Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?

This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 14 May 2013…

In February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference outlining what he saw as the failures of ‘state multiculturalism.’ For him, it seemed to be about young Muslims getting involved in terrorism. ‘We’ve allowed the weakening of our cultural identity,’ he lamented.

Inspired by this speech and the gravitation of British politics towards an anti-immigration blame culture, ‘multicultural newspaper’ The Prisma, set up the debate: ‘Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?’

Held at the House of Commons on 9 May 2013, the panel for the event was introduced by Colombian journalist and founder of The Prisma, Mónica del Pilar Uribe, and included social scientist Nigel Pocock, writer and lecturer Mike Jempson, activist and artist Zita Holbourne, international speaker on Islam Abdullah al Andalusi, Peruvian philosopher Claudio Chipana Gutiérrez and Labour member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn.

Most of the panellists were keen to point out the often conveniently forgotten fact that multiculturalism has always existed in Britain. The problems begin when it is used as a political weapon. ‘You can’t collect pebbles from the beach and then complain there are too many stones in your room,’ said Mike Jempson.

When talking about multiculturalism it can be hard to separate race, culture, religion, and immigration. Zita Holbourne argued that the recent pandering of the mainstream parties to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) empowers people with racist views to express and act on them.

An audience member made the point that equating multiculturalism to immigration excludes non-white British people like herself, and those children could grow up British but not truly feel it because the establishment rejects them. What was telling in Cameron’s 2011 speech, which focused on young Muslims, was the repeated use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘they.’

Jempson said we all need to do more to challenge everyday racism and likened his experience of growing up in an Irish Catholic family in 1950s Surrey – with ‘no Irish’ signs and being stoned on the street – to the experiences of some young Muslims in Britain today.

But how can human rights be protected in such an environment? How to view these rights was something that provoked the most debate. Are they based on universal humanity or some other code specific to certain groups, such as religion? Jeremy Corbyn and others seemed to think they could be universal and secular but for Abdullah al Andalusi, true multiculturalism, freedom of expression and recognition of rights is impossible within a society with one law for all. He argued that a person’s conscience, including their belief in God, was the most important factor in determining their actions and that they should be able to act on this freely – as long as they don’t commit murder.

So what are the solutions to all these issues? This was an area I think could have been discussed at much greater length but some members of the panel did have their own projects which had begun to explore this. Jempson edits a magazine called the Bristol Globe which ‘celebrates Bristol’s diversity’ while Holbourne talked about her group Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts which is planning a voter registration drive among young people as well as a campaign condemning continued race discrimination in Britain.

Political trends come and go but racism and discrimination in day-to-day life continues – this is why lasting solutions need to come from the grassroots. Cultures mix, branch off and develop all the time and pretending they don’t is only going to lead to less cohesion within, and between, communities. But ultimately how someone identifies with one culture, or many, is not solely down to their immigration status, skin colour, religion or anything else – it is about where they feel they belong.

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Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.

Phone hacking, journalism ethics and the digital revolution

This article was originally written in answer to the question below for an assignment at university in January 2012.

Does the phone hacking scandal show that good journalism will be the first casualty of the digital revolution in the media?

Journalism is dying, or that’s what many people would have you believe; the internet means that people will never pay for news again, and the phone hacking scandal is the nail in the coffin for the trust of journalists.

In a 2011 IPSOS MORI poll only 19% of people said that journalists could be trusted to tell the truth. This is not a new thing; in 1983 the percentage was the same. TV news readers fair better however, with 63% of the poll respondents saying they can be trusted to tell the truth, more, in fact, than the ordinary person in the street.

Michael Jermey, ITV’s Director of News, Current Affairs and Sport, said he thinks this is justified. The regulatory framework for broadcasting is different to print journalism, and UK broadcasters are expected to be politically impartial in their news output. Ofcom’s code requires commercial broadcasters, “To ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” The BBC’s editorial guidelines are similar.

Broadcasters are on limited  airtime however, and as summed up on the News Bias explored blog: “There is a tendency to try to fit news into small sound-bytes in television media, which can lead to omission of information, the limiting of debate, and a lack of context.” People often look elsewhere for analysis and to find out about things that matter to them specifically. After all, as Jermey has said, news is consumed as part of the evening’s entertainment on channels largely going for a mass reach.

In order for journalists to be more trusted they need to connect with the outlook of their audiences. Ian Hargreaves, former editor of New Statesman and The Independent, said in his book Journalism: Truth or Dare? that, “Non-diverse journalism cannot, by definition, achieve trust across the whole range of a public which is itself so diverse in terms of economic circumstance, class, ethnicity, gender, region, and in many other ways.”

Caledonian Mercury editor, Stewart Kirkpatrick, said at a recent Cardiff conference The Future of the Press in Wales, that he sees the future of journalism as one where the journalists are more connected to their audiences through understanding and finance, with audiences funding them directly.

Nicholas Brett, Deputy Managing Director at BBC Magazines, sees this connection to the audience as vital, and has said that to have an active relationship with an audience you need to choose the medium they will respond to instead of just ‘pushing the information out there’.

The internet is where this is done best. Verification can be a problem in the vast amount of information, but journalists face this to some degree in every medium. As Andrew Marr said in his book My Trade the internet has made it harder to lie in journalism, this is partly due to the speed at which mistakes can be highlighted.

The turning point in the hacking scandal, for the public and the media, came with the revelations about the hacking of missing girl Milly Dowler’s phone. The attitude up until then seemed to be as summed up in the comedy-drama Hacks on Channel 4, when the character Kate Loy who seemed to be based on Rebekah Brooks, said “They’re celebs – anyone with a publicist has got it coming.”

Ethical problems in the media are not a new thing, whether it be scaremongering, discriminatory and untrue headlines, the death of David Kelly or even the death of Princess Diana in 1997; something Ian Hargreaves has celled a ‘defining moment’ in British journalism as Diana’s car, which crashed, was being chased by photographers.

At the Leveson Inquiry, set up to investigate the role of the press and police in the phone hacking scandal, Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers said “Ethical – I don’t know what the word means…We do not talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line and everybody is different.” Ethics are tricky ground but they need to be talked about.

Charles Reiss, former political editor of the Evening Standard, has said that journalists need to be more reliable and seen to be. George Orwell’s 1946 essay, The Prevention of Literature said, “What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.”

The Leveson Inquiry will be making recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance but there seems to be little consensus on what this should be. At Hacked Off: Reform, Regulation Democracy and the Press hosted by the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform at Cardiff University, Rob Williams from The Independent said the scandal should not be used to limit the freedom of the press. But, after giving evidence at the inquiry, Ian Hargreaves said he believes Leveson is aware of these fears and is personally anxious that he won’t be seen as curtailing press freedom.

The press currently has a system of ‘self regulation’ administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is meant to be independent. Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, sees continued self regulation as the only option as it is flexible. The public interest is “a common sense, malleable thing,” he said and thinks trying to interpret a statute won’t work for such a fluid concept.

In a January 2012 leader, The Times said, “The regulator of the press needs to have the confidence of the public. And this simply does not exist at the moment.” They proposed a move to more independent regulation, pointing out that “journalists cannot go on marking their own homework”, and that, if state regulation were to happen, many people publishing on the internet would come outside it.

At Hacked Off, Martin Shipton, head of the NUJ for Media Wales, said he thought it was significant that News International doesn’t recognise the union, which has its own clear code of conduct: Journalists there were operating in a “moral vacuum”.

However, Ian Hargreaves pointed out in Truth or Dare? that journalists and editors are individuals, wherever they operate: “Journalists are part of the societies in which they work. They acquire, within those societies, a sense of right and wrong: they have, thank goodness, a moral compass learnt outside journalism.” This was echoed by Ian Hislop in his recent evidence to Leveson.

We shouldn’t use the digital revolution as a distraction from tackling problems with ethics present in journalism for a long time before the hacking scandal.

Opportunities presented by the internet are described by Ian Hargreaves in Truth or Dare? as a challenge to develop a way of reporting, “which feels fresh, startling, and memorable in the way that it did when newspaper publishers first understood how to use headlines, typography, and layout to make navigation of a newspaper more rewarding, and pictures to make the experience more arresting.”

But, as the hacking scandal shows, alongside this freedom journalists should be aware of ethics and of their audience, with codes like those from Ofcom, the PCC and the NUJ acting as a guide.

A journalist’s job is to connect people to new information about things that effect their lives, as well as the wider world around them, so any regulation needs to reflect that journalism is varied and may sometimes cause trouble.

Comment: Leave The Banks Out Of Student Loans

First appeared on The National Student on 27 June 2011

First he blamed feminism for the the unemployment of working class males (not lack of social mobility and jobs), then he said universities would end up “looking rather silly” if they rushed to charge £9,000 fees (which of course a growing number are) and now David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science is, according to The Observer, in secret talks with banks to fund student loans.

With so many universities charging the maximum fee of £9,000 a year the cost of the loans to students to cover these fees will have grown massively. Under the new system students won’t have to start paying back loans until earning £21,000 which may not be for a long time, if at all. The delay of repayment is one of the only positives of the current system for students, especially important now graduate unemployment is at its highest level for over a decade. But with such massive loans now needed for fees, not to mention maintenance, waiting for repayments could be a problem.

It isn’t likely that banks are going to want to loan to students with such little chance of them being able to pay it back any time soon. They are according to The Observer article, only likely to be on board if someone, most likely the university, is going to be relied on to take responsibility for the loan if the student can’t pay it back. Taking into account funding cuts to universities, this can only have a negative effect on education.

Relying on banks for funding is what people looking to study at postgraduate level, without access to thousands of pounds, currently do in the form of Career Development Loans on which the interest is paid to the bank by the Young People’s Learning Agency until a month after the end of the course, then repayments are expected to begin.

I am about to do a Postgraduate Diploma and, after a year of looking for other ways of funding it, am applying for a £10,000 Career Development Loan. The thought of that makes me feel sick, but as I can’t afford to work for free in London for longer than a few weeks it seems to be my best option for greatly increasing my employability in journalism.

But if I had faced getting a loan from the bank before my undergraduate there would have been no way I would have considered going to university in the first place. Three times the worry I’ve had over money for my postgrad, no chance – and I come from a relatively middle class background.

We are increasingly told there are too many people going to university, but instead of a system open to all and based on merit university will increasingly be something only the rich will consider. Maybe we should give up, leave the graduate jobs to the rich and the rest of us can do whatever is left or continue to be ‘scroungers’ on JSA where we belong.

Another Person’s Rubbish

First published on The National Student on March 2 2011

They say the customer is always right. However the customer is also demanding, sometimes too demanding. We all know how frustrating it can be when the one thing we want in the supermarket has just run out.

It occurred to me this week, while reading about the case of Sacha Hall, who is being taken to court on the charge of ‘theft by finding’ for taking some of Tesco’s discarded food, that maybe customer attitudes are partly to blame for the food waste of retailers. Maybe we shouldn’t expect things so much and there’d be less.

Searching for salvageable food

Of course there is always the, more likely, argument that the reason that supermarkets produce so much is because they can afford it and just in case people do want it, they will earn more from selling it then they have spent producing it. You are a lot more likely to find a lot of edible waste in the bin of a large supermarket than a small independent shop as they probably had more stock to start with and it is likely to be wrapped in a lot more packaging.

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) we waste a third of our food in the UK, partly because businesses often throw out perfectly good food that is passed its sell by date or superficially damaged, as well as that no longer fit for consumption.

The fact is waste, in all areas of our society, needs to be reduced. WRAP say that 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food. Endless consumption is not sustainable. Many supermarkets use waste to go towards powering the national grid but still many are throwing out massive bins of good food every day.

People who make use of this waste are known as part of theFreegan community. People who try, at least as much as they can, to take themselves out of the system by not spending any money. A concept that has been made more popular by Mark Boyle, ‘The Moneyless Man’. Part of this lifestyle is taking food from bins known as ‘skipping’ or ‘dumpster diving.’

Of course businesses have concerns of getting sued if someone got food poisoning from eating their discarded food but surely if you get sick from eating food from a bin it is your own fault and definitely something that needs a little research on tips before doing it. Freegans need to be careful to look for open or swollen packaging and especially careful with meat and dairy products.

Ideally there would be systems in place to make sure that good surplus food goes to those who need it most. Organisations likeFareShare work with businesses to do this using surplus ‘fit for purpose food’ to give to organisations that work with the most vulnerable people in society.

In Sacha Hall’s case, Tesco said that the food had been left outside the store as a power cut meant a lot of chilled food had been ruined and couldn’t be sold but, in my experience, outside in Britain’s winter makes a pretty good fridge. So Hall and her friends made off with £215.16 worth of food which apparently included packs of ham and potato waffles.

Using someone else’s waste, apart from the obviously monetary benefits, can actually be empowering to do. I have been a regular in taking waste food from bins in the past, and so far have not suffered food poisoning as a result.

Journalists seem to be intrigued by the concept and when I was at uni my friends and myself would often get calls from a curious journo who wanted to come out with us one night. There have been articles and coverage in all sorts of places where journalists have been more than happy to get stuck in themselves, even those who turn their noses up to start with seem to be swung as soon as they see the masses of perfectly good food up for grabs.

Regardless of legality this is the first actual case I have seen and hopefully it will highlight the scandal of waste food and not set a precedent for more court cases against people making use of someone else’s rubbish.

 

Direct action at Millbank: Where’s the hijack?

First appeared on The National Student on November 17 2010

‘A small minority ruined it for the rest’ seems to be one of the favourite phrases from those commentating on last week’s protests over rises to university fees and cuts to contact time in Higher Education and Educational Maintenance Allowance to college students. There was still another 50, 000 people on that march so I would say nobody ‘ruined’ it for anyone.

But the movement against education cuts is now in danger of being ruined, not by violence or criminal damage but by the reactions of people like NUS President Aaron Porter who described the thousands of people at the Millbank Conservative Party HQ as “distracting from the message”, although he has now back tracked after intense criticism and says he supports direct action but still talks of ‘undermining’ and ‘infiltration’.

I was there when Porter was challenged on lack of support from the NUS for student activism by Jess Worth from the New Internationalist at student campaigning conference Shared Planet. They were both on a panel discussing how to build a strong student movement and he said the mistakes of the past would not be made again. He also said that the NUS would support students taking direct action unlike the NUS in Ireland which had recently distanced itself from student protest and occupation which ended with violence at the hands of riot police. I spoke to him after the debate was over and he reiterated how he was committed to taking action and would communicate this to Students Union officers.

When I was in university lack of NUS and student union support for student activism was obvious on many occasions. Many students’ union officers are thrown into roles with little to no experience of campaigning on the issues student activists are fighting for, and even though they may support them in this many are career politicians wanting to toe the party line or scared of being too ‘out there’.

A lecture theatre at my former university was occupied over the university’s involvement in the arms trade and divestment, part of a wider UK student movement at the time which saw occupations in universities all over the country. We received support from many lecturers, some of whom came to do talks and show films, while our Ethical & Environmental officer described a peaceful sit in as ‘intimidating’ to other students. Being involved in protest or direct action is all too often portrayed as something for the fringes of society, not a justifiable way for people to act despite the fact that it often gets results.

That’s not to say that our student officers were completely unsupportive of campaigning. For example, towards the end of my time at university earlier this year our city got paid a visit from the ‘Welsh Defence League’, the Welsh version of far right group the English Defence League. A few sabbatical officers, including our President attended meetings about counter demos to the EDL and I even spotted a few of them on the day. Although they were reluctant to outwardly encourage others too loudly to join it, the fact they were there made a real difference to students that saw them and could feel that the people we had elected into our union, to be the voice of students actually took interest in important issues and not just party politics and sports teams. I visited my former university this weekend and was glad to see students still wearing their “no to cuts” t shirts with student’s union branding.

Largely thanks to NUS motivation and organisation 52, 000 people took to the streets on last Wednesday. For many of these students it was their first protest and they wouldn’t have been there without the active encouragement of their students union’s. There is now thousands of people who will have caught the bug, enjoying the thrill of making their physical presence felt, thanks to encouragement from the NUS they aren’t worried about being in trouble for protesting or being seen banner waving.

Every campaign will have different reactions and different methods but its important it stays united in its aims. People are angry and this is just the beginning, by attempting to distance themselves from direct action Porter, and others risk delegitimising and disempoweriong the whole movement.

The direct action taken at Millbank represented the anger of thousands of students. While only a few people caused any damage to the building many just took advantage of the opportunity to get inside the building and make the space theirs. Hundreds of genuine students and lecturers were outside cheering them on. A lot of people who had never taken direct action before were compelled to ignore stewards telling them to carry on to the march and instead joined the hundreds outside Tory HQ, whether from being swept up in the excitement, a need to make their anger known or just realising the importance of the moment.

Clegg warned of “Greek-style unrest” over cuts in an interview with the Observer before the general election and now this is beginning he is enemy number one. Many students voted for the Lib Dems on their tuition fee policies and much to the joy of the other two parties, especially Labour they have betrayed their promises and, it has now emerged, they planned to break this promise before the election even happened. There is also a Tory villain, reducing public services and looking after the rich is what they’re known for, something the Labour Party seems very keen to promote.

The issue of cuts in education can’t be dropped now with the excuse of a few smashed windows or a movement disunited at the hands of politician types. One passive protest won’t unfortunately change much, there needs to be a sustained campaign that goes down every avenue: Negotiation, protest, direct action and anything else.

Students are already organising: Manchester and Sussex Universities have had occupations over the issue and a mass student walkout has been planned for November 24. Some lecturers have also spoken out in favour of grassroots action: Last week 100 lecturers and staff from Goldsmith’s University in London signed a statement in support of the protests part of which said, “The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation.”

After a media onslaught of shock that ‘adults’ were sticking up for the ‘student trouble makers’ another statement was released saying that while the lecturers did not condone violence but wanted to “condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”

A fear of being too radical seems to be behind a lot of NUS rejection of the direct action. But it is the politicians who do not always tow the party line, who aren’t afraid to let their voices and more importantly the voices of the people whey are meant to be representing be heard who end up being most respected.