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Listening and engagement – how journalism is changing for the better

I’ve just started a new job at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, after 15 months as its digital and production editor. Here’s my take on why this is important – piece originally published on the Bureau’s website: thebureauinvestigates.com

We’re launching a three month project so that we can learn how to engage better with our readers, supporters and collaborators – and we need your help.

Since 2010, we have built our reputation as a non-profit media organisation that produces investigative journalism to empower citizens and protect democracy. We want to inform the public about how power works in today’s world. We expose wrongs, counter fake news and spark change. We do this at a local level – with our UK based Bureau Local network – and globally.

Our Bureau Local project has shown how and why homeless people are dying on the streets and shone a light on cuts to women’s refuges as well as putting shrinking council budgets under scrutiny.

Our global superbugs project has highlighted the challenge of the threat to healthcare – from resistant TB devastating the slums of India to women losing their wombs in Malawi because of antibiotic resistance. We’ve shown how major supermarkets are now using American style beef lots to raise the food we eat, with this being just one of many stories in our food and farming project.

We’ve built on one of our oldest and most established projects, tracking drone warfare, and launched a wider project, Shadow Wars, investigating President Donald Trump’s covert wars around the globe. We also consistently highlight the human cost of such hidden wars.

We’ve been able to do the work we do because foundations and a small number of individuals fund our journalism. But we want to do more.

There are many ways we could develop and expand our journalism, and get it seen and shared in more places. We could pursue our existing projects for longer, or take on new topic areas. We could use new storytelling formats and new platforms, and experiment with different ways of getting our findings to people affected and to policy makers. We could make our audiences a much bigger part of our journalism, from start to finish.

But we’ve not made up our minds yet, because we want you to be involved. So we’re going to spend the next three months listening to you about our work and hearing your ideas about our future direction. Yasmin Namini, one of our board directors who is advising on the project, asks: “What is the value of the Bureau and its investigations to our readers?”

We’d like to invite you to tell us your views on all of this. What kind of journalism could and should we be doing, and how we can communicate better with our readers and with potential new audiences? Are there particular organisations you know of that engage really well with different communities, or tell stories in exciting ways? Let us know, and give us tips on anything else we could be looking into as part of this research, by emailing thebureaulistens@tbij.com.

We’ll keep you posted, on our website and on social media, as our thinking develops.

I’m grateful to the Bureau for the opportunity to lead on this engagement project as my own work has taken me on a journey towards working more deeply with communities or what the journalist, Dan Gillmor, calls ‘the former audience’, characterised by media which reaches out to citizens and asks them to participate more deeply.

In my own case, I’ve written extensively about marginalised communities at risk of harm and exploitation but my journalism has been shaped over the last decade by a realisation that my work could be better if I worked alongside my interviewees in a deeper manner, rather than interviewing them and then speaking for them.

In my first book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people(Portobello, 2011), I investigated a relatively unknown crime – that of violence against disabled people. That book was influenced by the disability movement’s mantra, ‘Nothing about us, without us’. I listened to heart-rending stories of violence, talked to the bereaved and highlighted campaigns for justice. But I also involved affected families and the disability movement itself in my work, revising some chapter sections after consultation and even sharing some draft sections of my work as I went along.

I applied some of those same lessons to my next book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013), where I worked alongside both settled and nomadic communities, revising my work in the light of their comments.

I’ve changed the way I do journalism as a result of my own experiences and by reading deeply about more engaged forms of journalism. In particular, I no longer feel that readers and interviewees are passive, or that it is always wrong to consult readers as a story progressed, or that their voices are only there to facilitate my own journalism. I clarified these thoughts, in a piece, ‘No More Voiceless People’ for the Society of Authors magazine, which you can read here.

 

Our Bureau Local homeless project, charting those who die on the streets and in temporary accommodation

But the Bureau is also enthusiastic about looking at how it can work better with its readers and communities it reports on. We already collaborate widely with networks through our Bureau Local work, but we want to do more. Like other news organisations, we are aware that journalism is under threat, and that the models that used to sustain it are no longer working on their own.

Advertising budgets have dwindled, there are constant cutbacks to local journalism, and authoritarian leaders even attack the notion of press freedom and dub good reporting fake news. This, in turn, has led to a populist rise of distrust against journalists in certain countries, though it’s not the same everywhere. Journalists also bear responsibility for some of the criticism. News and comment are often mixed. Not all news organisations fact check to the extent they should. There are big challenges – one of them being that tech companies largely control how and where people consume our work as journalists.

But we have the chance to change our journalism, and there are some great models emerging. We’re going to be talking to organisations in the US, as well as European media organisations such as Correct!v and De Correspondent, all of which have developed more participatory models of journalism (for some of their work, at least). As our Bureau Local director, Megan Lucero says: “It is crucial we report with communities, not just on them. Opening up our journalism and working closely with collaborators and readers is vital for the future of the news industry.”

 

A Malawian woman affected by womb loss, photographed for our Global Superbugs project

They all have one thing in common – they listen to their readers. So that’s where we’re going to start. This deeper engagement matters. Newsrooms that have reached out to their readers have changed and deepened their journalism as a result. As the Texas Tribune’s 2025 strategic plan says:

“We must prioritize our readers’ needs alongside our own. The people we’re trying to reach must be able to see themselves reflected in both our reporting and our newsroom…There is no better time to be doing this work and no better place to do it. The stakes are mountain-high. The issues in play are getting more complex. The need for explanatory journalism, for investigative journalism and for the watchdog reporting that holds public officials and institutions accountable has never been greater.”

We’re excited to embark on this dynamic process, of listening to you and reflecting on how we should change. Please get involved and share your opinions about how the Bureau is doing, what issues you’d like us to cover and how we could involve readers more deeply through principles such as co-production and collaborative working.

“We want to move away from a place where we as journalists broadcast our final findings to our readers, but instead collaborate more with our readers and supporters to decide what we investigate and how we do it, perhaps even actively involving our audience in the work,” says Bureau managing editor Rachel Oldroyd. “If we really want our work to make a positive change to society then we need to do it in collaboration with the people who live in it.”

 

Header picture, of a Bureau event, by Rob Stothard. All other pictures from current Bureau work areas, including global superbugs, food and farming, Bureau Local and Shadow Wars.

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GDPR – my privacy policy

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will govern the way companies of all sizes manage and are responsible for the personal information they store and use. It is designed to give people more control over the information that is held about them, and to provide a legal framework to protect that control.

The new legislation is necessary because the way personal information is stored and used has been completely transformed over the past few decades. Existing legislation across Europe, including our own Data Protection Act 1998, has fallen behind as innovative ways to collect and exploit personal records have evolved, especially online.

I have read the Information Commissioner’s Office guidelines for compliance with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. This document that follows explains how I comply. If you have given me your email address, you should read this to reassure yourself that I am looking after your data extremely responsibly.

If any of you understand this even better than me and believe there’s something else I should be doing, do let me know. I value the security of your information extremely highly and will never intentionally breach the rules. However, the rules are designed for organisations and most authors are sole traders just doing our best to keep up.

I have used the ICO booklet, “Preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation – 12 Steps to Take Now.” Here are my answers.

Awareness
I am a sole trader so there is no one else in my organisation to make aware.

The information I hold:
Email addresses of people who have emailed me and to whom I have replied – automatically saved in gmail.

I do not share this information with anyone. Ever.

If someone randomly asks for another person’s email address, unless both are known closely to me, I always check with the other person first.

Communicating privacy information
I am taking five steps:

I have put this document on my website.
I have added a link to my email signature.

I have added a link to my contact page.

Lawful basis for processing data
If people have emailed me, they have given me their email address. I do not actively add it to a list but gmail will save it. I will not add it to any database or spreadsheet unless someone asks me to or gives me explicit and detailed permission.

 

Data breaches
I have done everything I can to prevent this, by strongly password-protecting my computer, Google and Dropbox accounts. If any of those organisations were compromised I would take steps to follow their advice immediately.

Data Protection by Design and Data Protection Impact Assessments
I have familiarised myself with the ICO’s code of practice on Privacy Impact Assessments as well as the latest guidance from the Article 29 Working Party, and believe that I am using best practice.

Data Protection Officers

I have appointed myself as the Data protection Officer.

International
My lead data protection supervisory authority is the UK’s ICO.

2017 Impact Report

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An image of the Bureau newsroom

I’ve been a little silent recently, as I started a new post as Production Editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in July last year and it has been busy.

I’m very pleased to work at the Bureau, as it’s known, with some very talented people.

Towards the end of the year I put together and wrote the Bureau’s Impact report for 2017. It’s a record of sterling journalism in the public interest, following in a long tradition of journalism that seeks to expose wrongdoing and shine a light on poor practice, wherever it takes place.

Here’s the link to the report – it’s an honour to have worked on it for my new employer.

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Election pieces

A quick blog to give links to my latest pieces on the general election 2017 for Prospect Magazine. I first looked at UKIP’s chances in Boston and Skegness:

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/enter-paul-nuttall-ukip-general-election-boston-skegness

This week, I looked at the fight for the South London seat of Vauxhall.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/winning-vauxhall-kate-hoey-liberal-democrats-brexit

Lastly, I looked at the contested seat of Tooting, and how disabled people might affect the election. Prospect – disabled voters

 

 

 

The heft of a place

This week I was lucky enough to join Ken Titmuss, an expert in old maps who runs London walking tours, on one of his outings in Vauxhall. Ken, a former community worker, really knows his stuff, although he wears his knowledge lightly. I met Ken, along with some charming German students at the local station. He gave us copies of four old maps of the area, in covers, for us to refer back to as we walked around the area.

We circled around what was left of the Pleasure Gardens (now a well-used park, with a fine tea house at one corner). Ken explained the history of the Gardens, and then we struck out a little further, finding traces of the Royal Doulton tile factory, an old school and the former graveyard, amongst other treasures such as tucked away Georgian houses. IMG_9006

I was there because I wanted to get a better feel for the second third of the book I am writing at the moment, about two young girls, in Georgian times, and their precarious life in London before being transported to Australia in the 1820’s. The first third is set in Norfolk. I know the South Norfolk landscape well; I’ve walked it many times with my parents. I’ve seen the seasons come and go; I’ve heard the birds sing, and watched them out hunting. I’ve been to the great church below, in Redenhall, many times, and know its place in the landscape and in the hearts of the people about whose ancestors I am writing. I’ve swum in the slow, local river, taken boats out on it. The heft of the landscape is within me and so although I’m going back in time, some 200 years, I feel at ease with it.

 

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Now I have to go through the same process with London, and it’s so much harder because of the multiple descriptions by other writers. I have to peel them away and find my own voice, in a landscape that has been so well conjured by others.

So having a guide who can walk you through history is useful. Ken brought Vauxhall to life, but he was also kind enough, at the end of the walk, to go with me to what remains of the Millbank Penitentiary to identify parts of the outer wall that remain.

 

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We walked round the vast footprint of the building as it was, through social housing and around Tate Britain, which sits on its foundations. This forbidding structure would have dominated the riverside when the two girls lived in London. They were intimately acquainted with the Penitentiary, having spent some years inside it before being transferred, with marsh fever, to the hulks. Their life in the London was typical of that of poor young women – life in and out of institutions, on the streets, before they were transported. My task is to breathe life into their voices, as their lives are currently mediated and communicated by those who disparage them. It’s about raising the dead from paper, and hearing them speak back, in the landscapes that formed them.

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Oh, and if you want to join Ken on one of his excellent walks, he can be contacted through his website on on Twitter @oldmapman.

Disability Hate Crime Network – appeal on behalf of Lee Irving

Below is the text of the letter we have sent today to the Attorney General, asking if he will review the sentences against those who attacked Lee Irving, under the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.

We hope pressure from the family, the network and others will bring about a review of the sentence. We campaigned some years ago to make sure that disability related murders could be sentenced as a matter of parity with other murders that could be seen as hate crimes (for instance, homophobic or race related murders). This would mean that the life sentence can be increased up to 30 years for such crimes. We achieved this end with an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, thanks to all party pressure. However it is not being used in disabilty related murders – the sentences have remained relatively low for such horrific crimes. So should there be a new law? Or can the provisions in place bring about change?

My feeling is now that the current provisions do not go far enough and are not fit for purpose if, as in the case of Lee Irving, the police and CPS regarded the crimes against him as related to his disability but the judge could decide that was not the case and sentence (relatively) low. If the provision was for a clear issue – disability related murder – the jury would decide, rather than the judge. This may be a useful reform. It’s certainly worth discussing at least.

LETTER TO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BELOW, ON BEHALF OF THE DISABILITY HATE CRIME NETWORK AND LEE IRVING’S FAMILY

 

 

Dear Mr Wright, 
 
The Disability Hate Crime Network and Mr Irving’s family would be grateful if you could review the sentence given to James Wheatley, of Studdon Walk, Newcastle. Wheatley was given a life sentence for murder at Newcastle Crown Court on 2 December. 
 
We are asking for the murder to be sentenced as a disability hate crime, in which case the time served could be increased up till 30 years under LASPO. 
 
We are also asking for the other defendants (except Barry Imray) in the case to be sentenced for their crimes under sec 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which would also increase their sentences. However, we are asking that the sentence against Mr Imray be reviewed to see if it is appropriate, given his disability. Mr Irving’s family have also asked for this sentence to be reviewed with care. 
 
The police and CPS agreed that the multiple crimes committed against Mr Irving were disability related. The judge disagreed and has the discretion, in law, to do so. However we believe that the police and CPS presented good evidence of disability hate targeting. We would be grateful if you could review the case with a view to appeal. 
 
The family of Mr Irving would be particularly grateful if you would do so. His aunt writes to the Network: “The sentence was..not deemed a hate crime which we cannot understand. In my opinion the [murder] sentence was pretty low for such a dreadful crime.”
 
We look forward to hearing from you, 
 
Katharine Quarmby
on behalf of Mr Irving’s family
and the Disability Hate Crime Network

Christmas memories

Here’s the next in a series of oral memories from friends, family and neighbours. This time the theme is Christmas. I asked everyone for a vivid memory from any Christmas they remembered.

My mum talked about Christmas as a child in war-time Belgrade, where she was born and lived till she was nine. My dad talked about having a spot of bother in Bethlehem one year. There’s my daughter, Josie, pin-pointing what is important for her about Christmas..and many more from neighbours in Finsbury Park, north London, with memories of growing up in Cork,  Edgbaston, Staffordshire and further afield too.

Here are the memories, in Soundcloud, for you to dip in to and enjoy, and Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year, to one and all.

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