Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Housing and transport, Music, Public administration & policy, Sport | 1 Comment

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s Christmas Cocktail – a cracker!


A view from the stage

Click here for the official video of the gig.

This time last year Puffles got an invitation to see the Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Jenny, it’s all your fault!

So…where dragon gets an invitation, dragon tends to go!

…and then we were hit by this wave of musical energy

Spotting the wonderfully talented Jennie Debenham in the collective, my first reaction after that track was:

“Yep – I wanna be where they are!”

My thoughts following last year’s concert – and on the launch of the Dosoco Foundation are in this blogpost. That launch as it turned out was the start of something that is already changing lives across Cambridgeshire.

Fast forward a few days short of a year, and that’s where I found myself – with my camcorder recording the concert from the other side of the hall. It was just before the interval where Andrea Cockerton, our musical wizard who unleashed the power within us all on stage, made a series of announcements on £4,000 of grants. Have a watch.

Of the charities mentioned, The Romsey Mill in my neighbourhood does amazing work with teenage parents. I am featuring them in my film for the Mill Road Winter Fair 2014 – a first draft of which is here. The other, Centre33 (based in Cambridge & Ely in Cambs) may be familiar to many longer-term readers. Over a decade ago they provided me with much-needed and empathetic free counselling,  something I had really struggled with at university. It was here that I had one of the very few counsellors that I connected with and who was able to analyse the ‘noise’ in my head & distill issues down to a handful of ‘hinge’ moments in my personal history. Hence in 2004 I did a TV interview as a service user for BBC’s Look East, followed by a radio interview in the same role for BBC Cambridgeshire. In 2013, Centre 33 was adopted as on of two official charities for Mayor Paul Saunders’ term of office. Here’s the story behind his choice. So to hear that Centre33 are benefiting at a time of continued grant funding cuts from elsewhere is great to hear.

A very tough run up

As far as my health was concerned, it was an awful run-in to a massive performance. Sleeping patterns all over the place (which inevitably plays havoc with my mental health), and strikingly persistent head cold that I’ve still not shaken didn’t do me any favours. It screws up your concentration, and voice-wise means you cannot get any volume. I wasn’t the only one taken out by the cold bug – we lost a number of very talented people to it on the evening of the performance. Despite our numbers, it makes a difference. Well, to me it does. Many of the people that sing with us are in their 30s-60s. Thus their presence – especially the altos – tends to have a calming effect on me.

Finding musical anchors in a sea of talented musicians.

I mentioned this to Angela Jameson-Potts earlier this year at my first concert hall performance with the Dowsing Sound Collective. In the video below, she’s on my right-hand-side.

In that performance, she was my musical anchor – as well as being that little bit older and wiser than me. I hadn’t really appreciated how used to having the second altos behind me in rehearsals until the full dress rehearsal and the performance. With so many of us singers in the collective, Andrea’s able to run wild with the number of different vocal parts she can write into pieces – the result being some incredibly powerful crescendos of chords. With vocalists rehearsing on two separate days, the traditional ‘soprano-alto-tenor-bass’ parts can be broken into upper and lower parts for each, with one for each day. 4 x 2 x 2 means Andrea can write up to 16 different parts if she wants to. And that’s before she’s even looked at the drums, bass, rhythm & lead guitars, string quartet, brass/sax trio and any other instruments she can throw in. Last night we had bagpipes, eigenharp (see here for a demo) and a steel pan player!

It was at this performance that I got a sense of which musical parts I need & where. For example I’m more comfortable when us tenors are clustered rather than spread out. I also prefer not being in the front row – it somehow feels less exposed that way.

The energy of an audience – crowd dynamics at play?

Being in an enclosed space with over 1,000 people in the same hall applauding you is something that would move even the most stone-hearted of people. At the final pre-show run-through, a combination of sheer exhaustion along with internal angst over various pieces of news coming together at the same time was something I found incredibly challenging to deal with. Not least because you don’t want to let anyone down or cause problems over issues that in the grand scheme of things are either personal or minor. You want to keep that focus. In part, that’s where any professional training in any field in the workplace comes in. You grit your teeth & get on and do it because you’re a professional. OK, it wasn’t quite true. It was more a case of having to go through these moments to experience the emotional highs on the other side.

Because of the above, when we marched onto the stage, my mindset was on getting through it as fast as possible. Fortunately the audience had other ideas. The applause here was noticeably different to what we had both for the summer performance on Parker’s Piece for the Cambridge leg of the Tour de France, (which was open-air), and at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which was a smaller venue, smaller crowd & a modern hall with a much sharper acoustic). Hence my mood for the second half was more this:

About two decades ago, Oasis played that very track on that very stage in that same venue.

The audience didn’t dance last year, but they conga’d down the aisles this year!

By the time we got to our final track, I was roasting underneath the stage lights despite the very cold temperatures outside. Hence ditching the dinner jacket for that famous Scottish anthem ‘500 miles’. Spontaneously, most of the other men did the same at the same time – as they did the previous year but to a different number. That I didn’t see coming – but having spotted Becky Chambers of one of Dowsing’s new London collectives leading it, we were even more smiles. Straight after, a group of teenage girls raced towards the stage, gesturing and waving with huge grins on the faces. At one point it looked like the were going to invade the stage – until one of them eyeballed me asking me to get the attention of one of my fellow singers (Tom) next to me. Turns out it was his daughter & her friends.

Post-gig parties – they are always fun, aren’t they?

I ended up at two, some even more. The first was at St Catherine College’s incredibly trendy-London-style bar and function room – which was buzzing. My friends Penny & Chris had come up from London for the gig. The Dowsing crowd took them under their wings. We then ended up at The Fountain Inn – where Fay Roberts runs the Hammer & Tongue poetry slam events. (Here’s a clip). The taxi driver on the way back told us they had a licence to stay open till 3am. On a Sunday night/Monday morning. It was surprisingly busy even at 2am when we called it a night.

“What was it like being on stage?”


Actually, I take that back. It was inspiring.

We had an audience that ***wanted us to do well***. When there are over 100 of you on stage, you inevitably have a room teeming with family & friends. As soon as we got on stage the number of people waving at us from the audience was incredible. That was when I got the first sense that the audience would be far more energised than the previous year. Makes a change from some of the policy audiences I’ve spoken at where there are people in the room that want you to screw up big time because they don’t like the government’s policy of the day that as a civil servant you’re presenting & defending.

It wasn’t ‘mindless noisy applause’ either. The mood of the applause matched the tone of the songs we performed. So for the more mellow-but-moving tracks, the applause matched the mood of the song. The songs that ended on really intense and extended crescendos got applauses that matched that intensity. It was this response that got me through that evening.

“Good night had by all?”

Yep – and the footage I filmed came out better than I had expected. Obviously the audio was always going to struggle, but I’ve got it at a level where I can replace it with the recorded version on the professional sound equipment used by the venue. Before the gig I set up my camcorder and ran a series of test-recordings during the sound checking to zoom in enough to get visual expressions of individuals while trying to get as many faces into the shot. Just before the performance started, I pressed record & left the camcorder to do its magic. Over Christmas I’ll be working on the footage – and lots of other digital video things.

***Thank you & well done*** to everyone involved in what was a wonderful experience.

For more info on the Dowsing Sound Collective – including spaces at the new London collectives, and on the Dosoco Foundation, please see


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A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge


In the face of austerity, the Cambridge Arts Network is bringing together the diverse & somewhat fragmented arts and culture scenes in Cambridge to try and unite us all in the face of a very uncertain future

The Cambridge Arts Network (convened by Cambridge City Council) had their annual conference at Cambridge University’s ‘CRASSH’ building today. I went along with a series of indirect multiple interests & connections, even though I don’t consider myself an ‘arty-painty’ sort of person that my Mum knows. But then perhaps it’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily have to be good at making something to appreciate it, or to communicate it. A useful comparison can be made between people who are great football players but who never succeed as managers – and vice-versa.

One of the strands that emerged from the Be the change – Cambridge Conversation Cafe was the vision for a single arts and culture offer for Cambridge. Driven by Jane Wilson of Cambridge City Council, she and her team have brought along a large number of people (there were nearly 100 of us today) and organisations to a point where we’re in striking distance of something quite significant.

Bringing the schools on board

Rachel Snape, the headteacher of the Spinney Primary School led a workshop on getting young people engaged – in particular through schools. At the same time, she also highlighted again and again (with good reason) the power of local networking. Good reason because Cambridge is full of stubborn silos that for whatever reason are difficult to break. Longer term readers of this blog will be aware of some of the battles I’ve fought on this over the years. One of the ideas that has evolved in our discussion spaces (whether through BTCC or other forums) is that of bringing the schools together with arts and culture providers in Cambridge in the post-exams summers of each year to ensure teachers and heads are aware of what is on offer ***prior to planning their annual schemes of work*** for the following academic year. It was at this workshop that we got the go-ahead to make the first event of this type happen.

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

The Sidgwick site seems to have been designed as a mobile ‘not spot’ – and I have no clue why. All it does is inconvenience those of us that are not members of Cambridge University. The only person consistently live-tweeting through the event was me through Puffles. The other couple or so that posted were there as co-organisers (mainly Anne Bailey and Alessandra Caggiano, both of whom are part of the core BTCC group too – small world). Yet out of the dozens of people that were there it was left to Puffles to keep open a link to the outside world – thus enabling a few people unable to attend to submit questions to the room. We’re still yet to get to the stage of UKGovCamp’s buzzing social media presence. Cambridge tweeple – next ticket releases are on 11 & 18 December at 1pm ***sharp*** – & they will go like hotcakes on a cold day. Come along & experience it!

We need to talk about community reporting

A few people have raised the issue of me filming putting them & others of from asking questions at events or even from turning up at all. At the same time, I filmed various parts of today’s event because several people unable to attend had asked me to. How do you balance the two? Responding with “The world is going digital: deal with it!” aggressive response isn’t really my style anymore. It may have its time and place in a limited situations, but not this one.

The reason is that the conversations are becoming much more nuanced – and more interesting. It’s also one that brings out the skill of editing digital video footage. Filming in the grand scheme of things is relatively straight forward. Selecting the best five minutes of footage from five hours of film is a hard-earned skill. Selecting a decent sound track and then getting the footage – visuals & audio to synchronise with the music is another skill. Creating a product that is both informative, inspiring and purposeful is another. But that level of editing & production is incredibly time-consuming. Most of what I do – film, download, adjust volume, upload & publicise…well that’s relatively straight forward. Producing a five-minute medley with a separate sound-track takes a great deal longer. But people don’t see that editing process or the thought that goes into it.

“I thought you said you weren’t an artist!”

This sort of links to breaking the cultural inertia in Cambridge. There are generations of parents & grandparents in Cambridge brought up to believe that Cambridge University & its events are not for people like them. That’s because until the 2000s, that was the message that came from the institution & its member colleges & institutes. (During my teens, Cambridge admin staff and academics said it to my face or down the phone on more than one occasion, so you can understand why Cambridge University needs to take ownership of bad decisions & bad behaviour of its members in the past, & make that extra effort today).

That’s not to say there aren’t people inside Cambridge University already working their socks off. There are – I’ve met & worked with lots of them. The problem is changing the culture of an institution – and at the same time changing how that institution’s culture is perceived by the communities around it. If you do one without the other, it’ll fail. This is why for me at a personal level, influencing the institutions were the more interesting discussion points during the day. What is it about their cultures, systems & processes that isn’t currently working for the people of our city? What needs to change? Who can make that change, and how?

“Take me to your leader!”

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cambridge Art and Culture Leaders Group – I’ve heard positive things, (eg ‘good to see them finally coming together with a united purpose’) to areas of concern (eg ‘how are you accountable to the people of the city for the decisions you take?’). With broad partnerships (count the member institutions here) you inevitably have the problem of co-ordination. Combine that with the fragmented state of local government still reeling from austerity (and there’s even more to come – £20billion by 2020 according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP) and you begin to realise that the context of this single art & culture offer is not one where there are lots of grants to be had. Not from local government anyway.

This explains why I believe the single art and culture offer for Cambridge cannot be seen as a standalone project or objective. Its success depends on things like a sound restructure of local government. (You can’t have huge cuts to an institutions budget and hit it with a communications revolution & then expect it to have the same structures, systems & processes).

One of the challenges that people expressed frustration over was institutional leadership. With the current structure of institutions in Cambridge, no one institution has the competency to provide that leadership. By that I mean legal, financial and influencing. Cambridge City Council has planning & development control, with some community & leisure funding. Cambridgeshire County Council has control of transport & education. Cambridge University & its member colleges have lots of money, own lots of land and has a significant influence over what happens in our city. What would it look like if Cambridge University behaved in a manner where it believed itself to be responsible for and accountable to all of the people that make up the city of Cambridge rather than just its members?

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

Again, one of my big bugbears is the culture within administrative departments of institutions. Having worked in or for a few of them over the years – even outside the civil service, sentiments from the Whose University? campaign set up recently by Cambridge students is one I empathise with. In whose interests are our institutions acting in? Because if students are feeling that Cambridge University is not acting in their interests, combine that with the town-gown divide, we have a real challenge. It might be that the solution involves a level of transparency and accountability that makes Cambridge University and its colleges feel, in the short term at least, very uncomfortable.

One of my basic campaigning points for Cambridge – one that was a major part of my election manifesto in May 2014’s Cambridge City Council elections – was making basic digital skills and data analysis skills mandatory competencies for all newly advertised management posts in the public sector in Cambridge. (See here). You can imagine how that went down in some quarters. You never know – I could bring the dragon back for the 2015 Cambridge City Council elections and try it again.

It’s not just digital though, is it?

Not at all – and a number of other solutions were raised. Some very familiar ones. A single city-wide events portal that is user-friendly and is acknowledged as the single port of call – such as on the Isle of Wight, came up. Another one was information overload – particularly with schools. How does the Cambridge arts & culture community ensure schools are not bombarded with marketing materials to the extent that the latter simply shut up shop?

The same is true but from a different perspective for potential donors and sponsors. How do we make it dead easy for people & organisations that have very limited time to make quick decisions on who to support? The same goes for employers wanting to engage with schools and provide things like workshops & work experience. At workshops with the Cambridgeshire/Peterborough Local Economic Partnership employers have regularly spoken of their frustration at not being able to get past the school receptionists at state schools, while private schools have trained outreach officers that make the job of organising work experience from the employers’ perspective a doddle.

“This all looks incredibly complicated – I just came along because I agreed with the aims & wanted to help out!”

Let me introduce you to the delights of local government finance policy! Then again. Actually, one of the biggest barriers I noticed was on information (in terms of data sets & evidence bases), and communications.

Information – qualitative & quantitative

Again, I put this in Puffles’ manifesto back in May, calling for us to do a mapping exercise for the city to give us a baseline from which to work with. On community venues for example, I wanted to know the following:

  • How many venues there are
  • The distribution of those venues across the city
  • Accessibility – especially by public transport to the venue but also wheelchair access inside the venue
  • Who owns/runs those venues
  • The capacity & facilities available at those venues
  • When they are available
  • Cost of hiring
  • % of the total available days they are booked
  • Quick-wins investment-wise – what new facilities would venue owners like to add, at what cost and what additional income would they bring in?
  • Audience segmentation – who are the users? Who is conspicuous by their presence/absence?

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

  • How many community engagement officers (FTE and number) have we got in Cambridge irrespective of the institution that they work for?
  • Total spending on community outreach across the city, irrespective of institutions (note we’d need to be careful on definitions)
  • Distances travelled by users to get to venues
  • Can we get some data on our audiences – generic data that can influence & inform decision-making?


Me and Richard Taylor gatecrashed the November meeting of the Cambridge City Deal Shadow Board at The Guildhall. Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Hence being able to influence their discussions on communications just by being there. With camcorders. And smartphones. All the more surprising that their official record of that meeting doesn’t include a record of the public questions I put to them.

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

Actually, the wider issue is with their communications strategy (which is here). As a city, we need to come to a collective agreement about how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. What’s the point in saying you’ll use social media if people cannot access it? What’s the point of using print publications if they are struggling to shift copies? The word ‘feedback’ is only mentioned once in the entire document. Mother Nature gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth in those proportions for a reason. How does that feedback get analysed & influence decision-making?

So…lots of food for thought at an event where…I got a sense that we’re really getting somewhere with a very important part of city life. So ***well done*** everyone who organised & participated.

Now…after all that, have a panto song!!!


Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, Music, Public administration & policy, Social media | Leave a comment

Guest Blogpost – Young people grill Cambridge Councillors at South Area Committee

Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee meeting tonight (8th December) was encouraging in terms of community involvement, writes Chris Rand of Queen Edith’s Online.

Having 20-30 members of the public in attendance was good, but the fact that half of them were under voting age made it even better. Maybe it was just be a one-off, but we should credit those who have been spreading the word – to parents as much as young people – that we can all have a say in how our community is run.

The young people at the South Area Committee meeting were in two groups. The first was a group from the 27th Cambridge Scouts, in uniform, who had come along to ask if councillors would introduce safer road crossing near their headquarters in Cherry Hinton. One of the Scouts stood up and explained how they’d assessed different possibilities, and concluded that a zebra crossing would be the best approach. It was a lesson to some of the adults who present to council in how to say:

“We’ve looked at the options, found the solution, and now all you have to do is to make it happen”.

The second group of young people included under-10s, who’d come with their parents, to appeal for a scooter park to be built on the Accordia development. The money and plans for this have been knocking around for several years, and a whole generation of children have probably missed out while council officers and local government procrastinated in the way which those not driven by the urgency of youth tend to do.

At this point, huge credit should be given to the new South Area Committee chair, Cllr Andy Blackhurst, for doing an exemplary job. Cllr Blackhurst superbly juggled around the agenda to balance the need to hear late arrivals with the desire to ensure that younger children weren’t kept waiting until past the time they had to leave. This was an identical problem to one which this committee had handled badly in the past, and it was great to see a lesson having been learned. Cllr Blackhurst was also wonderfully patient with a couple of the very youngest members of the public, who were understandably shy to speak, but eventually did so (and how well!).

What could have be done better?

Well, the last thing we need is for events like this to seem boring to young people, so perhaps the Scouts (who were heard early on) could have been told that they could leave if they wished. Instead, they had to sit through another hour of unrelated discussion (which they did with impeccable behaviour). More important, however, was the age-old problem with these committees, that they can’t always make decisions, and that they don’t explain that to the public. The Scouts, for example, asked if the council could consider a zebra crossing. They were given the brief – and quite correct – answer by the County Councillors that it might be possible, and that it would be raised in next year’s plans. That was all they got.

The Scouts would have gone home and been asked: “How did it go? Are we going to get a crossing?”, to which they could only have replied: “I think so. Maybe. Eventually. To be honest, we’re not quite sure”. Similarly, the children who’d appealed so eloquently for their scooter park would have asked their parents afterwards:

“So are we going to get it?”

To which the reply would have been:

“Well, the councillors all voted for it – again – but the officer from the council mumbled something about another planning meeting next year, and wouldn’t give any commitments or timescales, so we’ve no idea really”.

Members of the Area Committees, and veteran watchers, all know that these discussions and votes are normally just a tiny part of the epic process involved in getting something done in local government. There are too many people involved whose very jobs seem to require things to move as slowly as possible. When members of the public – especially young people – take the trouble to turn up and make their views heard, they don’t realise this. They deserve to have the real situation explained to them very clearly, while at the same time getting an acknowledgement that their representation really has made a significant contribution.

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Public administration & policy | 2 Comments

Filming a theatrical performance – a big step up


Some thoughts on filming a theatrical stage performance

First of all a big ***Thank you*** to Alex and Laura, the co-producers of CUADC’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge.

The above is a teaser-medley I put together, as most of my weekly allowance of file space was used up for a Transition Cambridge event with Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert. Videos of Julian’s speech, and the feedback presentations are here. I also recorded the audio of the Q&A session Julian hosted – avoiding filming so as not to put off people from asking questions. Click here for the audio – which I recorded on an old smartphone that I’ve kept old of, attaching it to a standard lapel mic clipped onto Julian’s shirt. Note to self, adjust the mic volume before recording!

Going beyond ‘setup and record’

This is the next step for me – going beyond being the static cameraman. Many of my previous recordings have involved little more than setting up the camera and letting the hardware do the work. With a theatrical performance, you cannot do that. If you capture the whole stage, you don’t get any detail of the actors’ face expressions. A lot of the nuance and communication is lost. You run the risk of ‘stick figures moving to audio’ with that approach.

The optical zoom on my camera was powerful enough to zoom in close enough for a decent head-and-shoulders shot. The problem with that is you have to be aware of what the rest of the case is doing outside of your view-finder. When you have multiple characters in dialogue, this is a huge challenge. Even more so if the characters are spread across the stage – as they often are in plays. It takes a huge amount of practice to learn what level of zoom corresponds with what levels of camera movement. The slightest touch of the camera when zoomed in on a distant performer will knock the performer out of shot.

Comparing actors moving across a stage with a single pianist in one place

The above is one of my favourite performances by one of my favourite young musicians, Grace Sarah – filmed at The Junction in Cambridge just after she had completed her GCSEs. This was filmed from the same distance on my old camcorder that only had a digital zoom. In the grand scheme of things, that 2010-era consumer model camcorder did a reasonable job. But it struggled with other performers that evening. It would have had no chance with a theatre performance. The movement and changing light patterns would have been too much for it. Ditto with trying to pick up the music from a relatively large theatre band. Interestingly, there were a number of occasions when even my upgraded camcorder really struggled with trying to auto-focus in on some of the actors – particularly when the light contrasts were large, eg with spotlights.

Improving on the audio

In the grand scheme of things, audio counts for at least 50% of your videos. People can tolerate slightly shaky visuals. Screw up the audio and they switch off – as I found out with a very early digital video project a couple of years ago.

Take this performance below by the Cambridge-based octet Makossa.

You can hear the bass, but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. The same is the case with this performance by Fred’s House from earlier this summer at a pack Alex Pub. (Dowsing Sound Collective friends may recognise Paul on the drums). Again, you can hear but not feel some of the various musical instruments.

As a single operator, I’m faced with the constant challenge of the trying to find a decent place to film from as well as a decent place to get audio from. In the case of the Fred’s House performance, there was neither as the garden was jam packed. In both these cases, the amps were linked up to a professional standard sound mixer. In the case of Makossa, there wasn’t anyone operating the sound mixer during the performance. In an ideal world you’d have someone who knew reasonably well what they were doing & were passionate about it on the sound mixer, with your camcorder plugged in. (I don’t have the kit to plug into such kit, hence relying on an external mic – which I suppose makes me ‘look the part’!)


On theatre performances where you have people moving across the stage, & multiple voices appearing in different places, I can see how rehearsing can make a huge difference. Furthermore, I can see how having a ‘camera script’ of who to focus on and when, being really useful too. The better clips – in particular the face expressions that I filmed from the ADC Theatre earlier were down to luck with anticipation and bloody hard concentration. The last time I concentrated so hard on a screen for an extended period of time was during second reading of a bill going through Parliament that me and my team were supporting ministers for. That was a good seven hours concentrating on every single word uttered by every MP.

In 2015 I’d like to try out filming another show – not a serious play but a light-hearted one, with rehearsal & preparation time. Hard work, but I imagine damn good fun!

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Music, Social media | 1 Comment

Cambridge Hub turning ideas into actions


Taking a ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ problem to Cambridge student activists…and watching them run with it

Some of you may be aware of the Volunteer Cambridge event that the Cambridge Hub is organising for Cambridge City Council on 28 February 2015 at The Guildhall. In previous blogposts I cited this as an example of an idea I had which is now coming to fruition. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that the Hub was organising an open space gathering for Cambridge’s many environmental groups and campaigns. Almost a year ago to the day, I posted this blogpost. Despite a persistent cold, I went along.

I’d say there was a 60-40 split of students-town activists, starting off with a couple of ice-breakers before going into open-space pitching.


The above is a pano-photo I took during one of the ice-breakers.

The sessions pitched ranged from hyper-local (encouraging students to get involved in growing on community allotments) to the mega-global (campaign preparations for the Paris 2015 Climate Talks). The session I pitched was on mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism. One of the challenges we face for Be the change – Cambridge is getting young people involved in a way that interests them and also has them influencing the decisions made by the city’s institutions. One of the pieces of advice I’ve had from community youth workers was to work with people closer to their age range to to bridge the age and credibility gaps. I’m in my 30s now – when I was in my mid-teens the current generation of mid-teens were not even born. Mine was the large generation of ‘the ignorant’ – ie one where we didn’t have the internet and thus all this information at our fingertips. Thus I will have my blind spots – or my ‘unknown unknowns’.

Mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism

My approach as a facilitator was one where I asked questions about the problem – focusing on specifics and how participants might go about dealing with them. Quite rightly, we had a steer of not making the sessions about pet projects or existing schemes – hence not mentioning BTCC until invited to by the organisers. My premise being that this was their space, not mine, and that those interested in taking forward the ideas we came up with also needed to take ownership of it – with me and others in support.

‘What does success look like to you?’

This was one of the first things I put to our breakout group. While I have a vision for what success looks like, I wanted to find out based on their experiences what it would look like. Hence these notes.


The most interesting part of the discussion for me was about the safe space to make mistakes and to learn by doing. It’s easy for someone like me to say: “Oh well we tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work” in response to someone’s idea. Such a comment reduces the influence and control that young people have on their projects. Hence far better to either let them get on with it or say: “Have you thought about the risks with your approach? What could go wrong and how could you prevent this?” Rather than defining the solution for them, allow them to figure it out themselves – because that way they might come up with something you’re completely unaware of.

Strong support and confidence in young activists

Within that same context came the above – the back up young activists want or need from older people. In particular making clear that things might not go to plan, things might fail and that this is OK. This is especially the case when time and money is involved. In terms of learning basic transferrable skills, the top three I came up with included:

  • Working as a team to achieve a greater goal
  • Communicating in different contexts
  • Managing a budget

In terms of visible changes, diversity within existing city campaign groups is one of the most important ones for me. I’ve been to gatherings of too many community groups that are not fully reflective of the communities that they are within. In many of the cases that I have seen, young people are conspicuous by their absence. From the Cambridge Cycling Campaign to the Cambridgeshire Local History Group, I have often been one of the youngest people there, and often the only non-White person there. When you consider the number of young cyclists, or the number of young people doing local history projects, you can see the opportunities our city is missing out on.

“So…who’s going to do what then?”


Apologies for the stupendously blurred picture above. The Cambridge Hub have the originals.

In terms of actions, the two most important were:

  • Mapping the community – finding out what is already happening
  • Planning your approach for each institution or group – in particular being crystal clear about what you want from them and what your offer to them is

The two big risks the students identified were:

  • Sustainability and continuity with the annual turnover of students & young people on both sides
  • Groups and institutions being deluged with lots of ideas, and being overwhelmed to the extent that nothing happens because they don’t know how to respond

On the first one, the students came up with suggestions on having permanent teacher contacts with each school, and ‘desk instructions’ for newly-elected reps – such as school council reps on what they need to do as soon as they take on their responsibilities

On the second one, they suggested the Cambridge Hub could come up with criteria that projects/proposals could be assessed against, ensuring that a limited number of developed proposals can be put to outside organisations rather than an uncoordinated wave of requests/invitations to get involved.

Everyone’s camera shy!

I wanted to film some short interview clips about the event, but everyone was camera-shy, despite encouragement from organisers. This is coming up as an issue time and again. People seem to be very nervous about being filmed in an interview. It’s got me thinking about whether as a city we need to do something about very basic interview training, to whether I need to overhaul both my own image and how I go about my work. For example setting up myself as my own media network to make it sound more professional? I’m thinking along the lines of Novara Media.

Next steps?

It sounds like this is something that students are interested in running with, so I’ll be keeping in touch to see what comes out of this after the Winterval break. :-P #PCCorrectMassiv

It also sounds like Cambridge Hub will be running a similar open space gathering in early 2015. If interested, they are on Facebook here, and on Twitter at @CambridgeHub.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, Social media | 1 Comment

“The minister will see you now, Puffles”


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…


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.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | Leave a comment

Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal


Making sure the people of Cambridgeshire get the chance to scrutinise the looming changes to local government in our county

It was almost by accident I found out about the meeting – via Twitter

Despite another bad night’s sleep the night before, I dragged myself into town for another piece of community activism to scrutinise the early plans for delivering the Cambridge City Deal signed off in a wave of local publicity by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in June 2014 – see here.

A handful of us turned up – including local council meeting regulars Richard Taylor and Martin from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The sight of two of us filming the meeting took one or two in the room by surprise. At the same time, the lack of a mainstream media correspondent took me by surprise, so I occupied the ‘Press Desk’ being the first person in the room. (Hey, my vimeo account has been described by one politician as ‘local TV!’)

Get in there early to maximise your influence

Which is what Richard, Martin and I basically did. In one sense we’ve put the future board ‘on notice’ that there will be a handful of us scrutinising in detail what they are coming up with – and not from a corporate/big business perspective. Not only that, the nature of that scrutiny is likely to be very different to the static responses you get from traditional consultations. Ie meetings will be filmed and comments discussed online for all to see in a continuous process, rather than the ‘discrete’ traditional consultation periods that limit when people outside policy circles can influence things. Improving public consultations has been bouncing around as an issue in public policy circles for quite some time – here’s Saul Cozens from UK GovCamp 2012. Keep an eye out for the next batches of ticket releases for UKGovCamp 2015 – see here to join many of the brightest minds in digital public services in January 2015.

Trying to synchronise ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ with the City Deal processes

That’s the challenge that the Be the change – Cambridge community faces. One of the big issues that emerged from our Conversation Cafe event was on improving local government – see here. With the local councils now actively exploring alternative governance arrangements (in particular following the debate and vote from Cambridgeshire County Council in October 2014 – see here), and the City Deal processes now being made public, now is the time for as many interested local people to have their say. Part of that involves helping people find the parts of these massive changes that they want to spend most of their time scrutinising.

This is important because hardly anyone who is not involved in the process as part of their day job will have the time, knowledge of issues, knowledge of processes and the passion to commit to scrutinising the whole lot. Therefore – and as we discussed later that evening – it makes more sense to allow people to focus on their areas of interest – ideally through existing local groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on transport, or perhaps the Cambridge Area Partnership on schools. The point here being that we’re not re-inventing the wheel or trying to create a new organisation. Rather, we’re saying to community groups that we can work with them by bringing various parts of the processes to the attention of their members & supporters.

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

They are embedded in the individual meetings listed here. The ones that matter I’ve pulled out for your attention, in particular:

Now, in the grand scheme of things I don’t see the lack of publicity of the above as some sort of secret conspiracy to hide things. Papers for meetings are hardly the sort of things people get excited about – unless you are a policy wonk like me.

The thing is, there are some ***really significant*** items in the papers that are easily missed to the untrained eye. In particular the shared service around strategic planning, the last item in the status updates table. That’s why seemingly innocuous papers need scrutinising by people external to delivery. It’s good program management to have that level of challenge built into your structures.

My chance to ask some questions

Richard Taylor filmed these – it’s always awkward trying to ask questions and film at the same time. See his footage here.

Transport and rail

We know significantly improved rail infrastructure can take some of the housing pressure off Cambridge, while at the same time providing a boost to surrounding towns that are currently disconnected – such as Wisbech and Haverhill. I also mentioned the East Anglian Rail Prospectus – see here.

Education – supporting governors

I’m a school governor at a local primary school in South Cambridge. Two of our secondary schools on this side of town were rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement. Governing bodies across the city are facing greater pressure as the Dept for Education increases the responsibilities of governing boards, requiring them to have professional skills that in years gone by they were not required to have. Hence asking what the City Deal would do on the skills agenda to deal with this – something that would have an indirect positive impact of making schools more aware of what the wider community (in particular the business community) can offer in terms of in-kind support. The point here is that employers need to be aware of the school planning cycles, and of the pressures they face. Better to support schools that way at a local level than remain as passive recipients of school leavers, only to complain that they don’t have the right skills sets.

Project management

This is a big one for me – not least because although it’s not nearly my strongest still, I’ve seen good project and programme management in action. The documents I’d like to see published include:

  • Project initiation document for the City Deal
  • Risk assessment – what are the things that might lead to the City Deal’s failure and how are those things being managed?
  • Stakeholder analysis – who has what interest and what influence, and how are these people & organisations being involved? How are disinterested people who might be affected significantly being invited to take part?
  • Timelines – what’s expected to happen and when?
  • Budget – who has got what resources?

Some of the discussions from our Be the change – Cambridge event at the Cambridge Brewhouse on 18 November 2014

Things are moving at quite a pace on our side as a result. We had 20 people joining us for this event, which meant we could explore a number of things in detail in small groups while later on were able to have a round-up conversation at the end that involved everyone together. I filmed the feedback sessions. For the purposes of this blog (because at the time of typing it’s 1:30am and I want to go to bed!) here’s the first two groups feeding back.

There’s still a long way to go. If ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ interests you, and you want to make a positive difference to our city (defined by the people who make it, rather than administrative or geographical boundaries), you can get involved via:

Listeners to Cambridge 105 Radio may also catch some of the interviews I recorded following the City Deal meeting.

Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Employment and job hunting, Housing and transport, Public administration & policy, Social media | 3 Comments

There’s more to unlocking democracy than campaigning alone


Sometimes it takes someone to turn up to events and report from and/or film them.

Here are the results:

Or you can listen to them below

Congratulations to Cllr Viki Sanders (@Taw_66) and commiserations to Rahima Ahammed, Andy Bower and Joel Chalfen. You can view my interviews with each of the candidates at

Citizen journalism matters

I made it matter in this by-election campaign. Not because I wanted to influence the election in any way. If I did, I’d have started much much earlier. No. My role in this was to report without prejudice. That is what I did. It’s for others to make their judgements on the content.

The only reporter at the count

With local media being starved of funds (irrespective of the reasons), democracy and democratic institutions are put at risk by the lack of external scrutiny of what happens. I was surprised to be told I was the only reporter at the election count. I also wasn’t aware of the need to give a week’s notice of a media presence at such counts. But…Puffles being Puffles…

***Thank you*** to Vicky at Cambridge City Council for ensuring there was someone from outside the political parties & the council to report from inside the Guildhall.

Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird.

Puffles the dragon fairy with Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Gerri Bird at Cambridge Guildhall

Being described as ‘local TV’

I’m quite proud of the dragon fairy for this one – the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Heidi Allen at describing my digital video account as local television. But if you think about it, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing over the past 24 hours – if not more. Me and Puffles (who was with me for both the hustings and the count) were this ‘one man and his dragon multi-media-machine’. We were micro-blogging (Twitter), macro-blogging (this), sending radio reports for Cambridge 105 and filming, editing and publishing video content – and conducting our own interviews with candidates. Think about it from another perspective. As the results were about to be announced I realised no one was there to capture it on film. Hence pulling out phone and filming it. The quality isn’t great, but it proved the event happened.

Goodwill from political parties

I can’t recall hearing a single bad word from any of the political party activists and elected representatives to my filming. Quite the opposite. Why? From their feedback the following:

  • Trust: When I tell them what I want to film for, what I intend to ask, and describe how the footage will be used, I follow through on it – repeatedly.
  • Transparency: They get to see the full footage that I publish, rather than the ‘edited soundbites’ that you often see in the mainstream media. In the May election campaign I noted how I’d do extensive interviews with the media and only a snippet gets used. Why bother?
  • ‘Shareability': The format I publish them on means it’s simple and straight-forward for people to share the footage with others. Rather than having to mess about with large media files, all they have to do is copy and paste a hyperlink
  • Control: I’ve made the videos available for the parties to download free of charge and use in their own materials – my only condition is that they attribute it to me. This means they can use footage I’ve filmed for their own campaigns – but also are all in the knowledge that the full footage is available online. Hence an onus to use responsibly & not take a selective quotation to use out of context.

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, the Cambridge Young Greens have been the most proactive in inviting me to events to film. Following interest from some of the local Conservative Party activists who were pleasantly surprised to hear how successful things have been, it’s likely I’ll be filming for them in the near future. [Transparency: Andy Bower is my webmaster for my work things].

At an individual level, a number of Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats activists are now warming to the concept of digital video. This is even more so for those that saw the footage that I uploaded from the hustings. At the election count I spoke to members of all parties on the ballot paper and mentioned how they could use the hustings videos for training purposes. What worked and what didn’t? Could the candidates have spoken more clearly, more concisely, more passionately? At what points could they have intervened on other speakers? At what point could they have stopped talking earlier? What points needed extending or following-up? Did they get tone and body-language right for the audience? The same goes for the interviews I did. Tone, posture, clarity, content. What worked and what didn’t?

“What about at a ‘group’ level for Labour vs the Liberal Democrats?”

I understand why they are more cautious than the Greens or the Conservatives. Cambridge is already a strongly-contested seat – one which I maintain is too close to call between Julian Huppert and Daniel Zeichner for the 2015 General Election. This means they’ll be running an incredibly disciplined operation. You only have to see what happens at election counts to watch the parties in operation. It is like clockwork, with activists assigned to tally all the votes counted to get an idea of who is most likely to win. The precious extra minutes/hours give the candidates time to prepare for any responses to the results before they are formally announced.

Me turning up with camcorder is a new unknown that existing campaigning processes haven’t yet accounted for in terms of opportunities and risks. What do you do if I record a major ‘gaffe’, or someone says something highly inappropriate/offensive that on second thoughts they want to withdraw? If they are not ‘in control’ of the person filming or editing, then what? On the other hand, this is all free publicity – which if used well could be incredibly positive. But how best to use it? With such a tightly contested election looming, is it worth taking risks with new things or is it better to focus on the tried & tested?


The stats above for me speak for themselves. With the exception of the digital inclusion video, all of the above-mentioned videos were uploaded within 24 hours prior to the election result being announced. Over 100 plays in 24 hours? I’m more than happy with that. Chances are most of those views will also have been from people who were not at the event itself. Therefore it’s making something available to a much wider audience. Remember that, subject-wise we are talking about a council by-election in November on the edge of Cambridge. I.e. don’t expect the squillions of hits beloved of marketing men.

What the videos do for even a small number of people is allow them to see and hear the candidates in their own words with their own voices. They don’t need me to ‘tweet-quote’ for them. People can view what they want and come to their own conclusions. At last night’s hustings, I heard a variety of opinions of who did well and who did not. Some I agreed with, others I didn’t. What inspires one may alienate another. That’s a risk you take when you stand for election and submit to cross-examination by the public.

“What does video community reporting mean for future campaigns?”

The challenge is with candidates. The pendulum may well swing back towards strength of individual candidates and away from ‘party brand’. There is a risk that this level of community reporting puts off some people from standing. On the other hand there may be people out there who see a panel of candidates and think: “I can do better than this lot!” and either stand as an independent or join a party and put themselves forward for selection by party members.

The team matters

For all the things social and digital media has going for it, it won’t replace door-to-door canvassing or campaigning with a rock-solid team behind them. Labour, The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had teams of campaigners out and about regularly in Queen Edith’s. If anything, this is the difference being in a party makes. They can bring in significant backing. In Rahima Ahammed’s case, Labour were able to arrange meetings with both Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman in Cambridge. If you are a first time candidate and your party arranges photo opportunities with the leader and deputy leader of your party, you’re set up for [political] life. In Rahima’s case, I also recorded footage of Ms Harman endorsing her. It also matters in the face of hostile residents – and unfortunately we’ve got a few of those in Cambridge.

Utterly depressing and completely unacceptable. There’s no place for this in Cambridge. Don’t think that the risk of such abuse was not a consideration when I considered standing earlier this year. The despicable inflammatory headlines in the print media have created an atmosphere where people are afraid to get involved in community action and local democracy. Why would anyone put themselves forward in the face of such hostility? Hence having that rock-solid support network is essential to survive in politics. It also gives an insight into why I wouldn’t be good at party politics: I’m too sensitive (and that’s not considering my anxiety/mental health issues – I have always had a sensitive disposition) and don’t have a strong enough support network to deal with the s**te that you get in politics.

Hence looking for alternative ways to ‘unlock democracy’

In my case it was doing something that no one was doing on my side of town. (Richard Taylor mainly covers North Cambridge and focuses on policing and civil liberties issues). It looks like being a ‘community cameraman’ is an interesting niche to explore in the near future. The only problem I have now is I’ve run out of digital storage space! New hard drive needed!

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Party politics, Puffles, Social media | 3 Comments

How might local political parties work with the new generation of community reporters?


Reporting back on the Queen Edith ward hustings at Homerton College, Cambridge.

I’ve uploaded an album of videos from the Queen Edith’s ward by-election hustings held at Homerton College on 12 November 2014.

That’s quite a lot of videos for a relatively small event. But given the rare occurrence of hustings in Cambridge, this was a very useful experience for all concerned. Although I have a direct interest in the outcome of this by-election (my school is in the ward), I don’t have a vote as I live in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge. (This is where Puffles stood in May 2014). Hence I’m not going to pass comment on the performance of the candidates, let alone who I would vote for if given the choice. I’ll leave it to fellow independent blogger Chris Rand to do so here.

Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.

Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.

Positive feedback from local party activists

The tweets below are two examples

Content-wise, the videos are unedited. I’ve not clipped speeches or pulled out soundbites – which can all-too-easily be taken out of context. It allows representatives from all parties to invite people to view the speeches in full before responding in detail.

Within the first 12 hours of the videos going up, the opening speeches alone had nearly 70 views between them. Given the audience, it’s likely that most of those people viewing the videos would not have been at the hustings. For me, it doesn’t matter too much at this stage on whether the viewers are voters. It may well be that most of the viewers are party activists and their supporters. What matters to me is I’m demonstrating to audiences what can be achieved with digital video.

Reviewing their own performances

It’s one of the most excruciating experiences to go through – reviewing your own performance on film. But if you’re making public speeches or going to be appearing in future public debates, reviewing your performance is essential. For Joel and Rahima, this was their first public debate.

****Being cross-examined on your beliefs and political views is a very difficult experience****

Before you start judging the four candidates, ask yourself how you would fare faced with an audience and a bloke with a camera. It takes a huge amount of courage to face your neighbourhood to stand up and be counted. Even more so if you have lived in that neighbourhood for years. In the current climate you inevitably run the risk of criticism, ridicule and even hatred. I got all three standing as Puffles in May 2014. It explains why I finally snapped at a hustings in May 2014 for the European elections – telling one candidate to

“Take your billboards of hate and get out of my beautiful city!”

It’s not pleasant. Also, there will be some things that will attract a disproportionate amount of all three – think of all the ‘isms. Again, in the current climate, consider what someone like Rahima, the Labour candidate would have to overcome in terms of fears. Gender, ethnicity and faith. On Tuesday I commented to people that the news agenda on violence against women seemed to be absolutely unrelenting – even I as a man felt absolutely bludgeoned by the end of the evening.

This perhaps gives an insight into my style of interviewing and filming of local political events. I’m not in the business of stirring up hate and controversy. There’s too much of it already. If you go in on the attack, your interview subjects close in and become defensive. You then end up with the ‘lines to take’ and the whole thing is a waste of space. Ask loaded questions on ‘tell us how wonderful your policy is on XYZ’ at the same time lacks the credibility to get under the skin of the issues.

Bear in mind most viewers will know very little about the people I’m interviewing – and may well not have met them

This matters because at a local level, not many of us get the chance to meet the people we vote for. Therefore having *something* on video that allows politicians and political activists to introduce themselves on a relatively neutral playing field can help. Hence in my early interviews I’ve not gone for the policy questions, but the human experiences – as this interview with Cllrs Heidi Allen and Seb Kindersley show.

Heidi and Seb are the prospective parliamentary candidates in South Cambridgeshire for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively. It’s a near certainty that one of these two will replace Andrew Lansley MP after the general election. (Lansley got about 27,000 votes and Kindersley 20,000 in the 2010 General Election). Normally you’d expect two opposing candidates to be tearing strips out of each other, but not at this one.

“Why so?”

I told them in advance the sort of interview it would be, and I briefed them on the questions I would be asking.

“Why did you do that? Doesn’t that defeat the point of interviewing?”

If you’re interviewing to catch people out, perhaps. But that’s not my aim. My aim is for them to give open and informed answers, and to be relaxed in front of camera. You don’t get that with mainstream soundbite-TV-news. Therefore the public ends up with a very partial view of politicians. Having worked with ministers of all three parties, I found out that the image many have in the public eye is very different to what they are really like off camera. Generally the ones who are not the top media performers are the ones that are easier to work with and/or more personable face-to-face. Hence I try to go for a more conversational approach than one where I have a list of hostile questions.

Trust across the parties

Across the parties, there is a broad level of trust between me and their politicians & activists. That doesn’t mean I’ll be uncritical of their actions and policies, nor does it mean I’m an unpaid propaganda arm for each of them. They all know my main agenda is getting more people interested and involved in local democracy. There happens to be a digital media gap in Cambridge which I’m filling.

Out of all the parties, The Green Party in Cambridge is the one most proactive in inviting me to film speeches and events. That said, I’ve filmed for both Cambridge Labour Party and Cambridge Liberal Democrats. I’m yet to film for the Conservatives, but the offer is there. The next step for all of them – in particular after the Queen Edith’s hustings is to think about what they would like to do with all of this footage. None of the parties have yet downloaded or embedded any of the videos onto their local websites – which is a shame. Personally I believe having footage of local party figures speaking on camera in different settings brings out the ‘human beings’ in politicians – and helps nail some of the negative stereotypes. Also, the diversity of footage makes it more difficult to stage manage – something that the public can see through very quickly.

“One area for improvement for all of the candidates from last night?”

It was their response to this question on their future vision for Queen Edith’s ward:

What I’d have liked to have seen were very clear statements that cover this:

“How will our ward be different as a result of ***you*** (rather than anyone else) being a councillor by the time you are next up for election?”

For example in my case in May 2014, my vision was – and still is – one where young people not only have their say on the future of the city, but are able to influence it. How? Not just by doing social media, but changing our systems so that we have planned regular outreach events and activities that get their input, and to have a city-wide citizenship program as children and young people progress through school. The intended result? More people informed about local democracy and more people taking a detailed interest in the parts of local democracy that they feel most passionately about – leading to greater voter turnout too.

“Anything on improving communications and speeches?”

Shorter, sharper responses. It’s not the long, rambling responses that will capture people’s imagination. A clear, concise, informed and passionate answer to the question/problem posed is what I think they need to focus on. On top of that, as we didn’t have microphones in the room, stand up when speaking. It allows you to project your voice – and makes it easier for anyone recording to pick up the audio.

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