10 June 2010

Investigative Journalism, Government Accountability and Housing

One of the first things you are taught when studying Statistics is that correlation does not imply causation. Put simply, this means that just because there appears to be a link between 'x' and 'y' (usually when talking of trends) it does not mean that x is caused by y, or vice versa. It may well be that there is a third variable, z, which is responsible for an increase or decrease in the two others (as it is late, I cannot immediately think of an example off hand, but as I know that there are many proficient statisticians who will find there way to this blog, I will make it a little defi to see which one can come up with the best, most topical example...)

So what has this do with the above? Well, it is clear that democratically speaking we are living in changing and (dare I say) exciting times. There has been a dramatic shift towards a presumption, if not always an actual realisation, of transparency and accountability in Government. (Before you ask, no you have not accidentally stumbled onto Future Chief Minister Gino Risoli's blog - and I will get to the point...eventually). Indeed transparency and accountability in public service and public office are taken to be fundamental principles in modern, civilised democracies.

One of the mechanisms in these democracies for maintaining transparency is the media - the fourth estate (or die vierte Macht, as they said when I was first introduce to the idea in my German Media class).

It is unclear whether the media are responsible for this momentum towards open government, or whether they are simply just mirroring an increasingly refined ideal of society and politics, but what is certain is the importance of a reliable and objective press, preferably with some capacity for investigative journalism, to keep the Government on its toes.

It is all to easy to be critical of the Jersey media, saying they are just an appendage of the State (the Establishment). Whilst this is probably true, certainly of the Jersey Evening Post (we'll deal with Rankin TV another time), it should be noted that it would be naïve to  any commercial newspaper, which enjoys monopoly status and the ultimate raison d'être of which, in an island of financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers, was to make money from selling advertising to the said financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers should be critical of a government which is made up of a significant number or financiers, lawyers, rentiers and developers...

Enter the bloggers - The Rise of Citizen's Media and Unaccredited Journalism

In hindsight, it is difficult to see how the blogging would not have become a phenomenon simply as a consequence of the internet. Cynics would say that it was inevitable if only due to the man's inherent vanity, and a near autistic desire for some to comment on a whole host of issues of little or no interest to anyone else apart from the author. Shame on them! But whatever the reason for the proliferation of the Web Log in recent years, the consequences it has had on government and society remain significant.

(It should be mentioned at this point that the terms Blogging, Citizen's Media and Unaccredited Journalism are - much to my annoyance - often used generically, to talk about blogging. This is, of course, not the case, as there are many bloggers who have no interest in reporting or commenting on conventional news topics such as government, civil society, sport etc., but who may simply - and validly- use it to showcase their art, poetry, photography, for example, or  just to keep a diary (quite literally 'log' of their life. Of course, this is where it becomes blurred, because journalists also write on a whole host of topics, from art, poetry and photography through to the staples of politics and the rest.)

There are many high quality examples of blog-based journalists. Also, there are many significant cases where these bloggers-cum-journalists have uncovered scandals and broken stories, which were over-looked or simply not accessible to their mainstream counterparts.

I think back, in particular, to a story I read some months ago in The Independent of how some confidentiality clause prevented information being reported by newspapers, but that the said information was, nonetheless, in the public domain as it came our during a public hearing. Within minutes, the information, which related to the unlawful dumping of toxic waste in an already impoverished part of Africa (the country escapes me) by a large multi-national, was being tweeted around the world. A scandal, and one which uncovered the truth and made that unscrupulous corporation 'accountable'.

Closer to home, we have seen similar 'scoops'. Earlier this year, we saw Voice for Children break a story that the Chief of Police had submitted a letter of complaint to the Priviledges and Procedures Committee about the behaviour of the Chief Minister and the CEO, only to find that the Chairman of PPC had kept that information from the rest of her committee.

This week, we see Team Voice once again taking part in investigative journalism to uncover the state of some of the social housing on the island. Their interview can be seen below. Well done Team! And well done to the young woman who was willing to speak out on the issue.

Social or un-social housing. Who cares?

We are all entitled to decent housing. It’s supposedly one of the reasons we fight wars - homes fit for heroes and all that stuff.

Yet here in Jersey, amidst all the wealth, there are thousands of people who have to tolerate sub-standard housing conditions. They are not all temporary farm workers nor the ten thousand adults without housing “quals”

The interview below is with a Jersey born young woman who describes the conditions that have to be endured on one States housing estate by her and her family.

Why in 2010 does anybody have to put up with such treatment?
How many other States tenants are in similar circumstances?

With the appointment of Deputy Sean Power as the new Housing Minister can we expect a positive plan to end such conditions for all tenants?


Well done Team Voice in what is a fine bit of 'investigative journalism'. Indeed, I had started to forget the meaning of the term, so used have I become to the cosy established Jersey outlets, that I had forgotten it existed in the island. Thank goodness for Citizens' Media!

There is no doubt that Deputy Sean Power has his work cut out now that he is (officially) at the helm of Housing. Whilst we may be on different political wings, I certainly have to admire his energy and hard work. All States Members are hopeful that he will be able to begin to solve the many issues facing the department. So firstly to Sean, who I know reads this blog two words: Congratulations and Godspeed.

I know he will be assisted well by Constable Graeme Butcher of St John, who amongst all of the Constables was the best one for the job. If any of them are, he is the true maverick and his own man. The reason I say this is that on out time together on scrutiny, we got on well and I remember one comment he told me (regarding buying property): 'Do people want a cash cow?' Spot on. He has crystalised the problem very well and demonstrated that the issue that needs to be overcome in Jersey if we are to truly deliver affordable housing is that of 'speculation'.

Though he is not the only one to talk of it, Stuart Syvret, when he spoke at the Grouville hustings recently, quite rightly pointed out that the second largest industry in Jersey - after finance - was the accommodation industry, or the Rentier Class as others might say. It is they, in part, who are responsible for keeping house prices high, indeed ever higher, and it is this element which must be addressed if our commitment to affordable housing is to move from from mere lip-service to concerted action.

Getting back to this woman's case. It is, significant, as you have pointed out that this instance is not to do with a non-quals property, which one might expect to more likely be sub-standard. This was a social housing unit. One of the main problems facing housing at present is the maintenance of their properties. I have myself witnessed this problem earlier today with the sheltered accommodation at Don Farm.

Current States policy, up until now, has been to sell of property in order to pay for the maintenance. Anyone who has played monopoly recently will realise that this is a slippery slope to take). Thankfully, the new Minister has indicated he wants to put a stop to this practice. We trust that he will both be able to maintain the quantity and the quality of housing stock. To do this he has said he will fight for profits from housing to be kept with housing. Sounds very sensible, although I don't think the Treasury Minister will share his enthusiasm!

More generally, there needs to be decisive action taken to (i) make sure that sub-standard rental properties are weeded out and (ii) that tenants' rights are upheld. I am talking, now, about the private sector, for both quals and non-quals. Thoughthere are inspections that take place of lodging houses, there are no standards, and certainly no checks in place, to verify the quality of accommodation for those who let out rooms. Nor are there any checks for rental accommodations in the qualified sector.

What would help address this would be a registration scheme for all landlords. This is not a new idea, although it is one that is being promoted by at least one candidate in the current by-election. The idea would be for a sliding scale fee for each landlord dependent on the size/rent of the unit, which would cover the cost of a yearly inspection (not designed to raise revenue for Ozouf's black hole).

Another area which must be addressed is the extension of deposit protection for non-qualified renters. Earlier in the year (or was it last year?!), the States agreed legislation to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords, who kept deposits for fictional/minor damage, and there was very little recourse for the tenant. This legislation (still in development) is to be welcomed, however, it does not extend to the unqualified sector. Though more tricky to implement, it must be done, as these are the individuals even more susceptible to unscrupulous landlords.

So, once again - Tom G and Rasberry R - well done. And good on you Deputy Trevor Pitman for taking up the case so swiftly. A perfect example of responsive government, and investigative (unaccredited) journalism holding the Government to account.


  1. I'm glad to see you have quite a different tack from all the snide comments about Sean Power on Stuart's blog.

    I think he's got some innovative ideas, and after years under the helm of the same minister/president, this is much needed.

  2. Wow, what a scoop!!! Some states housing isn't that great. Funny I seem to remember BBC Jersey highlighting this issue countless times, including an excellent radio piece on the appalling state of non-qualified housing by Suzy Steer Fowler. However, not being a fan of professional journalism you probably never heard it. Congratulations. Citizen's media has already died a death here in the UK. It's done. Why? Because it is unaccountable, agenda-driven and generally inaccurate. Play to the peanut gallery if you will Deputy Tadier, but it will come back to haunt you.

    On a separate note:

    "One of the first things you are taught when studying Statistics is that correlation does not imply causation. Put simply, this means that just because there appears to be a link between 'x' and 'y' (usually when talking of trends) it does not mean that x is caused by y, or vice versa. It may well be that there is a third variable, z, which is responsible for an increase or decrease in the two others (as it is late, I cannot immediately think of an example off hand, but as I know that there are many proficient statisticians who will find there way to this blog, I will make it a little defi to see which one can come up with the best, most topical example...)"

    What pretentious flatulence from a pseudo-intellectual. The journos in Jersey already think you're a prat, but I can just imagine the laughter in the newsroom when they read this guff.

  3. Anon,

    Thanks for your contribution. It is reassuring to note that even though you claim not to be a fan of blogging, you still manage to find your way to the various local blogs, even from the UK, to keep an eye on what's going on.

    I don't normally engage with trolls, but your comments do merit a response as there is some truth in both of your main assertions.

    (i) I would disagree with your comment, or at least want to see statistical evidence, that 'Citizen's Media has died a death 'here' in the UK.'

    This is a sweeping statement to make, and surely false. In my very first posting, whilst I did acknowledge that '[blogging] does very much remain in a primitive form in Jersey', it is also necessary to say that the quality of 'journalistic sites', such as the Voice, have dramatically upped their game and on occasion embarrassed the conventional media into running stories they had previously ignored.

    Of course many of the sites will be agenda driven - this is the case of many mainstream publications 'over there in the UK too' and it is part of a healthy plurality of opinion in the 'Fourth Estate'.

    As for being unaccountable and inaccurate, I would say that the latter is something that I have experienced more so in the conventional Jersey media - examples too many to give. And as for recourse, the right of reply and making corrections, it is much easier for these to be done on a blog than with the conventional press.

    Realistically, and because of the sheer number of blogs - most of which will not be seeking to be an alternative news source- there will always be a mixture of quality. But what we will see in Jersey, and have seen elsewhere, is the emergence of quality internet based, not for profit, journalism. This has already started to happen, to the point where the mainstream media - take the Jersey Evening Pravda - have adopted an online, blog-style format, with easy interactions from the public (and fictitious trolls too!).

    At the end of the day, the main difference between a blog and a newspaper is the format. In time, the conventional paper format will be obsolete anyway. It is that which is already on the decline - 'there in the UK'...

    (ii) Regarding the allegation of pretentiousness: that is a fair criticism. Being objective though, and because I am the only one who knows what my motivation was, I would not call it pretentious, but perhaps slightly self-indulgent. But then again, this is a charge to which that any blog is always open.

    As for being an intellectual, pseudo or otherwise, I cannot claim to be either. What I do believe in, is being able to talk openly and widely about lots of issues. One does this, on many occasions very conscious of one's limitations and incomplete knowledge, and so open to the differing ideas and suggestions of others who may be more expert, or at least be coming from a different place.

    I would simply say that whilst not necessarily being an intellectual myself, I do have great respect for such discussions and lament the often anti-intellectual attitude that can all too easily prevail in small, docile island communities. The mainland Europeans have a much more healthy attitude to such dialectical discourse, and they do well for it.

  4. Montfort,

    Thank you for highlighting this case. This lovely woman has now accepted an offer to move. I visited her with an officer in the company of Deputy Trevor Pitman and she has accepted an offer to move. I have to say that there are other factors no included in the clip of film. Nevertheless, it was a case in point and she is thrilled to move from a 2 bed flat to a 3 bed house. Maybe, when she moves in, she would re-record her thoughts. Deputy Sean Power

  5. Montfort,

    I would also like to add that the Housing Department will shortly have Google Blogspot and will be on Facebook and Twitter. Sean