February 17, 2017

Mike Jempson, covering stories from local to the global

Jempson is a journalist, international trainer and university lecturer who has been involved in co-operative journalism projects. he is the Director of the journalism ethics NGO MediaWise. He thinks that local media can work as a network all over the world, covering local stories, connecting them and turning them into global issues.

He shared with us some of his reflections on journalism and The Bristol Cable, an innovative investigative newspaper with which he is involved.

By Sergio Mañero

Jempson believes local journalism is more connected to its audiences than national newspapers. He is a member of a co-operative project in the city where he lives, Bristol in the south west of England. The Bristol Cable is a free newspaper that is seeking economic sustainability through a membership scheme. Currently there are 1,500 members who pay a monthly minimum subscription of £1.  Along with some advertising revenue this allows The Cable to publish four times a year. Already in its 10th edition, some 180,000 copies have been distributed on the streets of the city.

Mike Jempson for article

Mike Jempson at Media4Change office.

Bristol’s citizens are not only the sponsors of The Cable, but also its writers and editors. In the Bristol Cable Media Lab, professional journalists train local people with no previous experience of journalism how to find and write up stories. The free training is based on the simple principle that journalists have a responsibility to verify facts.They learn other skills and communication techniques too – making best use of language and imagery to communicate quite complex information of value and interest to as wide a range of citizens possible.

The Cable is an investigative magazine, and aims to cover big issues, mapping the social and political structure of the city and trying to dig out information often kept hidden from local residents or ignored by the mainstream. These local stories sometimes have a national and international dimension.

In its Autumn 2016 edition, The Bristol Cable published a story about technology security and privacy. It discovered that Bristol’s police had bought devices that could spy on citizens’ mobile phones. The paper was able to verify for the first time that at least 28 police forces were using such equipment. This exclusive story quickly went national .

Cable editors and community journalists try to help people understand their world. For example, in the Winter 2017 edition, they revealed the international consequences of one of the main industries from Bristol, aeroplanes and weaponry, and the software associated with weaponry. Everybody in Bristol is aware of the importance of this industry, with many people working in it. But few know the eventual use of the weapons being produced locally. Bristol based companies such as Rolls Royce, BAE systems or MBDA, are selling war materiel to countries involved in conflicts where violations of international humanitarian law have been registered, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This story, Jempson says, “raises some interesting ethical questions for the residents”.

In its first edition, two years ago, The Bristol Cable carried out an investigation documenting the abuses to employees in Bristol’s catering sector. When it was published, they discovered that there were communities in other countries, such USA, facing the same abuses by the same companies. In fact, there were also workers organising campaigns and strikes. These unanticipated international connections show, according to Jempson, how local issues can help people understand globalisation.

The Bristol Cable is one of many new ‘alternative’ print and online media that have sprung up in the UK in recent years.  And it is not the first such project in which Jempson has been involved. Back in the 1970s, when he was starting out in journalism, there was an upsurge in radical alternative newspapers. He was co-founder, editor and company secretary of the East End News in 1980. It was a paid-for weekly local paper, run as a workers’ and readers’ co-operative, and supported by tenants’ associations, community groups and trades unions.

Jempson explains that their biggest problem was always money. He remembers going to a members’ meeting and having to say to people “Look, we’re bankrupt. We cannot afford to pay staff. The advertisers are not paying their money quick enough.” There were offers of fresh capital from private sources but he felt it was unacceptable as those sources wanted to influence in the newspaper and that would have meant a loss of independence.

One of those who made a bid for the paper was an accountant who turned up at the office one day looking for his son. He had heard his son was taking pictures for the East End News when he was supposed to be at  school. Val McCalla could see the paper had inspired his son, and he got involved too. As a rather conservative Afro-Caribbean he was initially nervous about the paper’s Black Voices page – produced by local Black and Asian organisations. However, when his attempted takeover failed, in 1982 McCalla set up The Voice which became one of the most successful black newspapers in Britain.

Bristol Cable

The Bristol Cable’s last issue.

At the time there were very few black journalists in the UK and one of the innovative things the East End News did was to encourage people from ethnic minority communities to come and work on the paper. Several went on to become successful journalists at the BBC and other mainstream media outlets.

Although things are now much improved , according to Jempson, UK newsrooms still lack sufficient diversity to reflect the multi-faceted society they are supposed to serve. He says the problem is not just a matter of ethnicity, skin colour, or religion, but it is also one of socio-economic class.

He explains that most working class people cannot afford the fees to undertake an university degree, now the most common way of getting into journalism. That makes for a mismatch between the way the world is perceived through the eyes of a privileged few in newsrooms and the way it is experienced on the streets. Inevitably this affects the news agenda and even the analysis of society’s problems.

It is not a new problem. When he started out 40 years ago, Jempson was aware that many communities were under represented on local and national newspapers, so their stories were seldom told. He worked on the  East London Advertiser which served a very mixed community, yet there were no Black or Asian staff on the paper. His Editor was reluctant to include stories about the racism that was on the rise in the circulation area because he said it was too gloomy and upset the advertisers.

Jempson thinks the media must be open to criticism and should be more accountable to its audiences. He says that unless people do scrutinise the work of journalists, the mismatch between mainstream media’s vision of the world and the world as is seen by ordinary people will continue. But media analysis must take into account the political economy of the media and the constraints under which journalists operate, otherwise it is of little use in helping to improve journalistic practice.

Finally, Jempson again highlights the importance of verifying facts. In an era of ‘fake news’ where It is easy to find many versions of reality, people have a tendency to settle for things that fit with their beliefs (and prejudices). If they are to be trusted to make a reliable contribution to society, journalists have to focus on verification – and provide evidence to back it up.

Media professionals must really listen to people, get closer to their audiences, and reflect their diversity, he says.They can also help citizen journalists to cover stories in their communities, in projects like the East End News and The Bristol Cable.

Maybe building such links is the key to rebuilding the trust that nowadays mainstream journalism seems to have lost.



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