The internet has opened many doors, bestowed copious gifts on humanity, but a forum for reasoned debate is not one of them. You don’t have to scroll down very far in a Facebook/Twitter post, or a comments section below the line, to read a vile insult, meet a troll or find a promising discussion derailed by angryboy69 or some other keyboard warrior with an axe to grind.
Tortoise is trying to do news and comment differently. Their tagline is “Slow Down, Wise Up” – a reflection on how overwhelmed most of us feel by the sheer volume of media flying around and a riposte to the obsession with breaking news. Fans of Aesop’s fable will get the point. You can read BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan’s piece from last year to learn who’s involved and how they plan to make money.
In short, Tortoise is about high-quality, low-volume investigative journalism served up to a paying membership. One of the key elements is the daily ThinkIn – “a forum for civilized disagreement” inspired by the leader conference. This is no panel discussion or seminar. Members and journalists gather to share stories, perspectives and ideas. In February I was invited to one in their newsroom on Eastcastle St, and what an introduction.
Is there a more controversial and emotive topic than Britishness at the moment? Whether it’s Brexit, Windrush, Grenfell, devolution or Shamima Begum and the citizenship status of the children of immigrants, the United Kingdom is clearly becoming an island where some count more than others (regardless of where they may have been born or how they have contributed to society).
Everyone in attendance received a pamphlet with helpful notes to stimulate thoughts. A few key points:
1) “British values”, as taught in UK schools, were first defined by the government’s Prevent Strategy in 2011. Under Prevent, councils and schools develop projects to reduce the risk of people becoming involved in terrorist activity.
As of November 2014, all schools in England have been formally required to “actively” promote “British values”. These are –
the rule of law
mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. (School inspection Handbook from September 2015)
2) In 2013, an IPSOS MORI poll asked UK residents what made them most proud to be British. The NHS topped the poll, with 43% of respondents selecting it as a source of pride. Moreover, 72% of people said “the NHS is a symbol of what is great about Britain and we must do everything we can to maintain it”. The next greatest sources of pride were the armed forces (40%), Team GB (38%) and the Royal Family (36%). The BBC polled 16%.
3) Data from NatCen Social Research suggests that, in England, there is a correlation between a person’s national identity and how they voted in the Brexit referendum. Among those who identified as exclusively English, 72% said they voted to leave the European Union, compared to 38% of people who felt they were exclusively British.
4) In the 2011 census, respondents could tick more than one UK national identity: English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and British.
– UK people who identify as British only – 19.1%
– UK people who identify as British and other – 29.1%
– Welsh people who identify as Welsh only – 58%
– English people who identify as English only – 60%
– Scottish people who identify as Scottish only – 62%
The region of the UK that most strongly identified with “British” was London (38.3%). It also had the highest percentage of people self-reporting an “Other” national identity (26.4%) and the lowest with an English identity (43.7%).
5) “The problem today is not that our national feelings about the British empire are too positive or negative, but that we know too little of the actual history to make a sound judgment.” (David Olusoga, historian and broadcaster, The Guardian, 2016)
So what happened? Our chair for the evening, Tortoise editor James Harding, summarised it like this in his emailed “readout” the following morning: “Our London crowd – and we are conscious it reflects our members in the capital – expressed the widespread worry that Brexit damages Britain’s standing in the world, undermines the country’s reputation for warmth and inclusivity, that it represents a further retreat into a more insular, closed country.”
In the crowd, you had people whose families had grown up in the UK, the children of immigrants from India, those that had come from places such as Northern Ireland or the US to work in London… Fairly mixed although light on teens and under-25s for obvious reasons.
The consensus was that the dominance of London and the neglect of the rest of the UK had played a big part in Brexit. And that Brexit had damaged brand Britain and made the UK a less welcoming place. A powerful testament to this was when a young man spoke about a conversation he had with his father, who came here from India. Would be do it all again, given the chance? The son said he would tell his dad to stay put and look forward to many years of prosperity.
On the subject of Britishness, I must say it’s such a nebulous concept. It's human nature to crave a sense of belonging to a group, a tribe or community. But these days, it tends to be a football team or, at a stretch Team GB at London 2012. Ah those halcyon days in a green and pleasant land.
A 12-year-old boy gave us an insight into the weak popularity of citizenship lesson in schools, estimating around 90% of his class basically couldn't care less. What are British values anyway? Shouldn’t we all get to determine them and if so, how do we find a consensus and begin to give meaning to them in our own communities?
Journalist Kieran Yates edits a satirical magazine called British Values and knows better than most how flawed this concept is. “I guess it means growing up in a country where you are always simultaneously an insider and outsider.” She told Dazed. “British values, to me, are about proving allegiance if you're non-white, but really, I guess it's about being satirical and funny and cold and grey and just on the precipice of misanthropy and reclaiming parts of your identity you’re supposed to feel ashamed about.”
Some guests told of how their non-British mates chuckled at the thought of us sitting in a room debating what it all means, lost in our existential mire. “How British,” they quipped.
I sat quiet for most of the debate. The whole situation fills me with dread. But that doesn’t mean I, or you, should ignore the conversation. Slow news could be the way to regain a measure of perspective in this ever-shifting world., says Tortoise publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith. “[It] sums up a way of looking at the world – critically but reflectively, and wherever we can optimistically. As humans we can’t possibly see everything. So we’re not going to cover everything – part of being slow is about making choices, and taking our time to make those choices.
“We couldn’t and wouldn’t say ‘we’re here to fix everything’ but it is important to try to fix on what matters to us, to explain why we think it matters and to ask questions that go beyond ‘what happened’. How did we get here? What might happen next? What further reading should we do? And most importantly – what do you think?”
News journalism is a bloody battlefield but Tortoise is making a good fist of the fight. They currently have more than 7,000 members in 50 countries, each paying between £1 and £2.50 a week. But the start-up venture also has three years of financial backing from eight private investors to fuel the machine. Can it become a sustainable venture?
I have been very impressed by the quality of writing introduced in the newsletter and social media posts. My phone frequently buzzes with unfamiliar angles on news stories. And the ThinkIn has restored my faith in humanity’s capacity for dialogue on anything from race to class, religion and sexuality.
If that sounds like your kind of newsroom, then head over here.