Tag Archives: occupy

Talking about democracy – an interview from the frontline

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras - is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras – is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

It’s easy to rail about the failures of our governance systems – the unfairness of elections, the unaccountable behaviour of our governments or the grotesque abuse of democracy unfolding with Greece’s fiscal evisceration by fellow eurozone governments, the European Commission and the IMF.

These sorts of failures increasingly bumped up against my conventional understanding of politics when I worked as a salaried reporter up until 2005. To whom our governors are accountable was the question I found myself asking more and more – yet I struggled to find a satisfactory answer beyond the facile.

Fraudcast News was the fruit of my search for a response – writing the book allowed me to debunk my illusion that we live in anything approaching democracies as the term was originally defined – namely government by the people. I concluded the book with a pledge to explore alternatives to our many governance failures, using citizen journalism as a tool and tackling every level from local to global. That process has meant looking out for others who might be doing the same.

One such gem I discovered recently is Adam Cronkright, co-founder of the Bolivia-based Democracy In Practice.  He fell out of love with existing versions of democracy along a route that included Occupy Wall Street. His organisation majors on democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building at high-school scale in Cochabamba. I came across him earlier this year via the website Participedia, hooking up by email and then via internet voice calls to share frustrations about the state of democracy.

Adam and his colleagues are doing some great, real-world work in alternative government systems, which includes junking elections in favour of lottery systems to select student government bodies.

The following interview, which we recorded in early June 2015, gives a great flavour of what the work entails.

Feel free to respond in the comment thread or, if you’re involved with a similar project, get in touch for an interview of your own. There’s a big chance what you’re doing holds greater hope for decent, humane government than our current, mangled models.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Fraudcast News reading and Q+A, London, Aug 1

Screenshot from 2014-07-18 15:21:44

When Patrick Chalmers hit on becoming a foreign news correspondent, he dreamed of somehow helping advance the cause of social justice around the world. When he eventually landed that dream job, he soon realised it had little to do with improving people’s lives. So he quit to work out where he’d gone wrong, in the process transforming himself into an author, activist and campaigner for better media and governance structures.

Among the results was Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies published in paperback and as a free PDF download. Patrick will read from the book and discuss how it relates to current political events at all levels, ranging from climate change inaction, renewed conflict in Iraq, Scottish independence or the rise of UKIP.


Screenshot from 2014-07-18 15:26:29

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, publishing, video activism

Farage: good in parts, awful in others

The Andrew Marr Show

Good comment piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. Couldn’t help wading into the comments section as per the following:

A more positive interpretation would be that the ineffectual attempts to destroy Ukip show the growing fragility of the carefully crafted management of what is sometimes called “the national conversation”. It suggests that in the future, there may be space for a more genuine plurality of ideas, views and politics than the carefully scripted, staged “rough and tumble” without content that masquerades as democracy in the rich world.

I certainly hope you’re right.

Farage is a funny and clever speaker on EU issues – this speech is a classic

I would never vote for him though, or UKIP, as on many issues he’s the same “free”-market champion as MPs in the Conservative, Labour and LibDem parties.

You could make the same analysis of treatment by the majority media, and the big three political parties, of the Scottish independence question.

This translates into a huge bias towards scare stories about the supposed consequences of voting yes versus a dearth of those that examine either the causes of an upsurge in independent thinking or the very positive possibilities of Scotland’s residents voting to govern themselves.

The model of Western “representative” democracy is dead – that’s what’s at stake in all of this. What we need is a radical reform of our existing systems – something that will need radically different media for us to do so.

Declaration of interest for moderators – I’ve written a book about the very same, as hotlinked in this post.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Wikileaks and Assange – complicated but compulsory reading

I’ve let my thinking about Julian Assange and Wikileaks swing one way and then the other in the last 10 days – and make no apologies for what you might call being quick to change position but I’d rather say is being open minded. The work done by Wikileaks and its founder is so important that it bears time and attention to work out what’s going on as best we can.

Assange’s publisher Colin Robinson added some excellent perspective today in the Guardian, following on from what was a lengthy but revealing and insightful recent piece by would-be Assange ghost writer Andrew O’Hagan. It prompted me to write the following comment in response to the Guardian piece.

Great to have this counter point to O’Hagan’s piece – this is valuable material.

I disagree with you on this bit, the second sentence:

O’Hagan’s LRB piece is no part of an organised dirty tricks campaign. But by focusing as it does on Assange’s character defects, it ends up serving much the same purpose.

O’Hagan’s piece is essential to understanding where all the confusion arises from in all things Assange.

I read it as a huge admirer of what Assange has achieved. I concluded it thinking that Wikileaks and/or its founder were done – too difficult to work with to the point of taking themselves out of the equation on these issues.

Your piece has re-opened my thoughts on this – so I’m grateful for that.

Must get my copy of Cypherpunks.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism, publishing, video activism

United Kingdom – but for how long?

The Friend

This is an article I wrote for this week’s edition of the Fox Report in The Friend Magazine.

The Friend is the most widely read Quaker magazine in Britain. Its Fox Reports, of which the Democracy unmasked series is the latest, is the magazine’s investigative arm, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Patrick Chalmers reflects on the health of democracy in Britain. He
looks forward to the Scottish referendum, sits in on a Holyrood debate
on growth and hears how 38 Degrees and YouTube are the envy of
conventional politicians.

Public trust in British politicians and the institutions
they inhabit is in tatters – with more than half the
electorate wondering whether to bother turning out
to vote. Yet, despite public disdain for those thrown up
by the Westminster version of representative democracy,
many Britons are far from apathetic about politics itself.
Moves underway in Scotland imply an inevitable
transformation to UK politics. Just how radical a change
lies ahead for the Union?

Scotland’s eligible resident adults, probably including
anyone aged sixteen years or older, will soon get the
chance to wield huge influence over the future of British
politics. On Thursday 18 September 2014 those who do turn
up to vote will answer the simple yes-or-no question: ‘Should
Scotland be an independent country?’

The result will certainly set the speed of Scotland’s
political divorce from the Union but won’t halt
completely a process that is already well set. Yes or
no, the northern partner to a marriage spanning three
centuries is destined to drift further apart from its over-
sized mate to the South.

The Scots have run something of a political marathon
since voting for more devolved powers in the referendum
of 1997. In four elections since, the Scottish national
Party (SNP) has emerged from Labour’s shadow. The
outright majority it won in 2011 cleared the way for a
vote on full independence.

Paying lip service

In a recent television interview the comedian Russell
Brand said he didn’t vote because the system didn’t
represent his views. None of the political choices available
would stop the destruction of the environment or tackle
growing disparity between rich and poor, he said.

Those thinking Holyrood might do things differently
to Westminster, especially on the environment, shouldn’t
hold their breaths. I sat in on a sparsely attended debate
on the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Bill and all
major parties held standard lines on what  ‘sustainable
economic growth’ might mean.

The pioneering book Limits to Growth, published in
1972, showed how exponentially increasing economies
and populations would quickly run into global resource
limits. Today’s politicians, not just in Scotland but across
all those places we lazily dub representative democracies,
pay no more than lip service to the paradox of infinite
growth on a finite planet.

Labour MSP Jenny Marra seemed at first to be fighting
a corner for the ‘Limits to Growth’ perspective. Not,
though, when the SNP’s Derek Mackay challenged her to
say whether her party supported sustainable economic
growth. Of course it did, she said, but not at the cost
of ‘everything else’, which she qualified as meaning
health and safety regulations. So, for all the chat in
Holyrood’s sparkly new chamber, the fundamental issue
lay undisturbed.

Fundamental political reforms

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party for England
and Wales, certainly acknowledges the problem of
disaffection with politics. She’s not ready to give up on
elections though. ‘What happens next if you do that?’
she asks. ‘David Cameron isn’t going to say “all right, I’m
going to give up”.’

The Greens have long backed fundamental political
reforms in the UK. Their policies include introducing a
proportional voting system in place of first-past-the-post
for national elections and replacing the House of Lords
with a wholly elected chamber. They would also establish
a written constitution in place of the UK’s absurd
patchwork of statutes, treaties and court judgments. The
Greens also back economic stability within planetary
resources limits, not growth. The party’s problem is
getting sufficient votes to have an impact.

Bennett won her post as Green party leader in
September 2012 after an election in which just a quarter
of her party’s 12,000 or so eligible members took part.
She secured a majority in the third round on preference
vote redistribution. Those modest numbers compare with
barely more respectable ones for the UK’s three main
parties, which together account for only about one per
cent of the electorate. A parliamentary report published
in December 2012 gave Labour 193,000 members, the
Conservatives between 130,000 and 170,000 and the
Liberal Democrats 49,000.

38 Degrees

Conventional parties would kill for the near-two million
membership numbers enjoyed by 38 Degrees, a political
campaigning organisation aiming to work for positive
societal change, or to have people tune in to their
messages in anything like the millions drawn to Russell
Brand’s Paxman television interview on YouTube (More
than 9.6 million people had watched it by early January).

Maddy Carroll, a campaign director at 38 Degrees,
listed members’ top concerns as protecting the NHS,
finding alternatives to the current economic system,
regulating banks, capping the bonuses of bankers, ending
zero-hours contracts and clamping down on tax dodging
by global corporations. ‘What joins us all together is this
belief in holding those in power to account –
corporations, governments and other entities. Using that
model, we have had a huge amount of success,’ she said.

The organisation, as guided by members, is less
inclined towards fundamental political reform, more
intent on campaigns about policy specifics. 38 Degrees
has had a few stand-out wins by channelling popular
opposition to specific policies. It certainly helped
halt government plans to sell off the national forests
in 2011. Members’ efforts included gathering half a
million signatures against the sale, mobilising a hundred
thousand people to email or call their MPs and raising
the cash for ads and a YouGov poll.

Yet those same members failed to halt the government’s
flagship Health and Social Care Act 2012, which
farmed out large chunks of health care provision to
commissioning groups. Despite the setback, 38 Degrees
members continue fighting government health policies,
in court actions and case-by-case campaigns.

Popular education and empowerment

In these still-early days of mass membership campaigning
groups perhaps their most important work will prove to
be in popular education and empowerment. Carroll
highlights the work done by local 38 Degrees member
groups in pressuring their local MPs, holding meetings
and building networks outside the confines of old-style
party boundaries.

The best of individual MPs, once in office, soon find
the limits to their power and independence. A case in
point is Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston. She won
an open primary in her south Devon constituency and
then election to office in 2010. She has since struggled
for insider influence given her readiness to criticise the
government publicly.

Not all is yet lost, according to Anthony Zacharzewski,
founder of the Democratic Society. His membership
organisation attempts to promote democracy and new
forms of governance by encouraging citizen participation
and bridge-building projects linking the public to those
in power.

On good days Zacharzewski, an ex-Whitehall civil
servant, believes it is possible to radically transform
both the public accountability and transparency of UK
representative democracy. On bad days he’s less optimistic
about chances for orderly change. ‘It’s a much more slow-
burning crisis than people would imagine, it’s more a
hollowing out. The thing I find much more positive is
that there’s still a desire for representative democracy but
people want it to be more representative,’ he said.

What he foresees is something of a transition to mass
participation in decision-making. Perhaps something
that looks a bit like representative democracy but which
involves MPs working in very different ways to how
they do today. All of which sounds reasonable enough
while also being frustratingly far off for all those in
Scotland facing their imminent referendum.

So, will Scots shy away from taking back power over their
political destinies or kick the Unionist can further down
the road until the day reforms crop up for all?

Lesley Riddoch, an author, journalist and commentator,
hopes her fellow Scots will opt for power even though
she’s not yet convinced they’ll dare: ‘No one has been
here before, so who knows?’ Riddoch has her
ears closer to the ground than most, criss-crossing the
country to promote her book Blossom: What Scotland
Needs to Flourish.
What she hears consistently is people’s
frustration with politics as usual. ‘They are sick of
platitudes from politicians on either side,’ she says. ‘We
know we are not hearing authentic responses.’

So she ignores opinion polls showing a hefty margin
in favour of the Union. She also recalls the SNP’s record
of repeatedly springing political surprises despite being
ignored, patronised and ridiculed in turn by various
versions of incumbent power. She says: ‘They have done
nothing but pull rabbits out of hats. In 2011, they were
still behind in the polls a couple of months before the

With three centuries of history on their backs, that
would be some rabbit and some hat.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Kiev or Cairo? Which John Kerry statement matches which protest?

Date: 02/04/2013 Description: Secretary of State John Kerry displays his first diplomatic passport, while delivering welcome remarks to U.S. Department of State employees in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2013.  - State Dept Image

US Secretary of State John Kerry says something funny?


Compare and contrast US diplomacy on people protesting in the streets in the face of violent assaults by the authorities.

Democracy Now! reports on 15th August 2013 after at least 525 people were killed and more than 3,500 people wounded in government raids on protest encampments filled with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. Police and troops used bulldozers, tear gas and live ammunition to clear out the two sit-ins.

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the violence, but the Obama administration announced no moves to cut aid to the Egyptian military.

Secretary of State John Kerry: “Today’s events are deplorable, and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy. Egyptians inside and outside of the government need to take a step back. They need to calm the situation and avoid further loss of life. We also strongly oppose a return to a state of emergency law, and we call on the government to respect basic human rights including freedom of peaceful assembly and due process under the law.”

The Guardian reported from Kiev on 11th December 2013 after thousands of riot police carried out a co-ordinated attack on barricades during the dead of night – a determined and unexpected crackdown on protesters who had occupied the centre of Ukraine’s capital for the past fortnight.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, released a strongly worded statement on the events of the night: “The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”

My point?

Kerry’s statements are totally out of whack with events on the ground in the two places.

In Egypt, the military slay hundreds of protesters, wound thousands more and arrest who knows how many and Kerry calls on Egyptians inside and outside the government to take a step back. What?

He also “strongly opposes” a return to emergency law. As if that hadn’t already happened.

In Kiev, the US expresses its “disgust” etc. etc.

Now I’m pretty disgusted at what the authorities have done in Kiev. Yet I fail to see how it’s that much different from the state violence protesters have experienced in recent years in capitals and other major cities around the world, including plenty in the United States and the UK. Egypt was a whole different dimension and yet it provokes mealy-mouthed responses from the States in contrast to its “disgust” for authorities in Kiev.

I don’t pretend this to be any great revelation but it bears pointing out. The big difference is that Egypt’s protesters are the wrong ones protesting against authorities who are useful to Washington while Ukraine’s current ones are useful to US interests in undermining the not-nice-at-all Mr Putin.

Taking away the international politicking, you have human beings on the streets in both instances who are sick and tired of the way they are being governed. Having hypocritical politicians applying blatant double standards in their responses doesn’t help anyone.

Our leaders are not fit to govern, we need alternative structures of governance to moderate how our lives are run. Until we get them, expect more mass protests on the streets and more politicians looking to advance their narrow political interests.



Filed under uncategorized

Crisis? What crisis? Yeah, right.

Franco-Greek film director and philospher Yannis Youlantas meets his audience
Franco-Greek film director and philospher Yannis Youlountas meets his audience

Franco-Greek film director and philospher Yannis Youlountas meets his audience

Yannis Youlountas talks about ‎Greece‬, the meaning of ‪‎crisis‬, ‪‎fascism‬ and people’s coping responses after a recent screening of “Ne vivons plus comme des esclaves” (Rough translation: ‘Let’s no longer live like slaves’).

The rights-free documentary is due for internet release on September 25th via http://nevivonspluscommedesesclaves.net/

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Ethics in journalism? Nice idea

Picture 1

I wrote the following email post for the Baron website in response to an article about the Hacked Off co-founder and ex-Reuters reporter Brian Cathcart.

It speaks for itself:

Brian’s doing a great job at Hacked Off [■ The Reuter Society – Brian Cathcart: My debt to Reuters]. I went to one of its events before Lord Leveson issued his report on the UK media, when I talked to Brian afterwards.

Where I think Hacked Off, and Leveson, and Reuters all miss the biggest trick is when they ignore the realities of power and how it works. That critical omission makes me nervous when I read unequivocal praise for the ethics supposedly in place at Reuters.

Ethics is a hefty concept. I don’t think Reuters scores that highly on ethics as it pertains to codes of behaviour. Granted, it’s much better than many news organisations but as Leveson made only too clear, that’s hardly difficult.

The principles of journalism drawn up in 1997 by the Committee of Concerned Journalists are far more comprehensive and ethically demanding than any at Reuters.

The second one of nine leaps out with regard to Reuters, given its cheek-by-jowl relationship with clients in global banking, markets and finance. The principle says journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.

“While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor. This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization’s credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society…”

For the worldwide constituency of Thomson Reuters, the citizens to whom its journalists owe that allegiance are all of global humanity. In my experience as a Reuters reporter, this allegiance was a rarity when it came to daily editorial priorities.

So, yes, Reuters attempts to infuse speed and accuracy into its reports, correcting those it finds to be in error. It serially fails when it comes to claims of freedom from bias as seen from the perspective of a global citizenry. This is a critical flaw its defenders are generally unwilling even to acknowledge, still less correct.

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Snowden’s act of sacrifice echoes self immolators

Edward Snowden is a remarkable man.

His decision to release a cache of top-secret intelligence documents was cooly considered for years. It will totally change his life and could even have him killed.

He knows that, having worked for the CIA and for outside contractors to the US National Security Agency.

In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided to the Guardian, he wrote: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,” but “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”

Snowden’s act is one of supreme selflessness – bringing to mind those of people who have set themselves on fire to protest injustice.

Self immolation is routinely misrepresented as suicide, an act of violence in itself, which is not the case. This Counterpunch article puts that right, not least with this passage, quoting two deep religious thinkers, starting with the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan:

“I think in Christianity that something very great has been lost. Jesus’ death, I think, in a very deep sense can be called a self-immolation. I mean that He went consciously to death, choosing that death for the sake of others, reasonably and thoughtfully.” Berrigan argues that people who burned themselves protesting the Vietnam War should not be said to have committed “suicide” since “suicide proceeds from despair and from the loss of hope and I felt that [Roger Laporte, a Catholic Worker self-immolator] did not die in that spirit.”

Thich Nhat Hant, a Buddhist monk says of self-immolation: “I think we must try to understand those who have sacrificed themselves. We do not intent to say that self-immolation is good, or that it is bad. … When you say something is good, you say that you should do that. But nobody can urge another to do such a thing. … It is done to wake us up.” He relates the story of a young Vietnamese woman, Nhat Chi Mai, who immolated herself — and was so joyous the month before that people thought she was planning on getting married. He also argues that others are burning themselves but [quoting another monk] “in a slower way. I am burning myself with austerity, with active resistance against the war.” (See chapter on self-immolation in The Raft is not the Shore — conversations between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh).

I hope Snowden escapes their fate, though it is clear from his Q+A that he’s under no illusion as to what his fate might be.

We should all do what little we can to support him.

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Panel discussion: Conventional media have failed us – the case for and against

I’ve pitched this panel discussion idea to the Global Editors Network 2013 News Summit, to be held from 19 to 21 June 2013 in Paris.

Cat’s chance in hell is the expression that comes to mind. Well miaou!

The case for:
Conventional media have woefully failed to dissect the lack of any true, public accountability in all layers of modern western government, from local to global levels.

This collective failure plays out across all major areas of government. It encompasses the vast bulk of reporting on governments’ economic and fiscal thinking, their responses to serial financial crises and pitiful efforts at regulation of global banks and finance. The problem extends to the superficial news treatment of political inaction over growing poverty and inequality, accelerating climate change and species and habitat loss.

Media literacy concerning the realities of representative democracy, versus politicians’ rhetoric, is spectacularly inadequate. That makes existing media part of the governance problem, not the solution.

Patrick Chalmers, an ex-Reuters reporter himself and author of Fraudcast News, will dissect the media’s failure to highlight people’s powerlessness. He will argue that journalists and their employers, far from being popular watchdogs, suffer the same problems of elite capture as politicians and governments themselves.

Yet he remains a dogged optimist, suggesting there are alternatives. They include mass training of ordinary citizens to help them revolutionise their democracies by revolutionising journalism, building from the grassroots upwards.

The case against: I’m sure you can find someone!

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism, video activism