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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.

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Brand value of democracy

Russell Brand has kicked up a welcome fuss with his responses to Jeremy Paxman’s recent questions in an interview about democracy and voting. His was a sparkling performance that showed the limitations of Paxman’s political thinking and highlighted the failures of the UK governance system. I would say the same is true of Western representative democracy as a whole.

The ex-junky comedian has seriously got his shit together.

For those who missed it, here’s the video.

More important for his arguments, going forward, is the response of official media outlets, by which I mean easily the vast majority of them. They show exactly the same failures of thinking and imagination as El Paco himself.

Their number would include people such as the Guardian’s Anne Perkins, who condescended to comment on the subject in the absurdly titled post “Russell Brand: mad, bad and dangerous for democracy?”

No Anne, he’s certainly not as dangerous as your thinking is.

I’ve written a far-unfunnier book than Brand would do covering the same sorts of points in specific detail based on personal experience. Its value is in being an insider account of why our media fail us.

It’s called Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies.

You can download a free PDF from here or buy a copy from here.

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The theatre of elections – US or otherwise

I have a lot of time for the work of Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight centre for digital media entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication. Not least of my likes is his publishing model for his book Mediactive (2010), about how people can be empowered as new media users. It inspired my own approach to publishing Fraudcast News. Where I have reservations, though, is in Dan’s all-too-conventional perspective on the realities of political power, as demonstrated in this opinion piece he wrote for the Guardian’s Comment is free section.

The title, “America’s next president had better believe in restoring liberty”, pretty much encapsulates the problem running through what he presents as the imagined speech of a presidential candidate running in the 2016 election. It suggests any future candidate with a chance of winning under the hijacked electoral system might ever say such a thing and then implement it in the highly unlikely event of victory.

It would be good to get Dan to incorporate some of the analysis and suggestions of Fraudcast News into his own critique of media and government.

I tweeted him my comment and got a response out of him, as shown below, so here’s hoping.
This was my reply to his original piece:

All well and good but this imagined speech and its messages supposes that its audience members accept the legitimacy of the presidential election process itself.

Speaking as a Brit, I am unimpressed with both the US presidential election process and its (rough) equivalent in my own country’s general elections. Both are lame affairs that offer no real choices to their citizens, whatever the razzamatazz of their campaigns and the rhetoric of the candidates.

The crisis in governance – intimately linked to the legitimate questions you raise about liberty Dan – has come about precisely because our political systems have been hijacked by narrow, uber-wealthy elites. The participation of we the people in the related theatre that is elections has almost nothing to do with the political decision making that ensues.

You say, for example:

we’ve chosen to limit liberties in order – we’ve told ourselves – to have more safety or less trouble

Except “we” haven’t really chosen anything at all – it’s been largely foisted on us with little more say so than making some consumer choices that no one ever said were linked to a coordinated global programme of mass surveillance.

None of that is to even touch on the question of why anyone might want to attack the United States or its interests. Howard Zinn anyone?

I like your work Dan, and your book publishing model of free PDFs and paid-for hard copies inspired me to use the same approach in my own critique of journalism and democracy, but I think your reading of all this is way too conventional. No presidential candidate who made a speech such as this would get anywhere near becoming a viable contender under the current rules of the game.

That makes the exercise a bit pointless IMHO.

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Greenwald on Snowden, self and conventional media

Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald, who brought NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the public eye, speaks at length on the last few momentous weeks. His speech follows a series of scoops revealing the massive extent of US government surveillance and storage of digital communications worldwide.

The talk, which starts at 10 minutes in, features Greenwald’s reflections on how the Snowden story evolved over recent months. It’s funny but also hugely revealing about the sorry state of conventional journalism generally, just the point I try to make in Fraudcast News.

The talk gives additional insight into the extraordinary character that is Edward Snowden, how he deliberately chose the dangerous course he is now on rather than just closing his mouth in the face of mounting evidence of executive agencies having gone feral.

He talks of the bravery Snowden has demonstrated, an example from which he personally draws strength and urges others to do the same.

“Courage is contagious,” says Greenwald.

He rips into conventional journalism as done by the New York Times versus the work of Wikileaks – the difference coming down to whether or not the respective organisations are pleasing or displeasing the people in power.

Greenwald is introduced by Jeremy Scahill – whose talk starts from 3 minutes in – the  journalist behind Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.  He’s also well worth a listen.

“We are living in a moment when real journalism is under attack,” Scahill says, highlighting the Obama administration’s criminalisation of investigative journalism, its escalation of covert drone strikes and attacks against whistleblowers.

“All of us have a moral obligation to stand in opposition to those declarations and those policies whether it’s a Democrat in office or a Republican in office,” Scahill urges.

He also condemned attempts to smear Greenwald’s name and reputation in the wake of his Guardian stories.

“This is what they do when someone stands up and tells the truth,” Scahill said.

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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.

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And the winner isn’t…

Picture 1

Development reporting suffers exactly the same sort of problems as does  journalism that purports to cover conventional politics and economics – probably worse even. Too much focus on official sources and too little questioning of mainstream Western ideas about what countries and their citizens must do to “develop”. All the arguments of Fraudcast News with bells on when it comes to journalists failing to examine the realities of power, where true power lies and what ordinary people can do about it.

I thought it worthwhile spending a few days working up a grant proposal for the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme run by the European Journalism Centre.

If it worked, I would get paid to do the journalism I attempt to champion in Fraudcast News while also leaving behind some of the same techniques for others who might do the same.

The idea, simple enough, was to produce a series of smartphone video reports from Mali’s  Inner Niger Delta asking the question: “Whose development for Mali?” Rather than just present another foreign perspective on resource grabbing, the idea had been to conduct a mobile phone video report training for Malians, leaving behind the means for local people to then tell their stories as they wished rather than relying on outsiders.

Had the proposal succeeded, I would have been part of a visionOntv training team working together with local and international NGOs working on the ground in Mali. It didn’t, the judges deciding instead to award grants to a variety of ideas shared across a number of media outlets from across Western Europe.

I wasn’t blown away by the winners. None strikes me as addressing the underlying assumptions of “aid” and “development” set against the effects of global trade, banking, financial markets and the rest as they benefit rich countries and global corporations. Shame – it would have been good to have had an opportunity put the ideas into effect with some sort of budget in hand.

Sour grapes? I hope not.

This was the failed proposal:

Development dilemmas in Mali – whose tale to tell?

Malians will go to the polls this July with two military coups and a French-led assault on Tuareg separatist and Islamist rebel groups fresh in their memories. Yet what difference will elections make, however “free and fair”, to the lives of ordinary citizens?

Even before Mali’s recent upheavals in government, subsistence farmers and fishers in the Inner Niger Delta faced ever-lower water levels during annual monsoon floods. While climate change might play some part, far more pressing threats come from hydroelectric dams and river diversions for massive, often foreign-owned irrigation projects.

Locals complain of national politicians who ignore their plight. Bamako leaders, their ears bent towards external creditors, donors and their advisers, promote impossible development models. While chosen policies might boost abstract measures of economic health, they also ruin local livelihoods and the natural environment.

No news there – Mali faces the same economic binds as poor and not-so-poor countries the world over. All struggle with questions of how to meet their populations’ basic needs without paupering citizens and their environments. Only the strongest dare question Western development orthodoxies. Most of them, saddled with debt, fall prey to strings-attached foreign investments, debt-led growth models or demands for privatisations and deregulation. The evident damages of such policies is ignored in the rush to “develop”.

Mali’s various versions of the problem play out in domestic cotton production, gold mining and livestock rearing. None illustrates it better than water, lifeline to communities dotted along riverbanks and seasonal islands across the Inner Niger Delta. Their river’s annual rise and fall follows a cycle quite unlike the ever-upwards demands of compound growth charts. Projects promising fat returns for distant investors, and payback for historic creditors, spell devastation and displacement for locals. Abstract policy becomes practical reality at the sluice gates, where operators decide who gets what water when, the weaker and voiceless invariably losing out.

The global crisis of capitalism, now an open debate in rich countries, has been clear to the world’s poor during decades of Western development policies. Their voice has gradually grown stronger and more authoritative, thwarting biased agendas in world trade and climate talks and driving business at the UN’s General Assembly. As yet they lack the power to counterweight the agenda of rich-country governments, corporations and financial markets. With conventional institutions deadlocked and bereft of fresh ideas, civil societies around the world are among the few offering hopes of alternatives.

This assignment will amplify those grassroots voices and foster civil society dialogue in Mali and beyond. It will bypass gatekeepers in governments and conventional media by publishing mainly direct to the internet. Three highly experienced reporter-trainers will use smartphones to make multiple video reports in the Delta and teach local stakeholder groups to do the same. Their reporting techniques, perfected by London-based NGO visionOntv, cut out the costly time-dumps of video capture, editing and encoding. Reporters’ bi-lingual output, combined with that of workshop participants, will offer multiple perspectives on Mali’s water dilemmas, opening a wider window on development questions themselves.



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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!

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