Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Human Rights: 60 years on

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on September 21, 2008

This year marks 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first penned.

The Observer’s Review supplement’s put together an excellent special today on how the rights have ultimately been ignored over the last six decades.

What’s struck me recently is how little any of us know about our human rights. I’m an educated sort of bloke, good upbringing an all that. But ask me any details on what are the fundamental protectors of my free existence, and I can’t answer much.

I know there’s something about freedom of religion, and freedom of expression and freedom from torture. And that Eleanor Roosevelt and World War Two had something to do with it.

But scarily, that’s it.

How, I wonder, are we all supposed to ensure our Human Rights are protected, when we don’t even know what they are?

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The people who refuse to get screwed by the system

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on September 14, 2008

For anyone who doesn’t know I recently moved ‘up north’ to start a new job, working in Hull. So far, so good, and already it’s proving eventful and interesting. Two experiences in the last week have got me thinking about the state of modern Britain, and what appears to be our rapidly deminishing rights and freedoms.

In the dog house

On Monday, I was sent a report from a freelance court reporter in Hull about a case which had just been thrown out of the courts. 57 year old John Hirst, from Hull, an ex-prisoner,  prison reform lawyer – and well known blogger – had been hauled before the judges after his dog was accused of biting a park warden.

When John appeared in court, the prosecution were able to offer no evidence and the judge duly threw out the case.

But not before John had been arrested and questioned. And not before it cost the taxpayer a rather large amount of money (John told me he reckons it’s about £20,000).

Speaking to John on the phone he was “livid” about what had happened and how the case had been allowed to have gotten so far. If it had gone as far as a trial, then it would have cost even more. But there are some other things that worry me about the story.

First up is the supposedly heavy handed response from the authorities. John told me six police officers came to his house after the complaint was made, handcuffed him and took him to a police station. His dog, Rocky, was separated from him and kept at the police station. What defence does any citizen have when this kind of thing happens?

Luckily the justice system came through, but there’s another worry too.

John called me again later in the week, concerned there had been no response from the authorities. True, Hull City Council had refused to comment, saying the police led the prosecution. So I want to find out what the police files on this say, but doing a bit of reading up this weekend it’s not looking promising.

Heather Brooke, the well known journalist and freedom of information campaigner, says Britain’s supposedly “open” legal system is the opposite. Trying to get access to what should be public files is near impossible. Still I won’t let that stop me trying. Let’s see if the FOI Act can uncover more…

Your invite’s in the post

Less than 24 hours later I found myself in Hedon, a small village outside Hull. Today though it was hosting some big(ish) political names. Namely the Environment Secretary Hillary Benn, and local MPs Graham Stuart and David Davis.

Mr Benn had been invited up to talk flooding, and specifically why the EA wants to flood acres of farmland instead of paying for flood defences. We, the assembled media, were there too, hoping to get a soundbite off the Minister.

Waiting outside Hedon’s small town hall, I was approached by a man called Simon Taylor. He lives on a small piece of reclaimed land called Sunk Island. He, along with 800 others were probably going to loose their homes to the Humber River within the next 20 years. That almost certainty meant they couldn’t sell their homes, and are going to have to stay to watch it happen.

A charming and polite man, tall with a bristly moustache, Simon was angry because he was standing outside the meeting, and not in it. The hour long coflab, involved the three politicians, local councillors and a select group of farmers. But the ordinary people hadn’t been invited along. “I’m going to lose my home, and I haven’t got a voice,” he told me.

I chatted to Simon and interviewed him about his worries. But later on he did something which few people would bother to do, or be brave enough to do.

Sure enough, Hillary Benn emerged to give a brief statement to the press before speeding off to his next gig. That left Stuart and Davis left to show off about how they’d got a government bigwig to come all the way up to Hull. But their words were interrupted when to my left, a voice raised above theirs and said “excuse me, why wasn’t anyone invited. We’re going to lose our homes – I think we would have liked to have had a word with the minister.” Like the fiercest of political reporters Simon pressed the question and wouldn’t let it go.

Flustered, Graham Stuart admitted it was a problem of space rather than anything else, and promised a public meeting was going to be held next month. But will Hillary Benn be there? Who knows.

But Simon’s stand is important: denied a voice by modern democracy he persisted and fought to get an explanation. Without him there, the politicians and the media would have skimmed over Sunk Island, and the 800 people would certainly have lost their voice.

Two people then, screwed by the system, and who fought it – and arguably won. In the space of two days. In one city. How many more cases like this are there? And how many don’t get heard?

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The Floods: One Year On

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2008

Last year I reported extensively on the widespread flooding which affected parts of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

It was the first big story I ever covered and in the year since I’ve reported on the slow clear up and the impact it has had on local peoples’ lives.

To mark the first anniversary this month I was asked to produce a 30 minute documentary for 102 Touch Radio looking back at the events and asking if anything has changed.

I’ve uploaded the programme in two 10 minute chunks for anyone who wants a listen…enjoy and any comments always helpful!

Click here to listen to Part One (10’00”)

Click here to listen to Part Two (10’30”)

Covering a local fire tragedy

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 17, 2008

The stereotype of a local news reporter (you know, church fetes, angry nimbys, that sort of thing) hasn’t really come true in my 9 months at CN Radio in Warwickshire. Some of the biggest stories of the year landed close by, including the warehouse fire which killed four firefighters back in November.

Here’s a reflective piece I wrote for the Touch Radio website about how we covered that particular story:

When hundreds of people came to Coventry Cathedral in January for a memorial service, it marked a closing chapter in one of the darkest times for fire fighters everywhere, especially in Warwickshire.

Ian Reid, John Averis, Ashley Stevens and Darren Yates-Badley were all killed fighting a blaze at a vegetable packing plant in Atherstone-on-Stour in November.

It was also a huge challenge for the Touch Radio news team – trying to cover the ever-changing situation, while remembering that friends, neighbours and even family of the four men could be listening.

Media Mount

The warehouse on a rural industrial estate became the centre of national media attention for the few days while the fires raged back in November.

Most of the camera crews were camped on top of a huge mound of earth in front of the site, which became known as “Media Mount”.

Getting there wasn’t easy either – you had to drive up a long country track lined with gigantic fire hoses. Security guards insisted on seeing press ID before letting you close to the scene. Once there you had to navigate past dozens of TV satellite news trucks and dozens more fire engines.

At the height of the search and rescue operation 100 fire fighters were working on the scene.

Walking past the ones just finishing a shift you could see tiredness and frustration etched across their dirty faces, after another day searching for their fallen colleague.

Messages of support

By the second day it became clear the real story was in Alcester and Stratford where the four men came from.

Those days were difficult for local newspapers and radio stations: we knew the names of the four men (they had been published in a Sunday newspaper) but without confirmation from the fire service we didn’t want to name them – that would only be more upsetting for the family.

I spent a lot of that first Sunday in Alcester, talking to the mayor and the local vicar, as well as standing outside the small fire station, watching dozens of people stop by with flowers, teddies and messages.

One read “Rest in peace boys, you are true heroes now”.

Tributes

By the following Wednesday the worst news had been confirmed and the bodies of 3 of the men were carried out in a procession in the early hours of the morning.

The next weeks would be filled with tributes to the men, covering their funerals and the big questions that have to be asked about what caused the fire and why the men were sent into the building.

Pirates ahoy!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 20, 2007

Is there a battle raging in our airwaves?
A study by the UK media regulator Ofcom published yesterday showed that there are as many as two hundred pirate radio stations in Britain; half of them are based in London.

But the survey of three London boroughs – Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth  – shows that they’re becoming increasingly popular: around a quarter of people in those areas regularly tune into illegal stations:

  • 25% of these listeners tune in for the non-english programming
  • 16% tune in for the unique music

Last month I produced a short radio package on pirate radio in London for my coursework at City University, speaking to Ofcom, LBC and ex-pirate station Voice of Africa Radio.

It’s available online – click here.

“That’s what we do”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 20, 2007

“It’s our job to make television that people want to watch, that’s what we do” I heard a CNN producer say today in a heated debate in the gallery about whether the world’s had enough of Virginia Tech.

That certainly has an element of truth to it; whether you agree with the idea or not.

Whatever you think of the on-screen coverage of Monday’s shootings, Sue Turton from Channel 4 News in the UK has some pretty revealing insights into the media’s behaviour off-screen:

Compared to my ultra efficient but ever polite producer, Sarah Corp, her US equivalent were under immense pressure to deliver the student or parent with the most heart-wrenching story as soon as physically possible.

Sadly this manifested itself in abrupt and sometimes aggressive approaches to people who had already been through so much.

It does not make pretty reading.

Maybe letter writing does work…

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2007

Today’s Media Guardian has a spread announcing the launch of the 2007 Student Media Awards – the annual parade of student journalism talent in the UK.

And for the first time, there’s a category for Student Broadcaster of the Year.

It’s taken 12 months exactly…but maybe letter writing does work:

Letter to the Media Guardian

Shame all three of us are no longer elible to enter though.

[Cheers to Doidge for the tip off]

Discrimination in the media: it’s not race – it’s money

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2007

Is radio racist?

That was the question asked at a Radio Academy event I went to last week. Arguments went round in a circles a little bit, with nobody actually producing even anecdotal evidence of any prejudice or discrimination in the line of their work.

Then my friend Jimmy, who works at the Radio Centre, produced some yet-to-be-published statistics from Skillset, which poured a bit more fuel on the fire:

  • Averaged out, about 6% of the UK population are non-white.
  • 10.9% of the BBC’s staff are non-white
  • 3.1% of staff in the commercial radio sector are non-white.

A bit embarassing for commercial radio really, but you do have to mention that the majority of local radio staff work in regions and small towns. Compare that to the Beeb’s mainly London based staff. And in London nearer 30% of people are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

My own personal conclusion was (in regards to employment) the media industry is possibly the least racist industry there is. But it does discriminate still – against people, of all races, without money.

Greasy poles and NUJ polls

Take my course for example. To train to be a journalist at City University will set you back £5,995. Its equivalent at Westminster is £4,700 and £5,391 at Cardiff.

And on top of that we, plus anyone wanting to go into any branch of the industry, usually do at least a couple of months worth of unpaid work experience. And on rare occasions we get our travel expenses paid. That’s happened to me once.

I’m not for one second trying to moan about this or get above my station. I know I’m one of thousands clambering at the bottom of a great whopping dirty greasy pole; if I didn’t work for free, there are hundreds behind me who will. It’s part of the process.
But it’s worried the National Union of Journalists who today handed a survey to Her Majesty’s Custom and Exise highlighting the exploitation of people on work experience by certain companies. An early day motion’s also been tabled in parliament to discuss the NUJ’s findings.

They say some companies are bringing in unpaid students on work experience to fill HR gaps and sick leave. Here’s one example from the NUJ’s survey:

“At my local paper – I was given several by-lines including a front page exclusive and was not even offered payment for my travel expenses.”

Money, money, money

Again, I’m not here to moan, and a lot of the case studies in the NUJ survey seem to be just general “I didn’t get to do anything” rants. One person even complains I really had to push to get work and used my own initiative to get stuff on air”…well done mate – that’s how it works.

But they do raise a good point about the cost of going into this industry. And if you’re doing the work that a freelancer could be brought in to do, then by rights you should be paid the rates.

It’s a hugely rewarding industry when you get in and – I dearly hope – my six grand will have more than paid for itself this time next year.

But it’s cold and wet on the outside looking in. Is it surprising that people get turned off from the media when they have to sacrifice so much to get in? You need extraordinary amounts of money to get started, and it’s sad fact that most of the people who can’t afford fees or unpaid work happen to be from BME backgrounds.

But that’s a socio-economic problem for Britain as a whole – it’s not something the media industry (as powerful as it is) is not equipped to deal with.

Dawg gone…

Posted in News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 26, 2007

I’ve been meaning to write something worthy and insightful about campaign journalism or reporter involvement or Ahmadinejad’s domestic trouble or Ghana’s upcoming jubilee celebrations…

But right now I just feel like taking the easy shots. Thus this humdinger from the Camden New Journal I spotted while up in Hamstead yesterday:

Second Dog Electrocuted by Lamppost

by ROISIN GADELRAB

A second dog has been electrocuted by a lamppost that was left live for more than three weeks, it has emerged.Mike Cookson-Taylor has told how his eight-stone Bull Mastiff, called Dog, was thrown five feet into the air as it urinated on the same lamppost that killed German Shepherd Willow two weeks ago.Last week the New Journal revealed Willow was fatally electrocuted 11 days after a council employee had declared the lamppost safe.
The Health and Safety Executive has since ordered Camden Council to investigate, but says the watchdog is not concerned with accidents not involving humans.
Mr Cookson-Taylor says his dog survived the 240-volt shock but contacted the New Journal to tell of his disbelief on learning the lamppost was left live despite him complaining to Camden Council.
He said: “Dog cocked his leg at the lamppost and shot four or five foot into the air. His head was level with my own, he looked me right in the eyes. He’s eight stone but it threw him in the air and he yelped. If my dog had died I would have been heartbroken.
“It could have been anybody, someone disabled, using the lamppost to steady themselves, children. It’s absolutely horrendous.”

Some stuff just cries out to be blogged. Genuine worthy stuff follows shortly, I promise.

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Clapham shooting: the interest continues

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 16, 2007

The quiet South London estate I’ve been living on for the past five months has become an extraordinary hive of media and police activity. The far entrance, near the high street, which was the original spot for reporters has been sealed off, and someone figured out the next morning that the best location was the small car park inside the estate, which my flat overlooks.

So today there have been 5 satellite trucks parked outside and at least 2 TV crews doing live 2-ways from near Billy Cox’s home. A pile of flowers have been growing today as well, and joining police and journalists have been scores of locals coming to pay their respects.

Interestingly I’ve seen a lot more gangs in the area today – that’s to say groups of teenagers in hoodies etc. They’re not normally from around here, so I guess they’ve come to pay their respects to (as one tribute put it) a fallen soldier.

Apparently there are several big gangs around South London. There’s the Peckham Boys and the Young Peckham Boys, Man Dem Crew and Peel Dem Crew – they’re the closest to Clapham – plus the Ghetto Boys near Lewisham and the appropriately posh sounding South Man Syndicate operating in Tooting Bec.

None of the gangs visiting Fenwick Place tonight seem threatening; rather they’re here to pay their respects and move on. Or it could be the fact that you’re never more than 10 feet away from a police officer.

It’s interesting that the media glare is still here so much – 15 year old Billy Cox’s body was taken away yesterday, and the story has moved on now to the government response. But BBC News and ITV London both got hold of teenagers from the estate today who were surprisingly willing to talk on camera. The juxtaposition with BBC posh man Daniel Boetcher was odd to say the least.

They usually say communities “unite in grief” during times like this. People from Fenwick Place are coming together but, it seems, more to watch the TV reporters than to mourn together.

Certainly Wednesday’s killing has shocked this relatively quiet and crime free estate. It looks rough from the outside, and we all moved in with some trepidation – but this is the first incident in five months and as a resident in the middle, I don’t feel any less safe after this weeks sad events than I did before.

[edit: and just minutes after I posted this entry, the TV trucks have all moved away. The three kids from the family on the floor below us are back out, happily playing football in the carpark.]

Clapham shooting: close to home

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 14, 2007

A teenager’s been shot and killed in Clapham – the third victim of gang violence in South London in 10 days. This latest killing has happened yards from my flat earlier this afternoon.

It happened just before four o’clock this afternoon, and the story made it to air not long after 9. Several satellite trucks are parked around the back of my estate, Fenwick Place, in Clapham North.

The scene by the police corden Clapham North

Police have sealed off most of the estate, and as I write forensic tests are being carried out before the teenager’s body is removed from another flat.

Fenwick Place, Clapham, London

It’s brought London’s spiralling gun crime close to home. Just over a week ago a sixteen year old was killed at an ice rink down the road and a week ago today another teenager was shot in his bed in Peckham…where Damilola Taylor died 7 years ago.

Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has called an emergency meeting tomorrow. Gun crime in South London it seems has gotten out of control. But it’s not something that bothers many people…here’s the scene outside the Falcon Pub inches from the police corden. Plenty of people are happy to head out for a drink or two at a crime scene.

The Falcon pub, Fenwick Place, Clapham

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‘Snow joke

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 10, 2007

What japes we get up to on the City journo course in London. This week, in preparation for our weekly TV news programme fellow student Neil was asked to go an make a short you-tube style film in the snow, to illustrate a news story about UGC.

The result has been bluetoothed across Islington and is now on the web – hilarious through accident rather than design.

It gets funnier the more times you watch it.

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