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Will the Lib Dems be the first big casualty of organised social media campaigning?

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Governments of the past have always been able to propagate their message, however the rise of social media over recent years has provided a great swing of power back in to the hands of ‘the ordinary people.’

With Aaron Porter leading an NUS campaign to oust U-turning Lib Dem MPs we are about to see just how strong these new platforms really can be. Members of the Education Activist Network  are risen sharply since last week’s demo and tonight they are meeting again to ‘discuss next steps’ according to ULU President Clare Solomon – a meeting again which will draw physical participant through online communication.

So it seems like something ‘big’ is definitely growing. With so much student energy on facebook the NUS clearly have the upper-hand in all of this. They have the participants and the tools and for as long as they can keep the message right, they look certain to unnerve any Lib Dem who signed that pre-election pledge on fees.

I filmed an interview with Aaron Porter just before last weeks demo in which he speaks about his plan to ‘make sure that any Lib Dem MPs who votes in favour of tuition fee increases will lose their seat in 2015.’

Written by Robert Dale

November 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Posted in article

A big loss in today’s midterms may be a blessing in disguise

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Once upon a time there was a democratic President of the United States working with a democratic Senate and a democratic House of Representatives and he went in to his first midterm elections and was slaughtered – losing both houses of Congress and being written off as a one-term President.

That was a man called Bill Clinton who bounced back and out manoeuvred his opponents – so what fate awaits Barack Obama if , as today’s papers predict, his Democrat Party are going to crumble in the elections?

It seems fair to say that the losing of momentum that Obama was able to garner in 2008 has really began to show in Washington – whether it is people leaving his administration (Larry Summers, Jim Jones and others) or in this the general feeling/realisations of the public that ‘well this isn’t as rosey as we thought.’

But regardless of what today’s results come out like,  it’ll actually be quite good for the administration – allowing them to start focusing on actually governing the country and not running the elections. The White House seems to have been in paralysis of late. With Biden and Obama spending massive amounts of time flying around the country trying to convince people to continue supporting them, hugely important work has huge been left on the back-burner.

Besides, if these last two years have seen the best support Obama can get from a Democratic Congress it might actually prove better to work with a Republican House. At least he will have someone to blame.

The Vibe will be experimenting with various ‘live’ ways to cover today’s election results – do feel free to follow/join in/offer advice – http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=145805472132471&index=1

Written by Robert Dale

November 2, 2010 at 7:30 am

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Thousands are living destitute in Leeds

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Destitution (n) 1. extreme want of resources or the means of subsistence, complete poverty
2. a deprivation or lack, a deficiency

There is a hidden, largely unreported population in British society which survives on less than a dollar a day – the yardstick that defines acute and unacceptable poverty across the globe. These people are rejected asylum seekers who have ‘chosen’ to live in destitution because they fear that their lives will be in danger if they return to their home countries.

The section of the Home Office responsible for asylum seekers, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) does not put an exact figure on this population but estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000. These ‘failed’ applicants are given 21 days, known as the ‘move-on’ period before financial, legal and health aid is severed. Without a home, thousands of people have taken to living under the radar in Britain, enduring severe poverty, extreme hunger, mental and physical ill health and multiple forms of abuse. Amnesty International believe this to be a deliberate tactic to rush people out of the country. Even the House of Lords deemed that by ‘refusing permission for asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the Governments treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases reaches Article 3 ECHP threshold of inhuman and degrading treatment’.

A recent report published by PAFRAS, a charity that works with asylum seekers and refuges in Leeds revealed over half of the people it works with survive on one meal a day and less than £5 a week. Severe depression is widespread and many have experienced racial and physical abuse (including rape) by ‘white English people.’ Crucially, 95% of the people PAFRAS speak to are from affluent professional backgrounds including lawyers, teachers and television presenters. So the question must be asked, why would they choose to remain here and suffer such neglect and privation?

According to the Refugee Council, half of all recorded destitution cases come from only four countries, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe and Eritrea – all places of conflict or that have human rights records. Many were forced to flee these countries because they dared speak out against oppressive regimes in countries where opposing the government leads to detention, torture and sometimes death. Yet despite the government arguing it has ‘a proud tradition of offering a place of safety for genuine refugees’, many people from these troubled countries continually find their application rejected. But in the case facing many Zimbabweans, legal action currently prevents the government from removing refused asylum seekers back to the country and therefore many have little choice but to slip off the radar.

In contrast to popular opinion, the UK does not receive the most asylum seeker applications in Europe; last year both France and Italy took higher numbers. There are 10.6 million refugees in the world and 90% live in Africa and Asia. In 2006, only 23,610 people claimed asylum and up to two-thirds of these were refused – asylum was just 4% of overall immigration in 2007. Those who do it make to the UK have done so through people smugglers, often paying $10,000 to get passage to a safe country. Their socio-economic status then in their home country debunks the myth that asylum seekers are poverty-stricken individuals whose primary aim when in the UK is to claim benefit and secure council housing.

The destitute asylum seeker population is invisible, it statistically does not exist. But the human stories are there to be discovered. PAFRAS has seen demand for its services (free meals, toiletries, clothes, support and advice) rise from 2,230 visits in 2006 to 6,112 in 2008. Much of the help received by asylum seekers is provided by other impoverished asylum seekers but who are on Section 4 Support – £35 supermarket vouchers a week and no choice accommodation). As one put it, ”It’s left to those of us with almost nothing to support those with absolutely nothing.” This leaves many homeless, starving and open to exploitation and racist attacks.

Thirty-five percent of the women in the PAFRAS report who have no choice put to sleep on the street claim they had been sexually assaulted. One woman was attacked by a gang of five men while she was sleeping in a park – two of these men raping her. Another man was racially abused and stabbed in the eye with a piece of broken glass. But, the vast majority of attacks go unreported as failed asylum seekers are fearful of the police liaising with immigration officials to expedite their removal from the UK.

Many destitute asylum seekers are in poor health, both physically and mentally. Seventy-five percent of those who use PAFRAS have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Peoples psychological problems are a toxic combination of trauma endured in their home country and trauma endured here. But it is not just the adult asylum seeker population crippled by destitution. Five percent of the women interviewed in Leeds have children under the age of 5 born in the UK. Like their mothers, these children are enduring severe poverty and extreme hunger. What will happen when they reach school age?

Jon Burnett of PAFRAS perhaps offers the best possible summary when he states ‘the fact that so many people who have escaped persecution are suffering such extreme privations is nothing short of a completely avoidable humanitarian disaster in our own backyard’.

Written by Robert Dale

August 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Interview with Nicholas Jones (former lobby journalist) on the undemocratic future of political commentary

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Here in Britain newspapers have always been free to campaign and promote political propaganda. The intrusive and influential nature of radio and television however has meant they’ve been placed under strict rules and regulations that require their reporting (by law) to be politically balanced and impartial.

And it’s because of these rules that politicians delve persistently into the ‘black arts’ of political communication in order to set, shape and control the media agenda. Politicians no longer announce news policies in the House of Commons; they launch them at stage-managed pseudo-events that are more abut style than substance. Favoured journalists are selectively briefed with leaks and ‘exclusive’ information and unified party-line rebuttals are remembered to defend any negative reporting that arises along the way.

Nothing in this ‘public relations democracy’ is left to chance; everything is rational, rehearsed and rhetorical.

The online political environment is sometimes romanticised as the antidote to all of this. There is no doubt that it does occasionally serve to correct many journalistic and political errors and indeed we are gradually seeing signs that what appears on the internet can affect the mainstream news agenda.

However, there is a growing murky side to all this unregulated political commentary. According to Nicholas Jones, former BBC journalist and now author of several books on ‘spin-doctory’ and media manipulation, the national newspapers remain the all-powerful force in setting and commanding the online agenda – they may not control content but they certainly influence the root of most online discussion.

This on first glance may not appear to be too worrying. But, as Jones points out, there is a natural evolution of newspapers transforming themselves into digital online radio and television broadcasters (the politically-charged Sun Talk launched last April with who else but David Cameron appearing as their first live interviewee). Free of the legal regulations placed over traditional radio broadcasters, Sun radio is free to broadcast whatever serves Murdoch’s political agenda best – it’s no surprise then that the Tories plan for the ‘Digital Britain’ provides little resistance to these new, unregulated mediums.

It appears that Britain is soon going to have a new media network that parallels that of the American ‘shock jocks’. If Jones is correct, this could indeed be one of the biggest challenges to our democracy.

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Written by Robert Dale

August 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm

interviewing the new MP’s with Catch21

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I spent a few days last month filming interviews with about 50 of the new batch of MP’s. Working
with Catch21, the idea behind ‘mpinions’ was to encourage political engagement by ‘humanising’ the new crop and asking them simple yet timely questions – such as ‘do you believe in proportional representation?’

All MP’s we’re asked the same 5 questions –

1) What is your main priority as a new MP?

2) What colour is the coalition government?

3) Are you in favour of electoral reform and if so which system?

4) What is your special talent and can you demonstrate it briefly to us on camera?

5) Where are you off to next?

Video’s are being posted here, on facebook and being linked to from all over the place. So far the interviews with Duncan Hames, John Glen, Liz Kendall, Ian Murray, Angie Bray, Kate Green, Simon Wright and Peter Aldous have been uploaded. MP’s still to come include Caroline Lucas, Zac Goldsmith and Julian Huppert.

The project was supported and promoted by the HansardSociety, Dod’s Parliamentary Communications (via e-politix)Operation Black Vote and The British Youth Council and of course the new MP’s themselves.

if you would like to follow for you can do so on@robandale or on Facebook

Written by Robert Dale

July 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm

The ‘Big Society’ or an atomised Britain?

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David Cameron ended the Parliamentary session by launching what he calls his ‘Big Society’ program and plans for a national citizen service to encourage volunteers. But what does ‘Big Society’ mean and does government backing for voluntary services really help?

The whole idea of empowering communities to do something for themselves was previously explored by Tony Blair after his huge victory in 1997. If it didn’t take off for an (at the time) popular leader during a time of economic prosperity then one must rightly be wary of its chances to succeed at a time of savage cuts in public spending.

The biggest problem with Cameron’s initiative isn’t the idea itself – it’s the vagueness with which it is being promoted (The Independent last Saturday described it as his ‘hazy vision of social regeneration’) and the lack of detail as to how these programs will work in reality.

It is understandable that most people are listening to these plans with a sense of caution. Society is very suspicious that this is really a plot to cover the government from its strong austerity measures – is the government trying to mask enforced redundancies behind a wall of newly-found volunteerism?

Perhaps the most striking thing however it the lack of realism in government thinking – the fact of the matter is that those who will volunteer are already doing so. Millions of people all around the world are already volunteering through richer and poorer so rather than spending time, effort and indeed money in building new voluntary structures, why not focus those resources on making life a bit easier for these already overstretched organisations?

Underneath the soundbite title the government is hoping to harvest a much more definitive ideology behind the ‘Big Society.’ Cameron and Clegg have bonded over desires to remake the way government functions and lift the dead-weight of bureaucracy that stagnates so much social innovation. And for these reductions in regulation and red-tape there appears to be a great deal of public sympathy.

But these subsidiary objectives aren’t necessarily the same as de-centralisation. Britain’s centrally-controlled political structure dates back to Thatcherism and her efforts to weaken local government. But despite wanting to cut bureaucracy the Prime Minister isn’t pushing any desire to re-empower these authorities – in fact the ‘Big Society’ is taking further power away from them in two big areas, education and planning controls.

The function of the government is to mediate between competing interest groups in society, but by fragmenting and removing this local authority function of mediation Cameron is potentially leading Britain towards a very atomised society. The result may well be a rise in problematic local antagonism with very little accountability to anyone if or when it all goes wrong.

Written by Robert Dale

July 25, 2010 at 9:02 pm

THE POWER OF TRANSPARENCY

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This article original appeared in Don’t Panic magazine.

In contemporary politics it is important that you are seen to be doing something. The leaders of the world’s top-twenty countries met this weekend to discuss their collective fiscals deficits and what to do with the global banking system. The substance that comes from this meeting may be negligible but the style of such a showcase will suffice. It is enough that something visual happened.

The narrative that the world’s economic system will soon be better than ever before is now being applied over the images by PR gurus. Why will it be better? Because, we are told, banks and financial institutes, will be more transparent in their dealings. As the Spanish prime minister preached ”There is nothing better than transparency to demonstrate solvency.”

But why stop at the finance industry – if this ‘there is nothing better than transparency’ principle were to be applied across the whole political system it would surely make for a more pleasant society. Being visible makes people accountable to their actions. In ‘The Silent State’ Heather Brooke, the ‘unsung political hero’ in bringing the expenses scandal to light, illustrates that the more information available to the public, the less the chance of corruption by those in power. A simple comparison of current MP’s receipts with ones from five years ago provides ample evidence of this.

In true democracies information belongs to the public. But in the UK – the ‘mother of democracies’ – power remains largely anonymous, unattributed and protected within bureaucratic red-tape and hierarchical cliques.

However, as understanding of the Internet grows and skills in using the Freedom of Information Act develop, citizens of such democratised states are beginning to empower themselves and challenge the constricted flow of public information.

TheyWork4You is a brilliant example of interested and innovative citizens working for the public in order correct a systematic democratic deficit. Costing the tax-payer absolutely nothing, these developers have given society direct access to the contact details and voting history in Parliament of all MP’s. Five years ago this information was obscured to the average voter. Even though what happens in the Commons is done for the people, at public cost, those who make the laws of the land traditionally been strangely inaccessible to the people. A quick read of John Pilger or some of the excellent work done by MediaLens will explain why this is so.

To put it briefly, this all illustrates two things. The first is that politics is dirtier than we can ever imagine. The second is that more often than not the only remedies to these democratic defects comes from determined citizens taking the initiative to do something that serves the public interest.

Perhaps the greatest examples of unethical behaviour being revealed to the public has come through whistle-blowers. Subverting from within, these ‘rebels’ have gone behind their masters back and publicised the reality that lies behind the rhetoric.

A hugely important (and disturbing) example of the importance of whistleblowers comes from the publicising of a video revealing a US air crew shooting down 12 Iraqi civilians via the website Wikileaks. Initially the US military claimed all the dead were insurgents and they were reacting to active firefight. The video seems to confirm that this as a irrefutable lie.

Wikileaks says there are more videos to come that challenge America’s narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ including another US military video showing one of its most deadliest air strikes in Afghanistan. An act the Afghan government reported killed 140 civilians including 92 children.

To confirm the seriousness of protecting the ‘manufactured reality’ of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, the US intelligence specialist who is believed to have leaked this data, is currently being detained in Kuwait. As this material ‘could do serious damage to national security’, the ‘co-operation’ of Wikileaks creator, Julian Assange is also being sought by the US.

Wikileaks was also behind the distribution of the list of BNP members, and the leaking of emails from climate scientists from University of East Anglia that showed manipulation of information – information that was being used in Parliament to decide environmental policy.

But Wikileaks symbolises more than just the distorted narrative we are delivered through political speeches and mainstream news. It, along with the work of Heather Brooke and the guys behind TheyWork4You, helpmeinvestigate.com and countless other projects, serves as a realisation that things are changing. Information is gradually becoming transparent and no career politician can resist it – the PR would be just too bad.

This may seem all rather utopian and romantic but the steps being taken in Iceland show there is real substance in this. The aim behind the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative is to internationalise media law and bring it up to speed with the information age. In other words, Iceland wants to become to journalists what Belize and the Bahamas is to billionaires.

Some critics argue this is a PR stunt by the Icelandic government to recover it’s image following Ashgate and the collapse of the countries banking system. However with Julian Assange, the mind behind Wikileaks, being flown into Iceland to advise its politicians on how to implement such a law, journalists fighting for freedom of expression may find Iceland a true ally. Wikileaks currently avoids legal implications by routing all it’s activity through Sweden, where investigation into an anonymous source is illegal. Under the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative could journalists, whistleblowers, and ‘leakers’ would console themselves with a degree of legal protection.

Why all this doesn’t exist already makes you wonder what such democratic countries have to hide, and what remains to be unearthed in the murky depths of State secrecy.


Written by Robert Dale

June 29, 2010 at 9:37 pm

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