“The minister will see you now, Puffles”

Summary

Equalities minister Jo Swinson MP comes to Cambridge – waking up the city’s resident dragon fairy in the process. This plus some thoughts on how to make community reporting help pay my bills!

Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge
Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge

Told you!

She also had this message for young women interested in politics:

Additional videos

  • You can see my interview with Jo in this clip
  • You can see the full Q & A session she had with Cambridge students in this clip.

Some of the footage I recorded was also featured on Cambridge 105

“This interviewing of politicians – it’s becoming a regular thing for you now, isn’t it?”

Yes – but…

“Yes-but-what?”

I’m not doing Paxman-style interviews. Given the projects I am supporting or working on, what I produce on film has to be in some way supporting their objectives. Getting more people involved in local democracy is one of my big objectives. Therefore getting politicians to talk passionately about what motivates them and what got them interested/involved is going to be far more beneficial than an adversarial one.

“Isn’t that you not doing your job?”

I’m not paid for it, so in part that doesn’t apply. Furthermore, most of the people I interview are not the people responsible for the policies I am interested in picking apart. What’s the point on having an argument in front of camera with someone who is not responsible for making the decision? Again, that’s something that comes from my experience in public policy inside the civil service. When you are unpicking a policy and want to throw questions at a policy area, have a laser-like focus on the decision makers. They are the ones you want to hold accountable.

“Don’t you want to ask lots of awkward questions and leave the politicians skewered?”

There’s a time and a place – such as here. But at a local level, what happens after you’ve left a politician skewered? They are the ones still in power. You might have got a good headline or a splendid Twitter reaction, but then what? You still have to live with each other. That’s not to say ‘Don’t ask awkward questions’ – quite the opposite. It means in my case to have an approach that influences their decisions.

“Such as?”

For quite a few years I have been calling on local parties to improve how they use social and digital media to communicate with people. Starting at the top time-wise in 2011, my actions were as follows:

  1. Start encouraging local politicians through social media
  2. Start encouraging through informal face-to-face meetups
  3. Start attending public meetings to get the issue on public record
  4. Start being more ‘assertive’ on the back of little progress
  5. Start being angry/frustrated at lack of progress – realising that I’d gone and locked myself into a commitment that would be hard to withdraw from – such as here.
  6. Find yourself called out on that issue (here) and realise you have to follow through with it (here)
  7. Beat UKIP at the ballot box as a result (here)
  8. Realise that none of the above has worked so start setting the example by demonstrating what can be done -> as summarised in this video for an ultimately unsuccessful job interview for Parliament. (I wanted to demonstrate what could be produced in a couple of hours on digital video – with warts & all!)

Being a ‘community cameraman’ does not pay the bills – yet I’m fulfilling a ‘socially useful function’.

I dare say the same goes for Richard Taylor with his archive of videos here. Our approaches may be slightly different, but we’re both producing film footage and a visual public record. It’s also one we’re told anecdotally helps improve the behaviour of some members at such meetings. Basically you don’t want to be caught on camera behaving like a jumped-up buffoon.

I’m in the situation now where some of the interviews I am recording are now being broadcast on established media – e.g. radio. I’m also learning more about producing digital film clips – beyond the ‘shoot, download and upload’ model. Here’s the result of my second paid micro-commission for the Campaign for Better Transport’s (CBT) ‘Roads to Nowhere’ campaign.

The above is timely for environmentalists given the recent announcements on road building – see the Department for Transport’s announcement here, and  see here for CBT’s response.

“How should I fund my community reporting and filming?”

Because at the moment, trying to do everything ‘for free’ is unsustainable. I can’t afford to do it all for nothing. How do I maintain independence and transparency? This is something the pioneering vlogger Rosianna Halse in the text below this clip mentions. Essentially there are three specific areas of funding that I want to explore for 2015:

  • Funding day-to-day meetings, events and workshops for which there is or cannot be any budget for – e.g. council meetings
  • Funding new equipment – for example I’d like to get a standalone backlight, a wheeled platform for my tripod to film a moving object & moving the camera to keep up with it – similar to this clip I made
  • Funding for learning new skills – there are a number of short courses and workshops I’d love to go on, but simply cannot afford
  • Funding to pay for under/unemployed and/or young people to work with me on some future projects – as with my original digital video guides.

Do I go down the route of crowd funding? Do I look for a kind benevolent and affluent benefactor? Do I need to sharpen my ‘offer’ to established broadcasters/publishers so that I’m able to charge a commission on what they use?

“I’m passionate about this, I like doing this, there’s a clear public interest in this activity being done, and a clear ‘social-good gap in the market’…but I cannot make a living from it”

Although the above may be my situation, there is a public policy issue here. How can we hold taxpayer funded organisations to account if there is no one independent of them to report what is going on? I’ve seen this issue first hand, being the only independent reporter at the count for the recent Queen Edith’s ward by-election in Cambridge. (See here). I also produced a series of digital videos from the only hustings of that campaign (see here) which accompanied Chris Rand’s excellent guide to the by-election – something he didn’t get paid for either. There was no mainstream media presence there – as it is, local journalists have their work cut out in the face of never-ending cuts.

“But the market for local print journalism is collapsing anyway – especially if you can get it online for free!”

At a city-wide level, this is the debate I’d like to start: How should we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions? Where do you draw the line between interested activists reporting in their own time, vs where it is in the public interest that a knowledgeable independent reporter is attending and reporting on a specific institution or event? For example court cases and council meetings? Are there things that institutions can do to make it easier for journalists (ie the trained ones schooled in things like libel law!) to carry out their work? For example co-ordinating future meetings/events so there are as few clashes as possible?

“If you’re good enough, people will pay you. If you’re not getting paid, it’s because your work isn’t good enough!”

To a point, true. Personally I’d like to see a thriving local media scene – one where paid journalists can make a living and where things are not needlessly sensationalised. I’ve lost count of the number of minor disagreements at meetings have resulted in “Row over [insert issue] headlines.

Most, if not all of the professional journalists I’ve met are thoroughly decent people. [Declaration of interest: Puffles is followed by lots of journos – a few who appear regularly on TV & radio at a local and national level!] Yes, I have issues with the editors, producers and the commissioners, but that’s because they are the ones that decide what gets broadcast/printed. The journalists on the whole do not. I found this out the hard way back in May when 20 minutes of interviews with Chris Havergal, then of the Cambridge News & now of the Times Higher Education Supplement (a well-earned step up) resulted in a single sentence in the paper the following day. No one ran the with the headline: “Magic dragon Puffles thumps Nigel at the ballot box”. 

The problem I face is that I am covering issues that have a public interest in terms of maintaining transparency & accountability of institutions (as part of a thriving local democracy) but one where ‘the interest of the general public’ is not strong enough to charge for that output to make ends meet? Note the wider public policy discussion in this piece from Parliament following the Culture Committee’s report into the future of local and regional media.

And so for 2015…?

For a start there are the general and local elections. A couple of candidates & parties have already approached me about this. The principle I’m pondering over is filming set piece things for free – such as the speech of a visiting high profile politician, but charging a small fee for medley pieces similar to this, or for specific party election broadcast pitches.

Elections aside, I believe there is a bigger conversation to be had about how we the people of Cambridge communicate with each other & institutions. Part of that discussion is the interaction between the established media and community reporters/bloggers in niche areas. For example Phil Rodgers deserves a much higher profile for his data analysis on elections. Every ward needs the equivalent of what Chris Rand produces here. The same goes for the wealth of historical knowledge that Mike Petty MBE has amassed – see his talks on South Cambridge’s experience of the First World War in these videos I filmed. There are many more I could mention.

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