UK Uncut protests in Manchester

Up to 100 protesters targeted stores on Market Street in Manchester today as part of a national day of action against companies linked with tax avoidance.

Protesters outside Top Man

Protesters outside Top Man

The protests, part of the grassroots UK Uncut movement which aims to put pressure on the Government to tighten up on corporation tax collection instead of cutting jobs and public services, were held in turn outside Barclays Bank, Vodafone, Boots and Top Man. To read why they chose these targets, click here.

While arrests were made at demonstrations in other parts of the country, the action in Manchester remained good-natured, with some banter between police officers and the protesters, who were mainly young but with a sprinkling of pensioners as well as celebrity DJ Dave Haslam. The reaction from passers-by was generally positive too, with few of the protesters’ leaflets being thrown on the floor.

None of the stores needed to close their doors over the two-hour period, with activists seemingly happy to make their point through chants and home-made placards rather than risk having their collars felt, though only the most determined Christmas shoppers were weaving their way past the swarms of protesters. That must have affected trade to an extent, while most of the firms seemed to have hired extra private security to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.

Media-wise, a BBC cameraman attended the Vodafone leg of the protest but only filmed around 30 seconds of footage, while Nigel Barlow of local news website Inside The M60 posted live updates on Twitter when the Orange 3G connection allowed.

When I arrived home, I checked how the protests across the country local newspaper websites for their reports. Full marks must go to the Brighton Argus, the only ones I could find who covered their local protest online.

Not only that, but they did so via a rolling live blog, keeping readers informed of the protests and arrests, while also answering their questions about when the coast was clear to resume shopping. In one fell swoop the Argus became the go-to place for breaking news, essential information and lively local debate.

It’s unclear whether any of the other activities around the country were as newsworthy as Brighton’s – if they were, the local press have missed a trick. The Argus’ blog attracted dozens of comments and even usurped the weather from the ‘most read’ chart. Even minor demonstrations, however, would have been seen by thousands of curious shoppers and required police officers’ time, so it would seem worth recording online at least.

The UK Uncut campaign itself doesn’t seem to need mainstream news coverage to gather momentum, however. Twitter, Facebook and blogs appear to be the way the message is being disseminated and the next activity co-ordinated.

One final thought occurred to me as I scanned Twitter for ‘#ukuncut’ updates and saw dozens of photos and first-person observations from the protesters’ point of view: I wonder how long it will be before the press offices of the targeted firms use that hashtag to post their rebuttals?


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In the studio with avant garde band Stranger Son of WB

Stranger Son of WB are a music group based in Manchester and centred around Gareth Smith. These are just about the only facts we can cling to: everything else – their genre, their line-up, even the instruments they play – is more fluid than Oliver Reed’s diet.

If you asked me to describe SSOWB, I’d propably avoid the question by mumbling something about Captain Beefheart bumping into Can in a lift in a Hulme high-rise, in the manner of those extended metaphors so beloved by music journalists. If you want to list some relevant adjectives, try challenging, abrasive and occasionally ingenious, but not simple or static.

Gareth’s ‘anything goes’ spirit led to me being invited down to their studio. The mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to add my singing voice to part of a track he and his current crop of musicians were recording for their new album. Given that I’m worse than Viv Nicholson at holding onto notes, it was reassuring that I’d be just one of seven singers on the song, and that we were just tackling a simple, breathy refrain.

Rehearsal lasted all of 20 seconds and then the tapes started rolling. We cooed for three minutes, during which time I tried to keep as far away from the microphones as possible to stop my drone ruining it, and rattled off three takes. Nothing will be wasted as every run-through we recorded will be used by layering them on top of each other.

During the third and final stint I managed to prop up my film camera in the corner to record some footage. The result is essentially five minutes of ‘aaah’ notes with various badly-framed singers swaying in out of shot. However, I thought I’d upload the resulting video as it gives a rough idea of the recording process.

Who knows what it will sound like when the rest of the song’s elements have been grafted on? Well, probably nothing like this, the Spotify link for their last album Einstein’s Getaway, but we wouldn’t expect anything less.

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Don’t forget the website on Remembrance Sunday

In early November there isn’t a newspaper to be found on the shelves without a poppy on its masthead. Most titles incorporate it as soon as the British Legion collectors hit the streets and keep it there through Armistice Day to Remembrance Sunday. Curiously, however, the same isn’t the case for their websites. The Guardian and The Independent both went without a poppy; so too, surprisingly, did the Daily Express. The situation was even more pronounced at a local level: among ‘competitor’ newspaper websites in the North West, I couldn’t find one daily or weekly title which had added a poppy.

I always buy a poppy myself, in fact several when you factor in replacements and ones for different coats, but I’m not making any value judgment on this issue. I don’t think these titles are being disrespectful to our war dead, nor does it indicate their coverage of Remembrance inside the paper or online will be any lesser. But since all thought a poppy was important on their printed product, it’s curious that the websites don’t carry it too.

There could be many reasons: content management systems not geared up for changing logos easily; not having people in the newsroom with graphic design skills; the fact that on many smaller titles there isn’t someone whose first priority is the website so no one takes charge of it. I wonder, though, if editors at many titles are still so totally focused on their printed product that the website just didn’t come into their thoughts at all.

A subplot: I tweeted all the dailies in the North West asking why they’re poppy-less. Two employees of Trinity Mirror, owners of the Manchester and Liverpool papers, replied but no one from the other five did. Hopefully they were just ignoring my mischievous message rather than this being a sign that their Twitter accounts never being checked for @ replies. If that were the case, how many story tips, photos and videos are disappearing in the ether among all the queries and retweets?

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The name Fritz Lang meant nothing to me until my mid-twenties when I darted into the Filmmuseum to escape a Berlin downpour. Smugly expecting little more than a shrine to David Hasselhoff and a sly chance to dry off, I was instead gobsmacked by how innovative, challenging and artistic early German film-making was, particularly the so-called ‘Golden Age’ in the Weimar Republic period. And the pride and joy of the museum is the section devoted to Lang’s 1927 visual masterpiece Metropolis, the product of one-and-a-half years, 36,000 extras, futuristic filming methods and a then-record budget.

This weekend saw my first chance to see Metropolis on a big screen, at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, having only viewed it on YouTube beforehand (it’s out of copyright so available to view legally online). Even better, this new print has been newly-restored with 25 minutes of seemingly lost footage that’s been rediscovered in Argentina and spliced in. So it’s a longer version than any viewers have seen for 83 years, something Lang would have appreciated as he despaired that the film had been butchered.

The verdict? The difference in the quality of the print is stunning. See this flickering and muddy YouTube version, like it was filmed by torchlight:

And compare it with the bright, bold trailer for the scrubbed-up version:

I’m not convinced the extra footage adds much to the plot, though my former colleague Iain Hepburn insists I’m wrong and there’s a significant difference between the edits. But the restoration has turned footage that was really just suitable for film students to analyse, or as an artefact in a museum, back into a thrilling science fiction that’s hugely impressive on the silver screen.

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More than just a north-south divide

This week, cuts the coalition Government imposed on the Arts Council were passed down to the organisations it helps keep afloat. Many are putting a brave face on the news for now, but this is just the opening salvo: local councils across the country will no doubt look to slash their own funding to these ‘soft targets’ in the coming months in their attempts to balance the books.

All very depressing for those of us who see culture as a vital eye-opening, life-affirming escape from the hamster wheel of work, and of particularly importance in grim times such as these. That’s not forgetting that investing in the arts makes economic sense, too – the chief executive of Manchester’s Cornerhouse is quoted in the Manchester Evenng News as saying it puts £7 back for every £1 of Arts Council funding received. If fewer people go to theatres and galleries, then ancillary businesses like bars, restaurants and taxis will lose out too.

But the list of bodies in the North West in receipt of Arts Council funding, albeit now at reduced levels, depressed me in another way too – namely that they are so heavily skewed towards Greater Manchester and Liverpool. While the MEN article mentioned above listed 47 local organisations losing £850,000 between them, my colleague Tom Moseley had just 5 bodies and £40,000 cuts to write about for East Lancashire.

Rough figures show there are about five times more people in the MEN’s catchment area (2.5m) than the Lancashire Telegraph’s (0.5m), yet it receives more than 21 times the funding from the Arts Council. Even my journo-maths can work that out – there’s four times as much arts funding per capita for Mancunians as Lancastrians.

Of course, there are proportionally more galleries and theatres in Greater Manchester than East Lancashire, and many have higher profiles too. But, while it would be unfair to name names, there are countless examples of contemporary art galleries or youth-focused theatre groups in one area receiving sizeable funding and similar organisations in other areas nothing.

It’s widely acknowledged that the country gives the south most of the cake, and the north is left with crumbs. But within the north itself, the shiny city regions hoover up most of the big crumbs and there’s barely dust left for the rest.

Another example of this imbalance came today, when the Government rejected three separate Lancashire bids to form bodies which would compete for regional growth funding, while the rest of the North West’s plans were waved through. At its best, this decision will mean a delay in Lancashire regeneration projects being able to bid for funds from the Government’s £1.4bn pot. At its worst, it’ll mean all that cash will have already been funnelled to the usual suspects before Lancashire is even in the game.

And the brain drain out of the region will worsen; more people will flee in despair at the lack of opportunities; more terraced streets will lie empty and abandoned; and the south will continue to overheat.

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After 10 years of video journalism, it’s finally sunk in

In my career so far, I’ve had two tranches of top-notch video journalism training. A decade ago my University of Central Lancashire tutors Andy Dickinson and Paul Egglestone introduced me to the possibilities of multi-skilled, multi-platform journalism when the concept wasn’t even in its infancy. Then three years ago I spent a fraught but hugely rewarding five days lugging a Sony DV camera around Southampton, absorbing the enthusiasm and experience of trainers Lane Michaelsen and Harvey Mars, high-ups in the broadcasting division of Gannett in America.

Dozens of packages have been exported out of my Avid software since; a mix of planned, longer shelf-life features and set-piece community events alongside hard news footage of fires and crime scenes. Some videos have notched up thousands of views; others have bombed despite the prominent promotion they have received in newspapers and on website home pages. It took months, years even, of trial and error to get a feel of what audiences wanted to view in their droves rather than their dozens. Perhaps I’ll tackle that in a blog post at a later date.

The punchline to this blog post, though, is my most-viewed video didn’t involve planning, or hours of footage, or fancy cameras or even any editing. It was badly framed, filmed on a £150 three-inch high Flip video camera and received no promotion beyond a Twitter message to a few hundred followers. But because it was unique, on-the-spot footage of a live event (a reserve team football game in front of a crowd of about 100) it found an audience and notched up over 70,000 views on Vimeo within a few days and 90,000 in total.

If you’re interested, here it is.

So what are the lessons? Well, I would encourage as many journalists as possible to learn how to handle a full camera and sound kit, to storyboard a video shoot, and to weave together hours of footage. But what’s much more important vital is making a habit of taking out your Flip camera or mobile phone whenever you can – and cajoling colleagues to do the same.

If you pass an accident on the roads, or go out on a fire, why not film it for a few minutes? When you’re interviewing someone, video one of their answers at the end. Press conferences, grassroots sports events, community events, unsigned band nights, even birds flying overhead… whenever you’re out of the office and spot something interesting to you, film it. Chances are there’ll be plenty of others who enjoy it too. If there aren’t, it should have only taken you a short while to film and edit, so it’s not exactly a disastrous waste of time.

Many of us like to talk of newspaper newsrooms being multi-platform hubs nowadays, but it’s only when we start producing a high volume of videos daily that we’ll live up to our own hype.

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Plurality of the press

How much coverage should local newspapers have given the comprehensive spending review announcements? I was fascinated to see the wildly different approaches in today’s editions for cuts that, broadly speaking, will fundamentally affect all readers’ lives in some way.

On the one hand, this was an historic day which will mean we’ ll be working until 66 and there will be thousands of readers losing their jobs or having their benefits cut, their train fares increase or social housing rents rocket. But then, the cuts had been trailled for months, and had been endlessly chewed over the day before online, on the radio phone-ins and rolling TV news as well as the following day’s national papers.

I asked colleagues in newsrooms across the country and found a huge disparity in the pagination their papers devoted to the cuts, from 8 pages in the Newcastle Journal and 5 in the Bolton News and Northern Echo, down to 1 in the Lancashire Telegraph and Worcester News. Of course, this does not take into account the quality of the journalism or the story count on those pages, but it is an interesting indicator that even newspapers with the same owners, covering neighbouring areas, perhaps even subbed in the same production hub, can look and act toally differently.

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