Gwenno, PrEP, CETA and table tennis in Brighton

I have a few articles in November’s New Internationalist magazine which takes Colombia as its main focus.

For the news section I wrote about Brighton Table Tennis Club and its work with marginalised people, particularly young refugees, under its Community, Respect and Solidarity mantra. I also wrote about resistance to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

Later in the issue is a feature on PrEP, the HIV prevention medicine that has sparked excitement and activism across the world, as well as debate around how it’s used.

An interview I did with Welsh musician Gwenno Saunders earlier this year is at the back of the magazine. Taking in Wales, Cornwall and politics – three of my favourite topics, Gwenno was so nice to speak to that I didn’t want to get off the phone!

Find out more and read more articles from this issue here at the New Internationalist website

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Carry on Cwtching

This article first appeared in the June/July 2012 issue Red Pepper magazine.

In January, a fledgling community group opened the first in a series of squatted social centres in Swansea. Naming themselves Cwtch, the Welsh word for cuddle, most of the group met during Swansea’s Occupy protests, but from day one they were a movement in their own right.

‘Not everyone in Occupy Swansea wanted to do a social centre,’ recalls 57-year-old activist D Murphy. ‘So we kind of split our meetings into two: we would have an Occupy meeting and then people would drift away and talk about the social centre.’

They began by squatting the abandoned Dolphin hotel in the city centre, after gaining access through an open window. Just one day later they’d transformed the 66-room hotel into the Cwtch Community Centre. There was a donations-optional café, a freeshop and room to relax and hold workshops.

Cwtch has found strength in the variety of people involved. ‘There’s one local businessman who was there from the beginning. There’s a university lecturer and I’m an office manager . . . I’ve made a wonderful new friend who’s 17; it’s cut across all kinds of boundaries,’ says D.

Cwtch has keenly promoted the centre via its own videos, on Facebook and in the mainstream media too. Its transparency has helped attract a diverse range of Swansea residents. At the Dolphin hotel many different people could be found enjoying a cup of tea, or browsing the library, including young families and homeless people.

Homelessness is a serious problem in Swansea. More than 15,000 people sought council help for homelessness in Wales during 2011, up 11 per cent on the previous year. The highest number of homeless as a percentage of the population is in Swansea.

Cwtch’s aim has been not just to provide shelter for the homeless but to highlight the lack of provision for homeless people. ‘Considering the wealth of finance we’re supposedly stopping by running a free arts café, you’d think they could provide more than a single emergency bed for the homeless of Swansea,’ comments Rev, another member of the organising group.

The hotel’s leaseholder, UBS, acted quickly and an interim possession order was obtained, bringing the group to court on Valentine’s Day. D says the courts were surprisingly sympathetic: ‘When he [the judge] was handing down [the verdict] he said if he had any discretion in the matter he might have come to a different decision’…

Read the rest at the Red Pepper website.

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.

No such thing as a free ride

First appeared on the alt.cardiff website on Thursday 14 December.

People on controversial work placements in Wales are working unpaid while unemployed. Critics see this as unfair but supporters argue getting experience is vital

Person working in Primark

In the ‘big society’ there is no place for those who don’t pull their weight, but in Wales there are now 137,000 people unemployed, a record amount.

Jobcentres arrange a variety of work experience to get people back into employment. One of these schemes is Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), where people undertake compulsory unpaid placements, or lose their benefits.

People can be referred to MWA at any time but they have usually been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for at least 13 weeks. Placements are up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks.

Specialist providers such as A4e and Rehab JobFit are contracted to deliver placements through a variety of businesses and organisations. Since June 2011 Rehab JobFit has provided placements for 349 people in Wales. Over two thirds of these are in South East Wales, for organisations including YMCA and Wales Air Ambulance.

While some see MWA as work people should do for benefits, others see it as slave labour. Public Interest Lawyers have begun legal action against MWAdescribing it as “unlawful forced labour”.

Wasted skills?

It has been reported people doing MWA are forced to work in shops like Poundland and Primark, despite any other skills or experience. But some have managed to get placements suited to them.

Katie Simpson, 23 and living in Cardiff, has done two unpaid work placements during two years of unemployment. She said the first, compulsory and arranged through A4e, was for 13 weeks. She was expected to do 20 hours of work a week and five hours job hunting, but says she did get an extra £15 in JSA. She was also able to work for the Youth Offending Service where she already volunteered.

Bronwen Davis, also living in Cardiff, had been unemployed for 18 months when the jobcentre told her she had to do a work placement. She arranged her own with a music studio. “I don’t think a lot of people realise you can do that, but it can be a good opportunity to go and try something you’re interested in,” she said.

She said through running drumming workshops she learned more about working freelance and became more confident about self employment, which is her aim. “I did feel exploited though,” she said. “The company was getting hundreds of pounds a day and I wasn’t getting paid.”

Learning on the job

Katie’s second placement was with a claims management company and although it wasn’t compulsory she was told she had a strong chance of a job if she took it. “I was pretty reluctant to the idea, the placement was full-time. If I worked there I’d struggle to find any time to search for other positions,” she said.

It went well initially and Katie began to apply for jobs at the company but, “By week six the pressure of the job, with an income of £53 a week, started to take its toll and I took a couple of days off sick,” said Katie, who suffers from depression. When she returned she says she was given a disciplinary.

Katie was given the opportunity to sit on the team she had recently applied for a job with but the manager questioned her on her absences. “I knew this wasn’t strictly legal,” said Katie.

After three months another manager confessed to her that she had no chance of a job. “She said that for every application I had applied for there were more experienced individuals applying,” said Katie.

Katie doesn’t feel the placement was worth the work experience. “I had been talked down to nothing,” she said. “I felt incredibly depressed about my abilities. It’s an experience I would rather forget.”

Katie McCrory, media relations manager for A4e, said, “Lack of experience is one of the main reasons why people get turned down for jobs they apply for.”

Rob Fitt from Rehab JobFit, another provider, said MWA helps people, “establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time or regularly.” But many people have had previous employment.

Boycott Workfare campaign against compulsory, unpaid work experience. A spokesperson said MWA does not tackle unemployment successfully. “We haven’t received any news of people being offered full time paid positions,” he said.

He says they have no evidence people are being matched with relevant skills. “It seems where retail companies are concerned, people are being mandated to stack shelves,” said the spokesperson.

MWA can be seen as a way for businesses to get free labour at the expense of the state, and taking on paid staff, but some argue it is fair that people should have to work for their benefits. Employment minister, Chris Grayling,has said about work programmes: “No one should expect to be able to sit at home doing nothing.”

But with employment levels at a record high in Wales, and austerity measures taking hold, there is increased frustration that in the ‘big society’ hard work counts for nothing.

How To Be A Raconteur

First published in the June 2010 issue of Buzz Magazine

Michael Harvey, who will be appearing at this year’s Beyond The Border, is a veteran in the art of spinning a good yarn. He explains how you too can be the envy of any dinner party.

STEP 1: Get inspired

Go to a festival like Beyond The Border, and keep an eye out for other events. There’s a really nice one at Milgi in Cardiff on the third Tuesday of every month. It’s really friendly and includes floor spots from professional and upcoming storytellers.

STEP 2: Develop existing skills

The social world gives you all the storytelling skills you need and if you work with the skills you have you get an original, unique performance. Looking for stories to tell can be a lonely business so it can help to buddy up with someone like minded, starting with collections of folk tales and mythology.

STEP 3: Find a good location

Start at a level that isn’t going to freak you out, amongst friends. Telling stories outdoors is beautiful, and you need a place with character. Informal seating is good too, because if people cuddle up or sit wherever they want then they are much more relaxed and open.

STEP 4: Pretend adults are children

Kids taught me everything I know, but adults can be harder because their faces are more closed and their resting expression can look a bit grumpy. But, if I convince myself that inside there’s an eight-year-old child, and I start telling a story to that child, then their faces soften, and they become more open and responsive.

STEP 5: Work through stage fright

Everyone gets nervous; it’s just that when you get experienced, you just call it excitement. If you feel you’re using the audience, slow down, calm down and rest in the story. Think about the physical sensations – what the story looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like; a story can be as real as a memory.

Neath Ales Brew Beer With Menace

First published in the June 2010 issue of Buzz Magazine

“Dark, foreboding and full of menace” is how Jay Thomas describes Neath Ales Black, his favourite of the ales his one man brewery business produces. 34 year old Jay operates out of a secret Neath location and set up the business after being made redundant from his job as a sociology lecturer. The brewery is the first in the area since the Vale of Neath Brewery closed in 1972.

Jay runs the business on his own managing everything from marketing the brand, brewing the beer and bottling up the product, but he says other members of the family still manage to get involved. “My poor retired father can’t keep away and I only have to pay my four and two year olds a couple of jelly beans to clean for me. Don’t tell social services!”

Like many students looking to save a few bob and try some experimentation, Jay started brewing beer while at university as he was fed up with mass marketed, bland lagers and fancied trying something different – and a little stronger.

Premium bottled beers have increased in popularity over the last few years with drinks companies seeing increased profits in this area of the market. Jay puts this down to people becoming savvier about big businesses telling them what to consume. “You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and ask for the most insipid, lowest quality thing on the menu, so why do that when you go to a bar?” he says.

Neath Ales are made lovingly with no additives and are all vegan friendly. Just Welsh water, malted barley, whole hops and yeast are included. The beers are matured for many weeks until they have reached Jay’s high standard and can be found in many shops in Neath, Swansea and the surrounding areas.

Although running a business single-handedly is a challenge, Jay says he is in it for the long haul. “It is an awesome vocation and one into which the true heroes will venture. As for taking on big big biz with their hundreds of millions of pounds advertisings might, bring it on.”

Beyond The Border – Festival Preview

First appeared inthe June 2010 issue of Buzz Magazine

Beyond The Border International Storytelling Festival, St Donats Castle, South Wales

Fri 2-Sun 4 July 2010

Back in the days before the internet, mobile phones and even books, people used to actually talk to each other. When they ran out of gossip about whose sword was bigger than whose, they would recount tales of generations gone by.

The tradition of storytelling still thrives around the world, including a vibrant scene here in Wales. Old myths and legends are retold again and again, sometimes with modern adaptions. Many of these storytellers from across the globe will be gathering in Wales at the UK’s leading storytelling festival Beyond The Border in July. The festival has been running since 1993 and attracts thousands of visitors a year, as well as running a programme taking storytellers into schools and workplaces all over the country.

 This year’s festival features over 20 storytellers from as far afield as Canada and Egypt. There is also a strong Welsh connection, including Celtic mythology from the {Mabinogion} which will be retold in words, music and song.  Welshman Osian George will be performing with trio Bro Ar Men (Land Of Stone) led by Brittany’s Pol Huellou with Armenian Vasken Solakian. Wales loves nothing more than a good male voice choir, and Beyond The Border is being treated to the Republic of Gerogia’s Mtiebi performing on the Friday of the festival.

The storytelling takes a saucy twist with late night adult-only performances, including stories from Boccaccio’s naughty Decameron and some erotic late night stories about ancient love goddesses Aphrodite and Innana told by Xanthe Graham.

The festival features music from exiles Kotchnak Ensemble, a family of singers from Armenia, now living in Paris who first began making music in 1976. Also performing is Ahmed Muhktar from Iraq who is renowned for his playing of the oud, an instrument similar to the lute. He will perform as part of the Nights In Baghdad programme which includes Egyptian Chirine El Ansary telling the stories from the author of 1001 Arabian Nights, Robert Irwin.

Beyond The Border provides a window on the world past and present and with every yarn festival goers will be transported somewhere different.