BethMellor’s Weblog

Postgraduate journalism, news and views.

Register to vote in European Parliamentary elections

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With just over a month to go until the European elections on June 4th, the Electoral Commission has launched a voter registration campaign which includes this advert, currently being shown on prime-time TV.

It’s a great start, and will hopefully raise awareness about the elections, which traditionally suffer from very low turnout (in 2004, turnout was less than 40 per cent). What the advert doesn’t make clear enough, however, is the danger of not voting. Low turnout means that fringe parties, including the BNP, are in with a real chance of winning seats in some regions and representing us in Europe.

The EU suffers from an ambivalent and, at times, hostile, press in Britain. Yet decisions made in Brussels have a very real impact on all of our lives – registering to vote and ensuring that it is credible politicians who are making these decisions is the least we can do.

Written by bethmellor

May 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Anti-army protests continue in Hackney

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The Hackney branch of Stop the War continue to protest every fortnight about the opening of an army recruitment centre in Dalston Kingsland shopping centre, which I reported on for the Hackney Post last month.

Here again is Lieutenant Colonel Paul Meldon speaking to defend the centre.

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May 4, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Microsites: the future of local journalism?

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PR Week’s ‘Regional PR’ supplement included an interesting article this week on the growing importance of community-focused microsites in British media.

ABC have now started tracking user numbers to local news websites, such as Newcastle’s ‘Journal Live’, which runs 22 microsites for specific towns and communities in the area. The ABC results show that local microsites are netting impressive totals of up to 270,000 users/month.

poscast-logo11Indeed, the website our City University journalism class set up to cover news in Hackney achieved more than 4,000 hits after just a week. Demand for local news clearly still exists, even if demand for local newspapers doesn’t.

Yet whilst it is encouraging to see that the web is becoming a growth area for local journalism, a sustainable business model is desperately needed if microsites are to survive.

There are two possible solutions. Microsites either need to become more commercially-savvy, and prove to businesses that they are a viable way of reaching specific local and demographic communities. The danger with this is that including too much advertising on online news sites is a big turn-off to readers.

Alternatively, microsites could gain funding through collaboration with local Councils – PR Week reports that Newcastle City Council director of communications is considering investing in Journal Live as an alternative to the council’s own website. Of course, microsites would have to ensure that this type of arrangement would not affect their editorial independence.  

If microsites can develop a solid business model, the future for local journalism looks brighter than the recent spate of closures and redundancies at local newspapers suggests.

Written by bethmellor

April 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Prostitutes vs. politicians

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Cindy is a 38-year-old divorced mother of three. She supports her family singlehandedly and describes herself as a successful businesswoman.                                                                                   

But Cindy’s ‘business’ could come under threat if the 2009 Policing and Crime Bill passes later this year. She works as a prostitute from a small North London premises, and worries that she may be forced out of the relative safety of the brothel and onto the streets under the proposed bill, which extends closure orders to sex-work establishments.

The bill, which could become law within months, has proved extremely contentious. As well as the extension of closure orders – which were originally designed to deal with crack houses – it creates a new offence of paying for sex with a person ‘controlled for gain,’ punishable with a fine of up to £1,000, and provisions to reclassify lap-dancing venues as ‘sex-encounter’ establishments.

The Home Office argue that the bill, championed by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, will cut demand in the sex industry and help to reduce the trafficking of women to work as prostitutes in Britain.

But many prostitutes like Cindy believe that it would further stigmatise sex-work and make their lives more dangerous. “Forcing brothels to close would push prostitution further underground and we will have to take more risks to get work,” says Cindy. “I have lots of repeat clients who I have built up trust with, and criminalisation will scare these men away.”

The English Collective of Prostitutes says that women will face much greater risks if the bill passes.  Since the clients of sex workers were criminalised in Scotland in October 2007, they say, the number of assaults on prostitutes has soared, with 126 attacks on prostitute women reported to one project in 2007, compared to 66 in 2006.

English Collective of Prostitutes Protest

English Collective of Prostitutes protest

And according to Allan Gibson, head of the anti-trafficking unit at the Metropolitan police, criminalising clients would be very difficult to enforce because it is hard to know whether sex workers are actually ‘controlled for gain’ by a third party, or not.

Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, claims that 85 per cent of women prostitutes in Britain are ‘controlled’ by pimps or traffickers, based on ‘anecdotal’ evidence, but the Collective say that this figure is hugely exaggerated. What is more, they say, it could lead to workers in the sex industry being falsely labelled as traffickers.

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The Foreign Correspondent: Paul Iredale

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Hitchcock's thriller

Hitchcock's thriller

Paul Iredale describes the day he was shot and injured by communist guerrillas as one of the luckiest days of his life.

The former Reuters chief had just arrived in El Salvador to cover the tail end of the Central American wars. Guerrilla troops had launched a last-ditch offensive to overthrow the Government and, in November 1989, they were fighting for control of the capital, San Salvador.

He was on his way to open the Reuters office when they opened fire on his car. “One of the bullets came through the side of the car and splayed into the metal part of the seat I was sitting on, so I got lots of metal in my side. Apart from that, none of the bullets hit me. My hat was on the seat next to me and a bullet went right through it. I was very, very lucky that day.

“But I had a white shirt on and, when I looked down at my side, it was starting to go red. I knew I had to get out of that car.”

Lying next to the car, Iredale noticed that one of the fuel lines had been hit, and that petrol was leaking onto the ground next to the car, so he rolled into a ditch by the side of the road and crawled back down the hill.

At over 6ft tall, with a shock of white hair and an unruly beard, it is hard now to imagine Iredale being able to sneak away unnoticed.

Yet with 35 years of experience as a foreign correspondent, including stints in South Africa during apartheid, South America, India and Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav Wars, Iredale, now 58, has had an action-packed career. Just four weeks after his car came under fire in San Salvador, he – along with four other journalists and six businessmen – was taken hostage during the United States invasion of Panama.

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Written by bethmellor

February 25, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Jo Swinson: “I want to put Parliament on YouTube”

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Jo Swinson, Britain’s youngest MP, e-mails me back instantly when I contact her to arrange an interview. Either, I think, she must be incredibly efficient or she has too much time on her hands.

But by the time I meet her at the end of the week, the 29-year-old has already appeared on Question Time, led a debate in Parliament on tax credits, and seen the results of her hard work pay-off to force the Government to reverse its position on the publication of MP’s expenses. And this, it seems, is just a normal week’s work for Liberal Democrat Swinson, who is MP for East Dunbartonshire – the constituency where she grew up. In fact, I later find out, the Mail on Sunday reported in January that she was the ‘most active’ Scottish MP in Westminster during 2008, having spoken 58 times in debates and having submitted 220 written questions.

In her cramped office in the eaves of 1 Parliament Street, Swinson signs a stack of letters to new voters in her constituency as she talks about her achievements as the youngest MP in Westminster – a role colloquially known as the ‘Baby of the House.’

“You need to be determined to get into politics. It’s hard to get elected and it’s hard to stay elected,” she says. Indeed, although Swinson was only 25 when she was elected in 2005, she had already stood unsuccessfully twice – in Hull East in the 2001 General Election, where she gained a 6% swing from John Prescott, then-deputy leader of the Labour Party, and in Strathkelvin and Bearsden in the 2003 Scottish Parliamentery election, where she came third. Since being elected in 2005 she has acted as the Liberal Democrat’s Shadow Scotland Secretary and Shadow Spokeswoman for Women and Equality and, at the start of this year, she was appointed to the role of Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

But Swinson’s first forays into politics were as a student at the London School of Economics, as president of her halls of residence committee and a member of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students organisation (now Liberal Youth), where she played an instrumental role in campaigning to scrap tuition fees.

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Written by bethmellor

February 15, 2009 at 5:40 pm

U-Turn on MP expenses as “first real victory for online political campaign”

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 It is certainly a sign of the times when even BBC Radio Four presenters are talking about FaceBook and Twitter on the Today programme.

Yesterday, however, on the 5th Birthday of the now-iconic site, which was set up by Mark Zuckerberg from his dorm room at Harvard, the programme discussed how social networking sites have so rapidly become a part of our everyday lives.

But in addition to the social aspect of these sites, they are also becoming increasingly important as a tool for political campaigning and protest.

Jo Swinson, Britain's youngest MP

Jo Swinson, Britain's youngest MP

Much has been made of the use that Barack Obama made of social networking sites during the election campaign. Some British politicians, however, are not far behind; Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson is a regular Tweeter, and she partially attributes the Government’s recent U-Turn on the publication of detailed breakdowns of MPs expenses, for which she tabled a Parliamentary motion, to the use of social networking sites. Over 7,000 people joined the FaceBook group and thousands who heard about this story through FaceBook and Twitter sent e-mails to MPs, forcing the Government to abolish its plan to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

Conservative blogger Iain Dale called it “the first real victory for an online political campaign in this country”, whilst the founder of campaign group mySociety, Tom Steinberg, said: “This is a huge victory not just for transparency; it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the internet has seen to that.”

Most dramatic is the speed at which the campaign gathered momentum. According to Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, the campaign that was mounted in just a few hours would have taken weeks 10 years ago. There’s a great article on what happened by Mike Lowe here.demo

And internet-savvy Swinson is not stopping there. When I interviewed her yesterday she also said that she would like to make  clips of Parliament available on YouTube – with the dual purpose of getting more young people interested in politics and of making the political system more transparent and accessible. She may have a battle on her hands for this one though – even though some European Parliamentary debates are on YouTube, she suspects she will first need to explain to many of her older colleagues in Westminster what the site actually is… See below for YouTube video of Finnish MEP Alexander Stubbs arguing in the European Parliament for “equal treatment for Vodka”.