Author Archives: Andrew Youngson

Tripadvisor for Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

I recently returned from a trip to Southern Italy. Apart from enjoying the delights of Neapolitan pizza (3 stars), the Bay of Naples (4 stars) and Pompeii (5 stars), I also went right down to the heel of Italy on a linguistic fact-finding mission, starting in the lovely Baroque town of Lecce.

SoletoGrecia Salentina – like the smaller area of Bovesia down in the toe – comprises nine villages where, intriguingly, it has been claimed that a form of Greek (written in the Roman alphabet) may have been spoken since the 8th century BC. Others say that the Greek spoken there was brought over by refugee settlers in Byzantine times; yet others claim that at least in its current form, it has more recent origins, dating to the 19th century.

Even discounting the more ancient origins which are claimed, it is intriguing that a linguistic minority should have survived so long in this context. Having failed to find any easily accessible and up-to-date sociolinguistic studies, I wanted to carry out a quick recce, and if possible hear this dialect for myself. I therefore went round all nine villages (one of them incidentally called Calimera, or ‘good day’ in Greek), looking for evidence of Greek both in the visual (‘linguistic landscape’) sense and for potential speakers.

Seeking Greek

There was plenty of evidence in the visual sphere: street signs, shop names (some even in the Greek alphabet), explanations on various monuments – even a fully fledged parish magazine trilingual in Modern Greek, Italian and Griko. There were also some clear culinary connections, probably dating back centuries: ‘chorta’ or wild greens, boiled and served as a salad in Greece, were also on the menu here, as was twice-baked bread as found in every Greek bakery.

But what of the active linguistic scene? Italian was standardised late in the 19th century and regional dialects are still widely spoken. As in Naples, in this area many locals do not speak standard Italian among themselves.

Like other Italian dialects, Neapolitan and Salentino varieties are being eaten away by the spread of the standard variety but they are still noticeably active in the local population. Our taxi driver in Naples, assailed from all sides by motorbike riders cutting in on him – a local pastime – opened his window and screamed with ferocious irony at one of them: ‘Ha raggiu! Ha raggiu!’ (‘You are right! You are right!’).

The Italian form: ‘Ha raggione’ simply would not have carried the same impact, savour or street cred. So like many other linguistic situations, the Southern Italian one is as multilayered as the local lasagne. If Greek was there to be found, it would be vying not only with Italian but on a range of local dialects. Indeed this may have contributed to its decline, since an alternative ‘in-group’ variety, closer to the standard, was also available.

‘Relic’ languages and NORMS

Greek-italian flag combinationBut what was the evidence of the ‘Griko’ dialect actually being spoken? As all sociolinguists will know, the best hope of finding speakers of ‘relic’ languages is by interviewing ‘NORMS’ – non-mobile, older rural males. Fortunately for me, one of the principal pastimes of the ‘norms’ in Mediterranean countries is hanging out in the cafe with their friends, sipping a coffee or an alcoholic beverage, flicking their worry beads round (in Greece), and toothlessly commenting on the world going by. I therefore approached and spoke to a number of elderly gentlemen in their seventies or eighties in these villages.

I told them I was carrying out a linguistic study and was interested in whether any of them spoke Griko. All were friendly and interested, but none (save one) offered to produce any words of Griko. Their near-universal opinion, whichever village you were in, was that far more people spoke it in the next door village than in their own. In fact, on reflection, they thought it was indeed still widely spoken – only definitely somewhere else.

They also universally claimed it had been the normal means of communication between their parents, but that the latter had not passed it on to them. Finally, I was given the details of someone who definitely spoke it in Castignano dei Greci, and an appointment was made for me to meet him. I also spoke to a young family who said that certain schools taught Griko since the Italian government had declared it to be a regional language of Italy, but only as an extra-curricular ‘add-on’ on a par with folk dancing, and mainly through songs. There has therefore been a revival of sorts through this policy, and perhaps a positive change in attitudes, as Manuela Pellegrino’s doctorate at UCL recently showed, but there is Vesuvius to climb before this translates into active usage.

Sadness and elation

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

When I arrived in Castrignano, my 94-year-old host and his wife could not have been more charming. He had written poetry extensively in Griko and had won prizes for it in the 1970s and 1990s. He proudly allowed himself to be recorded reading it out, occasionally checking my understanding as a Modern Greek speaker.

In spontaneous speech he did not appear to be really fluent any more – his wife was not a speaker, and at 94, there was no-one else much left to speak to. Even a mother-tongue atrophies through long disuse. But he could respond appropriately to my questions as to what his mother would have said in Griko in various circumstances, the dialect being close enough to Modern Greek, despite many borrowings and much general influence from various types of Italian, for all this to be understandable to me.

I left with a signed and dedicated copy of his Griko poetry anthology, and a feeling of sadness mixed with elation: elation to have spoken to one of the last native speakers of a language, and recorded a small piece of European history; and sadness that if I go there again, there may be no-one left to record…not even if I go to the next-door village.

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Off the agenda: Why press silence speaks volumes about the dangers of concentrated media

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in journalism and media. This post first appeared on Open Democracy on Wednesday 13 April

canary-wharf-1145616_1920Real press power resides in the the ability to suppress a scandal, at least as much as the ability to produce one. This is the lesson we learn repeatedly when journalists, facing the combined pressures of austerity, failing business models and an increasingly cautious and interventionist management decide enough is enough.

The latest in this new cadres of whistleblowers from inside the fourth estate is Jim Cusick, former political correspondent for the Independent. Like his former counterpart at the Telegraph Peter Oborne, who resigned amidst the appalling silence of his paper in the face of the tax scandal embroiling HSBC (coincidentally, a major advertising account holder), Cusick has pointed the finger at senior management – and an enduring Fleet Street cabal – for strangling journalism at the Indie.

The merits of the suppressed story itself – which centres on the alleged relationship between the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, and a woman thought to be a sex worker and fetishist – are certainly questionable. But not by Fleet Street standards. And this is the crux of the matter for Cusick who suggests that the story wound its way through successive newspapers with each title deciding against publication not because they thought the allegations were baseless or not much of a story.

On the contrary, it was precisely because of the perceived ‘value’ of the story, that editors and owners decided against publication. This provided the blackmail stick that supposedly made Whittingdale an ‘asset’ for a newspaper lobby hell-bent on destroying the BBC and the new system of press self-regulation recommended by Lord Justice Leveson (and enshrined in Royal Charter and law).

To be clear, Cusick offers little to substantiate this cover up, save a published email from his editor at the Indie calling off the story for reasons undeclared. But his piece does alert us to the wider question of what gets routinely left out of the mainstream media agenda – including stories that are much less ambiguously in the public interest than the not so lurid details of a politician’s private life. From Google’s immersion within the surveillance state to allegations of rampant corruption and criminality within British American Tobacco – real scandals are often very far from the front pages of major newspapers or the headlines of broadcasters.

Stories which play to elite interests

Of course, sometimes a scandal becomes too big for Fleet Street to ignore – even when it does not suit the interests of powerful owners and editors, as when the Guardian revealed in 2011 that murdered school girl Milly Dowler was among the victims of phone hacking by journalists at the former News of the World. It is also true that when the political climate is right, newspapers can go on the front foot in exposing abuses of power at the heart of the political establishment. The backdrop of a deep fracture in the conservative elite caused by the impending EU referendum has certainly provided ripe conditions for the unprecedented onslaught on David Cameron’s personal tax affairs by the right wing press.

But we should also remain vigilant to the way in which the story can be subtly told or retold in ways that ultimately play to elite interests. So, for instance, when the Guardian and other newspapers partnered with Wikileaks in 2010 to publish a series of secret US diplomatic cables, the headlines quickly became dominated by the alleged sexual misdemeanours of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, rather than communiqués that suggested Britain’s long-running and controversial Iraq War Inquiry had been systematically undermined by government officials from the outset; or that legal loopholes had been cynically exploited by British and American governments in order to maintain a stockpile of US cluster bomb munitions on British territory; or that British military personnel were involved in the training of a Bangladeshi paramilitary group dubbed a ‘death squad’ by human rights groups.

Optimists argue that none of this stuff matters anymore because in the digital environment, one way or another, everything gets published all of the time. But it is precisely because of such information noise that amplification – the ability to be heard­ – has become the major currency of communicative power, and that power is still very much vested in the owners of major news brands. And those who think their agenda or gatekeeping power has been diminished by the rise of digital intermediaries should take one look at Google’s most recent news algorithm patent update, which reveals the degree to which it favours dominant, western media brands like “the BBC and CNN”.

The BBC’s dominance

Others argue that if there is any problem with media concentration in Britain today, then it resides in the BBC’s dominance of news consumption across broadcasting and digital platforms. From this perspective, the mere existence of a national press, however partisan and ideologically driven in its selection of news scandals, is a much needed check on the near monopoly status enjoyed by the BBC. Rather than worrying about the agenda influence of mainstream media in general, commercial media lobbyists argue that we should be concerned exclusively with the overarching reach and influence of the BBC.

But how far does the BBC’s own news selection decisions reflect or align with that of the commercial press? When scholars at Cardiff University set out to investigate this question during the 2015 UK general election, they found a very different picture to that often conjured by critics in the right wing press. Rather than harbouring a liberal or left wing metropolitan bias, the BBC appeared to follow their story priorities which in turn synched with the Conservative Party campaign agenda. Just like the national newspapers, the BBC’s coverage systematically marginalised stories relating to both the NHS and immigration in favour of stories relating to the economy and the threat of Labour-SNP coalition, two issues at the forefront of the Conservative Party campaign. The extent of this agenda alignment was corroborated by other research conducted at Loughborough University and by the Media Standards Trust.

Media ownership

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

At a time when many public service broadcasters around the world – including the BBC – are facing varying degrees of existential crises, public debate is all too often reduced to a choice between preservation or market-based reforms; with the latter usually amounting to cutbacks or closures. What’s left off the policy agenda is the possibility of radical democratic reform aimed at reconstituting the independence, accountability and internal plurality of public service media.

This is also an issue that is intimately tied to questions of media ownership. The idea that a substantive section of any democratic media system needs to be in public hands is one that retains a great deal of force, in spite of the digital transition and corresponding end of channel scarcity (which underlined the original rationale for public service media). But the way in which public service broadcasters are structured, regulated and governed can have profound implications for independence in relation to both the state and market.

As for concentration in the wider media – and especially the national and local press – the evidence suggests that ownership still matters, in some ways more than ever. Far from justifying inaction or inattention to media ownership, the complexities, uncertainties and obscurities surrounding concentrated power in a converged media environment make progressive media ownership rules more necessary and more urgent. The rise of grassroots channels of resistance to mainstream media agendas has produced a limited sea-change but not a reason to refrain from tackling the problem – more a basis for doing so.

The need for reform of media plurality rules has been a much talked about issue for some time now, and in many parts of the world. But as digital news markets reach maturity and the political long grass continues to grow, we need a groundswell of pressure from below, along with politicians that have the courage to champion and act on policies that will promote a genuine redistribution of voice and communicative power.

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National Living Wage: From Classroom to Newsroom

How teaching from a Birkbeck BSc Economics module ended up in the FT

mouse and ftOn 1 April, 2016 The Financial Times reported the results of a survey of UK economists on whether the government’s new national living wage would do Britain “more harm than good” (against) or “more good than harm” (for).

Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, was one of four UK economists whose views were quoted at some length in the article. He has since published his comments in full on his personal web page.

“It was good timing” said Professor Wright. “When I got the email from the FT, a few weeks back, it was the day after I’d delivered a lecture on exactly this topic, so I had all the material to hand”.

The lecture Professor Wright had just given was for the module, “Current Economic Problems”, given to 1st year undergraduates on Birkbeck’s new BSc Economics programme, which admitted its first students in 2015/16. Students receive a lecture on a particular economic problem one week, and then, the following week, are required to give a presentation on some aspect of the problem, speaking on one side of a debate.

As well as helping to improve students’ communications skills, the module is also intended to show students that the economics they learn from textbooks and in lectures can be applied to practical problems faced by policymakers. Other topics covered in the module this year include immigration, “Nudge”, inequality and the gender pay gap – but topics will change every year depending on what is in the news.

Prof. Wright concluded that, on balance, the national living wage could prove harmful – but with the caveat “that the harm may well be as much from muddying the water as from the actual economic damage done.”

Predicting the impact

Working under the premise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, believes the corporate sector (or more precisely, the low wage corporate sector) should share some of the burden of mitigating poverty, Prof. Wright concluded that basic economic analysis suggests it unlikely to work as advertised: that“…ultimately consumers of goods and services produced by the low wage economy will pay.”

He argued that the most optimistic perspective you can put on this outcome is that such consumers are possibly less likely to come from the lower end of the income distribution, thus if there was zero impact on employment in the low wage sector, the policy would be mildly redistributive. However, if unemployment in the low wage/low productivity sector increases, this effect would be offset.

Acknowledging that the evidence for adverse employment effects of minimum wages is “pretty muddy”, Prof. Wright goes on to explain that, on the basis of standard textbook models, the extent of any employment losses in the low wage sectors will depend on the elasticity of demand for their goods and services. Indirectly the evidence seems to be quite strong that in the long term these effects can be quite large (viz, for example, the steady fall in the number of pubs in the UK, as drinking in pubs becomes progressively more expensive relative to competing activities).

“If the existing low wage sector contracts it is not clear where those working in it (who typically have low productivity and skills to match their low wages) will go to work instead. But just as important I believe, is that these policies muddy the water. Wages are a very blunt instrument to tackle poverty.”

Case study: The London Living Wage

To demonstrate this, Prof. Wright cites the Greater London Authority (GLA)’s calculations of the London Living Wage (“A Fairer London: The 2015 Living Wage in London”). When the GLA calculated living wages ‘bottom-up’ by looking at the consumption needs of different household types, they got very different answers for different households. Indeed, the small print of the GLA calculations show that, given the current system of benefits, their calculated living wage for a family of two working parents is actually below the current minimum wage.

Drawing from this, the FT quoted Prof. Wright’s key conclusion, that “…a single Living Wage, built up from consumption needs, is not a logical construct: if it had any basis at all it should be a set of living wages, for different household types (but with the bizarre implication that, in the current benefit regime, having children would result in a reduction in the relevant Living Wage).”

“My personal view is that poverty reduction for those in work can be, should be, and already is carried out by government benefit policies. The tax credit system was one of the great unacknowledged success stories of Gordon Brown, and I’m pretty sure that it has been the primary factor behind our sustained low unemployment rate, and the resilience of employment during the recession. It seems a shame to start to throw this away just as it has really proved its value.”

Birkbeck is known to provide the highest quality teaching, which can be applied to the workplace. For BSc Economics students on this occasion, what Prof. Stephen Wright was teaching them went from their classroom to a highly respected media publication.

All enrolled students in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London can subscribe to for free through the Birkbeck e-Library.

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When gardens become a nature reserve

Frustrated by a lack of political interest in conservation issues, Dr Adrian Cooper, former Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, has been developing an innovative and successful approach to community-based conservation in Suffolk.

Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve was born out of my frustration with politicians during the 2015 General Election debate. None of them mentioned the catastrophic decline in bee and other wildlife populations. Clearly, local grass roots action was needed.

Dr Adrian Cooper - gardenI started talking and listening to people from local government and the local community about what might be possible, and gathering a small team of volunteers. Most people understood that wildlife populations in Felixstowe were falling, and they wanted to help, but they simply did not know how. It also became clear that getting hold of a single plot of land for any kind of nature reserve project in the Felixstowe area would take too long, and would be too complicated.

Participation in this initiative had to be as simple as possible. First, I re-defined what a nature reserve could be. Instead of it being one area of land, I suggested that local gardeners and allotment owners only had to allocate three square yards of their gardens or allotments for wildlife-friendly plants, ponds and insect lodges, and we could then aim for 1,666 people to take part. That combination would give us a total area of 5,000 square yards – the size of a football pitch.

In this way, we are developing a “community nature reserve” composed of many pieces of private land, but between which insects, birds and other wildlife can fly and develop sustainable biodiversity.

Creating our new nature reserve  

With my partner Dawn Holden, I started a Facebook page, on which we advise local people about appropriate wildlife-friendly plants. I also wrote articles for our local advertiser magazines and gave an interview to our local community TV station and BBC Radio Suffolk. We were thrilled with the early take-up of our ideas, and at the time of writing, we know that 207 people have bought and planted at least one of the plants we have recommended. But the good news hasn’t stopped there.

Where are we now?        

Thanks to Facebook, we’ve had enquiries from people all over the UK, asking about how we set ourselves up, and how the initiative has developed. BBC presenter Chris Packham found out about us, and his tweets to his 145,000 Twitter followers have produced a small avalanche of enquiries about our work and achievements.

In the Leicestershire villages of Cosby and Burbage, people decided to copy our model to develop their own community nature reserves. So now there is the Cosby Community Nature Reserve, and the Burbage Community Nature Reserve. That’s why I wanted to write this blog – to inspire and help other communities to take responsibility for their local conservation in a way that means everyone can get involved. Even window box owners are encouraged to take part – after all, they can grow herbs, crocus, snow drops and much else. So, no one is excluded.

Further action

During the first three months of this year, we’ve recruited lots more volunteers and received some wonderful new ideas, such as the organisation of a plant-swap opportunity, to keep the cost of buying and growing wildlife friendly plants as low as possible.

We’ve also started to work alongside Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s community projects officer to help with their grassroots conservation initiatives and to raise our profile. As a result, this month, April 2016, we hope to help the Trust to raise awareness of falling populations of swifts, and what people can do to help. In September, we plan to help the Trust raise awareness of local hedgehog populations.

Lessons learned

The most important lesson we can offer groups who may wish to start their own community nature reserve is to listen to as many local people as possible. Be patient. Don’t rush on to Facebook until your local community feels comfortable with what you plan to do.

The next lesson is to keep listening, so fresh ideas from the community can be fed into Facebook and other social media as often as possible. We like to use because it’s a great way to get discussions going among local people who otherwise might not get involved in community engagement.

Finally, we recommend using as many different types of local media as possible to spread the message. We have used Facebook,, LinkedIn (including multiple LinkedIn posts), local magazines, our community radio and TV station, BBC Radio Suffolk and Twitter. For more information have a look at our Facebook page


Fear and resilience: Psychologist shares breast cancer experience

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. The article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK blog on Wednesday, 23 March 2016.

What a Cognitive Psychologist Learned About Fear and Resilience When She was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

It was the spring of 2012, and I remember well the exhilarating feeling of being promoted to the title of full professor within only six years of my first appointment as lecturer at Birkbeck University of London. Previously, my research was focussed on understanding what makes us vulnerable to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression and how we can overcome vulnerability and practice resilience. Cancer, however, did not care that I had been awarded a prestigious fellowship to continue my work in the prime of my life, when I was diagnosed with multifocal invasive breast cancer on January 2nd, 2013. I was in my 30s, and my daughter, Ella, was just under three years of age.

Professor Naz Derakshan

Professor Naz Derakshan

To say that my whole world turned around is an understatement because every day since that day my world has been changing in an emotional and physical roller coaster that I continue to challenge. I am a mother and an academic. And I have had to face my mortality so early having a dependent child who means everything to me. While I have so far survived the storm of diagnosis and treatment, the storm, however, never left. The sound of the rain reminds me that lightening can strike again. Will I survive it next time? Or will I be washed away? I am reminded of the anticipation, the expectation: the fear of recurrence. The fear that can distract, interfere and apprehend. “But, you have become an integral part of my life, so I shall take you forward with me”, I say.

Using fear

I feel lucky that I am able to continue my work, but cancer is never far away. I am pleasantly distracted by a paper that is accepted for publication; I marvel that I have been invited to give a distinguished lecture at an International Conference for Stress and Anxiety Research. I start to prepare my talk. I hear the sound of the lightening in the far distance, I stop. I turn to my daughter and start playing hide and seek (her favourite game), and the voice is somehow louder. “I hear you”, I say to my fears. “I feel you. Perhaps you can guide me”. So, I continue, still fearful.

Three years down the line, I still continue to be haunted by my cancer. Like the background music to a movie it’s always there, singing the trauma that I have endured. Approximately, two-thirds of women with a breast cancer diagnosis suffer PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and this can make them prone to anxiety and depression later. I love exercising, but frequently go through chronic fatigue and am still suffering the well-known ‘cognitive decline’ or ‘chemo-brain’. Yet I am expected to function to my full capacity, what the storm left of me. Of course I will never give up, I am grateful for a second chance. And this goes for all the 57,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, every year. If they are given a second chance.

Understanding resilience

What is resilience I ask myself? Common perception sees resilience as mental toughness, fighting the fears. It’s about positivity. Yet, this ideology seems far-fetched, the fear is very real. Rather, resilience, I have learned, is about flexibility, adapting and adjusting: accepting our fears, and the strength to embrace and harness them. Yes, we are scarred but the scars do not define us. The scars signal our gratitude and grit, and the fears that mark what matters to us. Resilience helps us listen to our fears. So, how can we learn to be resilient, I ask myself.

Read Professor Derakhshan's original blog on Huffington Post UK

Read Professor Derakhshan’s original blog on Huffington Post UK

I set up the educational Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 2015, with this purpose in mind. To improve cognitive function towards resilience using interventions that exercise brain function. Our private group has over 330 members in less than five months.

And our centre’s blog: Panning for Gold, showcases the many fruitful ways our amazing members discuss their growth from the trauma they endure, through works of art, writing, and science. I would not have been able to sustain and promote the aims of the centre without the vital input of Tamsin Sargeant and Vicky Wilkes who run the centre with me. I have learned more from other women than anything in my academic work, we are more vulnerable than we think we are; we are more resilient than we think we are. Because, from vulnerability stems strength.

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Introducing Birkbeck’s digital donor wall

This post was contributed by the Birkbeck Development and Alumni team

“Birkbeck was founded by philanthropists who believed that university should be accessible to all. Thanks to our generous former students and friends, this tradition continues, enabling our uniquely flexible learning opportunities and high-quality research to thrive year after year.”

Professor David Latchman CBE


The new digital donor wall in Birkbeck's Malet Street building

The new digital donor wall in Birkbeck’s Malet Street building

The words above, from the Master of Birkbeck, are proudly displayed on Birkbeck’s new digital donor wall. Installed this week in the foyer of the College’s Malet Street building, the wall is the latest platform created by the College’s Development and Alumni team to recognise importance of philanthropy to Birkbeck’s near-200-year educational mission.

In this handy Q&A, the Development and Alumni team explain what the digital donor wall does.


What’s the purpose of the digital donor wall?

The wall has been installed to publically thank the College’s donors and volunteers for their generous support. It is also for students and staff to engage with the content to raise their awareness about the importance of philanthropy to the College and also to show current and prospective donors when they come to visit the College.

How is this different from the previous recognition for donors?

It replaces our previous static donor board which was updated annually with donors’ names. Having it digital means the data is live. Therefore, as soon as a donor donates, their name will be listed.

Sounds great. What can we see on the board?

The first screen displays a list of all donors to the University who give over £1,000 by way of publically acknowledging their support. It also shows those alumni who have pledged to remember Birkbeck in their wills. The board also acknowledges the support of volunteers and the importance of this form of support.

The second screen displays eye-catching animations and text, showcasing some of the key projects we’ve fundraised for over the past 12 months. Throughout the year, it will also be used to highlight different events – for example, during our Telephone Campaign in April/May 2016, we will include live totals raised for the four-week period of the campaign on screen two during that time.IMG_1348

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Hillary Clinton, Riot Grrrl and Subversive Property

This post was contributed by Dr Sarah Keenan, lecturer at Birkbeck’s School of Law. Her book ‘Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging’ is published by Routledge.

This post was originally published on Critical Legal Thinking on Thursday 10 March

I came late to riot grrrl. It was 2004 and there was a rush on tickets in Brisbane to see a band called Le Tigre. It seemed like every lesbian in the city was going.

“What kind of music is it?” I asked my then girlfriend.
“They’re girls”, she answered, “they shout a lot.”

Bikini Kill performs in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. (Image copyright Pat Graham /

Bikini Kill performs in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. (Image copyright Pat Graham /

This did not sound appealing to me, but I went for fear of missing out. Watching Kathleen Hanna, Joanna Fateman and JD Samson perform dance-aerobics while playing their infectiously energetic feminist synth pop/punk was the most affirming performance I had ever attended. I bought their three album back catalogue the following day, started reading up on them, and discovered Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna’s previous band, one of the founding bands of the riot grrrl movement.

Riot grrrl began as a group of bands playing hardcore feminist punk on the northwest coast of the USA in the early 90s, and grew into a cultural force which continues to influence DIY culture and ‘third wave’ feminism today. Rather than political lobbying, riot grrrl feminism was and is focused on women creating spaces where they can create music and other art, exchange ideas and embrace punk’s anger while completely rejecting its machismo. While riot grrrl was by no means a perfect political movement – most significantly, it was very white-dominated – it did forge a new kind of grassroots anti-establishment feminism that continues to inspire and provide a psychic home for many women, queers and nerds.

It’s now eleven years since that Le Tigre gig, and barely a week goes by without my playing a track from this feminist punk genre. The discordant pain and uncensored rage of riot grrrl music, balanced by its sharp irony and humour regularly helps me to leave home in the mornings, and recover when I return. Riot grrrl, together with the new wave, post-punk and queercore genres that followed, have profoundly helped to shape my view of the world and my place in it.

I was sickened at the discovery that ‘Rebel Girl’, a classic Bikini Kill track, had been used in a recent promotional video for Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination campaign. Clinton — former US Secretary of State and multi-millionaire Democratic Party establishment figure, who voted for the war on Iraq, has consistently supported Western military intervention in North Africa and the Middle East, sat on the Wal-Mart board of directors while the company waged a campaign against unions, retains complex and significant ties with corporate power, and whose friend and supporter Gloria Steinem recently suggested that young women supporting Bernie Sanders are doing so to get attention from ‘boys’ — is not a rebel girl.

While Clinton is keen to claim the feminist label, her proven commitment to US capitalism and imperialism mean that her feminist politics will only ever be narrow, white and liberal. For Clinton’s capitalist-loving, war-mongering machine to exploit the radical, grassroots, anti-establishment, DIY-sound of riot grrrl was a particularly offensive co-optation.

Within a few days of the Clinton campaign releasing the video, Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill drummer and feminist punk icon, responded by issuing YouTube a copyright infringement notice. As a result, the video was taken down. Now those clicking on the link get this.

Unsurprisingly, copyright and other forms of intellectual property are not generally associated with the riot grrrl movement. Vail filed the notice reluctantly, stating in an interview:

I was seriously trying to just ignore it (because I’m not so into telling people what to do and that song has a life of its own and I’m just one person in the group Etc Etc) but Bikini Kill fans and friends would not allow it… it’s basically an advertisement… we don’t authorize use of our songs in advertisements…

It was not the royalties that mattered to Vail. She was not seeking to enforce a right to exclusively possess the song; as she said, it ‘has a life of its own’. Rather, issuing the notice was about retaining political integrity and meaning for ‘Rebel Girl’ and for the riot grrrl movement more broadly. The fact that it was Bikini Kill fans who ‘would not allow’ this track to be used by the Clinton campaign is significant. Part of the joy and momentum that powered the riot grrrl movement was the space that it created for fans — primarily young women — not only to consume music and ideas, but to participate in their making and to take ownership of them. Riot grrrl belongs to its fans, who in turn constitute the movement.

Building a space of belonging for girls and queers who did not otherwise feel safe anywhere, including in their family homes, was central to riot grrrl. This centrality is made clear in recent reflective pieces written by key figures in the movement. In ‘Run Fast’, the title track of Kathleen Hanna’s current band, The Julie Ruin, Hanna looks back on riot grrrl as a movement of collectively making space and forging identities:

in the end we made
tiny islands where we didn’t always have to be afraid.

In her recent memoir, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney similarly describes her journey from riot grrrl fan to key player as one of creating a particular kind of space.

I’ve always felt unclaimed. This is a story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged.1

When Vail issued the copyright notice on the Clinton video, it was to protect the space of belonging that has been carved out by riot grrrl over the last three decades. While property tends to operate in the interests of power, it can also be used as a tactic to subvert hegemonic relations of belonging and create new ones.

While lawyers tend to emphasise the right of exclusive possession that comes with property, feminist writers have highlighted the importance of belonging.2 Belonging is a more complex concept than exclusion: while it relates to questions of ownership and possession, it is also about identity — about fitting in and feeling safe or ‘at home’.

In my work on property, I have argued that property can be best understood as a relationship of belonging that is contingent on space. My relationship of belonging with riot grrrl culture, for example, will constitute property while I am at an L7gig (yes, they have recently reformed), where I will stride in like I own the place, confidently take up space in the crowd, sing/shout along to the choruses, laugh at jokes about tampons and exchange knowing glances with other fans. But my relationship of belonging with riot grrrl culture will not provide me with any of the privileges of membership or ownership were I to attend a classical music performance at the Southbank Centre. My attribute of being a riot grrrl fan will operate as property in some spaces but not in others.

Read the original article on Critical Legal Thinking

Read the original article on Critical Legal Thinking

More significantly, if we accept that attributes such as whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality are relational rather than essential or biological, then we can agree with writers such as Cheryl Harris3 and Margaret Davies4 that such attributes can constitute property — they are relations of belonging. However, those attributes will only function as property if they exist within broader spaces that give them power and meaning. Whiteness will only constitute property while we continue to live in a white supremacist world. Similarly, masculinity will only constitute property while we continue to live in a patriarchy, and so on. This analysis means that if the normative goal is to challenge the way whiteness and other identity categories operate as structures of exploitation and oppression, then it is the spaces that privilege whiteness etc which must be undermined and challenged. We need to build different spaces, as the riot grrrl movement did.

Understanding property in this way allows for property to be subversive. The spaces that give power and meaning to relations of belonging are not fixed and do not have to empower relations that are oppressive, exploitative or conservative. Property is experienced in complex and overlapping ways not solely determined by law.

Property can be productive of social goods in a way that subverts hegemonic power relations. By creating spaces where young women, queers, punks and nerds not only belong but also feel ownership of what is produced, riot grrrl was and is a powerful materialisation of subversive property. By preventing (or at least delaying and inhibiting) Hillary Clinton from using Bikini Kill to fuel her campaign for the ultimate position of establishment power, Vail’s copyright notice was an effective assertion that this music and the psychic and material space it created still belong to us.

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Article footnotes:

  1. Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead Books 2015) 11. 
  2. Brace, Laura, The Politics of Property: Labour, Freedom and Belonging (Edinburgh University Press, 2004); Cooper, Davina, “Opening Up Ownership: Community Belonging, Belongings, and the Productive Life of Property” Law & Social Inquiry 32, no. 3 (2007): 625-664; Keenan, Sarah, Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging (Routledge, 2015); Strathern, Marilyn, “Cutting the Network” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1996): 517-535. 
  3. Harris, Cheryl I, “Whiteness As Property” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1707-1791. 
  4. Davies, Margaret, “Queer Property, Queer Persons: Self-Ownership and Beyond” Social and Legal Studies 8, no. 3 (1999): 327-352. 

Meet the Santander Scholars

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and communications officer

“Why are you the ideal candidate to receive the £5,000 Santander scholarship?”

This is the question posed to all Latin American students hoping to be selected for a special scholarship opportunity at Birkbeck. It’s a straightforward question, but one that needs a certain amount of objectivity and a keen insight into your skills and plans for the future to answer effectively.

Each year – providing they have an unconditional offer from the college – applicants are invited to answer the question in an essay of no more than 500 words. If successful, they receive £5000 to be applied towards their course tuition fees at Birkbeck – a significant sum of money that is provided by the college’s longstanding corporate partners, Santander.

Lauren Prone, Head of International Marketing and Recruitment at Birkbeck said: “We are very grateful for Santander’s donation, which has allowed Birkbeck to support the studies of promising scholars from across Latin America.

“This has proved highly attractive opportunity for students to pursue their passions, and in the past two years since launching the scholarship, it has been granted to students pursuing a range of courses, including the Arts, Social Sciences and Business Studies.”

Michael Wilson, University Regional Manager-London and East for Santander Universities UK, said: “We signed our agreement with Birkbeck in 2013 and we are delighted to see how the students have benefitted from this agreement.

“Talented young people have been able to study in the UK thanks to our funding and UK students have been able to have study abroad experiences. We are extremely pleased with the university’s approach to internationalisation and the transfer of knowledge between universities and we are proud to be part of this long-term partnership.”

So, who are the latest lucky recipients of the Santander scholarship? We caught up with the three successful applicants from the 2015-16 intake, to find out how they are getting on in their studies.



Camila Villegas

  • MA Arts Policy and Management
  • From Bogota, Colombia





How are you finding Birkbeck’s learning environment?

“My teachers here have been really supportive, and have always been available to help me. It has been a major shift for me educationally, because British education is very theoretical and I hadn’t experienced that much before. So it’s been challenging. For example, I didn’t do a dissertation at my last university; it was just projects and portfolios. I had never done research before, and it’s been a while since I have done essays, so it’s been a challenge, but I feel there’s a lot of support here.”

Read Camila’s full interview here and watch her video interview in English here and below, and in Spanish here.




Fernanda Costa

  • BA History and Archaeology
  • From Curitiba, Brazil



How are you finding the Birkbeck experience?

“I’m really enjoying my lectures. At first I wasn’t keen on the seminars because I don’t like speaking up, but now I enjoy the discussions. I’m talking much more in class than I used to. At first I didn’t think I was clever enough but I feel like I understand the readings a lot better now so that has helped my confidence.”

What is the makeup of your classes?

“There’s a real mix. There are people of all sorts of ages – from my age, some are a bit younger, and some who are much older which is really nice because they have so much more life experience. I find that listening to what other people have to say is really mind-opening because hearing different points of view helps you rethink your own.”

Read Fernanda’s full interview here and watch her video interview in English here, and in Portuguese here and below.




Diana Navia

  • MSc International Management
  • From Bogota, Colombia





How did it feel to be selected for the Santander scholarship?

“I was very happy, very very happy. I think you feel it’s like you are pursuing your dreams, you’ve found the right path and finally you’re going to achieve your goals. I was so happy to hear I got it, I think I must have called everyone to tell them!”

Read Diana’s full interview here and watch her video interview in Spanish here and below.

Applications for the 2016-17 cohort of Santander scholarships are now open, and must be made before 1 June 2016. Scholarship recipients will be chosen based on academic promise, the essay, the personal statement submitted with the course application, and need. The £5,000 scholarship will be applied towards course tuition fees.

Apply here


The Santander Scholars (left to right): Camila Villegas, Fernanda Costa and Diana Navia

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Three Reasons Why Boris Doesn’t Matter

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. This blog was originally posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on 23 February 2016.


On Sunday evening, Boris Johnson, with the zeal of a convert or the scheming of a Machiavellian, has decided to join the ‘Outers’. Here’s 3 reasons why it doesn’t matter:

Reason 1: Boris isn’t that popular. Remember, Heineken isn’t that strong. I’m intrigued by the poll in the Evening Standard that claimed ‘he could be a game-changer in the historic vote’ as ‘one in three people regard him as “important” to deciding whether they vote In or Out’. Putting aside exactly what ‘important’ means, the statistics are revealing. 32 % of those asked said Boris could be ‘important’ but a full 28 % said Theresa May’s and George Osborne’s views were important-only 4 % points behind Boris (and 23 %, by the way, identified Stuart Rose as ‘important’ too). So if, as the report claimed, Boris could ‘partly’ cancel out Cameron’s influence, presumably May and Osbourne could do the same to Johnson? Boris’ position as ‘the most popular politician’ is often cited though his reach to UKIP voters is probablyrather unnecessary– and it looks like Nicola Sturgeon pipped Boris in the popularity stakes at least once.

Reason 2: Boris doesn’t do arguments. As Janan Ganesh argues in the FT‘voters like Mr Johnson. But they like Judi Dench too. Liking someone and deferring to their judgment on a serious question are different things’. As a number of people have argued, what the Leave campaign needs, above all, is a serious alternative vision, equivalent to the Scottish YES campaign’s positive, mobilising narrative. Boris hangs hilariously from aerial slides but he doesn’t really do ideas or arguments, just quips and ‘mishaps’. Cameron’s speech last night in Parliament was perhaps a taste of the gravitas, clarity and seriousness the Remain campaign will deploy. Judging by his question in Parliament, Boris’ re-joiner will be about ‘soveregnity’ a word not even constitutional lawyers agree on. And there is no nuance or wriggle room in a vote to leave.

Reason 3: Boris doesn’t do teams and messages. Being the Mayor of London is (or was) the perfect job for Boris, where he can be a maverick, a loose cannon and is able to rail against everyone and everything. His record when part of an organised group e.g. in the shadow cabinet, is much less glittering given his tendency to be rather egocentric or, as one unkind review put it, a gold medal egomaniac. How will he fare as part of an organised group with a message and a ‘line to take’?

Boris cites his great hero Winston Churchill. However, for most of the 1930s Churchill, a


similarly gold medal level egotist, entangled himself in a series of failed and doomed campaigns, from the cross-party ‘arms and the covenant’ rearmament initiative (which he almost wrecked), to supporting Edward the VIII and a bizarre solo effort to stop Indian independence. Churchill was very much, and very often, on the wrong side of history, and only his later struggle against appeasement saved him.

Last night, Michael Crick quoted an unhappy MP who spoke of another Churchill, Winston Churchill’s dad, Randolph (above). He was also a famous politician, gifted, witty and talked about as a future Prime Minister in the 1880s and 1890s. Randolph had, as Winston wrote of his father, ‘the showman’s knack of drawing public attention to everything he said or did’. Why did his career end? Boris take note-he gambled and took sides against his own party and leader on a fundamental debate in British politics. And lost, never to return.

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Tightening the Grip: Why the web is no haven of media plurality

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. This was originally posted on Media Reform Coalition blog on Monday, 15 February 2016.

GoogleLast week a digital market research company reported that “the top 10 publishers make up a huge chunk of the U.K. media market and own more than half of the entire industry”. The statement was based on data that SimilarWeb collected over 2015, specifically the number of page visits to the top 300 news websites. They found that 65 percent of this traffic was concentrated in the websites of the top 10 news publishers, and the top five alone attracted more than half of all traffic across the sample.

Optimists might consider that the mere existence of 300 news websites (which is itself far from an exhaustive sample of all news on the net), reflects the plurality of the online news sphere, at least compared to conventional platforms like television or print. On closer examination, however, the picture revealed is in fact one of heightened concentration, with not much more than a handful of major publishers able to reach across fragmented audiences, and thus play a potentially defining role in setting the wider news agenda. Previous studies have shown that such concentration can have a cascading or domino effect, with smaller outlets taking agenda cues from the big players. As one scholar put it, “in the age of information plenty, what most consumers get is more of the same”.

Blind Spots

To glimpse this reality we have to peel away a number of veils that make the gatekeeping and agenda setting power of mainstream news organisations not less significant, but rather less visible in the digital environment. Let’s start with the numbers. The lowest ranked news website – Pink News – still attracted some 16 million page views. Which sounds like a lot. But if we compare page views to unique visitors (as measured by the National Readership Survey among others), the average ratio works out to around 250:1. So 16 million page views over the course of the year will probably amount to an audience reach of around 60,000.

That’s still not a tiny amount given that we are at the bottom of the pile here. But it’s important to consider that the list includes many websites that are not really what we would generally think of as news providers. They are much closer to the equivalent of special interest magazines in the print world, focusing on music/film/sport/entertainment etc.

At the heart of plurality concerns is a conviction that healthy democracies depend on the circulation and intersection of diverse voices and perspectives. From this standpoint, it would seem odd to consider the plurality contribution of or as equivalent to a daily news provider, especially one that covers political news and current affairs.

One idea that captures the supposed plurality renaissance of the information age is the so-called long tail theory. According to this theory, the ‘personalising’ and tailored recommendations of search, social media and retail algorithms ensure that niche providers flourish and the ‘head’ (representing mainstream culture) dissipates over time. But if we plot Similarweb’s data into such a graph we find the opposite: the curve produces a highly defined ‘head’ followed by a very flat tail…


A decade after the long tail effect was first explained and predicted, not much seems to be changing. If anything, we may be experiencing a regression back to the kind of mass culture that revolves around superstars, best-sellers and mainstream headlines.

Another problem with the SimilarWeb data is that it does not capture news consumption via aggregators like Yahoo and social media sites like Facebook. Most of this content is produced by mainstream news brands which would make the head look even more concentrated if we were to attribute those page views to the original news sources.

OFCOM – the UK’s media regulator – repeatedly makes the opposite mistake by including these sorts of sites in survey data alongside what it calls ‘content originators’ like the BBC, Sky, Daily Mail, Guardian, etc. This again overestimates plurality by counting aggregators (sites that predominantly host content of other news providers) and intermediaries (sites that predominantly serve as gateways to third party news sites) as news sources in their own right.

Gateway Power

Uncover these blind spots and what we are left with, by any measure, is a highly concentrated picture of media power in Britain today. How has this happened? Given that so much of the traffic to news websites is ‘referred’ by intermediaries, the intricacies of Google’s news algorithm is a good place to start in addressing this question.

For some time now, Google has been weighting and ranking news providers according to a broad spectrum of what it considers to be the most reliable indicators of news quality. But it turns out machines are not much better at assessing news ‘quality’ than human beings. They may be free of subjective bias in one sense, but this means they rely (paradoxically) on quantitative measures of quality, which produces its own bias in favour of large scale and incumbent providers. One look at Google’s most recent patent filing for its news algorithm reveals just how much size matters in the world of digital news: the size of the audience, the size of the newsroom, and the volume of output.

Perhaps the most contentious metric is one that purports to measure what Google calls ‘importance’ by comparing the volume of a site’s output on any given topic to the total output on that topic across the web. In a single measure, this promotes both concentration at the level of provider (by favouring organisations with volume and scale), as well as concentration at the level of output (by favouring organisations that produce more on topics that are widely covered elsewhere). In other words, it is a measure that single-handedly reinforces both an aggregate news ‘agenda’, as well as the agenda setting power of a relatively small number of publishers.

Google engineers may well argue that the variety of volume metrics imbedded in the algorithm ensures that concentration effects are counterbalanced by pluralising effects, and that there is no more legitimate or authoritative way of measuring news quality than relying on a full spectrum of quantitative indicators. Rightly or wrongly, Google believes that ‘real news’ providers are those that can produce the most amounts of original, breaking and general news on a wide range of topics and on a consistent basis.

News plurality reconsidered

At face value, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. In a world saturated with hype, rumour and gossip, it’s not surprising that most people are attracted to news brands that signal a degree of professionalism. Part of Google’s corporate and professed social mission is to match users to the content they value most, and if most people prefer the mainstream, then that’s where the traffic will flow.

But there is no getting around the fact that Google favours dominant and incumbent news organisations. The company made its view clear when it stated in its patent filing that “CNN and BBC are widely regarded as high quality sources of accuracy of reporting, professionalism in writing, etc., while local news sources, such as hometown news sources, may be of lower quality”. But when the ‘mainstream’ is held as the ultimate benchmark of good quality news, we start to run into real problems for the future (and present) of media plurality.

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

For one thing, algorithms used by Google, Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter actively discriminate against both prospective new entrants into the news market, as well as those that focus on topics, issues and stories beyond or on the fringes of the mainstream agenda. Yet these are precisely the kind of providers that need to be supported if we want to redress the symptoms of concentrated media power. In the post phone-hacking world, such symptoms continue to manifest in systematic ideological bias, as well as the enduring back door that links Whitehall to the Murdoch media empire.

As print newspapers start to fall by the wayside, news concentration online is of even greater concern. Policymakers, meanwhile, are distracted by dominant narratives that suggest the gatekeeping and agenda power once attributed to media owners has dispersed among ‘the crowd’, or transferred into the hands of intermediaries like Google and Facebook, or that the only plurality ‘problem’ today concerns the so-called filter bubble or echo chamber effects of personalised news.

There is truth in all of these claims but the unseen or overlooked reality is that the gatekeeping power of Google and Facebook works in tandem with that of mainstream news providers, mutually reinforcing each other around what is considered real, legitimate and authoritative news. As Des Freedman urges in his most recent book, “far from diminishing the importance of media moguls and tech giants, announcing the death of gatekeepers or lauding the autonomy of the public, we should be investigating the ways in which their power is being reconstituted inside a digital landscape”.

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