Who rules Bristol?

10 million people paid to vote for the 2010 X Factor final, 14.5 million people watched Britain’s Got Talent final in 2012 and the 2010 elections drew only three times as many as the latter at 45.5 million people.

A lot of people enjoy interacting when it comes to entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with being entertained, amused, numbed, distracted, unoccupied with thinking about power relations and disadvantage in the world but there’s no part of me which believes that those people are promoting democracy by voting for Pudsey the dog.

To bring this a little closer to home, because that’s where I’m heading, the Bristol mayoral election had a voting turnout of 24% with 41,032 people voting in favour of a mayor, and 35,880 voting against.

All this flashed through my mind when I read on Bristol Democracy that “the Bristol Democracy Project as a whole isn’t going to be about discussion and debate, as it looks like every organisation and their dog wants to host a debate with the candidates for Mayor on their own area of interest. These debates only ever tend to attract people already interested in the subject, whilst this project is about connecting with the people who aren’t interested in decision making in Bristol at the moment.”

This is followed up on another blog post about blogs: “So, what does any of this mean for democracy and public involvement? Well, first of all, I think it’s important that as many people as want to be encouraged to blog about Bristol. The more we talk to each other about the things we see, the better informed we will all be.”


“A healthy local media is a sign of a healthy local democracy, and blogs are an important part of local media in any area.” Bristol Democracy Project


Blog 1: Lady in Bristol – latest post is on the Travis song Why Does It Always Rain On Me?
Blog 2: What to do if you post to the wrong account on Twitter.
Blog 3: blah blah
Blog 4: a politician’s blog

There are a few more social blogs, cultural, comedy, food, and one or two by politicians. Few question our political process. Few question what will we do about power relations. Many are the equivalent of voting for Pudsey, including a lot of posts on this here blog as well.

The media is an important part of a democracy, which is why it’s sometimes called the fourth estate (alongside the judiciary, executive and legislature) because questioning our rulers is a huge part of ruling our world.

Talking about who wore what, who ate where and who listened to something or other is not part of democracy. Even freedom of speech is not an inherent part of democracy.

Questioning people who are about to gain powers over a city about what they plan to do with them is part of a democracy. It is the very thing which defines the media. So while I laud the Bristol Democracy Project for its intentions, I can’t help but think that they are very wrong with criticising the first hustings which have been organised and promoting any and all types of blogs as a sign of democracy.

And if you ever wonder whether any type of talking and sharing is part of democracy just go search for Pudsey or wait for his memoir. You won’t have to wait long.

The Bristol Council House

The Stylist magazine, weighty issues but no dieting?

There is an interview with Stylist magazine’s editor Lisa Smoraski in the Guardian and the free, printed publication is described as having hard-hitting features such as the gender pay gap and women in politics. There are no diets and it wants to talk intelligently to women.

To me, having a magazine suggest that they want to talk to women / about women intelligently when that same magazine has a title which is shallow enough to try to appeal to women by reference to their appearance, is not only an oxymoron but an insulting one at that.

I have never picked up one of these free magazines even though it is distributed in Bristol, mainly because I find it insulting that there is a female and a male set of magazines in the first place. I am surprised they don’t just make one pink and the other blue (sometimes they do). There is also the fact that I have no interest in fashion so the title Stylist does not appeal to me.

The interviewer, Emine Saner, describes some of the content as follows:

As a reader, what I like are features on often weighty issues – it has tackled the gender pay gap and the lack of women in politics – that are given enough space, alongside about the right number of pages (that is, enough but not too many) of fashion and beauty.

Smoraski, for some context on where her penchant for hard hitting and weighty features comes from, worked for Bliss straight after her Journalism degree and was also editor of Smash Hits at 25. She went on to be editor of More as well.

Check out the Stylist website now for such hard-hitting features and ‘weighty issues’ as Kate Middleton’s first public speech. I am not being entirely mean, the Middleton speech is given top banner status while some interesting writing such as ’25 kick ass female heroines’ is much further down the page.

I may start being nicer because there is also a competition for crime writing and I am working on something that fits that description. Let’s see what Stylist is all about then.

Let me know your thoughts if you have read it. Or even if you haven’t read it.

The UK riots, how the media and David Cameron finally get it right

Shop keepers are banding together to protect their properties, random groups of people are organizing clean up operations, random strangers are tackling criminals who are smashing up Windows and a 21 year old is cycling around Bristol doing his best to verify the truth of riot stories.

The first few examples are heartwarming and pretty predictable. The last one surprised me as did the ever increasing messages about posting verified information and not spreading rumours. One of the messages was from Bristol Evening Post reporter Emily Koch and many others include reporters from the nationals.

Twitter did amazingly well during the Bristol riot in April because

all the elements were there to bind people into a community. External forces, such as Tesco and the police; lack of media coverage which meant the conversation wasn’t redirected; and the violent attack against protestors and the police.

Bristol Culture also point to the lack of media coverage at the Stokes Croft riot as being key to the differences in the information about the riots.

On the first night of the riots in Stokes Croft, the media in Bristol were taken completely unaware by the seriousness of the situation. And unlike in London, we do not have television news helicopters on standby.

But something happened between the first riots in April and the ones now which has partly shown people to be as unreliable as journalists doing a vox pop assume them to be.

One of the reasons, as Bristol Culture point out, is that the coverage is now mainstream. We’re no longer dealing with an intimate little outbreak of violence in our backyard. Our celebrities have moved on from a handful of locals who grabbed the opportunity to take charge and help out with information to the nationals.

Our communications are guided by the big boys who do this for a living. Paul Lewis, from the Guardian, tweeted his experiences in Tottenham when the action first took place. He spoke to radio stations, other journalists and filed his story by morning. He, and other professionals like him, were out there again the next night and the days that followed. He brought the truth. It must be the truth because the papers published it the next morning.

There’s something peculiar about watching professionals do their job. They are thorough in terms of coverage, they are articulate and they have access to reliable information.

One of the first stories to break about the riots in Bristol was from @bristol247 editor Chris Brown and he quoted the police and reported his adventures as he experienced the action in person.

His further communications through Twitter were careful to point out the information that came from the police.

The #ukriots information is largely controlled by the media who do their best to provide reliable and robust information about what is going on. They are best placed to do that when news reporting works as it should (see #hackgate).

When there are gaps in the information then bloggers, tweeters and the rest are there to fill them.

There don’t seem to be too many gaps at the moment. Newspapers are running live blogs, MPs are talking to the cameras and the police are filling in where the others leave off.

That leaves the rest of us, when not engaged in cleaning up and reporting our unverified information to gossip and make it up (apparently).

Some of it is opinion and other bits are lies but it doesn’t matter because ultimately we are just playing and the people in charge will take care of the truth.

There’s a real sense of handing over responsibility for the truth to those who are used to dealing with it because they have the resources to do it well.

But there is a danger here that because the media are good at reporting we decide that they are also the best at understanding and providing solutions. I don’t think they are. They are people who do their job well but they work for others who have an agenda and their conclusions can be often found to support their own biases.

For now I’ll sit back and let the professionals do their job and applaud Prime Minister David Cameron for getting it right at least once while in office remarking that too many twits do make a twat.

Dr Laura, Made For TV? Not Quite

Dr. Laura Schlessinger has recently resigned from her US national radio program following a rant about race and in particular after her repeated use of the ‘n’ word, as such. This latest controversy which has been widely covered by the US media and by members of the UK media, such as Roy Greenslade, is not unprecedented for this tempestuous star of radio. In 1998 she was a highly paid star with a media group paying $71.5 million for her program. The program was hugely popular and successful but also, as the LA Times stated

It can also be a very unforgiving show. An undercurrent of breathtaking anger surges not far beneath the jokes and laughter. For all the chumminess and girlish teasing, there is a drum beat of invective as Schlessinger rips into people, snarling insults at often pathetically needy callers, their friends, members of their families.

In the 1990s Dr Laura targeted another group and derided “homosexuality” as “a biological error,” “deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior,” and proceeded to link gay men to pedophilia and child molestation.

In 1999, the popular sitcom Frasier screened an episode called Dr Nora in which a strict, fundamentalist and judgemental new radio host is given a talk show on KACL. That character, who essentially satirized the real Dr Laura, turned out to have her own problems and rushed out of her job following a confrontation with reality in the form of her mother.

In spring 2001 the Dr Laura show was cancelled. Now nearly 10 years later the host has stepped down citing that she was pursued by angry and hateful groups that want to infringe on her right to free speech. The latest protest happened after an African-American woman called the show for advice on dealing with the resentment she felt when her white husband didn’t speak out about racist comments his friends made. Dr Laura used the n-word 11 times during the conversation and told the woman that she had a “chip on [her] shoulder.” The host also added that “a lot of blacks voted for Obama” due to race and said that the caller shouldn’t “marry out of [her] race” if she didn’t “have a sense of humor.”

The full audio is available from Media Matters for America so decide for yourself about her approach. As Frasier optimistically puts it: “I mean really, people can tell the difference between constructive criticism and outright abuse”.

The critics are more likely to echo Roz’s query to Dr Nora: “what kind of vicious, judgemental, name-calling, machete mouthed bitch are you?” Luckily it no longer matters as she will no longer be tainting the airwaves. For now at least.

Brink of disaster, for Nestle or the world?

Huge outcry, Nestle representatives being rude on Facebook, fan pages inundated with comments from aggrieved members of the public, and the media loving a story which combines destruction and social media.

A Greenpeace report started it off with their accusation that Nestle was instrumental in illegal practices that lead to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and threatening the habitat of an endangered species. A campaign goes on to urge people to send a postcard of complaint and there is a parody of a Kit Kat commercial which is graphic enough to require a warning. As a result of public outcry, Nestle announce they will no longer use Sinar Mas, the company at the heart of the allegations and will endeavour to use sustainable palm oil, where available, by 2015 (my emphasis).

Some shocking facts noted by the Greenpeace campaign are as follows:

  • Indonesia currently has the fastest deforestation rate of any major forested country in the world
  • For losing 2% of its remaining forest every year, Indonesia now has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records
  • The destruction of its tropical forests for palm oil and pulp and paper industries is an ecological disaster and a leading contributor to Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • Indonesia is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world after China and the USA

Nestle say they now use Cargill to source palm oil and it is the latter company’s responsibility to make sure they do not use Sinar Mas. Greenpeace entreat Nestle to declare that they will “cut the Sinar Mas group from its supply chain completely and become a public advocate for peatland protection and a deforestation moratorium”.

What the media saw: Nestle PR gaffe

The Nestle Facebook page received comments about the palm oil situation. A mild threat was issued to not use a rebranded Kit Kat logo with the word Killers which then led to increased ire and an apology. Two message threads were posted on March 17, one on March 18, and a peak of eight on March 19. The occasional defensive and aggressive comment by Nestle staff was not taken to kindly.

Figure 1: Number of news items related to Nestle Palm Oil over the last few days (Source: Google News)

A – Nestle says drops palm oil supplier after report
‎Mar 17, 2010‎ – Reuters

B – Palm Oil Group ‘Plans to Boycott Nestle’ ‎Mar 21, 2010‎ – Jakarta Globe

An initial news item in the Sustainable Business section of the Guardian reports the Nestle decision: The head of operations for Nestlé Jose Lopez has told Guardian Sustainable Business that he expects to eliminate all traces of palm oil from Sinar Mas from its supply chain by mid-May, providing the allegations by Greenpeace linking the company to deforestation stand up.

Then there is a casual mention of the story in an article on chocolate by resident food critic Jay Rayner: The Nestle PR disaster occurred when the company “tried to stamp on dissent concentrated around a Greenpeace video which pointed up the fact that the production of some of the palm oil they use in their products causes deforestation in Indonesia, in turn threatening the habitat of the orang-utan. Protesters poured on to the company’s Facebook page and Nestle responded by deleting comments. Not clever.” Order of the Bar 1 April 2010

CNET also reported the environmental threats but left them as an aside to a social media item which was deemed the more newsworthy story: Environmental activist group Greenpeace has long been putting the pressure on Nestle to stop using palm oil, the production of which has been documented as a source of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and endangered species loss. 19 March 2010, Nestle mess shows sticky side of Facebook pages.

Only one article was printed by CNN about the commercial by Greenpeace which parodies a Kit Kat promotion.

The Google news data (Figure 1) indicates that the media interest peaked on 18 March and died down by 22 March. This peak of a few days, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I asked Michelle Desilets, Executive Director of Orangutan Land Trust, about her thoughts and she mentions that her involvement with the campaign against palm oil has been going on for six years.

Michelle says that “it is not about boycotting palm oil. It is about demanding Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” (CSPO). Nestle is just an example of many manufacturers who rely on palm oil but haven’t committed towards sourcing CSPO. As a cheap, versatile and high-yield oil seed crop, palm oil is here to stay. “Our job as campaigners is to try to make that development as sustainable as possible, while recognising that no monoculture can ever be considered truly sustainable.”

Michelle goes on to say that “it is the palm oil growers themselves, in this case Sinar Mas, who are doing the destruction of rainforests”. Nestle say they will switch to using CSPO by 2015 but with the caveat of ‘where available’. “There is CSPO on the market now,” Michelle says “and they should be buying as much of that as they can get their hands on. Until they can satisfy 100% of their need, they can buy GreenPalm certificates to cover the palm oil they use.”

“It is a little bit of a problem for the big companies, because to be able to say the entire line of a product they use has only CSPO may be some time away, due to lack of supply”. Time however is not on our side, “the orangutans cannot wait until 2015”.

Deforestation, climate change and extinction of endangered animals are terms that fit quite comfortably within one punchy sentence but their consequences for the world are immense.

“Forests play an important part in climate change mitigation. Forests store a vast amount of carbon. When a forest is cut down and converted to another use, carbon is released back into the atmosphere.” (UN-REDD.org) The distinct climate peculiarities of rainforests mean that their destruction has potential impact for global meteorology which has an effect on international weather patterns. These changes affect us all world wide and destruction in the southern hemisphere will not see its impact limited to just that part of the world.

I came across a sentiment by David Mitchell that was quite appropriate and pretty much sums it up: “Public limited companies are amoral. They’re driven purely by their constitutional requirement to turn as large a profit as possible for their shareholders.” Our kids may care about brands, but do brands really care about kids?21 February, 2010.

Mitchell writes about alcohol and clothes but the message is the same, corporations will try to increase profits at the expense of anything they can get away with, usually within the law. Their behaviour however affects us all and public opinion can make a difference. When public concerns were raised about Cadbury’s use of palm oil, they stopped using it. Unilever cancelled its contract with Sinar Mas which left the palm oil company with a loss of millions of pounds. Public outcry has now forced Nestle to change its working practices but in this case and many others we still have a way to go.

Our interest has to remain with a story even when the mass media have lost interest. As members of the public we not only have a responsibility but a vested interest in seeing that we remain informed.

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