This morning the SPCK SSG News, Notes and Information campaign blog passed a total of 150,000 page views since it was established in June-July 2008.
This is a story which is an excellent example of both investigation by a network of people, and campaigning blogging. It shows how a coalition of individuals can make a significant difference. You can read a brief outline on the blog’s introductory page.
The blog is about the mismanagement and destruction of a chain of 25 Anglican bookshops, which have been around since the first half of the 20th Century, by two brothers based in the USA, J Mark – who is a lawyer – and Philip Brewer. They took over control of the Bookshops from the SPCK charity with the promise of maintaining and improving the business back in 2006. They used a charity called the “Society of Saint Stephen the Great” (SSG) as their vehicle.
Since then there has been a saga of “shenanigans”, including sackings by email, bullying of staff, “Cease and Desist” attempts to suppress straight reporting, creation of half-a-dozen business entities to confuse everyone, a fake attempt in the US at putting the core charity into bankruptcy (declaring only liabilities not assets) where the court has no jurisdiction anyway, and much much more, which I will be describing in some detail in a series of podcasts.
I (along with many others) helped promote the new campaign site in summer 2008 when Dave Walker the blogger doing the existing reporting (75 posts in about 18 months was one of several threatened legally by Mark Brewer; here is an example of the style of letter used – this one was published by Sam Norton. An instant archive of these deleted posts was of course established within days on the blog Open Debates not Libel Threats .
There have also been some lighter moments, such as the lawyer running a chain of religious bookshops being instructed by the Court to take remedial education in bankruptcy law and legal ethics, and the discovery that his brother possesses a private “hobby” aircraft painted in “Trotter Trading” yellow, which was maintained at charitable expense . However, the core objective is to make sure that the mismanagement of the chain is scrutinised, and the miscreants brought to book.
The campaign blog now has nearly 250 articles, and has received 2500 comments. Here are the visitor statistics from the WordPress stats module. You can see the initial surge, and how interest has been maintained at around 10k page views each month.
Though very respectable, this is not a huge amount of traffic, but a successful niche campaign does not need a huge amount of traffic – and it could even be a distraction to receive many more comments than we do already.
The campaign has been maintained by a network core of several dozen interested bloggers, some of whom started writing for this reason, perhaps 100-200 who have been interested enough to cover the campaign at key points, and a Facebook network of 500-700 people.
Interestingly, 250 people joined the initial Facebook Group “A group for all those people who mourn the tragic demise of SPCK Bookshops“, but twice that number joined the “We Support Dave Walker” group when Dave Walker was threatened legally. One of our tactics was to major on the easily-understood “Freedom to Report” issue as a wedge to build support for the far more complicated long-term campaign to expose the mismanagement of the bookshop chain by the SSG charity. That network of supporters is still essentially in place, and can act as a sort of “radar” if we need to find information, or need local knowledge from a particular country.
There have been a series of developments and steps forward over the last 12 months:
The material challenged under “Cease and Desist” notices received a far wider circulation than previously.
Mark Brewer failed to get his St. Stephen the Great charity declared bankrupt in the US, a court case in which Dave Walker’s resurrected posts were cited as evidence.
In April this year the UK Charity Commissioners took over the running of the St. Stephen the Great charity, after a formal investigation prompted by complaints from various quarters in 2008, including the campaign network.
Even though the Brewers had moved all the bookshops into a new organisation (ENC Shop Management) the CC’s are now taking possession of these shops as St. Stephen assets.
32 former staff, whose tribunal against SSG heard earlier this year, have now started receiving compensation after an almost 2 year fight. I have published a podcast interview with the USDAW legal team to give an inside track on the Employment Tribunal case.
I’m not claiming for a minute that this is our doing alone: it isn’t. There have been a lot of different people and organisations involved, including the Trade Union USDAW which has just won an 18 month+ marathon Employment Tribunal Case, the Charity Commission (Who took over the charity after , SPCK itself, and others.
However, I am claiming that the network has made a significant difference in at least these areas:
- Information gathering across multiple countries (there’s a piece to be written about how Facebook and other social networks can be used as an “information radar”).
- Maintaining a public profile to the issue.
- Providing resources that allow other people to take offence or to take action.
- Keeping up moral among those who have been targeted by the Messrs Brewer.
- Building formal and informal networks with a range of interested official bodies, and alerting them to developments about which they need to take action.
There are also some lessons to learn here about the possible effectiveness of niche and highly targetted campaigns run by relatively small but committed groups of people. The blog is not high as a general site on Google (it has a pagerank of 3 currently), nor is the traffic huge (averaging slightly under 400 page views a day), but it has done quite a valuable job so far.
Some traditional journalism skills are critical, such as fact checking, careful investigation, sensible legal checks, and a reasonable writing style. However, there are also a whole portfolio of skills for bloggers which do not come with a traditional journalism training.
In a future post I’ll compare the characteristics of this story with the “MP Expenses” reports in the Telegraph to illustrate my belief that investigative bloggers and investigative journalists are complementary, rather than being competitors.