“As you can imagine, 80% of the press were not very keen to talk to us… “

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London Calling talked to Stephen Colegrave, co-founder of Byline Festival, the UK’s first and only summer festival focused not just on fun and music, but debating and activism.

Byline is a platform for independent journalism created to promote better media, truth, facts, investigation, accountability, representation, to get young people involved in journalism and ultimately save democracy! Being journalists ourselves here at London Calling, we found Stephen’s concept absolutely fascinating, and are more than happy to spread the word about the ‘conference in the woods’!

London Calling: How did you come up with the idea for Byline Festival?

Stephen Colegrave: Me and co-founder Peter Jukes run a website called byline.com which is the worlds largest crowd funded website for independent journalism. We also run a group for investigative journalists called Byline Investigates. Because it is crown funded, we found that journalists developed a different relationship with their direct supporters, so we started doing events where people could meet with the writers for byline. We booked places that took about 100 people, and soon we felt we had to do something bigger. So we thought we could do a festival for thousands of people to get out there to the general public.

Everyone keeps hearing there isn’t any money in journalism, print is dying and the press is losing sales, so we thought wouldn’t it be great to just cut through all of that and get excited about journalism again. The idea that had started off in a bar began to grow, we found people who were willing to help us, and it got to the point of no return where we sort of had to do it really… It felt a bit like when you are a teenager and you are throwing a party and you wonder if anyone is going to show up. But it seemed to work, this mix of panel sessions, talking about journalism with journalists, but also key issues of the day, activism, mixed with the Bad Press awards with John Cleese and lots of bands, comedy and theatre. People seemed to really like it. So we are doing it again this year.

LC: The Press in the UK has quite a bad reputation. People don’t quite trust it.

SC: We set up Byline because of that. We wanted to do something tangible in terms of creating a type of independent media which was more trustworthy. The problem is, 80% of the press in this country is run by 5 or 6 media barons. And the other problem is it’s predominantly white, male and private school educated. Journalism is one of those categories, a bit like tech, where it’s possibly going backwards in terms of diversity rather than forward.

We have a foundation that is all about getting young kids from disadvantaged communities involved in journalism. We are very keen to innovate and improve the media. Good journalism should change the world, and hold it to account. This year we have a lot of politicians here, we are really keen to engage young people in politics and in activism and show them that they can shape society. I think a lot of this generation has realised that they need to be more engaged.

LC: When you look at that generation what do you see, what are their concerns and worries and hopes?

SC: At last year’s festival, Trump had been inaugurated, the Brexit vote had also gone against what most young people wanted, so last June it was a very strange atmosphere. We felt that young people were really seizing talks with journalists, and they had a sudden determination to actually get involved in politics in a way we haven’t really seen before. A lot of them marched for the first time in the women’s marches. My generation, we were at a march every weekend. Our feeling is that youth culture is getting more politicised.

LC: The person who started the whole #MeToo movement was a journalist!

SC: And Heather Brooke was the journalist who discovered the scandal with MP expenses. The scandal with the Presidents Club was investigative journalism. The problem with this issue - inequality and abuse of power - is that for a long time society was complicit and turned a blind eye. It takes journalism to stop that. That’s why we need more women journalists, we need more journalists from different communities that are underrepresented and misrepresented.

I think in the latest poll about the most trusted press, the British press was rated number 35 in the world, which is pretty low. I was brought up to believe that we had a great free press and a great justice system and to patronise and shame countries that didn’t have that. And then you suddenly find it’s not quite that way in your own country.

LC: People also don’t seem to quite know how to use the press. You can’t just read one source and believe everything.

SC: We have a thing called citizen fact checkers. As a citizen, you have a responsibility, it’s not like we don’t all have Google on our phone, you should be able to verify facts and statistics. We still have headlines in papers which are blatantly untrue. Once it gets to social media, most people believe what pops up on their feed to be true. The idea that social media could be abused with fake news to target individuals is not new. But that’s a real assault on democracy and phenomenally important for everyone.

But Byline is fun as well. This is not a conference in a wood, it is a festival! We have Pussy Riot and Badly Drawn Boy, lots of family activities. It’s important to us that you enjoy yourself. Our tag line is ‘dance, discuss, laugh and change the world’.

Byline Festival will be at Pippingford Park, East Sussex from 24 - 27 August. There are day tickets, family tickets, early bird tickets, under 30s discounts, student discounts and group discounts.