181 not a reference

Leveson: Press and the public interest

In the report of the Leveson Inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson states:

‘I know how vital the press is – all of it – as the guardian of the interests of the public, as a critical witness to events, as the standard bearer for those who have no one else to speak up for them.

Nothing in the evidence that I have heard or read has changed that. The press, operating properly and in the public interest, is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.

As Thomas Jefferson put it: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”’

As a ‘cornerstone of our democracy’, the press has a responsibility to represent the voices of the unheard. Yet mainstream media frequently trips over awkward feet as it tries to accommodate minority groups. This is characterized by the last minute struggle to find ‘representative voices’ for news programming, which all too often results in either the same voices being wheeled out time and again, or their substitution by well-meaning white, middle class, male expert commentators.

Some of the recent reports on the Leveson inquiry chimed with the messages of an organisation which Maslaha connected with on the outskirts of Paris.

‘Bondy Blog’ was born in the fire of the riots which focused the world’s attention on the suburbs of Paris in November 2005. While mainstream press struggled to capture and understand why the youth were rioting, journalists from a Swiss magazine called L’Hebdo moved into the suburb of Bondy – immersing themselves in daily encounters as guided by local young people, who also protected them from the angry backlash against negative media coverage of the crisis. In return, the journalists trained these local youths in blogging and journalistic skills.

When the Swiss journalists left Bondy, these young people continued to drive the blog forward, and Bondy Blog is now a small and punchy social enterprise which continues to give voice to the suburb.

I visited Bondy Blog and met Nordine Nabili, its Chief Executive, last week to talk about Maslaha’s work in Paris. He described Bondy Blog as a form of participatory media which offers a way to work towards real solutions for social inequality by opening an inclusive conversation.

The blog is driven by volunteers and dedicated part-time workers with a team of around 40 bloggers. The team is committed to producing at least two blogs per day, and a priority is to make sure the bloggers are always paid to recognize the value of their work. They also produced a monthly TV show.

‘We are not an association (a charity); we don’t offer a solution to the problem. But we talk about the things not talked about, the real problems in the banlieu. Always our legitimacy is called into question because we are not like other media, with journalists from high-level schools. Yet all the media are reading what we are doing. ‘

Nordine extends the glass ceiling analogy to people from the suburbs, highlighting the huge social inequalities of the system and the lack of diversity that is a visible problem in the French media. He describes how you cannot become a ‘legitimate’ journalist unless you have attended one of the expensive, established journalism schools.

Bondy Blog has found a way around that, and now runs its own journalism courses, accredited by École Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille. These courses train 12 aspiring journalists from disadvantaged backgrounds per year, introducing them to networks and enabling them to make connections which can help their careers. The blog demands that all collaborators visit Bondy suburb, only 15 minutes from Gare du Nord station in Paris. As a consequence, the blog’s small offices in the Parisian suburb have entertained a number of high profile journalists, and even a surprise visit from Samuel L. Jackon in 2010. The course has proven hugely successful, becoming very well known among journalists in France.

Back to the UK, and the Leveson report’s 13 pages on newspaper treatment on women and ethnic minorities, which states that:

‘The evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced report in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning’ (p 673),

and that:

‘The evidence demonstrates that sections of the press betray a tendency, which is far from being universal or event preponderant, to portray Muslims in a negative light’… ‘The tendency… is not limited to the representation of Muslims, and applies in a similar way to some other minority ethnic groups’. (p671)

A truly ‘free press’ implies access and relevance for all, where diverse communities are empowered to have their voices heard, and are able to challenge negative stereotypes in an inclusive conversation. Bondy Blog’s model is one that can be replicated – a challenge to establishment press through the legitimacy of real life experience.