17 June 2010

The Fifth Estate

In my last posting I made reference to the fourth estate - the media, and the important rôle it plays in functioning democracies. Like each of its counterparts - the legislature, the judiciary and the executive, it is important for a healthy democratic society that these remain distinct, in fact as well as in appearance. Few would debate the fact that we are a long way off from this ideal, currently, in Jersey. There is no clear separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature, with the anachronistic throw back to feudalism that sees the Bailiff preside as Chair of the States Assembly, where he can silence elected members, interpret standing orders, rule questions and propositions out of order and in so doing influence which laws do or don't get passed (of course his decisions will be laid out by standing orders - but they, in turn, are open to interpretation: his interpretation...). He also sits in Judgement, just a few metres away on the laws which he oversaw being made...

But this is not the subject of this blog. There is something else in many (usually larger) democracies that exists, that serves to hold the government to account in its own unique, but highly effective way. Something that I like to call the fifth estate. I am talking about satire. Political satire, to be more precise.

I have always been an avid fan of satire, parody and, I admit it, the surreal and the absurd. There is something about these forms of comedy (perhaps comedy in general) that can say so much often with so few or no words; that can crystalise a truth in a way that hours of political/social analysis could not. One of the reasons for this is due to the fact that comedians have pretty much free reign to say what they want and the good ones are highly adept of finding the right word at the right time. This is in contrast to regular journalists, who have to be very careful about what they say, and how they say it.

But as well as being able to criticise politicians and so hold them to account, satire also has a cathartic effect on the viewer, providing a necessary break from the frustrations we all have with certain aspects of society, wherever we live. For me, few people do that better than David Mitchell (see David Mitchell's Soapbox)

It is perhaps not surprising that I have a particular penchant for political satire, so I was delighted last night when someone introduced me to the tranchant, subversive and - most importantly - hilarious antics of the political activist Mark Thomas. Like Michael Moore (though not taking himself so seriously), he combines radical (and courageous) activism with much needed comic relief. He concurrently stirs up indignance in the viewer and laughter, highlighting serious issues along the way.

I hope you enjoy these two videos as much as I did.

Mark Thomas Vs The MOD

Mark Thomas Vs. McDonalds

10 June 2010

Investigative Journalism, Government Accountability and Housing

One of the first things you are taught when studying Statistics is that correlation does not imply causation. Put simply, this means that just because there appears to be a link between 'x' and 'y' (usually when talking of trends) it does not mean that x is caused by y, or vice versa. It may well be that there is a third variable, z, which is responsible for an increase or decrease in the two others (as it is late, I cannot immediately think of an example off hand, but as I know that there are many proficient statisticians who will find there way to this blog, I will make it a little defi to see which one can come up with the best, most topical example...)

So what has this do with the above? Well, it is clear that democratically speaking we are living in changing and (dare I say) exciting times. There has been a dramatic shift towards a presumption, if not always an actual realisation, of transparency and accountability in Government. (Before you ask, no you have not accidentally stumbled onto Future Chief Minister Gino Risoli's blog - and I will get to the point...eventually). Indeed transparency and accountability in public service and public office are taken to be fundamental principles in modern, civilised democracies.

One of the mechanisms in these democracies for maintaining transparency is the media - the fourth estate (or die vierte Macht, as they said when I was first introduce to the idea in my German Media class).

It is unclear whether the media are responsible for this momentum towards open government, or whether they are simply just mirroring an increasingly refined ideal of society and politics, but what is certain is the importance of a reliable and objective press, preferably with some capacity for investigative journalism, to keep the Government on its toes.

It is all to easy to be critical of the Jersey media, saying they are just an appendage of the State (the Establishment). Whilst this is probably true, certainly of the Jersey Evening Post (we'll deal with Rankin TV another time), it should be noted that it would be naïve to  any commercial newspaper, which enjoys monopoly status and the ultimate raison d'être of which, in an island of financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers, was to make money from selling advertising to the said financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers should be critical of a government which is made up of a significant number or financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers...

Enter the bloggers - The Rise of Citizen's Media and Unaccredited Journalism

In hindsight, it is difficult to see how the blogging would not have become a phenomenon simply as a consequence of the internet. Cynics would say that it was inevitable if only due to the man's inherent vanity, and a near autistic desire for some to comment on a whole host of issues of little or no interest to anyone else apart from the author. Shame on them! But whatever the reason for the proliferation of the Web Log in recent years, the consequences it has had on government and society remain significant.

(It should be mentioned at this point that the terms Blogging, Citizen's Media and Unaccredited Journalism are - much to my annoyance - often used generically, to talk about blogging. This is, of course, not the case, as there are many bloggers who have no interest in reporting or commenting on conventional news topics such as government, civil society, sport etc., but who may simply - and validly- use it to showcase their art, poetry, photography, for example, or  just to keep a diary (quite literally 'log' of their life. Of course, this is where it becomes blurred, because journalists also write on a whole host of topics, from art, poetry and photography through to the staples of politics and the rest.)

There are many high quality examples of blog-based journalists. Also, there are many significant cases where these bloggers-cum-journalists have uncovered scandals and broken stories, which were over-looked or simply not accessible to their mainstream counterparts.

I think back, in particular, to a story I read some months ago in The Independent of how some confidentiality clause prevented information being reported by newspapers, but that the said information was, nonetheless, in the public domain as it came our during a public hearing. Within minutes, the information, which related to the unlawful dumping of toxic waste in an already impoverished part of Africa (the country escapes me) by a large multi-national, was being tweeted around the world. A scandal, and one which uncovered the truth and made that unscrupulous corporation 'accountable'.

Closer to home, we have seen similar 'scoops'. Earlier this year, we saw Voice for Children break a story that the Chief of Police had submitted a letter of complaint to the Priviledges and Procedures Committee about the behaviour of the Chief Minister and the CEO, only to find that the Chairman of PPC had kept that information from the rest of her committee.

This week, we see Team Voice once again taking part in investigative journalism to uncover the state of some of the social housing on the island. Their interview can be seen below. Well done Team! And well done to the young woman who was willing to speak out on the issue.

Social or un-social housing. Who cares?

We are all entitled to decent housing. It’s supposedly one of the reasons we fight wars - homes fit for heroes and all that stuff.

Yet here in Jersey, amidst all the wealth, there are thousands of people who have to tolerate sub-standard housing conditions. They are not all temporary farm workers nor the ten thousand adults without housing “quals”

The interview below is with a Jersey born young woman who describes the conditions that have to be endured on one States housing estate by her and her family.

Why in 2010 does anybody have to put up with such treatment?
How many other States tenants are in similar circumstances?

With the appointment of Deputy Sean Power as the new Housing Minister can we expect a positive plan to end such conditions for all tenants?


Well done Team Voice in what is a fine bit of 'investigative journalism'. Indeed, I had started to forget the meaning of the term, so used have I become to the cosy established Jersey outlets, that I had forgotten it existed in the island. Thank goodness for Citizens' Media!

There is no doubt that Deputy Sean Power has his work cut out now that he is (officially) at the helm of Housing. Whilst we may be on different political wings, I certainly have to admire his energy and hard work. All States Members are hopeful that he will be able to begin to solve the many issues facing the department. So firstly to Sean, who I know reads this blog two words: Congratulations and Godspeed.

I know he will be assisted well by Constable Graeme Butcher of St John, who amongst all of the Constables was the best one for the job. If any of them are, he is the true maverick and his own man. The reason I say this is that on out time together on scrutiny, we got on well and I remember one comment he told me (regarding buying property): 'Do people want a cash cow?' Spot on. He has crystalised the problem very well and demonstrated that the issue that needs to be overcome in Jersey if we are to truly deliver affordable housing is that of 'speculation'.

Though he is not the only one to talk of it, Stuart Syvret, when he spoke at the Grouville hustings recently, quite rightly pointed out that the second largest industry in Jersey - after finance - was the accommodation industry, or the Rentier Class as others might say. It is they, in part, who are responsible for keeping house prices high, indeed ever higher, and it is this element which must be addressed if our commitment to affordable housing is to move from from mere lip-service to concerted action.

Getting back to this woman's case. It is, significant, as you have pointed out that this instance is not to do with a non-quals property, which one might expect to more likely be sub-standard. This was a social housing unit. One of the main problems facing housing at present is the maintenance of their properties. I have myself witnessed this problem earlier today with the sheltered accommodation at Don Farm.

Current States policy, up until now, has been to sell of property in order to pay for the maintenance. Anyone who has played monopoly recently will realise that this is a slippery slope to take). Thankfully, the new Minister has indicated he wants to put a stop to this practice. We trust that he will both be able to maintain the quantity and the quality of housing stock. To do this he has said he will fight for profits from housing to be kept with housing. Sounds very sensible, although I don't think the Treasury Minister will share his enthusiasm!

More generally, there needs to be decisive action taken to (i) make sure that sub-standard rental properties are weeded out and (ii) that tenants' rights are upheld. I am talking, now, about the private sector, for both quals and non-quals. Thoughthere are inspections that take place of lodging houses, there are no standards, and certainly no checks in place, to verify the quality of accommodation for those who let out rooms. Nor are there any checks for rental accommodations in the qualified sector.

What would help address this would be a registration scheme for all landlords. This is not a new idea, although it is one that is being promoted by at least one candidate in the current by-election. The idea would be for a sliding scale fee for each landlord dependent on the size/rent of the unit, which would cover the cost of a yearly inspection (not designed to raise revenue for Ozouf's black hole).

Another area which must be addressed is the extension of deposit protection for non-qualified renters. Earlier in the year (or was it last year?!), the States agreed legislation to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords, who kept deposits for fictional/minor damage, and there was very little recourse for the tenant. This legislation (still in development) is to be welcomed, however, it does not extend to the unqualified sector. Though more tricky to implement, it must be done, as these are the individuals even more susceptible to unscrupulous landlords.

So, once again - Tom G and Rasberry R - well done. And good on you Deputy Trevor Pitman for taking up the case so swiftly. A perfect example of responsive government, and investigative (unaccredited) journalism holding the Government to account.