Politics and the Media under scrutiny at the Byline Festival

Paul Magrath
7 min readAug 27, 2018

Pippingford Park in West Sussex is normally a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) but for the bank holiday weekend, when it hosts the Byline Festival, it’s also a site of special media and politics interest. We’re talking citizen journalism, protest politics and a selection of musical acts some of whom can only be described as agit-punk.

This is the festival’s triumphant second year. Last year’s debut went so well, the organisers, led by Peter Jukes and Stephen Colgrave, immediately started planning a repeat. It seems likely to be an annual event, since they are already talking about another in 2019.

We bought our tickets at last year’s ridiculously early bird prices and did not regret it for a moment. By ‘we’ I mean four members of the Transparency Project, some also with family. Some of us camped or even glamped; others preferred the pampered comfort of a local hotel. The camping is not without challenges, the first of which is getting your kit from where you park your car, in a field at the top of the valley, down to the field at the bottom, on the other side of the festival site, where you can put up your tent, or occupy one of those on the glamp-site. There is a fleet of buggies to shuttle you, but you may have to wait. In the end, we decided it was quicker just to drag the stuff the 300 yards across bumpy grass and muddy track, via the registration hut that dispenses your festival wristbands.

Entering the festival site, your first encounter is with an old red Routemaster London bus. Given the generally left wing intellectual and political bias of the festival, it’s appropriately a No 38, whose route dissects what used to be known as the People’s Republic of Islington. Beyond that is a ‘street’ of street food vendors, more of a muddy track really, with offerings of burgers, fish and chips, pizza, barbecue and specialist tea and coffee, mostly from some sort of van or trailer. The events include panel discussions, comedy, music and drama; there are workshops and hangouts; there are kids’ activities too (though many adults also took advantage of the face painting, for instance); there’s a bookstall and people selling clothes, jewellery, souvenirs and (most usefully) camping gear (there’s always something you forgot to pack for the trip). And then there are the bars. We spent a pleasant evening together lounging on an old sofa in a big tent with a plentiful supply of beer and wine, with children’s games to keep us amused, and live music in the background.

There are three main event locations: the biggest is the Media Circus tent; next in size is the Forest Forum and the smallest is the Data Dome. For live music there is also the Backline Stage, though the bigger acts, such as Badly Drawn Boy and Pussy Riot, get to pack out the Media Circus.

With the evenings given over to rock and roll, blues and punk, the daytime events are mainly discussions about politics and the media. Though much of the subject matter is controversial, it is rare for panellists or their audiences to disagree. It’s more about spreading the word, raising awareness and proposing possible solutions.

There’s also, perhaps, a sense that these things — #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, dark money and data manipulation — are not being discussed as widely or as intelligently as they should be, in the mainstream media. Byline is itself an alternative media channel — a crowdfunded journalists’ platform, formed in the wake of the HackedOff movement and the Leveson Inquiry, to provide independent journalism untainted by corporate monopoly or political interference.

Not surprisingly, media failings and media regulation form a goodly portion of the intellectual fare on offer here at the festival which shares its name with that independent platform. Two sessions in particular caught our eye. The first was entitled Monopolies of Truth and was led by Nick Davies, the journalist who led the exposure of the phonehacking scandal, and Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party.

The session focused on the increasing monopolisation of news publishing, and impunity of the monopolisers, among other problems including

· the decline of local newspapers, with so many either folding altogether or being swallowed up by conglomerates

· the domination of digital advertising by Google and Facebook, with more than 60% of the market between them

· the growth of data monopolies as smaller tech developers are ‘hoovered up’ and commercially neutered by giant tech companies

· the insufficient power and resources of the various different regulators (Ofcom, Ipso, FCA, Electoral Commission et al)

· the power of newspaper oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch to influence the political agenda, either by a dripfeed of distracting ‘fear factor’ stories that require constant attention and rebuttal, or by the passive fear of exposure like previous victims

· the use of such ‘passive power’ by the media moguls to stifle criticism and prevent independent scrutiny, an example being the shutting down of Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry

· the growth of what was inaccurately called Fake News, but was in reality a sort of ‘information chaos’, in which channels of communication were riddled with deliberate falsehood and ‘unreason’

· the increasing use of propaganda, not just from Russia with its bots and troll farms, but also the US military’s so-called Strategic Communications competency, among other foreign actors

· the lack of funding and resources for properly researched newsroom journalism, with the result that even mainstream media outlets were over-reliant on recycling other people’s material, either harvested from questionable social media sources or from commercially loaded PR fodder

· the increasing use of ‘sponsored content’ masquerading as proper journalism

· the ‘existential threat’ posed by right wing governments to the BBC, making it far more nervous about critical coverage of the right than that of the left

· the institutional anti-semitism and blatant hypocrisy of papers like the Daily Mail when dealing with stories about anti-semitism in the Labour party

· Malice and mendacity of the tabloids when reporting on the European Union and on human rights

· The ability of big advertisers to lean on newspapers to stifle adverse coverage (eg HSBC and the Daily Telegraph)

· The growth of think tanks, usually right wing, with a lack of transparency over their funding, in reality lobbying under the guise of independent ‘research’

· Rise of ‘grass roots’ campaign groups so palpably fake they are known as ‘astroturf’ groups

· Decline of media studies as an academic subject under conservative educational policy, potentially weakening the ability of the millennial generation to critically assess the provenance and veracity of media content

What were the solutions? Among those discussed were:

· Regulatory convergence — a sort of ‘super regulator’ dealing with all media and communications channels and with proper power and heft to tame even the Silicon Valley oligarchs, as well as the (now declining) Fleet Street moguls

· Take Facebook and Google into some form of public ownership and/or find a way to tax them more effectively (eg by levying some sort of data click duty)

· Block the merger of Fox and Sky

· Force regulators to take a more robust approach to broadcasters’ commitment to ‘fair and balanced news’

· Close down fake accounts: free speech is for humans, not bots.

· Continue to defend the BBC in spite of its apparent bias as a news broadcaster

· Restore the ability of broadcasters (currently precluded by an overly commercial approach to licensing) to make public interest news programmes and investigative documentaries

· The Digital Bill of Rights giving citizens ownership of their own data.

At the Bad Press Awards, aka the ‘BAFTAs of Bullshit’, the prize for the Worst Headline of the Year went to The Times for Andrew Norfolk’s now notorious ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’ story, whose prejudicial bias and many factual inaccuracies were torn to shreds by Brian Cathcart. It was, he said, ‘one of the most disgusting pieces of journalism’ he had seen, less about foster care and more about fostering hate. (The Transparency Project has written extensively about the case, and it is one of the case histories in Doughty, Reed and Magrath’s Transparency in the Family Courts: publicity and privacy in practice (Bloombury Professional, 2018.)

The Sun and the Daily Mail came under fire as well, for particularly misleading and factually incorrect stories such as the Mail’s ‘Another Human Rights Fiasco’ (the subject of a damning verdict from IPSO following a complaint by human rights lawyer Shoaib Khan), a piece of court reporting so lacking in fairness and accuracy it would probably have failed the contempt of court test in an English court.

The were prizes, too, for some of the dafter, phonier or more blatantly clickbaity stories with which the tabloids chose to regale their readers, one clear winner being the 42 pages dedicated by the Daily Mail (yet again) on the topic of Prince Harry’s engagement to Megan Markle. Having excerpts read out in a silly voice as part of the event was no doubt fun for some, but in most cases it was not quite silly or absurd enough to bear the weight of ironic repetition.

Other sessions attended or part-heard included one on #MeToo, one on Black Lives Matter, and a fascinating discussion about democracy, political parties, citizen assemblies and ‘sortition’ — as a way out of the current stifling impasse of entrenched party politics and commercial influence over government.

The day was a sunny one and the sound system was good enough to make everything inside the tent clearly audible outside, so many ‘attended’ discussions while lounging on the grass outside. As darkness fell, the words gave way to music — from the old new wave of the Members and the Vapors, via the old/new romanticism of the Blow Monkeys, to the contemporary agit-punk of Pussy Riot. (Last night’s opening gig was headlines by Badly Drawn Boy, who is presumably playing somewhere else tonight — the summer festival circuit is a fairly relentless one — but it’s hard to imagine where else Pussy Riot can be playing, so hardcore is their political multi-media performance art shtick.)

25 August 2018.

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Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.