A tale of two kitties

Simon Kelner addresses Hacks and Hackers London


Interesting Wednesday night in London, during which I pitched Fraudcast News to the January’s Hacks and Hackers London meetup group.  I gave a two-minute spiel about the book – which you can read at the end of this post – saying what it’s about, why everyone should read a copy and what comes next.

I spoke before Simon Kelner, former editor of The Independent, who is now heading up the newly launched Journalism Foundation. It’s an interesting initiative that provides seed funding for all sorts of excellent-sounding and innovative media projects, including ones in the UK. In its own words, the organisation “promotes, develops and sustains free and independent journalism throughout the world”.

A lot of Kelner’s talk, and subsequent questions, turned on money and how to get enough of it to pay for decent journalism. Kelner foresees a mixed future that will include income from advertising, audiences and philanthropists such as his own patron, the former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev. I’m not comfortable with media that rely either on advertising or wealthy individuals for their survival – neither guarantees unerring defence of public interests over commercial or personal ones.

There’s no doubt some money is necessary but I think it the wrong question to tackle above several other, more important ones. Those include having an editorial focus that is rooted in defending the public interest and a news operation that is designed to encourage citizens’ direct input. The reason Jimmy Wales and his band of Wikipedia collaborators could black out the English-language pages of their site on Wednesday was because of his funding model. Wikipedia is not a public company whose managers are legally beholden to making money for shareholders.

My favoured alternative to the “commercial viability” Kelner wants for his start-up media projects is far less dependent on money. I think we should build locally based reporting nodes by developing materials and free workshops for the mass training of quality citizen journalists. They can then report on their local communities, as and when they are able to, improving political governance and accountability from the bottom up. In time, reporters can link up with others in different areas to cross-report on issues from dual or multiple locations anywhere in the world. To be fair to Kelner, his Foundation is backing local journalism, including a free weekend workshop for citizen journalists to be hosted by Lincoln University.

I found it ironic, given our different views on cash, that Kelner should end his presentation with an appeal that people should click on the Foundation’s site and donate. I ended mine with the assurance that since my book and its associated follow-ups are all about democracy, people could have it for free if they want. Let’s hope I’m not wrong here.

Fraudcast News – the two-minute elevator pitch

What’s the book about?

  • We all like to rip off Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government bar all the others. Yet who’s the butt of this decades-old joke if it’s not us? Why do we keep falling for the illusion of influence we get from representative democracy – a vote every few years to choose between parties that are pretty much identical? We all know fundamental policies stay the same, that power remains with a moneyed elite who act via corporations and global financial markets.
  • Fraudcast News unpicks this political charade, not just in Britain but also in the European Union and elsewhere up to the global level. It shows how our media, far from being relentless critics of the status quo, suffer the exact same problem of financial capture.
  • Yet this is a hopeful story, one in which ordinary people can have an impact. It has practical solutions, built from the ground up, to create local reporting nodes focused on the quality and accountability of our governance. It imagines a global-local reporting network serving a worldwide citizenry.

Why should you read Fraudcast News?

  • If you care about journalism, or dream of it as a career, you need to read this book. It explains how most journalism becomes compromised by concerns of ownership, income, sourcing and ideology, not to mention lobbying and libel laws.
  • If you like the hacks and hackers idea, you need to read this book. Failing to understand real power, and how conventional journalism connives with it to keep us stupid, will leave us pushing digital ones and zeros from one computer server to the next.
  • If you’re sick of Churchill’s hackneyed joke, you need to read this book. It tells you where democracy came from and how it was hijacked through history and turned into something more like oligarchy, or rule by a powerful few.

What happens next?

  • Fraudcast News will be out next week as a paid-for eBook and soon after as a paperback. Given it’s about democracy you can have it for free if you like, to read online, download as a pdf or mash up in line with its Creative Commons Licence.
  • The next step is to create a template for local reporting nodes, a shareable manual on politics, reporting and technology that can be released to others.
  • We also need to get reporting, to start doing or curating the sort of content that illustrates the gaping holes in our governance structures and what could be done to reform or replace them. This is a project for us all.