And the Winner is……Or should that be Loser?

And the Winner is……Or should that be Loser?

Press Club member Anu Shukla, a Birmingham-based journalist, takes a close look at the Byline Festival – and the Bad Press Awards

A journalist by day and festival connoisseur by night, I’ve often pondered the cross-pollination of independent reporting with alternative culture. So when Byline rocked up on a posh estate in Sussex last month, I was intrigued to say the least.

Dedicated to supporting independent, investigative journalism through the crowdfunding model, the event is an off-shoot of Byline Media and the brainchild of Stephen Colegrave and writer Peter Jukes.

“We created Byline Festival because we believe journalism plays a crucial role in holding governments to account, uncovering corruption and defending democracy,” said Stephen.

“With Trump, fake news and the fact 80 percent of the British media is controlled by press barons, it’s clear journalism has been too weak and ineffectual. We believe good independent journalism needs to be supported, encouraged and celebrated.”

So in an era of mass public outrage where trust in the British media is the lowest of 33 countries - cue the Byline Festival. And as the general election lay just days ahead, it seemed Byline had arrived in the nick of time - and more significantly, in a year marking the 50th anniversary since the Summer of Love.

But back in 67,' nobody could have predicted the lasting impact of the festival dynamic when 100,000 post-beatniks took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. Yet half a century later, we’re still in campervans in the midst of fields listening to basslines symbolising the soundtrack to that very same dystopian vision.

So from the Daniel Morgan Murder and Operation Minefield to the phone hacking scandal, surveillance, privacy, data, the war on women and so much more: an information minefield gave journalists a platform to speak about issues raised by numerous investigations.

The dark chilling side of journalism juxtaposed by a positive model for independent media made for a heady concoction for the modern day beat generation. It was a Hunter S. Thompson eat your heart out moment in a post-truth reality. And if the Daily Mail’s £15k legal suit against Byline organisers is anything to go by, it’s a reality which allegedly suits news editors like Paul Dacre right down to the ground.

So on Friday night, men in suits ambled along be-glittered freaks in top hats and costume. Members of the media mingled with activists and freelance journalists. The following day, we noticed a genuinely engaged public challenge panels with daring questions.

This was news junkie heaven for a mish-mash of professionals spanning student journalists and political activists to hard news truth-seekers. Lawyers, academics, redeemed phone-hacking journalists, data-miners, hactivists, war reporters, satirists, whistleblowers, humanitarian lobbyists, bloggers and comedians mixed things up nicely.

Connecting with the general public, they sprawled across the site. This is what made Byline inclusive: there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality as punters and professionals huddled around fires chatting animatedly into the small hours of the night.

The Frontline Club’s bar was housed within a US army tent salvaged from the Korean War. Nearby, a British flag fluttered atop an old army tank. I couldn’t help but wonder at the exhibition before me.

Were these historical symbols of bloodshed there to remind us of colonial atrocities or to demonstrate the plight of war reporters in a world entrapped by the tentacles of the industrial military complex? The symbolism was as powerful as it was absurd.

The rising power of alternative media and its growing public impact was recognised by partnerships with Open Democracy, the New Internationalist, Wistla, Slow Media and BellingCat amongst others. Organisers say they plan to include many more such outlets at next year’s event.

This was no fuzzy blanket of white neo-liberal lefties playing bongos around a hippy fire - though it did leave room for the likes of Hardip Singh Kohli to poke: “There’s a lot of white people here and I’m really happy to see white people represented at music festivals.”

Yet there was no shortage of multicultural voices on panels with Sehriban Dogan, Amal Ali, Jamal El Shayyal, Rukshana Pervin Hoque, Shenaz Bunglawala, Ala’a Shehabi, Mohammad Kozbar and others who put the event in good stead for a more cross-sectional crowd next year.

Speaker suggestions from various punters for next edition included Glen Greenwald, Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Shashi Tharoor, Arundhati Roy, Jeremy Scahill, John Pilger, Salma Yaqoob, Amal Saad Ghorayeb, Max Blumenfeld, Gideon Levy, Naomi Klein and maybe even Frankie Boyle for a bit of fun.

Over at the Echo Chamber, BellingCat founder Elliot Higgins chaired the discussion, Gaslighting Syria and the Middle East. I arrived in the midst of a slanging match between a member of the audience and panelist Oz Katerji who was defending a dialogue which aimed to ‘kick back against Assad apologism.’

A sprinkling of others attempted to challenge the panel’s thoughts on whether the conflict was about civil war or a US proxy war for regime change. Alleged American use of white phosphorous didn’t get a mention - neither did Saudi use of British-sold arms against the people of Yemen. 

My partner in crime, CIJ-affiliated reporter Shanna Jones and I thought it was time for a sharp exit as there were rumbles coming from somewhere until we realised it was my stomach. An amazing Moroccan tagine and a beer or two later, we made a beeline for the Bad Press Awards where John Cleese stepped on to the stage to rapturous applause.

Celebrating ‘the worst of British journalism’ the Daily Mail bagged five out of seven awards including Toby Young’s ‘least accurate article’ on ‘Why only Lefties could go misty eyed at a movie that romanticises Benefits Britain.’ Mr Cleese also announced a life-time achievement gong for the paper’s editor Paul Dacre.

Meanwhile The Birmingham Mail slipped through the net when it was nominated for publishing the ‘most obvious sponsored content’ with its article: ‘Handsworth Grammar School continues to go from strength to strength’. Luckily, the Mirror beat us to it with: ‘Most people wait four years to end a bad relationship - here’s why.”

High on hype, we left Mr Cleese with a mob of reporters and fawning fans. Political activist Lauri Love who faces hacking charges in the US had presented a talk on surveillance and now had his mini-rig up and running behind the Frontline Club tent. Journalists of all-generations threw shapes to beats and pieces. But in the midst of high spirits, news of the London terror attacks spread like wildfire across the festival site. And as one anonymous reporter told me that night: “Terrorism will only stop when the mainstream media changes its coverage and stops provoking violence.” It dawned on me Byline didn’t hate the media. It wanted to become it. In fact, it already was.