Why did you become a film maker?
I became a filmmaker – or video journalist as I prefer to say – partly by chance. As a young person trying to get into journalism, I was mainly writing. It was the early days when newspapers and magazines started experimenting with making videos, and I picked up a small camera to have a go. I found it a very powerful way of recording what I was seeing and communicating that with others. I pretty soon stopped bothering with words and taught myself how to film on small mini-DV cameras. Then in 2007 the Guardian set up its first video team of four, and I became a founder member. My main pitch to them was that I didn’t like the way TV news looked and felt: too distant, too formulaic and too polished. I thought internet video should be different, more accessible, and the Guardian liked the sound of that, so I got the job.
Do you believe documentary can change the way people think about where they live?
I created a series for the Guardian (with the presenter John Harris) called Anywhere but Westminster. The idea was to cover politics, but not in the usual top-down way from the centres of power, but out in communities and through the voices of ordinary people. Basically we were doing what I call “place-based journalism”: our stories would try to capture life as it was lived in towns and cities across the country, and be rooted in the specifics of those places.
What we have found on that journey is everywhere has a strong sense of place, with people that care deeply about where they live, and how it is represented by the media. If you get something wrong, people will let you know – and quite rightly. So I take that responsibility seriously. But at the same time people in communities want to also play a role in shaping their narratives, not only have people coming from outside to do it for them. I still believe an outside perspective is important, but so is that of people in communities, and somehow we need to bring the two closer together.
What’s the Made in Britain Project, and how did it come about?
I did a project for the Guardian called Made in Stoke-on-Trent, that involved spending a year in the city, and working more collaboratively with local people in overturning lazy stereotypes about places like Stoke, and showing how people were trying to fight to build up their city. The whole process was very rewarding, both for me and the people in the stories, so I wanted to try and grow it to many more places. I went out to find external funding, and this allowed me to have budget to do it in several more places, and importantly to have money to pay local people to work with us on it more formally. We have a small team from the Guardian (myself and Bruno, who also worked on the Stoke project), and we are partnering with a small number of local people.
One of those places is Doncaster. What it will become is still quite open, especially since Coronavirus has changed everything. But basically it will be part of a series of films that comes out in early 2021 on the Guardian and in screenings, hopefully together with a launch event for the people of Doncaster. We also plan to publish short updates and clips along the way through Doncopolitan, and use it as a channel of communication with people of the town.
In terms of stories, we do not want to shy away from the social challenges facing people and communities, that is an important part of what we have to show. But we want to do this in an empowering way, that gives agency to people, and shows how people are fighting back.
Does the decline in local and national news worry you?
Yes – there are two gaps that are growing – one is between national media and local places, and the other is in local media that are there to service the community with really important stories such as court reporting, and holding the local authorities to account. But also, it’s all part of building and
keeping a sense of place – the cultural life of a town or a city, the people doing important work in the community. The main reason of course is money, and a business model that has completely changed. The cause for hope is that there is lots of desire still among people to have strong local
news, be that in local radio, or online or in print, and dedicated people trying to make it happen. As a society we have to find ways to support them.
How do you think journalism is changing for the better or worse?
Trust in the media is low and falling, and this is a big problem for all of society. But at the same time there is that strong feeling from people that it’s important to have good journalism. So all of us have to try to change. The national media should try new ways of connecting with people, listening,
and involving them. It needs to become more diverse, both in terms of ethnicity, but also geography and class. I think audiences also have their role, to try and engage positively, understand what journalism can and can’t do. Social media has given everyone a voice, and made it possible to hold journalists to account when they get things wrong. But it has also made worse a kind of shouty, divisive and partisan public debate around many issues. We all have to fight for a media that steps back from that, and values a calm search for facts, justice and fair representation.
The other big change is that almost everyone has video camera in their pocket in their phone. So this opens up an interesting space for people to get involved in documenting their own situation, especially when under lockdown we can’t travel to Doncaster personally.
Why do you think its important to work with and support organisation and individuals in places like Doncaster?
It’s a two-way street. I feel we have a lot to offer, in terms of our skills and experience in making video, our understanding of the national news agenda and how to shape it. And we have a platform that can reach a large engaged national audience. We also have a lot to learn and gain from the many great local organisations such as Doncopolitan. They have a deep knowledge of their communities that we really need if we are to do these stories right. And we want to leave behind a positive legacy: greater capacity and newfound ideas with these organisations, and great trust and links with the national media. We also want to make a great series of films that will open the eyes audiences around Britain and help drive positive social change.
Follow John on Twitter here.
Subscribe to our Donco Monthly newsletter here for the latest updates on the Guardian project.
Hello it’s Doncopolitan!
We wanted to let you know that Doncopolitan is currently being funded by Arts Council England Emergency Covid-19 fund, which is enabling us to develop our print magazine and festival into an online format and pay local artists and writers to feature on our site. We want to continue to develop this once the funding has ended. We want to create paid opportunities for artists to write and create on their own terms. We are reaching out to you as a regular reader to ask you to become a patron of our work. Becoming a patron is really simple; you can pay as little as £3 per month which will allow us to continue to be an independent voice for our town.
Find out how to become a patron here.