rub salt in the wound, the former enfant terrible of the internet managed to attract just 250 supporters before the site shut him down.

Milo deserves schadenfreude, not sympathy. He’s a toxic troll, a man of no importance. But he became a public figure largely because of a media that’s desperate for controversy and desperate for clicks. His rise and demise should be a warning to commissioning editors and programme producers everywhere: when you’re presented with a trash fire, don’t give it oxygen.

Words have consequences

The Daily Mail:

 

Elsewhere in an American high school, members of staff attempt to break into a locked toilet stall because a trans  teenager is in it. In a different school, a lesbian student is beaten up because of her boyish presentation. In October a lesbian woman was kicked out of a bowling alley for looking ‘too masculine’. The same thing happened in North Carolina in June, when a lesbian woman was thrown out of a bathroom by the police: “You got no ID? Get out!” In May, a woman was harassed in a toilet because she was wearing a baseball cap: ‘the woman went up to Aimee and said “you’re disgusting” and “you don’t belong here” before flipping her off.’

This is what happens when you demonise people, when you tell people that someone’s very presence is a threat to you and to your children. For some people, “looking a bit trans” is sufficient grounds for action against a complete stranger who’s minding their own business.

It’s not just people like me. It’s particularly horrific for refugees, especially since the whole Brexit mess began. The Overton Window, the range of political discourse that’s considered acceptable in society, has moved so far to the right that supposedly mainstream political parties are echoing the manifestos of the BNP and other far right groups from previous decades. What used to be unacceptable racism is now “asking difficult questions”.

That demonisation has consequences big and small, and it always, always ends up with people getting attacked. For example, this week we saw horrific footage of a Syrian kid being “waterboarded” by bullies; it’s the latest in a campaign of abuse that’s seen him being doused with water, verbally abused and his hair set on fire, as well as physical violence. His sister has been bullied too.

The same Daily Mail that’s so concerned about Rain Dove was also concerned about this kid: after years of demonising refugees, the Mail can’t imagine why anybody would pick on a child just because he’s Syrian. The Sun thinks it’s a shocking crime too. That’s the same Sun that paid Katie Hopkins to call immigrants “cockroaches”.

You’ve got to admire the process here. First of all, newspapers help to create a climate of fear and hatred. Then, they get to run shocked stories when people act on that fear and hatred.

These publications aren’t just reporting hate crime. They’re fostering it.

Oh lord, save me from sniggering bigotry

Imagine this.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for black men to marry white women, then it should be OK for me to marry my pet pig,” he chuckles. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No? Let’s try this one.

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for lesbian women to marry, then it should be OK for me to marry my dog,” he sniggers. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

No?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for disabled people to get special parking spaces, then it should be OK for me to identify as disabled,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

Still not with me?

It’s 2018 and a publicity-seeking entrepreneur embarks on a high-profile court case.

“If it’s okay for trans people to change their legal genders, then it should be OK for me to change my legal date of birth,” he snorts. Newspapers and radio make it their light-hearted story of the week.

That one happened.

The guy’s intent doesn’t matter; it’s irrelevant whether he genuinely feels hard done by or if he’s using this to promote something. There is no substantive difference between the coverage of this story and repeating the “I identify as an attack helicopter” abuse trans people get on social media. It reinforces the trope that trans people are tricksters or mentally ill, that legal gender is something people change on a whim.

Meanwhile in news you probably didn’t see today, Reuters reports that UK doctors push one in five trans people to discredited “pray the gay away” conversion therapy and that LGBT patients experience “shockingly high levels of hostility and unfair treatment” in their dealings with healthcare professionals.

That’s trans folks’ light-hearted story of the week, and every week.

How advertising regulation doesn’t work

Last month, the extremely dodgy anti-trans group Fair Play For Women dropped a five-figure sum on a full page advert in the Metro claiming that reforms to the Gender Recognition Act would threaten women’s safety. It was cynical. It was designed to whip up hatred. And it was absolute bullshit.

Some of us complained to the Advertising Standards Agency, which regulates print advertising. They’ve just sent me their verdict.

With regards to the complaint you made, also along with several other complainants, we understand that you are concerned that the ad misleadingly implied that women will be at risk as a result of the Gender Recognition Act consultation. After assessing the ad in light of this concern, we think it may have broken the Advertising Rules on misleadingness and we have taken steps the address this.

Unfortunately the verdict is irrelevant and the steps – telling the group not to make such claims again – are pointless. The advertisement ran, the government consultation is now closed. Trans people were silenced; unfortunately the bigots weren’t.

Not so hidden agendas

When is “random person has an opinion” news? When it’s a “concerned parent”. This is from yesterday’s Scottish Daily Mail.

 

The text describes how a “father-of-two” criticised the First Minister. “Edinburgh parent Richard Lucas…”

Now, Mr Lucas is indeed a parent. But he also has another role. He’s the head of the ultra-right wing Scottish Family Party. He left UKIP to create the party in order to “fill the void” left by the abandonment of “Judeo-Christian-inspired values of traditional Western civilisation”.

Their (or more likely, his: we’re not talking a mass movement here. The party has fewer than 2,000 Facebook followers) policies include getting gay people counselling to stop them being gay, to stop golf clubs being forced to admit women and to battle the evils of “feminist orthodoxy” and human rights. The party hates trans people and gay people and feminists and immigrants and women’s reproductive freedom and all the other right wing hate figures and argues that right-wing bigots should be legally allowed to beat their children and discriminate against anyone they disapprove of.

In other words, he’s a fruitcake who should be fired into the sun, the kind of arsehole who finds a home writing columns for the Glasgow Herald.

Or if you prefer pictures:

None of that, as you can see, made it into the Mail article. He’s just a reasonable parent with no particular axe to grind.

This is despicable journalism, and there’s a lot of it around. All too often people who run pressure groups are allowed to present themselves as ordinary people, and the journalists either don’t bother to find out who they are – which is shoddy journalism – or they know and keep it from their readers, in which case they’re no longer journalists but propagandists.

It happens on radio too, phone-ins populated by ordinary people who forget to mention that they’re councillors or candidates or head of fundraising for political parties or pressure groups. And you get it on shows such as Question Time, where representatives from “think tanks”, aka pressure groups with shadowy funding, advance the agendas of their paymasters.

This simply isn’t good enough. It’s poisoning the well of genuine debate and in many cases it’s giving bigots a platform they would be denied if their true affiliations were made clear.

Time for our next caller. Adolf is a painter from Braunau Am Inn, and he’s got some interesting views on the subject of immigration.

The threat of white nationalism, and what law enforcement isn’t doing about it

We haven’t quite reached this stage, thank God. In the US, Nazis like these yahoos in Georgia are still a fringe group. Neo-Nazis are much more subtle, and much more dangerous.

The New York Times has brought forward its planned cover story for next week to coincide with the US midterm elections. It’s a horrific story about the rise of neo-fascism and the real threat posed by white nationalism.

White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.

And yet as the NYT details, it’s been almost entirely ignored by law enforcement.

Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks.

Meanwhile the US President vilifies muslims and describes white supremacists as “good people”. But this isn’t just a problem with the current administration. As the NYT notes, it goes back decades and its anti-semitism goes back further still. It’s just that a toxic mix of right-wing politics, shockingly negligent journalism and institutional incompetence has created the perfect storm for it to flourish. Some 22 million Americans currently believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are perfectly acceptable. And there are multiple credible reports of white supremacist groups deliberately targeting law enforcement jobs, moving what’s already a largely conservative workforce much further to the right.

As I’ve written many times before, social media has played a significant role in normalising and spreading neo-Nazi propaganda. The NYT again:

alt-right memes, while dripping in irony, were also, in essence, hate speech, part of a propaganda war arguably intended to spread terror just as much as any ISIS execution video.

The so-called debates we see, the platforming of the likes of Steve Bannon or various alt-right “shitlord” trolls, are playing into their hands. They’re amplifiers, enabling extremists to reach enormous audiences. What liberal media types (yes, people like me) seem unable to understand is that they’re being played. The alt-right aren’t interested in debate. For them, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

We’re living in very frightening times, I think, and things are going to get worse before they get better.