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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17 responses to “Ethics of Campaigning

  1. Valiant for Truth

    The facts and the truth are needed. Provided there is evidence to support a comment nothing should be excluded. Small details do widen out to broader pictures. Continue with the direct and more forceful approach as it has encouraged increased dialogue which I know has made many people feel much better, less alone, more supported. Keeping quiet is only necessary if a UK lawyer has requested it for fear of jeopardising a case. The blog should be a combination of news and facts, plus support for those still suffering.

  2. There’s an old saying: Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves — amounts to the same thing as the devil’s in the detail I guess. Seems to me that highlighting what may seem to be trivial/petty things helps us build the bigger picture — it only takes one missing piece from a jigsaw puzzle to ruin the picture.

    Maybe the way I highlighted this particular issue did come over as somehow ‘vindictive’ – for that, and if so, my apologies. I’m with Matt, however: the sooner the Brewers are removed from the UK’s Christian bookselling scene, the better.

  3. with apologies to W.H.Auden:
    MUSEE DES ARTS COMIQUES

    About suffering they are not wrong,
    the Blogmasters: how well they understand
    the booksellers` position; how grief takes place
    while someone else is shopping, or buying books,
    or just trudging dully to work.
    How, while the reverent are courteously speaking well
    of overlords, there always must be
    employees who do not specially care for tyrants
    skitting on a blog on the edge of asbos.
    They do not forget
    that threats and a death have taken place
    somehow in Britain, in some untidy town;
    while Yanks go on with their Yankee lives
    and in less shops
    staff scratch a living stood behind their tills.

    In our cartoons, for instance,
    we turn folks thoughts away from their disasters.
    The snow falls. And an expensive, delicate plane
    flies calmly by
    fuelled and bought on starving children`s bread.

  4. I think this has been/is an interesting discussion. We need to thank Rev Ev for raising it. May I add that no employee (that excludes any member of the Brewer Family) who has inadvertently stumbled into the Brewers by virtue of an employment agency is seen as a “lackey”. Not unless they have knowingly accepted all that the Brewers stand for.

    Asingleblog was born out of a sense of outrage. Deep outrage at the injustices meted out by the Brewers. It will never be “factual” and it will never be careful. It will, as Mousey implies, always be a space for people to have a laugh and to post as Daffy Duck. Many of us owe a deep debt of gratitude to Phil Groom and Matt Wardman and the many others behind the scenes who so very carefully report the truth.

  5. Matt’s questions: Which material should we keep private? Only that which you are asked to keep private. As to the mix on this blog, all I can say is that I hope that it never becomes so “correct” that booksellers will feel sidelined.

  6. I think for me the point is that we should define what is ‘Christian’ before we start saying we could be attacked for not being Christian and therefore damage the rep as it were.

    Pretty sure tossing the tables at temple wasn’t the best move someone could have made to win friends and influence people to their cause!
    Pretty sure eating with the taxman left a few with indigestion, pretty sure that wandering through the cornfield and picking the ears of corn and eating them – well we see where I am going.

    Being Christian is not about just being nice, not unless of course we are sanitised Christians! Being Christian is about taking the risk to tell it as it is, to stand up to wrong, to point out errors and call to question. Well at least thats what it is to this free radical and liberal christian.

    Beatitude (P. Jacob – Compartir)
    Blessed are the poor, not the penniless,
    but those whose hearts are free.

    Blessed are those who mourn, not those who whimper but those who raise their voices.

    Blessed are the meek, not the soft,
    but those who are patient and tolerant.

    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, not those who whine but those who struggle.

    Blessed are the merciful, not those who forget,
    but those who forgive.

    Blessed are the pure in heart, not those who act like angels, but those whose lives are transparent.

    Blessed are the peacemakers, not those who shun conflict, but those who face it squarely.

    Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice,
    not because they suffer but because they love.
    Based on Matthew 5

    The thing to remember is that the biggest crime we can commit is to be the hypocrite, the snake, the viper!
    So long as we accept and act according to the sure belief and knowledge that as we act are we judged and that the judgement we use will be used against us, then as long as we are accepting of this then we should act as best we can and step forward in truth accordingly.
    If we continunally use this as our measuring stick, checking and asking how’s that log looking in my eye – is it disrupting my vision too much yet?? – then we, and the site, should be fine I think.

  7. Mousey, asingleblog, Squiggle Jones: two simple words in response to those last few posts: thank you.

  8. Pauline Edwards

    Rev Ev, is only one oppinion, out of 100’s,Phil and Matt you are doing a great job, without you guys, I wouldn’t of got paid, go with your instinct, like before, its not let you down, and yes we do need to know everything, its only because of your blog, I knew what was going on, nit picking, I don’t think so!!

  9. Pauline – I want to join you in paying tribute to this blog, but I wouldn’t want people commenting here to think that, just because they are only one voice, they shouldn’t be heard or acknowledged.

    We need to demonstrate in practice that we deal with questions and criticism in a different way from the people we are criticising. I think RevEv had a point, and I’m glad it’s been dealt with constructively.

  10. A couple of comments here have made me unhappy.

    My work brings me in to contact with many non-Christians on a daily basis and with a greater intensity than I encountered in parish ministry. They expect a certain level of behaviour from me as a Christian, and judge other Christians on how I behave. I, also, expect such standards from other Christians.

    When these standards are not met by those calling themselves Christians it has severe and damaging repercussions upon the image that these non Christians have about Christians and hence, as we claim to be the body of Christ, Christ Himself. Yes, he calls us to take risks and to stand up against oppression and injustice, both of which we can witness through the Charlatan (sorry Brewer) Brothers and the way they have pillaged SPCK, but he does not expect us to be vindictive when in conflict. When Jesus turned over the money lenders tables I’m certain He didn’t go back and pillory them for putting up the wrong type of signage.

    This is why I feel the issue of a misplaced SPCK sign is one of triviality that may be a cause of derision, but not one that should be raised as a major campaign issue.

    Does anyone here know when the sign was made?
    Does anyone here know who put it in the window?
    Does anyone here have any evidence that this sign was intended as a deliberate misrepresentation by the Brewers personally?

    I doubt it.

    So lets not cheapen the fantastic work done by Matt and Phil to keep the whole sorry saga of the former SPCK chain in the spotlight by getting worked up about a sign.

    In an increasingly secular age it is disputes such as this one that bring our faith, and our Lord, in to disrepute. There are elements of the press who are just gagging for any excuse to have a go at us… lets not give them that excuse.

    Please be assured that I also want the Brewers out of UK Christian bookselling. They are charlatans and con-men of the first order and have done a great deal of damage to an institution that many here hold dear, but lets keep our standards please and not be drwan down to their level.

  11. Phelim McIntyre

    Having looked at the photo of the sign it is similar to the one we had when I was assistant manager at the Chichester shop.

    To me the fact that the Salisbury shop is still using a sale sign with the SPCK Logo on it says a number of things – 1st the Brewer there is too lazy to make a new one, and 2ndly they don’t think a small thing like that matters.

    I don’t see it as a major breach of trading standards and the abuse of the SPCK name – but how easy would it have been to put a sticker across the SPCK bit?

    As to what is too private – anything that would be a breach of data protection or a similar law but the facts need to be published.

  12. Rev Ev – my thanks to you as well. As Matt has said, it’s feedback such as yours that pulls us back to the centre, helps to keep us on course.

    As per my letter to the AOI, what I would like to see is the Brewers showing repentance and offering restitution to those they’ve wronged. Unfortunately the closest they’ve come to showing any remorse is when their double dealings were exposed by the USA Bankruptcy Courts — calling upon evidence found in Dave Walker’s blogging — and J Mark Brewer was forced to back down. The court docket in which Brewer admits to his improper behaviour is dated 11th Sept 2008.

    Yet within only two weeks, on 24th Sept 2008, he went on to sell the Exeter store through the back door whilst no one was looking.

    My aim now is to let him know that we are looking, very closely. This is not about being vindictive (again I apologise if that’s how my post came over) — it’s about attention to detail, which is the only way we stand a chance of preventing any further scams like Exeter.

  13. Agreed – I’m watching what happens at Exeter closely too in case they try something similar in Salisbury.

    I’ll also have a look to see if the offending sign is still in place… then we’ll know whether they’re watching us watching them.

  14. The freehold at Salisbury was not gifted by SPCK to SSG, so I’m not sure what they could do.

    Salisbury would be transferred after 7 years of “satisfactory” trading. Not likely now methinks.

    They would have to try and sublet it.

    See:
    http://opendebatenotlibelthreats.blogspot.com/2008/04/former-spck-shop-roundup.html

  15. With regard to Dr. Troll’s blog, I have long been of the opinion that it is entirely without any redeeming qualities whatsoever, and exists purely to poke fun at decent men and women (but mostly men) like the Brewers who quite rightly demand that everyone take them as seriously as they they do themselves.

    As a means of ridding the world of this pest, everyone should get together and collect as much money as possible (at very least a figure in excess of several million pounds) and send it to Dr. Troll on the condition he never posts anything again.

  16. How ethicacious would that be?

  17. Valiant for Truth

    Well, Phil Groom has a fund so perhaps people would like to donate to that to assist ex-staff to fight the good fight instead of either despairing or navel gazing.

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