Since late 2017 I have been working with my colleague Dr Annette Naudin and Professor Jenny Phillimore of University of Birmingham on a report which maps diversity in cultural leadership in the West Midlands. This is part of a larger project on diversity in leadership by the West Midlands Leadership Commission, led by Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and journalist Anita Bhalla.
For the report I collected and analysed data on employment and leadership in the cultural industries in the region, focusing mainly on the subsidised arts sector. In the report I suggest that more needs to be done to collect data on cultural leadership in the region, as there are some problems with reporting. Initiatives such as RE:Present16 and ASTONish, both programmes in Birmingham designed to support diverse cultural leadership, are held up as case studies of good practice.
I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).
First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”. She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:
“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”
Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.
In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:
“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”
These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.
Free registration is now open for the symposium The politics of expertise in media and cultural research taking place at Birmingham City University on November 30 2016. Register here.
Due to the unprecedented number and quality of submissions the symposium will now begin at 1pm and end at 6pm. All interested in expertise are welcome!
I’ve just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. I highly recommend it.
My immediate thoughts as I finished the book were ‘this is fascinating and depressing’. In the book, she discusses how technology has left us more connected than ever before, but also more alone than ever before. There is little room for hope in the world we seem to have created for ourselves: we have let technology damage us and our relationships. Overall I found it scathing and worryingly accurate to some extent.
But what about Britain?
Despite that, some of the examples Turkle presented were pretty extreme – such as the mother who doesn’t look up from her BlackBerry as she picks her daughter up from school, or the person attending a memorial service who couldn’t help but pull out her phone. I have never experienced such a dependence on technology myself and it does make me wonder – are we that dependent in Britain? It would be fascinating to do a cross-cultural perspective; and what about the rest of Europe and other developed countries?
Connected but alone
The narrative which resonated the most with my personal experience was the idea of many weak ties; how online connections and the highly networked enable us to find what we need and dispose of the rest, with little room for creating deep and meaningful connections. This is the really scary element of the book for me, and something I want to look into further – again from a British perspective.
Nostalgia of the young
Another intriguing part of the book, and another that I could relate to. When I lost my mobile a few months ago and relied on the landline, I felt more ‘authentic’. I felt nostalgic, and I loved the idea of not being available all the time. This nostalgia is also prevalent in teenagers according to Turkle. You can see it current trends – retro design, analogue cameras, old fashioned phones, shops such as Urban Outfitters selling LPs and turntables – we want all of this because the pace of technology has disillusioned us – despite everything that’s going on, we also find a charm and appeal in the simplicity of the past. It makes us feel more ‘authentic’.
I work in a University and I know a couple of people are currently carrying out research on social media and communities – yet I am fascinated by the micro level of this. The self – what motivates people to act how they do on the internet. How has it changed how they relate to each other? Is it a good or bad thing?
Today I went to Know Your Place, an event organised by the lovely people at Fused Magazine and BSeen. The event consisted of talks by various influential people in business and the creative industries, including Andy Hartwell from Substrakt, designer maker Eryka Isaak and Julia Higginbottom of Aquila TV, all centred about freelance and enterprise.
Helga Henry, of Fierce Earth, gave a presentation that tied in perfectly with my final MA project. She talked about creating your own brand and I picked up some useful tips:
- Everything about you is a part of your brand, from the work that you create to how you write on your blog.
- It is imperative that you know your strengths and are able to communicate these confidently.
- You need to have more than one web presence so that you can be found easily.
- If you can do a lot of things, don’t say that you are a ‘journalist/designer/photographer/marketer’ – you need to wear different ‘hats’ depending on who you’re talking to so that your message is communicated clearly. This ties in with having different web presences – you can have different websites dedicated to the different services/products you offer.
I am one of those people who says that I am a ‘journalist/designer/etc…’ and not only can this be confusing for whoever I am talking to, but I also manage to confuse myself. In my marketing strategy, I need to acknowledge that I can wear different ‘hats’, and be different things to different people, and this could also be reflected in my branding.
A part of marketing myself is obviously networking, and this was the first networking event I have ever been to alone, and it wasn’t half as scary as I thought it would be. I spoke to quite a few people about my educational magazine business, and I managed to try out different ‘hats’.
I now need to start my MA project and begin research on the different client bases/audiences I want to target.
Today was the third and final JEECamp, held at The Bond in Digbeth (click on the link for full coverage).
My job during the day was to live blog various discussions taking place. First off was a keynote speech by Simon Waldman, Director of Digital Publishing at the Guardian Media Group. He talked about the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation in the media industry – both for small start ups and larger, more established corporations. The larger institutions are so stuck in their ways however that innovation has been difficult, and simply having an online presence is not enough. Being a student on the MA Media and Creative Enterprise at BCU, I knew all of this already but Simon did illustrate some good examples, such as IBM innovating in the early 80’s to turn around a huge loss.
Questions from the audience revolved mostly about paywalls for online news, which is a highly popular and much debated issue but Simon suggested that it is useless to fixate on one thing and instead focus our energies on looking at innovative ways to generate revenue, and I agree.
Next everyone broke off into different groups to discuss the latest burning issues around journalism and entrepreneurship and I volunteered to live blog for the most relevant topic to me – Business models and funding. The other three groups covered law, ethics and regulation, community management and news gathering.
There was a lot of discussion in my group about the need for journalists to multi-skill yet focus on a niche, and there were two prime examples present in John Thompson of Journalism.co.uk and Phillip John of Lichfield Blog who have both managed to turn their hobbies into a success because of the niches they focused on.
In the end though, the same problems still came up – a reliance on advertising and increased competition making revenue generation for online platforms extremely difficult. Everyone came to the conclusion that even though no solutions or answers were found during the discussion, having such conversations helps and everyone was confident that a breakthrough will be reached one day!
This was typical of the atmosphere throughout the event – everyone was relaxed. I wondered why this was – because we are out of the recession that we were in the middle of this time last year? Because the entrepreneurial spirit promoted throughout the day gave us hope? Who knows, but it was nice.
Then there were two fringe discussions, one about the MA Courses in the BCU School of Media (my course being one of them) and a talk by Nigel Barlow. Nigel started his local blog ‘Inside the M60‘ last year and he described his difficulty with generating enough revenue. I admit I was a little distracted during his talk because I took a picture of Nigel and thought I uploaded it to Twitter…but infact I uploaded a picture of my house mates instead. I was embarrassed and unfortunately it is still there on the live coverage! I knew I should have brought my laptop and not used my phone.
Finally there was a closing presentation by Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of the Caledonian Mercury. It was a very funny and inspiring presentation, and he ended with a great point: that in the future journalists will need to come together to work on projects, which will cut out the big publishers. This is again something I have heard and read about before during my course, and I am glad people are beginning to acknowledge that the media industries are inevitably moving towards portfolios and projects rather than the office and ‘9-5’.
Everyone left the event feeling quite optimistic, and it’s a great shame this will be the final JEECamp. Paul Bradshaw has done a great job over the past few years to bring the best journalistic minds together (and give us students a chance to mingle with them).
Thanks to Dan Davies for the photos!
Last night I went to a seminar at Birmingham University by Kanya King, CEO and founder of the MOBO Organisation.