Stop this drilling madness

BRRRRRRR!

I was woken at 9am by a loud drilling sound today.

BRRRRRRR!

Yes, today Saturday, the day after Friday night.

BRRRRRRR!

It would go for 30 secs, then stop for a couple of minutes, then start again.

BRRRRRRR!

You’d think, ‘Fucking bastard drilling! Oh, it’s stopped, maybe I can get back to sleep…ARGH, NO ARGH!’

BRRRRRRR!

Now I’m staying at my boyfriend’s who lives in Stokes Croft in Bristol. It’s a mixed, somewhat bohemian area. There are some families and young professionals, but there’s also lots of students/artists/other people who stay up late.

BRRRRRRR!

And it’s Saturday bloody morning. I’m betting most people on the street had a late night last night. This includes my boyfriend, who works in a bar, and didn’t get home until 6am.

BRRRRRRR!

So who would think it was reasonable to make that much noise that early on a Saturday? I’m naturally an owl. Left to my own devices I’d sleep from 2am-10am. And yet I would never start drilling at midnight. Even though I’m prepared to bet that more people on this street are awake at midnight, on your average day, than are awake at 9am on Saturday.

BRRRRRRR!

And why the fuck can’t they shut up!

I was so furious I pulled on some clothes and stomped outside.

“Excuse me, I DON’T THINK IT’S REASONABLE TO MAKE THAT NOISE AT THIS TIME. IT’S 9AM ON A SATURDAY, EVERYONE WAS ASLEEP.’

BRRRRRRR!

The man with the drill turned round and said,

‘It says in my contract I’m allowed to make noise from 8am.’

Now let’s unpick this for a second:-

  1. Why does a person think this is a reasonable response? Are rules and regulations the only arbiter of behaviour? Have we lost any sense that getting along with others requires compromise and consideration?
    There’s loads of things that we try to avoid doing (even though they aren’t illegal), just out of consideration for others. Wear perfume that smells of durian fruit. Invite people round for dinner and serve up brussel sprouts. Repeatedly use up the last bit of milk without getting more.
    We don’t only decide what to do according to what the rules say. We think about how our actions will affect others. This is the basis of how we live in social groups any bigger than a single person. And yet somehow rules are treated as the supreme arbiter. As a substitute for consideration.
  2. Why, why, WHY are there regulations which say that builders can make all sorts of noise from 8am? To me this is a time when many reasonable people are still asleep. I realise a lot of people are awake then. But then a lot of people are awake at midnight and we aren’t allowed to make noise then.
    I’ll tell you why, it’s cos those bastard early rising people have convinced everyone they are somehow morally superior and we should respect their sleep, but they don’t have to respect ours. They stitched us all up at breakfast meetings.

I said,

‘I don’t care about the rules. It’s 9am on a SATURDAY. I’m betting 90% of the people on this street got to bed after 2. You’re waking everybody up!’

He said,

‘Well some of us have to work.’

Which I thought was pretty snippy. Here it is again, the moral superiority of early rising. As if no-one who goes to bed late ever does any work.

I said,

‘Yes, like my boyfriend, who works in a bar and got home at 6am, and you just woke him up.’

That shut him up for a minute.

‘Err, well, I’m sorry about that, but…’

Unusually for a Friday, I’d actually gone to bed at a sensible time, and not even had a drink. It’s a lot easier to get righteous on other people’s behalf I find. I said,

‘Who do you work for? Who do I complain to?’

He got back on his defensive tip,

‘They’ll just say the same as me, I’m allowed to make noise from 8am.’

Gloriously, a voice came from behind me,

‘Just answer the question!’.

Me and drilling man both look round, to see a woman in her nighty hanging out of a window across the road.

‘We don’t care what you sodding think. Just tell us who you’re bloody working for!’,

she shouted.

He could see I had the mood of the street behind me, but he wasn’t happy about it. He suggested I read it off the back of his t shirt.

It was Hudson Plumbing and Heating Services, 0117 902 5820. I brandished my notepad and wrote it down. They’ll certainly be bottom of my list for all my plumbing needs from now on.

When I called them (I was still proper blazing), I was told that they were working for the council, with a stipulation that the work must be done within 24 hours, because it was for a disabled lady and her mobility is impaired without the repair. Now obviously I want disabled people to have whatever repairs they need to be able to get about. But I also want everyone on the street to be able to get sleep.

I’m betting that if the woman in the house had been doing her own repair (or getting a relative or friend to do it), then they’d have acted like a person, and thought ‘I don’t want to piss everyone off’, and started a bit later in the day. But somehow large organisations don’t behave like people, and the people within them stop behaving like people too. And really, without wanting to sound too ‘Thought for the Day’, isn’t that exactly the same problem that caused the banking crisis, global warming, and all the bad stuff?

So I propose we all think about how we can make organisations stop acting like psychopaths, and start acting like socially-adjusted human beings, as a matter of urgency.

And we also stop with this absurd moral judgement over where people’s body clocks are set. Your chronotype is just natural biological variation, like height or hair colour. Being an early riser doesn’t make you better. And in this part-time, working-from-home, 24 hour economy, shouldn’t we recognise that plenty of people are asleep at 8am, and they’ve every right to be? I’ll vote for anyone who promises no drilling before 10am. Noon on weekends.

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Adventures in Terry and June land

I’ve taken to livetweeting any time I see my parents. They are hilarious.

[View the story “New Story” on Storify]

I hope it’s obvious, despite me taking the piss, that I love them dearly and think they’re brilliant. I miss them, living miles away. Given all the terrible people the world is full of, it seems a shame not to spend more time with lovely people. Especially ones who love you, and want to see you.

But I do find them utterly exasperating. Also, does anyone else have that strange tendency to start acting like a 13 year old as soon as you’re in your parents’s house? I start stamping my feet and sulking. It’s embarrassing.

For some reason they are much easier to deal with if I view it all as an amusing anecdote in the making. So I realised that the secret of quality time with the parents is to make it as sitcom-like as possible. Fortunately (as you can see) they work in that genre instinctively. But I thought: what I should do is set up as ridiculous situation as possible to hang out with parents in. Of course, it’s when travelling that they are at their most amusing…

So I realised there’s an idea I had a while ago that would be perfect. A couple of years ago I walked the Cotswold Way with Mum and Dad. Well, they didn’t walk much – are you mad? – they mainly ate cakes and bickered. I did most of the walking on my own, but met up with them at mealtimes. Which was ideal.
My life is too short to hunt back for the tweets and storify that too. But trust me, it was awesome.I thought this old idea of mine could work a bit like that. So this is by way of an announcement: me and the boyfriend are going to walk the River Trent, with the parents acting as back up team. They don’t know about this yet. If you want to help, you could leave comments on Dad’s YouTube channel, saying how much you’d like to see him perform along the River Trent, as part of his wayward and ungrateful daughter’s genius/crazy plan.
I’ll let you know how I get on with persuading them…

The thing without a name that ruins the world

I’ve had a number of conversations recently where I was searching for a word I couldn’t find. Each time, it was the same thing I was trying to describe.
It’s that tendency some people have to count, in the greatest detail, the slights or unfairnesses they’ve suffered, but to ignore, or seem unaware of, the advantages they have or the unfairnesses others suffer. To feel immensely out of pocket, even when you are clearly not.
It’s the thing (emotion? tendency? dimension of personality?) that makes racists convinced immigrants have it easy. It makes MRAs convinced that men are terribly oppressed and women are all mean to them. It makes [redacted person of my acquaintance] act like a total bitch, no matter what anyone does for her.
It made an old flatmate of mine (who’d had a perfectly nice childhood) deeply resentful of the troubled kid in her class who got sent by some charity on the only holiday of his life (a rainy week in an outdoor centre in Scotland).
It’s the driver of Daily Mail readers’ daily apoplexy. The rationale for car users rage at cyclists. Arguably it’s the thing that allows the Tories to countenance, and get away with, policies that squeeze the most vulnerable in our society until the pips squeak, while letting rich people and corporations get away with murder.
It’s a tendency, or habit of mind, that seems to cause a great deal of the suffering and shitness in the world. And yet I cannot find a name for it.
Words like selfishness, or self-centredness do apply to these people, but they don’t quite capture it. Selfishness can just mean being oblivious to other people. It doesn’t communicate the resentful totting up of every perceived slight. It doesn’t communicate the asymmetry of always seeing yourself as hard-done-by, but never recognising others’ disadvantages, pain and suffering. It doesn’t quite nail that unwillingness to empathise with others, cos you’re too busy burnishing your own box of resentments.
I think Orwell was right, that not having words for things makes it harder for us to talk about them, to even see them. How have we ended up without a word for this thing? Is there a word, and I’ve just missed it or not thought of it? If not, can we invent a word?
Because I think it’s something we need to talk about, identify, and work out how to combat. Or the human race is never going to turn into a nicer place.

How you can run a 15 minute happiness workshop

I haven’t blogged in a while, partly ‘cos I’m involved with Occupy Bristol, and changing the world takes up quite a bit of time.

Today when I woke up I decided that the most useful thing I could do would be to do something for morale. So I decided to run a mini happiness workshop.

It worked out pretty well. After the first one I left the participants deep in conversation about happiness and where it comes from. Then two people came up to me later and said they were sorry they’d missed it, could I do another. So I rounded up a couple more participants and ran a second one.

If you knew how hard work it sometimes is getting people on camp to come to things, you’d know what an achievement that was.

It was really easy to do, so here’s my recipe if you want to do one yourself.

It probably helps if you know a bit about the science of happiness, but it’s not essential. If you are interested, I recommend Lord Layard’s book, or similar. There are some links below too, but I’m on a library computer and haven’t got much time so it’s not exhaustive…

Intro (1 min): (Summarising horribly) psychologists traditionally looked at what went ‘wrong’ with people with depression, etc. Recently they started turning this on it’s head and looking at what goes ‘right’ with happy people. Are there habits of mind or things we can do that make people happier? Where does happiness come from?

Starter (2 mins): Explain that one of the things research has shown is that PAYING compliments makes people happy. Get people in pairs to pay each other a compliment.

Starter 2 (4 mins): Ask participants to suggest what makes them (or people) happy. This can be the very specific (playing with my dog) to the more general or abstract (a sense of belonging).

Summarise some findings from the research (if these aren’t things people suggest):-

Main – gratitude exercise (8 mins): Explain that GRATITUDE was found to be one of the most effective things for increasing people’s happiness. i.e. Focussing on, or paying attention to, the things you are grateful for. What your Granny might have called counting your blessings.

Things that researchers have found effective are getting people to make a list each day of three things they are grateful for that day. And, in one study, writing a letter to someone from your past you feel gratitude to, explaining why.

Get people to think of something they are grateful for in the last week. In their pairs, tell their partners about it. Any commonalities? Depending on size of group, get the pairs to feed back to the group, or get pairs into fours to discuss, then feedback.

End: I finished by saying how much I’d enjoyed running the session, cos I had.

I hope this is useful to anyone. Some brief thoughts on running this at an Occupy Camp below.

  • There were a lot of commonalities in what people were saying.
  • The BIGGEST source of gratitude was to the public for being so supportive – both emotionally (stopping by to say they agreed with us, thanks for being here, etc) and practically (donations of food, blankets, money).
  • Second most common feeling of gratitude was to their fellow campers, for being their, for supporting them, for giving a shit.
  • Lots of people had really had their faith in human nature restored by being at the camp, feeling that there were people who gave a shit, that they could be part of something, that they could work with others to try to make a difference.
  • Some felt accepted and like they had a useful role for the first time they could think of (and often not the people you’d expect).
  • It was REALLY useful to do this and I recommend anyone to give it a shot. (It only takes 15 minutes, after all). Some days everyone can get ratty with each other (it’s not easy living outdoors in December) and it was good to take a minute to remember the good stuff.

I meant to write this well and make it all lyrical and moving, but you’ll have to settle for serviceable…If any other occupations have got other morale boosting tips then let me know!

Vodafone really don’t like paying tax, do they?

Vodafone can obviously afford lots of clever accountants to minimize the tax they pay. Whereas I certainly can’t, and I’m guessing you can’t either. Their accountants are so clever they funnel profits from different Vodafone companies around the world through a subsidiary based in Luxembourg – which is a tax haven. Thanks to this, they paid just £1,400 tax last year on profits of £3.5bn.

Yes, that’s right, £1,400 tax on profits of £3.5bn.

Now I saw that and I thought, ‘Bloody hell. *I* paid more tax than that. On a lot bloody less money. And I’m just a person, not a huge company.’

Then I thought, ‘LOADS of people pay more tax than that. I bet shop assistants in Vodafone shops pay more tax than that.’ So I thought I’d check.

I found out that retail advisers in Vodafone stores earn ‘up to’ £8.98 an hour.

Based on a 37.5hr week, that’s £336.75 a week, £17,511 a year.

Assuming our imaginary retail adviser is under 65, not registered blind, etc, their personal allowance (for 2010/11) was £6,475.

Which leaves £11,036 they have to pay tax on, at a rate of 20%.

So our shop assistant would have paid £2,207.20 in tax – i.e. £807.20 more than the Vodafone empire did on profits of billions of pounds.

So yes, amazingly enough, Vodafone paid less in tax than a shop assistant working in one of their stores. Is it me or is that batshit crazy?

‘Shadow’ of Health and Safety? Fuck you, Cameron

My Granddad was a miner. When I knew him, he had half a finger missing on his right hand. He’d lost the rest of the finger in an accident down the mine.

My other Granddad was a butcher. He had half a finger missing too. An accident with a mincing machine.

Great Uncle Tom had a finger missing. An accident in the factory where he worked. Starting to see a pattern?

Basically, it was normal for working class men of that generation to be missing a finger, or a toe, or have some other minor disability, thanks to a workplace accident. Deaths and serious injuries were rarer, but still far more common than they are now.

These accidents were entirely preventable – with protective clothing, or safety guards on machinery, or different procedures. But safety equipment is expensive, workers’ rights were low, and profits were more important than the bodies of working class men.

Today, in the UK, the number of workplace fatal injuries is 0.6 per 100,000 workers. (2010/11 figures)

In the USA it is 3.5 per 100,000 workers. (2010 figures)

Yes, that’s right, nearly SIX TIMES higher. In the UK 171 people died in workplace accidents in 2010/11. If we had the USA’s rate of deaths it would have been 997 people.

Now this isn’t because knives are sharper in America. Or workers more clumsy. Or bones more breakable.

It’s because we have better regulation and more accountability in this country and a pretty effective Health and Safety executive.

So Cameron can fuck right off with his ‘shadow of health and safety’ nonsense in his party conference speech. I think a much bigger shadow is those 800+ extra people who’d die at work if we had US-style Health and Safety here. Of course they wouldn’t be Cameron’s sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, so maybe he doesn’t have to worry about it. But I think they are people who matter anyway, and I think they are worth protecting.

UPDATE: I’ve just been told about this petition, started by Deborah Orr, for a national memorial to workers who died in the service of industry. We’ve got plenty to the glorious war dead, why don’t we recognise those who’ve died at work?

The battle of the allotments

I’m putting this up because I haven’t really seen anything online that accurately described what happened last night re the Occasional Cinema screening in Mina Road Park.

I went to Mina Road park last night, wanting to see the citizen journalist films about Stokes Croft, with some friends.

We arrived shortly before 7.30pm at the park. We’d passed one police van parked down a street on the way and there were several police around the park. There was also at least another two police vans, one down a side street and one on Mina Road. There were people in the park clearly waiting to see the film (as the sun had mostly gone), including families with small children.

I want to stress at this point, if you don’t know Bristol, St Werburghs is a really nice, somewhat hippy area. There’s a City Farm there, some self-built eco-houses next door, the Better Food Company, which is a sort of organic right-on supermarket, an active allotments groups…It’s a bit alternative, you could say it’s a little bit yoghurt weaving, but also very safe and villagey in feel. You see lots of prams about and they sell a lot of copies of The Guardian. I live about five minutes walk away.

It was obvious that there was no equipment set up and the film screening wasn’t happening. People were milling about, chatting to friends and waiting to see what would happen. We were told by someone involved in the anti-Tescos campaign that the police had confiscated the screen, but I did not hear this from the Occasional Cinema organisers themselves, so I can’t absolutely confirm it.

But certainly, the police had said the event could not go ahead, citing worries about public order. There were maybe 70-100 people in the park (including, as I’ve mentioned, small children) and it’s St Werburghs. I just cannot imagine what you’d have to do to start a riot in St Werburghs. Steal someone’s best tofu recipe?

The idea that there would be violence seemed pretty ridiculous. It was hard not to feel this was a bit of a paranoid response, if not censorship.

Anyway, the organisers came up with an alternative location which was a private house. A couple of people set off, and everyone slowly drifted along behind them (packing up their blankets, chatting to new arrivals, you know how long it takes to get a group of people to leave a park).

The house was in Ashley Road allotments. Keep that in your mind. How much more Dad’s Army could something be than a police operation in some allotments? To get to the house you had to go down a path through the allotments. A police van and possibly a car had been following people up the street, but they couldn’t go down this path. So the first wave of people were at the house before the police could get near.

My housemate, who was with us, decided to go home at this point. It had all taken longer than he’d expected and would prob take a while to set up at the new location. He needed to go and pick his kids up from scouts.

Some of the friends I’d come with were still a bit behind us. By the time they got to the start of the path, the police were there turning people away and saying they couldn’t come down the path to attend the film showing. A film showing of a perfectly legal film, at a private house. This is where I really think it went ridiculous.

The organisers told us the police were saying that they would arrest people who tried to come to the location to attend the film showing. Arrest people? For trying to go to a house to watch a film?

Blocking the film showing in a public park, in a residential area is one thing – I think the police were wrong, but they could reasonably believe it might cause public disorder. But stopping people coming to watch a film at a private house? Did they think we were going to riot and smash up the guy’s house who had kindly volunteered his garden for the film showing? Maybe set fire to some waterbutts and coldframes? Build barricades out of marrows and runner beans? Is this some heartwarming British sitcom featuring Dawn French and Richard Briers?

My housemate, on his way home, texted to say that police were blocking the road through St Werburghs, at Mina Rd tunnel. They were stopping people from coming up from St Werburghs to where the film was going to be shown. The police told him it was an illegal rave. No one could possibly think that 60-70 people sitting quietly in someone’s garden, in some allotments, without any music playing was an illegal rave, but there you go. Thanks to the Criminal Justice Act, if something’s a rave, the police have powers they wouldn’t have normally.

Did I mention the police helicopter circling overhead?

Happily, the police perhaps didn’t know the area that well, because they hadn’t sealed off another path into the allotments, so my friends who’d been turned away at the end of the path just went round the other way and arrived a bit later. We all sat quietly chatting and waiting for it to get dark enough to use the projector.

Eventually, we got word that the police were removing the road blocks and the helicopter. We all cheered, and settled down to watch the films.

Some of the footage was great. Some of it was repetitive, or unclear. To be expected. The film shown at the end – hot off the presses, was aces and I recommend you watch it. Why did the Stokes Croft Riots happen? Local people, in their own words, describe what happened.

There were still lots of police around when we left and on the way home but as far as I saw they didn’t hassle anyone. They were just a slightly menacing, and entirely unnecessary, presence.

Four day weekends FTW!

Growing up in the Eighties, you’d often hear hoary old Tories arguing that Thatcher was a good thing, because she took on the unions. ‘It was terrible, the three day week and all that.’

I always assumed they meant that the unions had demanded everyone only had to work three days a week. I thought it sounded like a brilliant idea and I couldn’t really understand the joyless old sods’ objections. Turns out actually I’d got it all wrong, and the three day week was about coal shortages. But I still think it would be a great idea.

This bank holiday weekend has been glorious. I know, obviously the weather’s helped. But it’s not just that. Everywhere I’ve been there’s been such a holiday atmosphere. ‘Yay, we don’t have to be back at work for FOUR WHOLE DAYS!’

You know how some weekends you’re just knackered, and you don’t go out and do much, and by Sunday evening you’re thinking, ‘Well now I feel a bit recovered, I quite fancy going out and doing something fun’, but you can’t, cos it’s Monday tomorrow and you’re back at work. And other weekends you do lots of stuff and have fun, but by Sunday evening you’re thinking, ‘Well now I feel a bit knackered, I quite fancy chilling out tomorrow and recovering’, but you can’t, cos it’s Monday tomorrow and you’re back at work. With a four day weekend you’ve got time for both!

Let’s face it, most employed people work too much and have a shit work/life balance. People are unhappy. They don’t spend enough time with their kids, or doing things that give their lives meaning.

We’ve also got at least 2.5 million people unemployed.

Now obviously you can’t get an unemployed, unskilled 19 year old filling in for a neurosurgeon. But most of us could probably do a bit of our boss’s job. If everyone worked a three day week, some of what they do now could be done by the person underneath them, until you got to the jobs that the 19 year old could do perfectly competently. (And anyway, there’s plenty of skilled people out of work at the moment).

Those working at the moment would be happier. The presently unemployed would be economically active and could feel they were contributing to society. (Yes, I know, you can be unemployed but still contributing positively to society. However, under our present economic system, many people when they are out of work DO feel that they are not valued or useful.)

Everyone would get to work and contribute to the economic prosperity of the nation (or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing). But they could also spend more time with their friends and families, in community activities, reading books, walking in the park, learning the accordion, WHATEVER THEY WANT TO DO.

I imagine that some will say it wouldn’t work economically. They couldn’t live on what they’d earn in three days. But I think that for most people that’s just not true.

You need less money when you’ve got more time. You can cook food instead of getting a take away. You can walk places instead of using a car. You can do little jobs around the house yourself, instead of paying someone to do them. You can actually spend time playing with your kids in the park, instead of buying them playstations to make up for never seeing them.

We really don’t need half so much STUFF. When you’re more relaxed and fulfilled you don’t need perfume or spa treatments or a new plasma bloody telly to make you feel better about yourself. You’ve got sunsets and holding hands and daydreams.

For the lowest paid, we’d simply have to up the minimum wage to make this viable. Which I’m sure we could do if we really wanted by paying bankers and people less.

We can get off the rat race.  We can downsize our entire society. We can be more fulfilled and happy as human beings, which is surely what we’re trying to achieve with the way we arrange the world. So let’s bloody do it!

Top tips for a successful revolution

In 2006 I accidentally went on holiday to a revolution, as you do. Nepal overthrew its King while I watched and it was pretty humbling.

I wrote about what happened, including a piece for Broadcast which is sadly no longer online, so I’m repeating it below, for some context. I can see parallels between what’s happening in the Middle East right now and what happened in Nepal in 2006. So here’s my top tips on turning brutal repression into a successful revolution!

I interviewed a lot of people for the Broadcast piece and found out much more than I could fit into the article. Here’s the things that really stuck in my mind about how it all happened:-

  • No matter how big and how loyal your security forces, it’s a simple truth that they can’t keep a much bigger population in check if that population is united against you. The bravery of the independent media, and of ordinary people, was what mattered in defeating the King.
  • FM radios were crucial – they were the only source of outside news for most of rural Nepal. Even in Kathmandu, whenever there were demos, you could see groups of people in the street huddled round a tiny radio trying to hear what was happening. There needs to be a media which is telling the truth and which can actually reach most of the population.
  • Ordinary people recognised the contribution the FM stations were making and were immensely loyal. The King sent the army to shut down one  FM station. They broadcast what was happening and local people came out and surrounded the station, stopping the army from attacking.
  • At an earlier point the King cut off telephone, internet and mobile for the whole country. He could do this by getting a small number of corporations to obey him. He couldn’t do this to the FM stations.
  • The King’s actions became more and more extreme, outraging more people, and his control started to crumble. As this happened more and more people felt brave enough to actively join the people’s movement and you could feel it snowballing.
  • One story always brings tears to my eyes (I heard this from many people but have not seen it documented): As things were getting worse, a senior aide to the King went into a bank to cash a big cheque. The bank clerk, trembling, looked him in the eye and said, ‘No, I’m joining the strike right now’. The King took punitive action against the bank. This was him losing his grip, the next day all the banks in Nepal had joined the general strike.
  • This story made me realise that the King’s control depended upon his having the army and the police obey him, which partly depended on him paying them. There’s a limit to how much cash even a mad, autocratic King keeps under his bed. A bank clerk can bring down a government.
  • In one huge demo the families of local police officers – the Mums and the Dads and the Grandparents – positioned themselves at the front of the demo. They were saying, ‘come on, are you really going to beat us and shoot us?’ Eventually he could control less and less of even the security services. They are made up of ordinary people after all.
  • One night the King finally recognised he couldn’t hold on to power and appeared on television to say he was reconvening parliament. I can still remember how the hairs on my arms stood on end as I listened to the cheers across Kathmandu. That night thousands of people went to the headquarters of the independent TV station, Kantipur TV, and were celebrating outside chanting, ‘We love you Kantipur’.

What UK media would you use your body as a human shield to save from the army? Which would you march across the capital in the middle of the night to sing your praises to? Panorama? Sky News? The News of the World?

Three cheers for Al Jazeera. Three cheers for Kantipur and the other brave journalists in Nepal. I wish more British journalists would remember what they could be.

Broadcast article: The press and Nepal’s revolution

It’s a strange thing to find yourself in the middle of someone else’s revolution. An accident, of course, but you can’t help feeling it smacks of carelessness.

I’m a former researcher, of course I’d checked Nepal out. Autocratic King, protests planned but a common occurrence, tourists guaranteed safety by both rebels and security forces. Sounded alright to me – after all, you wouldn’t want to go somewhere BORING on holiday…

I should have realised I’d underestimated as my plane left Heathrow. I opened my Guardian to find a double page photo of burning tires and riot shields, captioned ‘Kathmandu’. What I actually thought was, ‘Damn, Mum reads this paper, she’ll have kittens. Silly old Mum!’ When I landed a curfew was in force, although Westerners were semi-exempt. I wasn’t that comforted by the big sheet tied to the front of the airport bus with ‘TOURIST ONLY’ painted on it. The ‘So don’t shoot!’ was implied.

Within days it was obvious things were escalating, but where to? People talked about wanting democracy. As the security forces fired on another set of peaceful protestors, the word ‘republic’ echoed more and more. And armed troops were on every street corner. I felt uncomfortably aware of being on the other side of the media. No inside track any more. I hoovered up local newspapers, quizzed Nepalis and fellow tourists.

I was puzzled by the boldness of the media. There was direct criticism of King Gyanendra, reporting of deaths, corruption and brutality. I’d been expecting a China-style docile press. I was puzzled, but I was bloody glad of it.

Later RB Khatry, of the FNJ (Federation of Nepalese Journalists, http://www.fnjnepal.org) told me it hadn’t always been like that. The King seized total power on Feb 1st 2005 and immediately suppressed the media. Every newsroom in the country had a soldier with a gun censoring what was written or broadcast. Over 100 newspapers were summarily shut down – some for months, some permanently. Many journalists were arrested, but then so was the Prime Minister, the cabinet, other politicians, human rights activists, lawyers, basically anyone who might have objected.

Jagat Nepal, acting chief journalist at Kantipur Television, Nepal’s biggest channel, told me about working under such censorship. Jagat sometimes stumbles over his English, ‘I can’t find the words.’ ‘Take your time’, I said. ‘No,’ he shook his head and sighed, ‘I mean even in Nepali I can’t describe it. This thing was happening and we couldn’t mention it. Like it’s secret! Everyone knew that the phone networks had been cut off, they saw demonstrations in the street, soldiers, arrests, but we couldn’t mention anything! There’s a military coup in the country and The Kathmandu Post had an editorial about socks, can you imagine?’

Some media pushed against it. Magazines deliberately ran with blank spaces to show they were being censored. At Kantipur TV, the censor saw the voice over script, but not the package, so they started to use, ‘soft words with hard pictures’. Kantipur is the largest media house in Nepal – the biggest TV channel, newspapers and radio stations. ‘We had it easier – they could suppress local newspapers completely.’ Gradually, this resistance, along with the FNJ’s campaign for press freedom, and international pressure, started to generate a bit of elbow room. The media started to tell people what was happening and, crucially, to tell them about the burgeoning opposition.

Everyone told me that the independent media, especially Kantipur and the FM stations, had been crucial in the size and reach of the movement. In a country where most are illiterate and millions live several days walk from the nearest road, broadcast media is vital. And where 30% exist on less than a dollar a day, FM radio is the only information source for many. The FM stations have an intimate relationship with the communities they serve. After one station was attacked by the army, local people guarded the office to prevent a repeat.

Over a year after the King’s coup I blithely boarded my plane. Nepal was six days into general strikes and the King’s brutal reply. Everything was snowballing. Doctors, lawyers, banks, supreme court and Home Ministry staff, everyone had joined the strikes. An estimated 5 million Nepalis took part in demonstrations. Even James Moriarty, the US Ambassador, warned the King he could end up leaving the country clinging to the outside of a helicopter.

Parts of the media reported all this, despite harassment, denial of curfew passes, beatings, arrests and worse. It was bizarre to watch the Kantipur Television news and then the ‘official’ news on Nepal Television. One showed demonstrations, curfews and dead protestors, the other made no mention, and lead with a story about a Maoist arms cache. I found myself wondering if the King could possibly believe that anyone (except for CNN) was buying his version of reality.

Immune in my tourist bubble I could still feel a grim mood growing on the streets. At demos, Kantipur staff covered up their logos to stop police baton charging them. Soon, Nepal News crews were covering their logos to avoid harassment from protestors.

After 19 days of mass protests, violently suppressed, the King, too late, addressed the nation at 11.30 at night. Through gritted teeth he described his love of democracy and agreed to reconvene parliament. I heard the cheers echoing across Kathmandu and joined the street celebrations until 3am. ‘We won, we won!’ people cried. The next day, Jagat told me, crowds gathered outside their building chanting, ‘We love you Kantipur! Hurrah for democracy!’

Nearly 1,000 journalists were arrested, 83 tortured and 18 murdered in Nepal in the last five years. The brave broadcasters I met here changed the world for the better – just like we all imagined when we were teenagers watching ‘Press Gang’ (or ‘All the President’s Men’ for our older or more serious viewers). My wacky science shows suddenly felt a bit stupid. I asked Jagat and his colleagues if they had a message for UK journalists. They said they wanted to learn from journalists in the west, with their longer tradition, how to protect and promote democracy. I looked at my feet and told them they could probably teach us a thing or two.

They also said, thank you for the support, especially the mission from the International Federation of Journalists, which made a big difference. They would never forget it.

Flak Jackets and Cocktails

As it happens I was in Kathmandu during the revolution in 2006. (It was a bit of an accident on my part, you know how it is). Most of the coverage outside Nepal would have given you a very misleading impression of what was going on.

The uprising was mostly peaceful, and unanimous. The entire country wanted to get rid of King Gyanendra. Everyone from rickshaw drivers to lawyers were joining in the demonstrations. All Nepalese political parties had put aside their differences to protest together against the King’s dictatorship.

The only violence I was aware of was initiated by the security forces. Unless you were a protestor and the army decided to shoot at you, you were in no danger. The city was tense, but orderly. Outside of the frequent curfews, everything was open as normal.

And yet this wasn’t the impression you’d have got from watching the international news. CNN was easily the worst (repeatedly peddling the King’s line that Maoist ‘terrorists’ were to blame for ‘violent clashes’, etc). But even the BBC was showing us a Kathmandu I didn’t recognise from, you know, actually being there.

One particular news report sticks in my mind. The BBC correspondent was standing on the roof of a building, wearing a flak jacket, with burning rubble visible behind him. His stance, his delivery, the framing of the shot, all communicated the impression that he was practically in a war zone, risking life and limb. How brave! How manly!

Later that evening I saw the same BBC correspondent, in a bar I frequented, drinking cocktails. Sans flak jacket, funnily enough.

Now I’m sure there are many reasons for this kind of misrepresentation, which would be grist for another post or two. At it’s simplest, perhaps it’s just a bit of exaggeration, a desire to look cool. To have chicks think you’re brave. To get ‘good pictures’. Burning barricades make better TV than expats drinking in bars, after all.

But the problem is that the way you report things affects the future. It affects other people’s responses. What people THINK is happening usually matters much more than what is actually happening. It took a while, with Nepal, for the international response to catch up with the reality of an oppressive and tyrannical King and a desperate people doing their best to reclaim their country.

So I wish the journalists who unanimously went with ‘scary anarchist’ front pages would stop and think. Does that accurately reflect what happened at the student demos? Or are you being a bit of a prat and trying to make it all look a bit more exciting?

And if it doesn’t reflect what really happened, whose interests does it serve, and what are the likely effects of this misrepresentation?