They are building an airport city in Manchester

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Someone please remind me again why I live in this city

Most readers will probably not know that Manchester is quite an experimental city. The first free electric intercity metroshuttle buses in the UK began operating in Manchester. Manchester is set to have a 100MBps fibre optic network corridor interconnecting homes, businesses and universities along the famous Oxford Road. Manchester is home to one of a handful of Fablabs [small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication] across the world, complete with 3-D printers and such kit, an outfit that helps innovators seamlessly bring their ideas to life. Manchester is now home to Media City, the home of the BBC, a futuristic Media installation that is undeniably as state of the art as it gets. It was in Manchester that Graphene was first successfully isolated in 2004, at the University of Manchester, (and the scientists who discovered it won the Nobel Prize in Physics), and the invention (touted a ‘miracle material‘ and the next big thing) is set to transform technology in ways never imagined before. Beetham Tower, which is home to the Hilton hotel, restaurants and apartments was the tallest building in the UK outside London when it was completed in 2006, and is currently the tallest residential building in the UK. Manchester was the first city in the UK to get a modern light rail tram system when the Manchester Metrolink opened in 1992. Manchester will introduce a water taxi service between Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK at Salford Quays, the only one of its type in the UK. And now, they are building an Airport city, right next to the airport:

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If you want to do something new and fresh to your town and city, or if you want to push the boundaries, you should look to Manchester, because the chances are, if it’s not been done around here before, it’s either not worth doing, or is about to be done.

At this point I must state the obvious. Yes, you saw it coming, here it goes: Manchester is also home to two of football’s greatest clubs (and recently a National Football Museum), although we can probably argue about the ‘greatest’ bit forever, since curiously enough, despite my unashamed infatuation with this city, I happen to be an Arsenal fan :-).

Oh, and Manchester is the third-most visited city in the UK by foreign visitors, after London and Edinburgh.

But that’s not even half of what makes this city great…

As with most things, it didn’t just start yesterday. Anthony Burgess, Manchester born writer and composer (best known for  A Clockwork Orange), recalled in his autobiography published in 1986 how London “was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy” For Burgess, Manchester was the real deal. And I think he had a point. This city, in the somewhat narrow frame of liberty in which its officials have been allowed to operate has been a pioneer for many years. During the industrial revolution, German writers and scientists came to Manchester, to observe first hand what these things called ‘factories’ were. With cotton mills springing up everywhere across Manchester, the city’s economy boomed, and created wealth for the industrialists. Manchester became the world first industrialised city, not least because of the textile factories and the Port of Manchester. During this time, it was dubbed ‘Cottonpolis’. Despite the city’s reliance on cotton, and the ‘pro-slavery spirit of America‘ which Sarah Redmond, a free African American Activist and Abolishionist talked about in 1859 when she visited to raise awareness about slavery, the pioneering spirit of Manchester soon had a welcome outcome: In 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice,took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.

With the cotton industry on its knees, [President] Lincoln acknowledged the self-sacrifice of the ‘working men of Manchester’ in a letter he sent them in 1863. Lincoln’s words – later inscribed on the pedestal of his statue that can still be found in Lincoln Square, Manchester – praised the workers for their selfless act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.

P1050639The dynamism didn’t stop there, in 1821 the Manchester Guardian was founded.

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy. – Prospectus outlining  the aims of the Guardian [Spartacus]

In 1878 the GPO (which became British Telecom, the telecommunications giant BT) provided its first telephones to a firm in Manchester. The world’s first stored program-computer was built in Manchester, at the Victoria University of Manchester by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

And it’s not just inventions and infrastructure that defined the city’s dynamism. Manchester has also been home to some great minds including the Chemist and Physicist John Dalton, Physicist J. J. Thompson, Engineer and Philanthropist Joseph Whitworth, and the Textile Merchant and philanthropist John Rylands.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to write the Communist Manifesto at Chetham Library (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) in Manchester. As Luke Bainbridge of the Guardian puts it:

This is the home of the industrial revolution and the city that split the atom, the birthplace of the computer and the Guardian, the suffragette movement, the free trade movement, the co-operative movement, the anti-corn law league, vegetarianism, the nation’s first free library, the world’s first intercity railway and the engine room of rock’n’roll that has produced the country’s best bands of the past 30 years, from Joy Division to Take That. 

Basically, without Manchester, and a lot of its creativity, innovation and history, it’s quite likely that much of the world as we know it wouldn’t be where it is today. Certainly not in the shape that we know. We’d probably still be in the dark ages. Or worse. 😉

And that thought alone, whether you agree with it or think it is far-fetched, is enough reason to learn from what this city has achieved, and continues to achieve.

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Press Reform: Time to create an independent media watchdog for Media Organisations in Malawi

projector-64149_1280Who regulates the Media in Malawi?

Who is it that will confront  the many dodgy online (and some who are not online) publications that have been known to create false stories against public figures out of no-where? What code of conduct do they subscribe to? Who is it that they are answerable to? Are their writers trained journalists conversant with established journalistic inquiry methods? What standards do they observe when they go about crafting their menace? When they concoct their heresies – who can chastise them? Who gets to rebuke those who push out false material into the unsuspecting public in an everything-goes fashion?

I’ve not suddenly become pro-establishment. I’ve not suddenly woken up today and dreamily decided to attack press freedoms.What I’m asking after a long contemplation of the news coming out of Malawi News portals in recent months is what exactly constitutes press freedoms? Can writing a story that one knows is false, that one knows didn’t happen, or that one suspects couldn’t be true, all in an attempt to create a stir, or appease a financier, does that qualify as ‘press freedoms’?

The questions above need to be carefully considered for a good number of reasons.

Firstly, as many Malawians who follow the news will know, we have been misled quite a number of times by the news agencies, and various publications, over issues from president Joyce Banda’s dealings in office, to  the current president’s sexuality. It’s simply not fair, or sustainable, or even professional for such kind of rubbish-pit chicanery to continue to splatter the media. Think false or twisted stories against some Malawians, including Jessie Kabwila, and much recently against Thoko Banda and many others.

Those who write these stories will obviously have justifications for creating them. Any fool can do that. It takes a real professional to independently verify a story before presenting it as ‘fact’. It takes a real professional to separate fact from allegation. What is also interesting, especially in online news portals, is that in regards to most such false stories, as soon as the authors are confronted, they quickly backtrack and delete these stories – issuing an apology. But only after thousands of readers have already accessed the fabrications. After the damage has already been done. Often than not, the story leaves behind a record, a trail which can be used to unfairly taint a character – many years later.

It’s simply not sustainable for Malawi’s media organisations to operate like this. There has to be some basic standards and fair reporting.

Secondly, some of the Media organisations are owned by politicians. Or by people with direct affiliations to political parties and politicians. So, what they publish is invariably going to favour their patrons. Which is not always good, especially if they begin to unfairly attack other politicians or groups opposed to their patrons. Further, there are some media organisations in Malawi, which in an attempt to bring down an opponent will publish material that is false, or will twist facts to present a sensationalist picture that is not entirely true. One that does injustice to the individual concerned. Obviously this is not right, and you can not use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify such behaviour.

‘What about MACRA (Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority)?’ I hear you say. Can’t they regulate this environment? Isn’t that their job? Well, they have been described as ‘poorly managed‘ by the 2006-2007 Media Sustainability Index Report. They have been accused of pro government bias. In my view, MACRA is overburdened by other things. Their organisation is already stretched in dealing with issues such as tax evasion by telecom companies, unauthorised broadcasting by the same, and other tedious issues. They are not ideally equipped to scrutinise as many media outfits in the land to ensure that what is published is, firstly true, and secondly in line with the type of code of conduct I hereby propose. Further, if MACRA went about demanding integrity and quashing rumour and propaganda in online publications, such behaviour is likely to come across as anti-democratic, and may even qualify as censorship, simply because MACRA is a government institution.

‘You are advocating press Censorship’ I hear another say.

And why would I do that? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll realise that I’m quite liberal in my thinking. I often publish material on accountability, fair and even distribution of wealth, anti-corruption and such themes. Why then would I suddenly become a chum of the powers that be, and advocate censorship? There’s a difference between on one hand propriety and abiding by professional standards that aim to preserve integrity and professionalism, and on the other hand censorship. Asking that publications must verify the truthfulness of a story before publishing it is not censorship. Instead, it is ensuring that fabricated rumour and other gooble-de-gook doesn’t pass-off as news. At its bare bones, I’m advocating a quality check.

I believe what the European Court of Human rights once said (Castells vs Spain): “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”

Words which echoed Theodore Roosevelt, when he said ” Free Speech exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.”

But this free political debate only works if the public opinion or the ‘free speech’ that is published is in fact true. It can’t work if the stories are false or fabricated with the intention of character assassination or otherwise.

What about the recent E-bill?

Well, it doesn’t go far enough, and critically it focusses the power in the hands of the government via MACRA, the regulator, which as I said above is restrictive. Like the current framework, it is not sufficient. What is needed instead is a framework run by an independent body with neither political nor neopatrimonial interests.

So what form will this new regulator take?

Well, assuming that we agree that the current state of play is not sustainable, we will probably also agree that self-regulation is not an option. Similarly, if  the likes of MACRA have been accused of interfering, or being pressured by the state to interfere with the media, then they are probably not the ones to front this.

Thus, taking a simplistic view, what I propose is a Malawi Media Monitoring Commission that will have a parliament sanctioned Professional Charter and Code of Conduct. Its role will be to uphold standards in the media and communications industry.

It’s not going to be that simple. Public Affairs Committee (PAC) will need to take an active role in formulating that code of conduct, and a public consultation will need to be launched, to ensure that views of ordinary Malawians are taken into account, and that the executive does not monopolise or influence the organisation.

Why all the hassle?

Because the role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round. And you cannot have a free press if there are few or no standards being observed, or if the government attempts to stifle or gag the press via instruments such as the E-bill. Leaving the formulation of this important aspect of democracy to parliament alone can compromise its independence and thereby press freedoms.

The Commission will be led by a commissioner on a 2 year contract, appointed by a committee including members of PAC and some parliamentarians. In order to minimise costs, the office of the commissioner will have no more than 10 fully paid members of staff, whose duties will include advocating the merits of a free impartial and professional press, sensitizing the public about the code of conduct of the watchdog, running seminars for journalists and members of the media, investigating complaints, dealing with reports of false and fabricated stories, investigating false stories, imposing fines against unscrupulous media outlets, enforcement, and in particularly acute cases, proposing the prosecution of media organisations or their employees. It will operate separately from MACRA, although it will need to work with the police to ensure that the public’s faith in the regulatory structure is restored. Further, MACRA will be obliged to pass on any complaints of unfair reporting they receive to the new commission.

To me this sounds like a more functional and independent system with much better prospects of creating a media that is responsible, and that puts leaders to task, than the current framework. In any case, it prevents concentration of power in the arms of the executive or legislature.

News: Reading between the lines

I’ll admit that I don’t like reading free newspapers. Not that the content in them is necessarily always bad, or of little substance. No. Instead, it seems as you grow older and as your responsibilities ‘multiply’, the hours of each day become shorter and shorter, such that a glance over the headlines, maybe past a page or two is usually sufficient. At least that’s what you tend to convince yourself…

The only time I’m able to read much of a newspaper is on a Sunday, when having a bath, or during transit (especially on the train). Otherwise, it’s when something truly spectacular occurs on the international scene, necessitating spending of loose change on a decent publication such as the Guardian.

However, occasionally something free and interesting comes through the letterbox, which, although minimal, solicits more than the usual hurried glance, putting other more urgent matters one has to attend to on hold. When this happens, and the resulting content turns out to be worth the time, I find myself struggling not to spread the word, especially if the content happens to be something that I have been thinking about, or a topic I recently wrote on.

NubianTimes

Blck-employmentvia the Nubian Times

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