Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Ban The Freecycles?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I know who I’m voting for in the general elections. There’s never been any doubt. On the surface that may appear to be an admission of political blindness. In actual fact it couldn’t be any further from the truth. No no, I am deeply, painfully aware of every nuance and manoeuvre in what can only be described as a modern day war dance. Every article and news report evokes a near on catatonic response whilst I attempt to play out every twist and connotation of the possible consequences in the wider context. It normally ends in a puddle of dribble and paralysis.

The all out attacks on Darling’s budget sends me into a state of doomed surety that it’s all over. Ah but wait, Sam Cam’s being cut down to size for daring to suggest she will continue to work after having the baby, regardless of whether her man becomes our main man… be quiet my feminist soul, we’re back in the game!

Amidst all of this, there is one constant and aggravating thorn in my side. It’s there lurking as I make my way work. I may think I’ve managed to dodge its grip but no, there it is again on my way home, just in a different guise. That’s right, fiend of fiends, the freecycles. Current king of the fiends? The Evening Standard.

Then again, perhaps freecycles are in fact just harmlessly digestible sources of news that save you from having to reread the same Well Woman advert all the way home? You can probably tell that my vote’s with the former option but I am prone to exaggerate.

There was one particular edition of the Standard that evoked such fury that I saved it, planning to furiously quote every source of irritation in this ponder. Unfortunately by a twist of fate it ended up in the rabbits’ litter tray – a fitting demise if you ask me. Anyway, in the absence of any evidence to back up my cries to ban the freecycle, I turned to the only true source of information about what fuels a newspaper: how they describe themselves to prospective advertisers. Here are just three quotes from their website…

  • “The ability of the Evening Standard to influence political community should not be underestimated.

  • 1.3 million daily readers.

  • Highest circulating quality newspaper in the UK

It would be easy to dismiss all of the above. To think it doesn’t matter. That we’re all grown up enough to decide our own opinion on what we read. You’d be wrong. It does matter.

We’ve long since passed the point where newspapers concern themselves with the simple and objective reporting of fact. We now actively choose publications whose editorial bias is most closely aligned with our own opinions. The Sun’s latest advertising campaign isn’t based on their ability to report the news; it’s based on who their columnists are. And if there’s one thing that you can say about the Sun, they understand what their readership wants.

I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. Editorial bias doesn’t mean that you spin or amend a story to fit a specific political view. Clearly some do, but that’s what the PCC is there for. No, what it means is that the type and quantity of a particular kind of story will be published above another, depending on the bias. And that’s exactly where the freecycle becomes dangerous.

If you are one of the “60% of Evening Standard readers who don’t read any other quality newspaper”, you would be forgiven for believing that the entire country is opposed to the Labour party, that rabid dogs are roaming the streets of London attacking grannies, and of course, the staple of all right leaning publications, that immigrants are taking over. Now if you were a Daily Mail reader you’d be comfortable with viewing the world through that lens. But then again, the Mail isn’t feeding you a hateful life view, it’s merely reinforcing the one that you currently hold which is why it’s your paper of choice. If on the other hand you’re innocently being handed a copy of the Evening Standard to “leaf through” on your way home, you will perhaps be less aware of the level of bias in the way that the world is being presented to you. The Standard isn’t doing anything “wrong”. It’s simply reporting in line with its clear and open editorial bias… that doesn’t make it any less manipulative or dangerous.

With a general election on our doorstep, there has surely been no better time to ban the freecycles, or at the very least regulate them to impotency. The problem is, with the general election on our doorstep, there’s probably never been a worse time to attempt to ban them. Maybe I’ve got it wrong though, maybe it is all harmless?

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  1. good post Rach. it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Lebedev's Independent could also go free in urban areas. more likely it will become 50p-ish. either way it will still be an attempt to fuck over the Guardian and can you imagine the quality drop off in journalism the Indie will presumably undergo to please a wider price dropped mass market? soon Independent readers will be moaning about immigrant terrorists date raping pet hamsters.

    i think this argument is part of a wider problem, the ludicrous phenomenon of free-conomies. i think the idea of simply given something for free reduces any notion of consumer responsibility and in the long term will severly damage the relationship of cyclical exchange inherent in production-consumption models that has existed for centuries. this will bring down the quality of production in all industries. the effect will be worse for young people who will come to expect things don't cost money. i'm no capitalist but surely it's simple: things cost money to produce, they should cost money to consume?

    as for Lebedev's Evening Standard, it's not just rabid dogs roaming the streets of London attacking grannies we need to be careful of, foxes are stealing dead babies! http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23819949-day-police-told-us-a-fox-has-taken-your-baby-son.do

    the number of people i saw reading this on the tube yesterday was huge. in fact 90% of my carriage seemed to be reading it. maybe this is the level of morbidity the public actually like? maybe we're all just cunts? or maybe it's the Standard who are cunts and they're just trying to turn us into cunts like them.

    i overused the word cunts there, sorry.

  2. Excellent post Rach.

    Josh, I couldn't agree with you more - this is part of a wider problem.

    The 'Primark culture' is undermining the most basic principles of commerce to our detriment. Not that I'm suggesting the previous model was without its flaws, but at least there was a veneer of pretence.

    Now, it brazenly flaunts its contempt for both producers and consumers alike, quicker than you can say "Enron".


    Chocolate is cheap because it's grown of the backs of slaves.

    Clothes are cheap because they are manufactured by impoverished eight year olds in Bangladesh.

    And free newspapers sell shit.

    Seriously, are people THAT naive, or has 'free-economy' corroded our collective conscience?

  3. A low cost Indie? Interesting. We were talking just the other day about the fact that there isn't a Daily Mail left leaning equivalent, i.e. a left wing alternative to the loftiness of The Guardian, in the way that the Mail is to the Torygraph.

    I do completely agree with both of you. Although it's perhaps even riskier, because using your analogy Candice, The Standard didn't start as a freecycle. No, rather than being like Primark, it's as though Topshop openned up it's door and started giving away its stock. Most people would happily indulge in their fill of strappy tops before questioning how they managed to give them away.

    That all said though, isn't that missing the point? If The Guardian became a freecycle overnight I'd still think it dangerous. Admittedly I might not be shouting as loudly about it, but isn't the point that feeding people with news en masse from a single publication goes against the very principles of free press. Regardless of the bias or agenda, the very existence of a freecycle gives a handful of editors and journalists undue influence.

  4. Well, in a way though, the Guardian is a freecycle, no? You can go on the website completely free of charge. Is that dangerous? It still comes down to editorial principles whether free or not. Apparently, Shortlist (that one they shove in your face on Thursday mornings)is really good. I don't know, I've never read it - I rarely read things that have been shoved in my face. But it's supposed to be a quality publication. For free. I just don't get why it's free. Why not 20p in a newsagent? I guess i just haven't moved with the times or the business models of this internet-affected digital age.

    By the way, you should pitch this article as a guest blog on the ES thisislondon site. Hahaha.