Daily Archives: January 5, 2009

Ethics of Campaigning

There was a good discussion about whether it is appropriate to highlight real nitty-gritty detail after a question from Rev Ev about Phil’s highlighting of the continued use of the SPCK logo in one element of a window display on the Exeter shop:

Whereas I agree with much that is said on this site about the whole SPCK/SSG scam this is, in my opinion, nit picking.

All this shows is that some lackey has not actually considered what they are putting up in the window… probably some poor sod who doesn’t have a clue about what SPCK stands for, the Christian faith, or what they have got themselves in to.

Lets leave this before it starts to look vindictive.

We all agree that campaigning needs to be vigourous and fact based, without becoming vituperative – and it is useful to take stock from time to time. It is also the case that we have significantly hardened our tone (compared to say August) as we have found out more about all the things that have been happening around the mismanagement of the Saint Stephen the Great organisation.

My own view is that the SSG bookshop chain is such a mess with such extreme mismanagement that the sooner it closes down and is removed from the control of the current management the better, as then there is a greater chance of an equitable division of assets to the different groups (tax man, suppliers, staff etc.) under the framework of English Law before the whole lot are taken out of the backdoor in the dead of night. Then the working examples we have already of locally-supported, independent, well-run bookshops built on the ashes of some ex-SSG bookshops can have a chance to be copied in other places.

My comments are below, and I’d welcome further discussion.

My Reply to Rev Ev

(This is slightly edited)

RevEv

First of all we appreciate the comment; it is the negative feedback that pulls us back to the centre.

Normally we discuss what to report and how to report it offline, but you’ve asked a well-targeted question, and I’d like to offer the courtesy of a detailed and honest answer, and take the opportunity to explain why we really try to sweat the detail, and why it is important to record as much as we can in public.

(This is a long comment, which I’ll turn into an article tomorrow – so you make like to get a cup of tea!)

I agree with you that this is seemingly trivial.

Secondly I’d probably have written it slightly differently (I’m not saying it would be better – Phil and I have complementary styles). I’d probably have emphasised the history of the covenant breaking and mentioned the sign as a detail in passing. On different occasions, Phil has reminded me to tone down my style slightly for this niche compared to my usual political stamping ground.

I’m wondering if we should have a “Sweating the Detail” category or tag to point out this type of post. On my political blog I have a “knockabout” category I use to indicate “tongue in cheek” when I am having an over-the-top “go” at people, and it works well.

HOWEVER…

The whole approach of this campaign has been to “take what was hidden and shout it from the rooftops”, and that is the only approach – apart from formal legal action – that has delivered any results. Dave Walker did it for 18 months, and we are continuing the same basic approach now slightly more on the front-foot. We have repeatedly found that small details let us follow a piece of string which is attached to a piece of rope which has something significant on the end of it, and that the way to follow the trail has been to publish facts and let the network of getting on for 1000 people (e.g., 750 on Facebook) who are interested find relevant information and help build the jigsaw. So we publish lots of detail, even if it seems trivial. Perhaps 90% of the benefit has come from publishing material.

The general attitude of the Brewers to both English and US Law has been to treat compliance as optional, and relatively small details build up a rounded picture of that attitude. That may be needed later in investigations. This may be going to end up with serious legal action. I’ve stopped thinking about “vindictive” when it comes to documenting breaches; I just see that as collecting evidence that may be used in civil or criminal investigations later on. We try to make sure that everything is strong enough that it will be repeatable on oath when that becomes necessary. It may be the trivial detail that will be crucial: in this case concrete proof that the management have not ensured that a Trading Standards instruction is followed thoroughly.

We are also not just working nationally: we are trying to build consciousness in 25 centres so that when this is all over there will be the optimum opportunity to create independent bookshops maintaining the SPCK tradition of critical enqury and dialogue. Publishing small details about individual shops helps with that. It also helps with engaging the local media, who need emphatically local angles; local media are critical to raising local consciousness, and the new bookshops are going to need local communities of interest to support them. In the case of Exeter, a Charity Commission enquiry plus $700k taken out of the overall charity through the back door plus $1.5m of unpaid debts plus a fraudulent bankruptcy might not make the local paper. But those plus ignoring the covenant on an Exeter shop, plus 12 months of Trademark Violation, plus not fully obeying Trading Standards, plus ignoring the covenant on the shop, plus the staff all walking out together (I think), plus other stuff we haven’t published, could make a compelling story about the time the USDAW Tribunal goes to legal action.

Publishing embarrassing details also provides a certain amusement, morale boost and is a maintainer of interest to keep us all engaged on what will be a very long and tedious campaign; humans need it. That was one of the reasons we had such fun with Mark Brewer’s “deep belief in freedom of speech” when he was making threats to shut people up: we needed to create a sense of esprit de corps to build support and interest, and laughing at him helped people forget to be intimidated. The same goes for Phil Brewer’s aeroplane, although that also involves $1500 of misspent charity funds.

Scrutinising tiny detail lets the Brewers know just how closely they are being watched, which may help keep them on their toes and distracting them from nefarious activities or even more vigorous mismanagement/bullying/asset stripping than would have happened otherwise.

** Wrapping Up

I hope that helps explain the approach, even though we’ll both certainly admit we’ve got it a bit wrong at times.

Rgds

Matt

A Further Reply from Rev Ev

Rev Ev replied again:

Matt/Phil

Agreed that identifying small misdemeanours often leads to finding huge mistakes, but I just feel in this case that this is nit picking.

As a regular contributor to other sites watching the actions of particular retailers, I have found that such nitpicking leads to those being watched dismissing what is being said on the whole… saying that I would wholly expect the personages in this dispute to dismiss this, and similar sites, anyway.

Trust me, I do not in any way wish to defend the Brewers. I am more concerned that this dispute does not appear to become vindictive. There is more at stake here than the future, or not, of the former SPCK chain. This dispute could appear to be wholly unchristian if it appears at all to be vindictive and nitpicking, something certain elements of the press would latch on to with glee.

Further Thoughts

We regularly don’t publish material for different reasons, and on a couple of occasions we have pulled or softened articles.

I’d also take the Rev Ev’s point that a campaign around a Christian Bookshop Chain is very easy to attack with the “that’s not very Christian” canard.

Questions to think About

  • Where should the lines be drawn on a flagship site such as this one ?
  • What content mix should we use?
  • Which material should we keep private?
  • Should that be different on more satirical sites, such as ASingleblog or Dr Troll.

What do you think? Just to make it more interesting, I’d ask people to avoid “I agree” type comments without a more substantive point.

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