Rob Watson

Aug 272016
 
Blogging & Coffee

I’m planning to produce a regular podcast this year, based around the idea of what it means to be sociable in the Twenty-First Century. The idea is to meet once each week to discuss topics of interest and to play some music while a small group of people chat in a very informal and friendly way about being social.

My thinking at this point is to record sixty minutes of discussion and music with three guests and a fourth person (me) acting as a moderator. Each week we will pick a different theme but will discuss issues that are loosely based on the general topic of being social.

I want the conversation to be relaxed and chilled, with an emphasis on personal experience and understanding, rather than on expert testimony, professional status or having a product to promote.

To begin the invited guest will be drawn from personal contacts, but my aim is to extend the range of guests through our associated networks, connections with the people who take part, the people who might listen, and anyone who might be interested in having a go.

The idea is to develop a completely un-structured approach that is based simply around fluid conversations, rather than to be looking to ‘achieve’ any particular outcomes, destinations or to leave anyone wise than before they started. Conversations are like that. Sometimes they are serious, sometimes they are fun, most of the time they are unpredictable

To produce the recordings I’ve invested in some recording equipment, with a Zoom H6 multichannel recorder with four mono microphones, and a line-in feed for music input. I’m also hoping that we can use a friends coffee shop as our base for recording the sessions, as its a great environment to relax and chill.

The general idea is to discuss how our sense of sociability is being defined in the twenty-first century? To do this we will probably end up reflecting on our inherited sense of sociability and the way that we have defined our social lives to date.

But rather than this being a chance for nostalgic meander, I’d rather we explored what changes we feel are being brought about through generational change, through technological change, and through cultural changes, and so on.

So, these conversations might include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Being Social with Food.
  • Being Social over Coffee.
  • Being Social with Games.
  • Being Social with Apps.
  • Being Social in Cities.
  • Being Social Online.
  • Being Social at Work
  • Being Anti-Social.
  • Being Civil in Public Places.
  • Using Technology to Keep in Touch.
  • Social Media Technology and Older People.
  • Social Media Technology and Younger People.
  • Social Learning.
  • Social Sport.
  • Social Music.
  • Social Dating.
  • Social Cycling.
  • Hosting a Party.
  • Retaining a Sense of Privacy.
  • Social Envy and Anxiety.

Rather than setting a business plan in place, or a production schedule, the idea with these podcasts is to see where the conversations drift, how they can include different perspectives, and how they can raise subject that don’t normally get talked about.

And while the experience might initially be Leicester-based, there should be no fixed points, and guests and contributors can be drawn from wider afield.

Ironically, I’m also not that worried about promoting the podcasts with social media. If they spread, they spread. I’d be much happier if a group of people can get together each week and have a chilled-out chat. I’d rather it was a social thing as much as anything.

If there is any promotion of interaction through social media then its probably best if its encouraged in simple and at-hand forms, through Twitter as the main conversation platform. Of course links can be made to other forms of social media by using a hashtag.

Once I’ve recorded the podcast I’ll be posting it as a stereo MP3 file to my personal website, which has an RSS feed and a link to iTunes. I’ve paid for a podcaster licence so it’s possible to play music legitimately.

So if anyone has any ideas that might help me, or examples of podcasts that would be good to listen to, get in contact – probably best using Twitter @robwmedia

Aug 252016
 
IMG_4605

I’ve come to Liverpool for a couple of days to use the last of my annual leave before I get back to work next Tuesday. I’m spending the day mooching around the galleries in Liverpool, and checking out some of the exhibitions for the 2016 Liverpool Biennial.

IMG_4588It’s always good to come check out art in Liverpool, places like FACT, the Bluecoat and the Walker Art Gallery always have thought provoking works to take on-board and absorb. Each time I see something and I have a reaction to it, I notice a subtle shift in my sensibilities that helps me to view the world around me in different ways. The effect might wear off when I get back on the bus, but it’s something I have to keep doing once in a while to recharge my batteries and get me thinking again.

Two stand-out pieces that have had an impact with me this time have both been video based, which I normally avoid. At FACT, Lucy Beech’s film Pharmakon is really engrossing. The immersive sound design and the rich cinematography is captivating. I would be really keen to see more work from Lucy and to experience the set-up that FACT has put together to show it – a wall-to-wall screen with wrap-around sound in a darkened room.

The other artist that caught my attention is Richie Moment. Again I know nothing about this artist, but his work comprises videos displayed on smart-pads on the wall of the Bluecoat Gallery. They have a neon-YouTube aesthetic that relentlessly pushes ideas and images out to the viewer. Watching them in-passing in a gallery doesn’t do them justice.

One of the other reasons for my visit to Liverpool is to sit in some cafes and start to plan my teaching for the coming year. I’ve had a good break over the summer, with some useful reading under my belt. So I’m feeling relaxed and chilled and coming up with some good ideas for the work that I will be undertaking with learners on the modules I look after.

There are two strands to the modules I run, social media and community media. There is a useful connection between the two, but they are quite different. I can sum up each in a couple of phrases. For the community media modules, it’s about helping people to find their own voice in their community and representing that to their neighbours.

For the social media modules, it’s about looking at what difference it makes when we approach media from a social point of view, rather than from a mass media mind-set. Thinking about how we share meaningful media experiences is now more useful to us than simply thinking of audiences and mass media consumption. Its more personal, more individual and less easy to predict.

So in planning for the learning experiences of the coming year I’m thinking of focussing on projects that are about collaborations, problem solving and shared experiences, rather than the wider structural and industrial systems or political discourses that have typically been associated with the study of media.

This is about finding-out and understanding how people interact in a meaningful way, how they use media to express themselves, and how they connect in a social network or a community to act accomplish things in their worlds? This means that we can look at media as a participative experience, and as a moving and developmental experience. Things can change, they are in flux, meanings shift and are negotiated, rather than being fixed and inherent in their stylistic forms.

I’ll be drawing on the tradition of Symbolic Interactionism to help provide a methodological base for these studies, which is the approach that I arrived at with my PhD research, and which I feel gives a wide sense of flexibility to study, allowing us to think about how people interact with each other in meaningful ways, as a living experience.

So, for the first year social media learners I’m going to be asking them to work on a social project that they can’t otherwise do using media technology – such as playing cards, or trying out make-up, or urban ghost walks. This worked really well when I did it last year, and I’ going to extend the idea this year. Learners will write and produce blogs, social media posts, YouTube videos and anything else they can think of that allows them to interact with other people in a social way.

It’s DIY and has a focus on finding fun and easy ways to interact with people, using the affordances of the media technology that we have to hand, and as a way of generating and sustaining an entertaining and connected social experience.

For the final year social media students, I’m thinking that we should focus more than we did last year. So instead of thinking about sugar consumption more generally in our diets, and the food literacy skills that are associated with processed food culture, I’m thinking that we should focus on a specific group or subcultural community: electronic gamers and their consumption of sugary energy drinks.

I thought we’d do this by making a group video documentary that explains how people in the electronic games community see the sugar-based energy drinks that are marketed at them, and what drives the culture of their consumption.

For the community media modules, John Coster is coming on board to help deliver the modules and to help develop them. This means that we can tap into John’s extensive experience running community media workshops and groups.

The first years will learn how to be community reporters, and to use social and other forms of media to discuss issues that are important to different communities around Leicester. We will tap into the DMU Local expertise to help with this.

The second year community media module will explore how community media’s purpose is to support community development, and to think about how community media can improve the life experiences of people who are otherwise bypassed by mainstream media, and who don’t feel that they have a voice.

I’m going to try and blog as I go along about what I’m doing with these modules. If anyone has any suggestions or ideas that they think will help, then please get in touch – either on social media or using the DMU Commons Wiki. There is lots of work to do, and I’m looking forward to planning it out and putting something engaging in place.

Aug 062016
 
John & Laura
Play

On Friday I was at the Social Media Cafe in Leicester’s West End Neighbourhood Centre with John Coster to talk to people about disability and perceptions of disability. sat around and chatted over a couple of mugs of tea and recorded this podcast.

Jul 282016
 
French Cafe Culture
Play

I’ve been away on holiday for the last couple of weeks, and it’s given me a chance to look at how French people engage in a different form of sociability than back home in the United Kingdom. In this podcast I explore some ideas and suggestions for future discussion in the new podcast series I’m going to be working on in the Autumn.

Jul 052016
 
Is this Creative Destruction?

Who would have thought that the modern Conservative Party would have become so radical and ideological? The referendum decision to leave the European Union has sent shock-waves through our national psyche and is proving difficult to understand because it is the result of some problematic political cross-dressing.

It seems that the advocates of Creative Destruction that is gleefully being embraced and pursued by potential leaders in the Tory Party has caught many by surprise, and leaving many unable to respond or to come up with a suitable counter-argument.

The question I have, however, is doesn’t this go against the foundations of conservatism? I thought that the Conservative Party had a historic role in the British constitution to preserve and endure, whereas the path that is being advocated by the anti-EU head-bangers in the Brexit camp is the opposite of that, and suggest that the Conservative Party has fully abandoned its historic role in British life.

My simplistic understanding of the conservative tradition suggests that conservative principle number one, is to sustain and conserve for future generations. Decisions that we take should be rooted in a pragmatic forms of practicality, focussed on the need to get out of situations if they are not in our interests in the future.

We’ve just spent the last forty years building a sustainable future inside the European Union, only for the second principle of conservativism to be annihilated. A stable society is built on stable institutions, i.e. the Crown, the Courts, the BBC and NHS. Conservatives are concerned that the institutions that we hold dear will endure past the mid-term priorities and perspectives of the people involved.

Stable institutions give us a predictable framework around which we can plan our future decisions. In this sense conservatives are boring, and they certainly don’t promote extreme measures based on ego or an ideological whim for fear of the unknown consequences.

In this regard, however, conservatives are pragmatic and run with what is known to work. Conservatives don’t like to experiment for the sake of experimentation. Change is an evolutionary process that is agreed and built on consensus, rather than being hurled at people who don’t know what they are getting.

Conservatives therefore have a disdain for popular expressions of the public mood, so they don’t use referendums very often. Instead conservatives work within the framework of representative and liberal democracy that protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority through deliberation, expertise and wisdom. Parliament is supposed to debate and discuss issues of national importance and come to a consensual view that suits all parties.

Outside of the political realm conservatives put the family at the core of their ideas. The stable family unit around which the rest of society is based is the central premise of the conservative mind-set, associated with values of self-reliance and merit in which people are able to climb the ladder of life with the minimum of interference from the state or from government.

Likewise, conservatives are stewards of the environment and the natural world. They seek to sustain the world around us so that it is pleasant, free from pollution and works best to provide us with resources for other forms of social life and industry. Conservatives argue for balance between those things that sustain and nourish us and those things that we can exploit for more materialistic ends.

Conservatives, therefore, are patriots and nationalists, with a strong sense of duty to one’s country, King and Queen.  It is this nationalism and patriotism that gives conservatives the space to put strong local identities high on the agenda of our national lives.

The idea of the nation is built on the idea of the strong community with an engaged sense of civic participation. Civic leaders are drawn from the worlds of commerce and social association which is empowered by the stake that people feel in their local community and the benefits in status that are derived from playing an active part in community life.

According to conservatives participating in local politics and decision making is something to be proud about and it relates to your social standing. Conservatives therefor prioritise local decisions and local issues above other needs.

The market isn’t the only factor that conservatives take into account when they are enacting decisions on behalf of their communities. The social impact and the potential detrimental effects of any race for commercial exploitation. This might imply a rigid structure that is slow to change, but it is one that is based on longer-term ideas of the social good and not just an ability to get rich quick.

But there is an ideological mix-up. The Tory Party is now overwhelmed by free-market, neo-liberal ideologues. A process that started over forty-years ago with Margaret Thatcher is now bulldozing all before it.

This ideological fervour is based on the dominant belief that the free-market will provide solutions to social problems. It is the belief that so-called free-markets go hand-in-hand with the power of Creative Destruction, ripping up the rules, changing the game, and if some things get broken in the process, so what!

For more than forty years it’s been said that there is no moral or ethical dimension to the free-market, only economic instrumentalism and utility. That there are no moral equivalences between different services and goods offered in the marketplace. That everything can be reduced to a consumer exchange and the supply and demand of desires and wants.

This neo-liberal mind-set says that there is no need to offer a guiding hand or to mitigate the excesses of the market, as markets are inherently good at what they do, and will auto-correct when things go wrong.

However, when I take a look around me all I see is that the free-market has only delivered a zombie economy based around endless brands, chains and franchises. Don’t bother travelling around the United Kingdom, every town is the same, every place has a Starbucks, a Costa Coffee, Boots, WH Smiths, all in endless and soulless duplication.

If a local community wants to deny planning permission for Tesco to open another supermarket in their area, then there is very little that they can do about it. Local decisions are usually over-written by centralised managers in London who only care about the numbers and not the impact.

Local democracy has been devalued in the United Kingdom for decades. The assault started with Thatcher who disbanded the metropolitan authorities who wanted to invest locally and manage change more socially democratically that the free market ideologies would allow.

This has resulted in the dominance of instrumental thinking in political and civic life, as the mono-logic of economic utility pushes all public and civic life to the so-called free market place. This is a logic that treats everything like cornflakes. Designed, manufactured and distributed from a centralised management, but containing no nourishment or health benefits despite the claims.

The neo-liberal ideologue can’t recognise that measures of sustainability and environmental protection are prudent, so they find ways to derided and belittle the process of ecological stewardship. They become climate change deniers because nothing can interfere with the free-market, not even the mounting evidence of environmental catastrophe.

So expertise is undermined. Universities are reduced to being factories for employability. The idea of the university as a space for independent and divergent thinking is subsumed under the logic that says that students are consumers and that they must be facilitated in their employability needs, rather than being independent thinkers with a liberal conscience.

Our politics has become a giant marketing exercise. The buzz-phrase is the ‘conversation’ which reduces everything to surveys and opinion polls. The fact that politics is the manifestation of competing interests is hidden and made opaque. Who did the Brexit campaign actually represent beyond themselves?

So, the question I’ve been thinking about is why I am a conservative? What makes me want to see a resurgence in conservative thinking that will challenge the destruction of the free-marketers?

I want to see strong, local communities in which local people determine their own priorities on tax, planning, education, health and welfare. This will only come about if local people have a democratic stake, so we need Proportional Representation for all of our elections. With a decentralised model of education we can look to the best practice that allows our young people to become creative, independent and resilient, ending the factory and hot-house model that is failing to engage enough people in life-long learning.

In a globalised world we can only build local identities by promoting local products and producers, by promoting local arts, media and participation in a strong and vibrant cultural life. Too much of our social interactions are founded on shopping and not on shared creative endeavours.

There is a clear role for Trade Unions as long as they are looking to provide stability when planning for change. Ironically the Thatcherite zeal for union-bashing is partly responsible for high-levels of immigration in service sector work. If people are paid poverty wages then jobs don’t look attractive and employers will seek cheaper labour elsewhere.

I want to make it easier for people to access a local market by promoting civic market places that are paid for by taxing parking on supermarkets. How do new traders enter the marketplace when the competitive environment is skewed towards the national and international conglomerates all fighting for a slide of the pie but with no care for the local community?

This means devolving responsibility for competition in our communities to the local level and allowing local communities to accept or reject the presence of corporate brands in their area. Local people should decide if they want to leave space for local people like themselves to trade and build businesses in their areas. Anyhow, we have far too many shops in the United Kingdom. It’s time we started to restrict out of town developments, and endless shopping centre car parks.

I also want to see a shift away from the car economy, so that urban areas can become the focus of family life. British streets have been chocked and blocked by cars. They have become dangerous and anti-social. Children are absent from our streets and communities, and live like prisoners. No wonder so many of them are unhappy.

It is essential, therefore, that we build integrated transport networks based around trams in our cities. Trams are socially democratic, giving all classes of people confidence to use an integrated system. They are clean and they are predictable. The privatisation of the buses is an experiment in free-market ideology that has cursed our cities.

Another priority has to be that we stop building endless homes and businesses in rural areas. Instead we need to protect and invest in agricultural and recreational traditions, and open the country to a different set of priorities that aren’t based on endless urban-sprawl.

When communities face change, though, they need to be given support and help so that they can adjust to the changes that technology, rather than blaming people. Don’t turn your back on people in need and put in place robust safety nets so people aren’t destitute and can plan their lives around stability. The shame of the Bedroom Tax is deeply felt by many.

I don’t understand why successive governments have had such a problem with local democracy. Local services that are accountable through the local ballet-box are better than some technocratic and centralised ministry can offer. Devolve health, education, welfare and competition management to local authorities while also pulling back defence expenditure.

I’m afraid it’s time to give-up Trident because we can’t afford it, which means giving up our seat on the UN Security Council. Our aim should be to leave a smaller footprint that is better suited to our resources, thereby cutting our cloth to fit our reduced circumstances.

Al this said, once I’ve got over the shock of Brexit and the opportunities start to become clear, I’ve no doubt that the future is going to be internationalist, collaborative, co-operative, welcoming and principled. So who knows, we might come out of this muddle with a form of EU+. Something that is built on strong local communities, in which people are empowered and feel that they can reject the technocratic management and monoculture forces of the global finance industry.

I suspect that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party will be dead and buried in five years’ time. The question is, what kind of political leadership will take their place and how will people square the conservative with the social democratic?

Jul 032016
 
Anything is Possible If You Have Enough Nerve

The Brexit crisis has turned out to be a rather impressive psychodrama. A drama that has polarised opinion on each side of the debate. Unpicking the consequences of the Brexit decision is going to take some time, and it won’t be easy to make sense of things for a while.

What was once up is now down, what was once certain is now unknown, and what was once predictable has become chaotic. The political polarities have shifted for sure. Finding out what this means in practice is going to take some time and some creative thinking.

Understanding what the emerging principles of this shift in our assumed reality is going to be much more difficult than the first batch of comment and analysis in the newspapers suggests. But understanding this shift will be key to successful political representation and debate in the United Kingdom for years to come.

Which side are you on, the fifty-two or the forty-eight? This is going to be the defining polarity in British politics and economics for some time to come.

If we are pragmatic in our approach to understanding what has gone on, we might find it useful to think of the debate as a set of interlocking translation issues. Two groups of people had assumed that they had been talking the same language and describing the same things.

It turns out that they had different things in mind, and had been using different frameworks of meaning that couldn’t be comprehended by the other side.

On the one hand there is a tendency for the Brexit result to be boiled down to an easy and straight forward sense of either spite or optimism. Or that the decision can be played out as a battle of inter-generational conflict, in which one generation pulls-up the ladder on a following generation.

There is a lot of evidence to support the view of the selfish generation making it harder for the next generation in practice, just look at the levels of inequality in the United Kingdom. But this is more of a consequence than a direct intent on the part of the Brexit supporters.

Likewise, the result can be broken down into a tension between the nostalgic or the optimistic. Those people who have no memory of the past afflictions of de-industrialisation, or the class war wrought by successive governments, or the shift and change in technology and the global economy, have been shunted sideways by a generation that can only think about how badly they have been treated. Is this a forty year grudge.

There was a telling interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today Program earlier this week. Two women were interviewed, one who regretted her decision, and one who was confirmed in her decision. The woman who regretted voting leave said that she realised she had been holding a grudge for forty years, but that it was now too late to change her mind as her vote had been cast.

The other woman was clear, she had researched and read about the issue of the European Union and felt confident about her decision. She told the interviewer that she was against globalisation, but that the decision to support Brexit would make it easier for the United Kingdom to trade internationally.

This made me choke. The kind of choke and splutter that good radio can achieve on occasions. Quite what does she thinks globalisation is? Has she not understood that trading internationally is globalisation? How can she keep these two contradictory positions in her mind and resolve them?

How does she cope with the cognitive dissonance that she is grappling with?

This faulty logic is where we will find the answer to these issues. This will take some perceptive listening, some creative thinking, and some alternative methods of analysis to come up with a working solution that helps people to make sense of their predicament.

The on-going question, indeed the only question that will dominate British politics, is concerned with how we go about building strong local identities, how we empower people locally, while accommodating international trade and global identity?

Where I think a useful place to look for an answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. Is the Brexit decision better thought of as a failure of nerve and resolve, rather than an embrace of the future and confidence in collective international action and national identity? Saying lets make Britain great again is an admission of defeat.

Clearly the Brexit result is a symptom and not the cause of a bigger problem. Is Brexit the result of one generation getting spooked because life felt like it was moving forward and getting too easy, when they felt that it should be hard?

People have said this is like a divorce, but actually the divorce happened a long time ago. This is one partner realising that their former partner has no need for them, so they are perplexed because their former lover seem to be getting on with their lives, meeting new people and generally having a nice time.

The disdainful ex-partner finds this difficult to deal with, and therefore wants to spite their former partner so that they feel as bad as they do about life. Why should they be out and about meeting people when we are sat at home staring out of the window?

There is a strong underlying current in British life that can’t believe that things can ever be so good. Because life should never be good, according to the puritan mind-set of struggle and toil. You have to work hard to get what you want. You have to be prudent and cut your cloth. Life shouldn’t feel this easy?

The ethic of the British mind-set is very often driven by a puritan impulse that seeks suffering and graft as virtues in themselves, regardless of how useful they turn out to be in practice, or the alternative, smarter ways of doing things that exist.

This mind-set is based on the misconception that the pleasures that life brings should be denied, for a greater virtue is awaited elsewhere, and is a reward for deferred gratification and ease now. John Maynard Keynes called this the Electromagnetic Problem – forcing your family to walk everywhere because the battery in the car is faulty, and so you scrap the whole car rather than just replacing the battery.

Puritans will tell you that learning, knowledge, information, association and participation shouldn’t feel easy. Surely they are difficult and challenging. Surely they are things that we have to work hard for? Surely those people who have the rewards in life got them because they earned them, and not because they where in the right place at the right time, just being lucky?

Our politicians and the news media have promoted the view that life is about tough decisions and that if dealing with things is easy then it is wrong. This is because the best way to keep what you have is to normalise the luck that brought it about, and promote the myth that you got it through hard work and industry, when it was the result of the lottery of life.

Keep in mind that the lottery of life in the United Kingdom as been eschewed and knocked out of kilter for generations now. There is less opportunity for social mobility than ever before, and wealth never seems to trickle down the ladder as was promised.

The Brexit vote, then, is a turning point in people’s sense of imaginative possibility – between the seemingly difficult and the seemingly easy. This is a turning point in which the older generation, by-and-large, bottled it.

They bottled it because they haven’t been able to adapt to the mind-set that internationalism and globalisation brings. What, we need to put a framework in place for cooperation and collaboration? What, we have to engage in international politics and win people over to our ideas? Sorry, our splendid isolation seems enough. Why worry about the rest of the world when we can just look after ourselves?

They bottled it because they don’t understand how communication technology is stripping away national barriers, and allowing people to associate more freely.

Google Translate

Google Translate

Look at Google Translate and think about the power of technology to change our worldview. The Google Translate app on the iPhone has a live camera function, allowing the user to read the text in a sign as the words are translated in-situ.

They bottled it because they can’t understand that they had to turn-up and play a role in creating their own destinies, building their own communities, and enhancing their own sense of civic participation through which they could gain a sense of self-actualised identity.

There is an assumption that we need strong leadership in the United Kingdom to get things done. But this is simply people passing-off responsibility for their actions onto someone else. It’s not my problem guv, but I blame the local council, David Cameron or the EU!

If you want to live in a world in which learning feels hard and a chore, then you might want to invest in barriers, tariffs and vaults to protect your investments. If you think that learning is fun, creative and social, then you will want to break those barriers down.

The greatest question of our lifetimes shows that one generation has bottled-it in the face of these changes.

What is essential, though, is that TINA (There is no alternative) is now dead as a political maxim.

There is an alternative and people can choose it now if they want.

So be careful what you wish for if you thought that by voting for Brexit you would be getting something back that you had been familiar with but estranged from.

The 48%

The 48%

Brexit empowers both ways, and your former partner is now well aware that all bets are off, and that alternatives are now open for discussion.

We in the forty-eight percent are free to choose what we want, without any feelings of responsibility for the people they are leaving behind. Bon Voyage!

 

 

 

Jun 282016
 
Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 19.57.57

The ramifications of the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union are going to reverberate for some time. Not only will the decision to leave the EU mean changes to our economy and political life, but they will also have a significant impact on the way that we think about and undertake community media in the United Kingdom as well.

As supporters of community media adjust to this new reality, it is worth sharing some thoughts about the kind of responses that community media advocates might think about. Depending on your point of view, thinking about what got us into this mess, and what might we do to work through it so we can get the best out of it?

The response of community media supporters at this time will shape the future relationships that community media sustains in times to come. We don’t have any idea at this stage how commercial and public service media will continue to be regulated in the United Kingdom, and what changes might come about as a result of the changing legal and regulatory regimes.

One thing that I hope that can be agreed is that the success of the leave campaign was due in large part to a sense of frustration and indignation at the manner in which our economy and civic life had been playing out.

It certainly became progressively harder to keep community media groups running and focussed as government cuts and austerity hit local communities, but there are other factors that are associated with the general sense of frustration. Community media has been run on a shoe-string for years now, a fact that has been pointed out to government by the Community Media Association on many occasions.

One example that typifies this sense of frustration is the rise of the zombie town, for example, in which every high-street is identical, and populated by the same chain stores and brands? These towns give little opportunity for networks of independent and local businesses to take-root and play a strong role in civic life.

I’ve thought for some time now that it is pointless travelling around the United Kingdom because the high-streets are all the same. Is this a factor in the sense of frustration? Did people become frustrated because they have been cut-off from a clear, independent sense of local identity?

Like the high-street, local media has been under considerable pressure for some time now. Newspapers have been squeezed-out because they haven’t been profitable enough. Local commercial radio stations have been squeezed out as the international conglomerates have built chains of stations around formulas, brands and centralised marketing.

Local commercial radio in the United Kingdom is homogenised, formulaic and repetitive, with little sense of local identity. Playing local travel news in between Justin Bieber tracks isn’t doing anything to foster local expression and understanding.

In hoc only to the needs of advertisers the commercial radio companies have forgotten the listeners needs, and killed-off the chance that radio might be a positive and creative forum for discussion, ideas and local identity.

The BBC doesn’t come away from these events with any glory either. The narrow and condescending programming brief that is given to BBC Local Radio is fascicle and self-serving. Prone to being ‘nostalgia’ radio, BBC local stations have been prevented from fostering a local identity.

Just a change of accents from one station to the next, yet the content is mostly identical.

The BBC Local Radio music playlists are centrally managed, leading to a generic sound that is the same everywhere. No local experimentation, discovery or challenge. Just Daft Punk and Lionel Ritche on endless repeat.

BBC Local Radio should be a place of vibrant, integrated community debate and discussion. Did BBC Local Radio tap into the resentment that was expressed in the referendum, or where BBC Local Radio producers just as surprised as everyone else in the media?

It is often said, and always worth repeating, that the strength of community media is the principle that community media is about people representing themselves. Community media has a proud tradition of supporting community discussion and communication, but community media has been chronically underfunded for a long, long time.

This underfunding, and a lack of active government support, both national and local, has left many community media groups clinging on, not able to develop, grow or expand their services. Everyone I know in community media feels lucky just to have survived.

The Ofcom Broadcast Rules stifle debate and creative reposes to differences of community opinion because they have to be packaged in a ‘balanced’ approach, which for many community media groups is out of their reach given the legalistic framework and ramifications if you get it wrong.

This dereliction of duty by Ofcom to foster and support community media, would be pardonable if Ofcom actually gave some support to community media groups to meet the legal challenges of broadcasting. However, all that Ofcom offers is a PowerPoint presentation based on the complex legal documents they circulate to all broadcasters, regardless of size and status.

Community media emerged from lack of civic support as risk-averse. More often community media groups avoid any controversial topics, news or discussion. This has had a negative effect on civic discussion and compounds the democratic deficit and lack of engagement many people experience.

Four million people voted for UKIP at the last general election, and they have just one MP in parliament. Where do these voices get heard in our local communities? Why are political discussions only left to a few high-profile celebrity politicians on national, centralised stations?

Why aren’t the day-to-day issues of community life shared and expressed in community media forums?

The ideal of community media is for communities to speak to of themselves and to themselves, while also speaking with other communities. The challenge is to do this in a way that fosters understanding and tolerance through shared engagement.

This is a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops by community media advocates, particularly as people try to make sense of the result of the referendum. We have a fantastic opportunity with community media to foster and support communities through open and challenging dialogue, as long as the framework of support is put in place by government.

The alternative is that community media advocates declare their independence and go off and do their own things, using the new social media technologies that are replacing mass media anyway.

I intend to give this matter some serious thought and I’m keen to hear what other people think about it. Is this a moment for community media to step-up and embrace the opportunity to help heal our divided communities by helping them to listen to and understand one another?

Jun 272016
 
Delilah - Leicester's New International Deli

In the Post-Brexit political landscape it’s going to be interesting to see what changes in practice, and how people will adapt to the reality that the whole economic and fiscal order of the United Kingdom has to change. This was a vote that I disagreed should be held, and I’m deeply disturbed by the result because it fails to engage with the practical consequences of the decision.

So, here’s some suggestions, a couple of things that are going to have to change over the short-term in order to pay for and adjust to the new reality of Post-Brexit Britain.

Proportional Representation: First, it looks like we got into this mess because we don’t have a fit-for-purpose electoral system. The present system polarises people, and it ensure that parties are embedded in traditional areas without any challenge. This is both Labour areas and Tory areas. Look at Leicester and Leicestershire? Each are rock-solid holds on thirty-five percent of the vote. The priority has to be a proportional election system at all levels of government. We pay our taxes but we don’t get fair representation.

Congestion/Pollution Charge to Pay for Integrated Trams: Leicester is a car-based city, but the damage this does is immense, both to people’s health and to their well-being. The roads in Leicester are constantly clogged and the side-streets where people live are unusable by anything that doesn’t travel with an internal combustion engine. Families and children are cut off from one another because the roads aren’t safe.

Many of the people who drive into Leicester are getting a cheap deal. They pass through and don’t have to live with the consequences. This has left us with a devalued urban environment, and the heavy pollution that an over-reliance on cars causes.

Many other cities in the United Kingdom are successfully building integrated tram networks to change the culture and the feel of the spaces we share. Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Edinburgh, are all building tram systems as a viable and preferred alternative to congestion.

Let’s bring in a congestion and pollution charge so that the money raised from excessive road use can be invested into a modern tram network. Leicester is the perfect type of city for a tram, indeed until the 1950s Leicester was mainly served by trams and buses. So it can be done here.

Property Tax – Rates Based on Market Value: The United Kingdom economy has been based for the last forty years around a number of financial imperatives, the main one being home ownership. Since the 1980s, and the Thatcher revolution for a home-owning democracy, the whole focus of housebuilding has been about property speculation. Some people have done very well out of this gamble and have accrued substantial resources as a nest egg for their retirement.

The problem is that the taxes that are raised locally are regressive, so those people who live in poorer areas and who have not benefited from the gains in property prices that other areas have seen, are paying more than their fair share.

The answer is to return to a rating system similar to that used prior to the Poll Tax. Those who have the greatest wealth and the strongest assets should be taxed fairly, and those who are working their way-up in life, and who generally live in cheaper property areas, should be taxed fairly but less. If a pensioner is living in a mansion by themselves then they should think about downsizing.

The suburbs would suddenly become a less desirable option for people to live in, and the inner-cities would become more attractive. This would reverse the wastelands that typify British urban planning, and the lack of integration of social activities, essential services and amenities. The city would be the place to retire, and we could focus on the quality of people lives.

Business rates stay in Leicester: If businesses are successful in Leicester the money that is raised from their local taxes should stay in Leicester. There is plenty of work that needs doing in Leicester. Walk along any high-street out of the city centre and you will see a picture of decay and a lack of maintenance. Local business taxes will provide money that can be used to invigorate local communities, rather than being syphoned-off to a distant market town or shire county to be spent maintaining the generous lifestyles of rural communities.

Local taxes staying in Leicester would also reinvigorate local civic engagement, as there is no stronger impetus to get involved in local politics and community life than the feeling that you are guiding the resources and the assets that are raised locally.

End to pensioner discounts and benefits: Young people need to be invested in if they are going to have confidence to learn, work hard and achieve in the future. Our economic prosperity depends on how we treat our young people. And yet there has been an asset grab on recent years that has seen resources taken from the young and from working families, and used to secure the prosperity of the older generations.

The referendum indicates that we have to make a choice, we can either have one or the other, but we can’t keep milking young people in order to pay for the leisure pursuits of the generation that has pulled-up the ladder. I’m sorry, but free television licences and bus passes will have to go.

Support University Internationalist work: Supporting younger people means supporting local schools, colleges and universities. I would like to see schools and colleges brought back under the control of local councils, and hence local democracy. So that they can be managed and funded for the long-term, with an international agenda that suits the aspirations of the of the tech-enabled young people of Leicester who aren’t afraid of globalisation and don’t see national barriers in the way that the older generations fear.

Support for Language Communities: One of the things that got cut as a sop to the anti-integrationists was the support given by local councils for language classes and translation services. This act of self-harm just made it more difficult to deal with the changes we have seen in our communities, as the transitional support that people might have benefited from was cut on the basis of irrational prejudice. Every school, college and workplace should have language clubs that help people to improve their non-English speaking skills, as well as help and support for people to learn English so that they can be integrated much more quickly.

Scale-up of infrastructure work to modernize urban areas: Walk around Leicester and take-stock of how much work needs doing to deal with the decades of neglect. Simple things like painting railings, fixing traffic junctions, clearing road signs, repairing and improving pavements. Austerity and the cuts that George Osborne imposed on local councils have taken a heavy toll on the infrastructure of Leicester’s urban environment.

The City Council has to be able to gear-up as many projects as it can quickly to deal with the blight of the urban environment. Leicester’s Mayor has made some progress with the Cathedral, Jubilee Square, the Haymarket Bus Station, and so on, but there is so much more to do. And it is money well spent as it goes back into the local economy, thus generating more taxes.

Scale-up of social services teams to deal with anti-social begging: Anyone who visits Leicester and travels along Granby Street should be able to attest to the problem of street drinking, begging and people who are damaged by drugs. An immediate and practical action plan needs to be put in place so that people who have dropped through the safety-net can be helped and supported.

The scourge of Leicester being used as a dumping ground for other local councils who export their problems needs to end, and the police need to be much more visible in ensuring that forms of anti-social behaviour are discouraged.

Clampdown on noise pollution and anti-social behaviour from bars: I firmly believe that Leicester can be one of the best family friendly cities there is. The problem at the moment is that it is being run on the basis of the so-called night-time economy alone. This is a world of cheap bars that encourage people to crowd in the streets and often ends in violence.

Who would want to live in a city and raise a family in this environment? I’m quite happy with liberal opening hours, but a culture shift has to take place that see the licensing regime changed. Yes, people should be able to go for a drink whenever they want, but there should be zero-tolerance of noise pollution and anti-social behaviour from bars and clubs.

There should also be a dispersal of venues away from the centre so that there is less concentration on large numbers of people gathering in one place. Meals and water have to be available at all times, and everyone has to sit down, just to take the concentration and density of a venue down. The free-market and commercial exploitation can’t be the only deciding factor for permission to open and run a business.

Anyway, these are just a couple of thoughts that I’d want to put forward as practical, local issues that can be dealt with quite quickly, and none of them are the responsibility of the European Union, but can be enacted and dealt with locally.

 

 

Jun 262016
 
Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 08.02.38

Come the hour, comes the man – or woman, but it’s not as snappy a proverb. The fallout from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union looks like it is only just starting to gather strength. The latest overnight news is that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has sacked the shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn, because he was plotting to revolt against his leadership.

With Boris Johnson aiming to lead the Conservative Party, and become the next Prime Minister, after David Cameron’s resignation, the other proverb that comes to mind, but perhaps one that is less welcome, is: ‘may you be blessed to live in interesting times.’

There are underlying fault-lines that have become apparent in this maelstrom of claim and counter-claim. And while those on the right would frame this as a debate about personal liberty or national pride, and those on the left might frame this as a debate about capitalism’s time running out, there are other forces at hand that also need to be considered.

I’ve discussed in a previous post how this is a debate about the old and the young. There is a clear rift in the expectations of those over forty and those under forty. Those that remember life before Thatcherism, and those that have only ever lived with the European outlook.

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Geographic Divisions of Brexit

There is also the divide between the so-called ‘heartlands’ and the urban areas. The vote to remain was embedded in Scotland obviously, but also in the cities of England. While the vote to leave was founded in the shires and counties, the smaller towns of England that are furthest away from the urban lifestyles of the emerging urban economies.

The Observer’s editorial today’s asks:

So what about globalisation? How have free markets benefited the steel worker put out of work by the EU-sanctioned dumping of cheap Chinese products? Seen from Wearside or the Welsh valleys, booming London and the south-east, with its Monopoly money property prices and £70 a head restaurants, resembles Goldrush City, a foreign and hostile land.”

The last time I was in central London I hated it – to use a phrase I thought it was full of arrogant and self-entitled chancers. So these anxieties are being felt elsewhere and have been deeply engrained as form of indignation and resentment for some time.

I wonder, perhaps, if there is another divide, one that is less visible, but one that has shaped and formed these outlooks? Is this a divide between those who use traditional media to keep themselves informed of what’s happening in the world, and those who use social and emerging media to find out what is happening in the world?

The tradition of mass media has not disappeared, despite what Facebook, YouTube and Twitter might want us to think. Newspapers, television, and to a much lesser extent radio, still play an essential role in framing the debates and conversations that we have about our national identity and our place in the world. Often framed by the bias of the newspaper proprietors who are themselves pursuing an agenda of their own interest.

Alternatively, the users of social media have a more flexible approach to information, with sources and feeds being exchanged and shared from many different media organisations as well as individuals. The downside is the jam-jar approach, in which the hornets of opinion furiously echo each-others views and don’t interact with those of different mind-sets.

This is counter-balanced, however, by the ability to look wider afield and to interact with people who are not geographically defined in our localities, or set within our networks of social class, gender and sexual identity, views on faith or otherwise. Social media allows people to spread their network wider than the fixed world of mass mediated politics allows.

Perhaps a good example of the hollowing out of local identities is the way that radio in the United Kingdom has become a centralised, national set of brands and formats that reflect a narrow commercial interest, but which don’t give a flavour to local lives and circumstances. It’s no surprise that BBC Local Radio is designed to appeal to the over fifty-fives. Has this played through into people’s perceptions of a hollowed-out sense of community?

Likewise, we’ve seen a massive decline in local newspapers, local reporting about politics, local information and discussion about civic and local government issues in the press, because the press has been decimated by speculation and commercial interests.

So in a way, the Brexit debate is an argument about changing local identities and emerging social identities. Our collective and social identities are now being formed in different ways, and how we cope with that and respond to it is very important.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 08.14.39On the one-hand people are strongly patriotic and have a clear need for a locally defined image of themselves. While on the other hand there is a great source of energy that comes from rejecting these more traditional forms of identity and instead seeking common cause with people who are of a like-mind globally. Look at the response to the Orlando shootings for a sense of common-cause between LGBT people.

This is patriotism and localism versus freedom of movement and social association. Who you have most in common with is no longer set by where you live, but increasingly by who you link with on social media. This might account in some way for the generational divide that became evident in the outcome of the referendum vote. Do people under forty embrace the globalised social identity afforded through social media more easily than those who are over forty?

This is not clear cut and set in stone. My mum is an avid remain supporter and uses social media to follow the debates and to talk to other people about it. She is seventy-three years old and doesn’t regard herself as nostalgic about the past. Whereas many of her peers feel that they have ‘got their country back’, as if they are reclaiming the glory of Britain in the 1950s, prior to the Windrush.

The challenge, then, is to choose the political side that you think best represents the future? Should we embrace independence because it makes us feel that we are getting something back that was lost? A sense of local identity that was ripped apart by deindustrialisation, the rise of the consumer economy and the Thatcherite experiment in speculative capitalism?

Or should we focus on the requirements of the future economy that is based on knowledge, information, social networks and progressive civic freedoms that enable people to work internationally, absorbing and sharing different cultural traditions and practices?

The Labour Party is in the most difficult position of all parties in this debate, as it tries to figure out if this should be a process of managed decline and localism, or if this reflects ideas that are more relevant to the ongoing process of globalisation and integration?

Labour MP Yvette Cooper is arguing that Labour needs to adopt an approach that listens to the concerns of the heartlands, and takes on board the concerns that people have about immigration and globalisation. This is a widespread, and on the surface a sensible view, but it is also a mistaken view that fails in terms of political leadership.

Political parties can be very effective sounding boards for grievances and complaints. As social change makes people uncomfortable there is an inevitable role for the politics of indignation. However, this doesn’t move people on, and it doesn’t set out the realities that the world has changed and will continue to change.

Political leadership is about challenging the expectations of your supporters and taking them on a journey to a more promising future. In the United Kingdom this promise was high-jacked in what I can only describe as a right-wing coup, organised by about eighty members of the Conservative party and the backers of UKIP.

The economic and social realities haven’t changed, however, so the need to manage people’s expectations about what kind of future is possible needs to be urgent and blunt if it is to be achieved fairly and in a progressive and socially democratic manner.

Everything that we know about social and economic life in the United Kingdom is about to be torn up. If the Brexit supporters think that this will result in form of ‘glorious isolation’ then they are mistaken. The world is still going to change around them and they run the risk of being left behind. Fine, choose that if you wish, but understand the consequences.

This is why we need a broad alliance of the 48% to make the positive case for a progressive and socially responsible future, that incorporates and builds on globalisation, the challenge of technology, and the promise of diverse, mixed and integrated communities.

Britain’s cities hold the key for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom because they are forward looking, multi-ethnic, creative, young. They are finally breaking free from the autocratic control of national government and are being recognised as ‘powerhouses’ of future prosperity.

If the swathes of the country outside of the urban areas can’t grasp that, then they must remain content to work for managed decline and diminished incomes. Economic gains from future technologies are going to slip away from what’s left of the United Kingdom, as technology and digital companies relocate to more welcoming countries.

I don’t think the Brexit voters realise the lasting damage that scratching the itch of indignation is going to cause.