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The Freelance at Bylinefest

GETTING to Bylinefest - my journey took me from East Grinstead station and eight miles by bike through the slopes of the Ware Forest - was literally an uphill struggle. Billed as a "riot of independent journalism, comedy and free speech" in these dark days of fake news, it was in a beautiful setting in the forest at Pippingford Park, Sussex.

There were photo exhibitions among the trees in woodland, and the Frontline Club had even borrowed a couple of Gulf War Two-era armoured vehicles to add glamour to its ex-Korean War hospital tent bar. It was a small festival with an intimate, friendly feel, small enough that pretty much everybody who wanted to got to bump into the festy's instigator Peter Jukes and say hello.

Bylinefest gate
The entrance to Bylinefest

One of the recurring themes I kept encountering at Bylinefest was low-tech journalism, which was a relief after wisely deciding I wasn't going to take my laptop with me to a forest for the whole weekend. There was, for example, a workshop on "WTF is shorthand?" Do people still do that, then? The man from PA Training confirmed that you still can't cut it in the regional press unless you have Teeline shorthand. Another sudden attraction of Teeline shorthand is that in our post-Snowden ear of mass surveillance, handwritten shorthand notes are immune to cybersnooping and even to being read over your shoulder on public transport.

Other low-tech journalism phenomena in evidence were @ISketchNews, who draw the events they are reporting on, and Delayed Gratification, a print-only long-form magazine that practises "slow journalism." There was also supposed to be an app ready that would direct you via your smartphone to where and when Bylinefest events were, which given the difficulty of forming an orderly queue to get your mobile charged (maybe) in the info tent, I was dreading.

Fortunately, the app wasn't ready by the first day anyway, so it was old school methods that prevailed, like gathering by the stuck-up poster with the running order, later amended with a marker pen. There was almost a riot by disappointed punters when it turned out they'd missed the "how to riot" workshop as it had been swapped round with the poetry workshop and had already happened.

The "how to riot" workshop (whatever it was, I never found out, I'd missed it) reminded me that not so long ago, such a festival would have been branded as a festival for like-minded "activists" not journos (or whatever), but in recent years events like the Big Green Gathering have been shut down, mostly by the police using licensing issues.

Throughout Bylinefest there was a lot of discussion in workshops on "the tyranny of the clicks" - how news is increasingly driven by how many unique views, how many page clicks and so on an article or video generates, how much "user engagement" it stimulates. Paradoxically, this trend my even help the growth of a "constructive journalism." - journalism that focuses on finding solutions rather than dwelling on catastrophes.

Serious journo workshops in the festival's daylight hours were followed by the entertainment after dark, much of it punk bands of a certain age - still going strong having started in the 1970s, such as The Members (best known for "This is the sound of the suburbs"). The dancefloor in the main tent had a kind of giant doormat for its surface with some rucks in it, and was on a slope, so it was quite hard to dance on, it made you look drunker than you really were. You could tell it was a festival for journalists, because the beer tents didn't sell halves, only pints!

Journalists, it seems, can't dance very well. I was frequently the only one on the dancefloor, with a bunch of other journalists standing at the back. My thanks to the punter who saved my spectacles from a stomping, though, during one of the rowdier moments of dancefloor action during the Deltorers' set!

The Priscillas band
The Priscillas play Bylinefest

The contrast between punk bands (and an all-day ska DJ stage) and serious journalism was sometimes a jarring one, sometimes it was difficult to see how journalism and punk banks together was supposed to "work." There was also a lot of walking for such a small festival.

But the enthusiasm of the many non-journalist punters, who came to party and then joined in the "heavy stuff" with great passion, was inspiring. It's often easy to forget that we do actually have punters and fans. Byline was still finding its feet and its format on its first outing, I'm sure the journalism/ents mix will go more smoothly next time. Or it could be that - in a profession where being taken seriously is so important - we haven't quite learnt yet how to rapidly combine the serious stuff with the fun stuff, and we'll pick it up eventually.

Returning to the pure journalism bit, one of the highlights was undoubtedly Hybrid Info Wars: Weaponizing Big Data. This session looked at the deeply weird and terrifying world of Cambridge Analytica, part of a sort of shadow internet of alt right fake news.

Among the panel was Carol Cadwaller of the Guardian, everyone has to read her story about how big data publically available via academic studies was used to build a psychological profile of Facebook users based on their online behaviour.

This was in turn employed to find the "tiny sliver of people" (voters) who are "persuadable" and who were then bombarded with "alt right" emails and Facebook ads in the run up to both the EU referendum and the US Presidential election. Other targeted ad campaigns were designed to disorientate identifiably "persuadable" Democrat voters enough to stay at home. (This is a very condensed summary of what apparently happened, it's much more complex, read it here.

Carol Cadwaller
Carol Cadwaller spoke on how "weaponized" big data influences elections

There was also a lot of weirdness around changing versions of which organisations or their subsidiaries had (or hadn't worked) for rival Brexit campaigns Leave.eu and Vote Leave. The Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner's Office are now investigating, although it's doubtful UK electoral law can keep up with the tech.

The NUJ were in the house. I met up with an impressive number of LFB members in my wanderings around the festival site. Gen Sec Michelle Stanistreet and Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley were punters, while NUJ President Tim Dawson gave a talk on on ebooks.

Ebooks are easy to do, while one third of books sold in the UK and the US are ebooks. Although traditional print books regard anything of less than 70,000 words as not worth the bother, ebooks of 5,000 to 30,000 are "acceptable" and lend themselves to long form journalism. As they're still books, "most accept you still pay for it." A 5,000 word ebook will go for "cup of coffee pricing" - around £1.70 to £2.50. It's really quick and simple to set up an Amazon account and publish using kdp format. We direct NUJ members to Tim's ebook on the subject (NUJ members only.) While Amazon publish 90 per cent of all ebooks, other formats are available and in the guide, as are the rights. See also Tim's own report from Bylinefest.

Comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli and John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) were in conversation in the "Beyond Satire" session. John Cleese was a keen supporter of Byline from its early days. Hardeep described filming at Ravenscourt Park (just by the BBC studios) with the producer "guy giving him hell all day" - he'd just returned from being in charge of filming the Olympic closing ceremony and he was having to mess around filming this exasperating "comedian in glasses" all day. Recalled Hardeep, "He's staff, I'm staff, neither of us are going to get sacked. If you're freelance you're wary about whether you're going to get another job." He described the increasing "freelancization" of his line of work. Of the news coverage of his employers, Hardeep added, "the BBC is now the enemy and I work for them... can you imagine how difficult that is?"

Speaking just before the Punditocracy got the general election horribly wrong, John Cleese said "we need to have some massive way of informing people that there are decent websites" out there disseminating new. Cleese observed, "journalists are just afraid of losing their jobs... if you stand up to them (management) they will damage your career." He described his own more recent experiences of the management that ran comedy at the BBC as "a bunch of jobsworths" who treat talented young comics appallingly. Neither Monty Python)nor Red Dwarf (featuring Robert Llewellyn, chairing the panel) would be commissioned today, said Cleese.

Robert Llewelyn and the author
Robert Llewelyn from Red Dwarf (left) meets the author again at Byline after about 30 years. We were colleagues back in the 1980s, when we worked together for Hand and Deliver Cycle Couriers!

Cleese and Hardeep briefly touched on constructive journalism, or the absence of it. They noted that at the end of Newsnight debates, participants are never asked, what are you both going to do about it? Instead, they leave it to you to decide which "tribe" you believe.

One example of the serious journalism and entertainment mix working very well was the Bad Press Awards and the Trashies, presented by Hardeep, John and others, and for which the Media Circus tent was absolutely rammed, with the crowd spilling onto the slopes of a nearby gentle hill.

Categories in the Bad Press Awards include Most Obvious Sponsored Content - the Mirror of 15 January 2016 won it with "Most people wait FOUR years to end a bad relationship", which had rather too many references to a certain dating agency. Most Misleading Headline went to the Brexit-themed "We're From Europe Let Us In!" from the Mail, which also took Most Inaccurate Article with Toby Young's "Why only Lefties could go misty eyed at a movie that romanticises Benefits Britain". There's more detail here.

The Bad Press Awards shared space with Media Diversified's The Trashies. These exist to challenge journalism that’s lazy, bigoted, ill-researched and misinforming, providing an opportunity to discuss "the problems of journalism that makes space for racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia."

Trashiest Article was won by the Sun's "Why did Channel 4 have a presenter in a hijab fronting coverage of Muslim terror in Nice?", Trashiest Publication went to the Mail and Katie Hopkins took Trashiest Writer. The ceremony was an instant hit and great fun, Cleese was almost choking with laughter.

Bad Press Awards
A scene from the packed Bad Press Awards

The return journey to East Grinstead was downhill all the way, with me fired up and inspired to try my hand at new things, ebooks and Teeling shorthand in particular. The next Bylinefest is at the end of August 2018. Meanwhile the Byline crew run occasional events in London.