Digital inclusion

What’s actually wrong with the Scottish media?

Why does it always rain ast demos? Me with NUJ colleagues on anti-austerity protest. Birmingham, October 2010

Why does it always rain at demos? Me (left) with NUJ colleagues on anti-austerity protest, last time around. Birmingham, October 2010

Which should bother us most:

a BBC news executive is shifted sideways (very belatedly) after repeated accusations of bullying and a staff threat to strike if he wasn’t moved?

a perception that the BBC is institutionally biased against Scottish independence and its (especially on-line) supporters?

or the thought that traditional TV audiences are literally dying off and changing viewing habits sufficiently to trigger seismic cuts to public service broadcasting.

There’s an intense and at times highly divisive bebate going on in Scotland right now over control of the media.

But there’s an equally intense debate going on across the UK over ownership of the media and access – and it is one which has been at the heart of a struggle for generations over who controls the media, and over what the newspaper proprietors, ministers, broadcasting moguls and web owners say.

For people like me, it is a massive concern that the views of trade unions and people at work are systematically under-reported in the mainstream media, and especially by our national broadcaster.

We know the story: company CEOs and market analysts get largely uncritical airtime while union reps on picket lines or besuited general secretaries can only expect hostile, frequently ill-informed, questioning and barracking on the same programmes because the trains, ferries or underground aren’t running.

It has always seemed to me not just unfair, but a travesty of any genuine notion of public service news provision.

And it’s not just me, by the way. A more detailed academic study of the issue by the Cardiff School of Jounalism came to similar conclusions.

So, years of seeing trade union, anti-austerity, anti-war, or anti-racism campaigns being under-represented on TV or radio meant I was not surpised (disappointed, yes, but not surprised) that people in the #IndyRef campaign concluded the mainstream media were biased against them.

But is that the most urgent problem right now?

This week, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom released one of its most detailed examinations for years of the state of the sector.

The timing of the report is critical.

The BBC director general Tony Hall this week announced 1000 job cuts at the Corporation because of a £150m shortfall in licence fee funding.

That in turn has triggered fears that this could just be a precursor for yet another jobs cull at the BBC as a result of the renegotiation of the Licence Fee and the wider BBC Charter Review.

It its report, Ofcom found that “[Public Service Broadcasting] PSB channels spent just under £440m less in real terms in 2014 than in 2008” (p 13. 3.1).

It goes on: “Scotland [is] one of the main beneficiaries of the shift in production out of London and the only Nation to see an increase in spend on nations programming, up by 14% since 2008. Nevertheless, higher proportions of audiences here (21%) feel negatively portrayed, compared to respondents in most other areas of the UK.” (3.52.3)

BBC funding figures are notoriously opaque and are always challenged by those in Scotland’s creative sector, but the contrast between the BBC’s financial case and Ofcom’s conclusions about negative portrayal is still pretty stark.

But the most worrying numbers are not part of the Ofcom report. Instead they are being hinted at ahead of next week’s budget: that the BBC will have to take on the £600m cost of paying the licence fee of everyone over 75; and a further £200m if the government rules it is no longer a criminal offence for other households to evade the licence fee.

Remember, the BBC’s licence fee income is around £3.7bn a year.

The Chancellor is sharpening his axe and the all-male, all-white, mainly Conservative Culture Media and Sport select committee of MPs seems pretty unlikely to stay his hand.

And all this is before we even begin to look at the problems facing the press in Scotland, from the “challenging” state of finances at the parent company of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, to some of the long-term plans being tested out by the US owners of The Herald/Evening Times titles, or alarm over the threat to their revenues and coverage from Google, Facebook and the BBC expressed by the owner of The Scotsman and a stable of local papers around Scotland and the UK.

However, there is good reason for hope that we can challenge this. Or at least some of it.

It is good news that the Scottish Parliament and the government here will finally have a say over the future of the BBC as part of the Charter Renewal negotiations.

But there is another way of taking on these threats from ministers, editors and proprietors.

First, for instance, many months – actually, years, when you count them up – of relentless and dignified argument by NUJ reps at BBC Scotland resulted in the former head of news and current affairs being moved on. He’s been moved on to the office dealing with the BBC’s case for Charter Renewal – which doesn’t inspire staff with a ton of confidence, but they tell me it has already made an enormous difference to morale and output on the newsroom floor.

Another NUJ campaign to prevent a veteran trade union rep from being made redundant at a local newspaper in South Yorkshire led to his sacking threat being withdrawn.

A campaign of industrial action last month at a string of local newspapers across London managed – remarkably – to secure the support of the Mayor, Boris Johnson and a significant number of his fellow Conservative MPs, resulting in talks to withdraw the editorial cuts threat.

I am not surprised that very little of this ground-up, workplace campaigning has been reported by the mainstream media. These are trade unionists, after all.

Nor am I that surprised that Ofcom’s very detailed breakdown of viewing figures and ages, or examinination of Facebook metrics by Ashley Highfield, the Johnson Press boss, isn’t going to light a fire for those working to build a new media landscape in Scotland based on public disenchantment with the post #IndyRef BBC.

But if those leading the debate over the future of the Scottish media after the Referendum ignore this stuff, they risk leading this flowering, new politically-minded media in Scotland into a cul-de-sac where the opinions, skills and careers of the sub-editors, designers, producers, coders or videographers don’t matter.

And that’s not much of a public service, either.

So, it’s time for people to stick up for public service journalism and news – and it’s time to stick up for the BBC.


On the road and on the wire

Training in Dornoch last month with the Digital Commonwealth project

Training in Dornoch with the Digital Commonwealth project, May 2014

“Digital inclusion” is a big buzz word at the moment,” Marilyn Slavin, director of the CK UK website tells me.

She is filming an interview for the My Brilliant Moment series on Media Trust’s Community Channel and she is concerned that many of those involved in trying to make the internet and all its devices more accessible are not looking carefully enough at what’s on their websites and how it’s written.

“We’ve been doing digital inclusion since 2004 and it should be further on.

“One of the reasons that I’m doing this film, talking to this camera, is to encourage more people to get involved and make their websites accessible, because if you make it accessible for people with learning difficulties then it covers a lot of other people: people whose first language isn’t English, people who have got literacy issues.

“If you get it right for people with learning difficulties all of those other folk will be engaged with what you are trying to say and your message.”

Marlilyn Slavin (r) with Maureen McGinn, chair of Big Lottery Fund Scotland at launch of Do #Something Brilliant Scotland project. April 2014. (pic: Simon Dalziel)

Marlilyn Slavin (r) with Maureen McGinn, chair of Big Lottery Fund Scotland at launch of Do #SomethingBrilliant Scotland project. April 2014. (pic: Simon Dalziel)

Marilyn’s comments were a wake-up for me.

I had just returned to a near-normal schedule of work after a knackering, but massively rewarding, trip to Orkney and the far north of the Scottish mainland in a final round of training workshops with the Digital Commonwealth project.

Watch this space for an extended report on the road trip and the wider project in a forthcoming edition of Media Trust’s #Brilliant Scotland programme.

In the meantime, there’s a flavour of the kind of work I was doing in this mini video, filmed with Jennifer Jones in Dornoch:


The focus of much of this training work is on how to get the best pictures and sound using low budget equipment. In the case of these Digital Commonwealth workshops, that usually means smartphones and tablets – sometimes with the help of catering-size coffee tins, as we found during one training session hosted at the Orkney Library in Kirkwall (below).

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the near-legendary Kirkwall Library (Orkney, May 2014)

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the Orkney Library in Kirkwall (May 2014)

The library has near-legendary status among book people for the breadth of its social media following and especially its presence on Twitter, so it was great to get a chance to visit the place and to meet such enthusiastic and committed people.

But Marilyn’s comments highlighted to me that training is only one part of opening digital access to wider groups across Scotland.

Speaking at this month’s DigiScotFest2014 event in Edinburgh, Michael Fourman, chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s landmark inquiry on digital participation, said “we have to start with the hardest places,” when it comes to digital inclusion.

One strong message from what I heard at the DigiScotFest was that this has to include those with all kinds of special educational needs as well as remote rural areas and Scotland’s austerity-hammered housing schemes.

For Marilyn Slavan, there has been poor progress so far on digital inclusion.

“It’s not fair.

“People with learning difficulties are customers, clients, they’re people that could attract organisations and they have got spending power, too.

“So a lot of organisations are missing out.

“People need to open their eyes and make it better, make it fairer, because at the moment it’s still not fair for people with learning difficulties.”

Media Trust’s My Brilliant Moment series is an outlet for groups or projects to speak directly to the audience about what they do, what motivates them and how they hope to make a difference to those around them.

The series is one feature of our Big Lottery Funded project Do #SomethingBrilliant, which gives charities and community groups a way of amplifying their message through programmes on the Community Channel (which has recently had more than 2m viewers a month), but also via the website, fortnightly newsletter and the Community Newswire, run by MT and the Press Association.

Groups can also send their calls to action to the Little Brilliant Things pages, which are an opportunity to encourage people to get involved in campaigning for change.

Sounding off about podcasting – it’s radio-to-go

phone-micThe tools of this trade are changing – alarmingly fast for some, not soon enough for many.

When some of us think of DIY media, the first call is video – smartphones, compact cameras, or if you’re lucky and have the money, a DSLR. And that’s good, because pictures tell great stories.

But so do sounds.

The ground-breaking US news website, ProPublica, published a podcast this week which stopped me in my tracks – and not just because of what we regard as the liberties which the US legal system allows journalists to take on air and in print when someone has been arrested and a trial is pending.

When I began listening, I knew nothing about the case of the 1979 disappearance in New York City of 6-year old Etan Patz, still less about the (ProPublica’s reporter argues) “questionable” confession by a man with learning difficulties who has been charged with Etan’s abduction and murder.

But within moments of clicking to start the podcast, I was gripped.

This was the heart-rending story of a child abduction and now, a potential miscarriage of justice (according to campaigners), told in a simple, compelling way. No bells and whistles, just what people used to call “great radio”.

Now, there was a time when being a radio reporter required bags of (usually really expensive) kit. Getting on the air from outside a studio required heavy boxes of ISDN gear and (not “lite” at all!) satellite equipment, before you even got started on the laptops, the mics and what felt like miles of cables you had to lug around with you.

I’ve been there and done it: from the Lockerbie Trial at Camp Zeist, via Westminster and Holyrood, to election campaign roadshows and car crashes.

Been there, done it – and loved it.

But now, a smartphone, a good microphone, set of cheapo headphones and a home-soldered cable made from £5-worth of bits from Maplins or wherever (numerous other fine electronics retailers are available) seems to do the job just about as well.

If it’s bells and whistles you’re after, there are some pricey apps you can spend your money on, but there are lots of free ones that do the job, too.

During the second half of 2013, I was using this kind of kit in a really brilliant training project with secondary school students in Highland region. Now, in 2014, I’m hoping to be taking those lessons and that experience out on the road with the Digital Commonwealth project, to help set up 4 community media hubs around Scotland.

I’ve also been talking to a number of volunteer groups about how they could use minimal equipment and free software to make the kind of enhanced podcasts I was doing in my old job, which include still images, some text and active weblinks in amongst the audio reporting.

It’s proper, full-spectrum multi-media stuff. And it has the capacity to change the way you think about sound – as well as how you think about dodgy confessions made to the NYPD.

Commonwealth Games – here’s the news from Dalmarnock

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

“They’ll love us – we’ll get more hits than Justin Bieber!”

The excitement was infectious among the group of elderly community activists from Bridgeton and Dalmarnock – living in the shadow of the freshly manicured car parks and imposing Commonwealth Games sports venues which dominate the new skyline of the east end of Glasgow.

The chance to report for themselves – by video, blogging or podcating – on how residents’ lives have been changed by the coming of the 2014 Games is exhilarating for people who say they’ve either been stonewalled or fobbed off by most of the local authority and Commonwealth officials they’ve encountered in recent years.

“If they don’t like what we’re telling them, we just don’t get invited back to meetings,” said one activist.

Residents have seen Dalmarnock by turn neglected, deprived, ignored and (most recently) turned into something resembling a war zone by years of demolition and land clearances to make space for the 2014 Games venues.

A high-profile campaign in 2011 to save the Accord care centre was just one example of how a section of the community felt bulldozed out of the way by city council plans to build a bus park for the Games venues.

The community believes there has been a noticeable absence of reporting of their experience of the run-up to 2014. That is a sentiment shared by many others who have lived through such mega events elsewhere, of course, but one question raised among the community activists in Dalmarnock was whether the dearth of local newspaper reporting (currently just one newspaper, the Re-Gen, pictured above, attempts to cover the whole of the north and east of the largest city in Scotland) has allowed politicians and those in power to ignore the communities which will have the Games juggernaut visited upon them in July and August.

Now, everyone involved in trying to rebuild local journalism quite rightly puts their faith online as both the source of information and news and the distribution infrastructure, via websites and social media.

But here, there is a big problem.

Sandwiched between the city centre shops/business district of the Merchant City and the highly-connected Commonwealth Games venues themselves, areas like Dalmarnock are among the most internet-deprived parts of the UK.

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

Last year’s Communications Market Report by the industry regulator, Ofcom found Glasgow had – by some distance – the lowest uptake of fixed broadband services of any city in the UK, at just 52% of households. That figure’s remained static since 2011, according to the watchdog.

Ofcom also found that only 57% had some means of access to the internet, whether by computer, tablet, or phone – meaning nearly half the population in a city of almost 600,000 people cannot get online.

Recent research suggests that the reasons for such a high level of digital exclusion – and the digital illiteracy which goes with it – are many and complicated, but they are also closely linked to wider issues of social deprivation.

An investigation by the Carnegie UK Trust noted that: “Cost is a major issue that cannot be ignored.

“The monthly budget for communications technologies amongst the demographic groups least likely to be online in Glasgow is around £30, compared to a UK average of nearly £100.”

An interim report released last month by the Royal Society of Edinburgh says: “We must stimulate digital participation at a community level… Over a million adults in Scotland lack basic digital skills.”

Using video, audio and blogging within communities will certainly help encourage people who are either “scared of the internet”, who say “it has nothing for them” or who cannot afford to go online, to improve their digital literacy by using tools which don’t mean they also have to do battle with bureaucracy.

The web is not just a portal to paying the rent, looking for a job or healthcare.

But people who are “put off” by the internet have good reasons to fear it could just be a door which opens their homes to the unwanted attention of payday loan sharks, council officials or people trying to sell them stuff.

A Scottish government project worth more than £240m is designed to help improve Scotland’s digital infrastructure must also make it a priority to address the needs of the country’s hundreds of thousands of unheard voices who cannot afford internet access. The threat to public internet facilities in libraries is a particular choke-point, together with related issues as basic as people using library computers not being able to save their work, or being timed-out of their sessions.

Part of the solution also lies in education. So I’m hugely excited by the prospect that I will be helping to train these Dalmarnock community activitsts during the next few months in how to produce films and blogs about “their” Commonwealth Games.

But I am also conscious that the other half of news production is always the audience, which means getting that online news to those people who cannot get online is going to be a big part of the whole project.

If we can get around that, though – that’s when this stuff will go viral.