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Time for an industry clean up

Prospective journalists might be put off by phone-hacking but there's never been a better time to cl

It has been a few weeks since the phone-hacking saga sent reverberations across the journalism industry but the uproar that ensued has yet to die down. With allegations of computer hacking and mass deletion of emails at News International, the scandal is continually growing.

The thought of what is happening to the industry we aspire to break into has sent shivers down the spines of burgeoning young journalists such as ourselves. What will this fiasco do to journalism? And has it tainted the name of journalism for good? However, it seems the tumultuous events have actually had a profoundly positive effect: instead of damaging the industry, it has forced it to change the illicit practices endemic within many newspapers. We caught up with some of the leading names in the industry in our research.

Steve Richards, Chief Political Commentator at the Independent said:

Regulation of the media will be more robust after this. No editor will ever again risk being associated with law breaking -- and already one newspaper has closed as a result of hacking. However, young journalists will need to be more alert to responding to the changing economic demands on the media than to any of the consequences of the hacking affair. There will always be paid journalism in Britain but finding the route towards it is more challenging now than in any of the last few decades.

According to a report entitled "The Future of the News and Internet" by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (June 2010), the UK saw a 25 per cent reduction in newspaper consumption during 2007-2010. Furthermore, the latest statistics from the National Readership Survey covering the period April 2010 to March 2011 saw a marked decrease in newspaper sales. It is with this in mind that aspiring journalists have been weary about potential jobs in the industry. It has become clear that without possessing great talent and acquiring a plethora of work experience, there are no jobs in journalism industry.

Anna Mckane, former chief sub-editor at Reuters and undergraduate director for journalism at City University, said:

Journalism is in the throes of the biggest revolution since Caxton invented the printing press. This is not to do with phone-hacking scandals, it is to do with the vast amount of content which is available free online.

In an age of unmediated blogging and micro-blogging, where everybody seems to be an "expert" on current affairs, we have seen traditional media come under threat. Many young people these days ascertain the latest news through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

An increasingly digital youth has been emerging for some time, shunning the conventional print/broadcasting form of journalism, and has backed a copious web culture. With the sales of newspapers constantly declining, the question of whether such an industry will still exist in years to come looms upon us aspiring journalists. The idea of doing work experience at a print newspaper is slowly losing its appeal as the future of the industry remains in doubt. The closure of the News of the World and subsequent speculation about the future of other newspapers has only added to our concerns.

The ubiquity of the cyber world amongst young people has become so ingrained within the subconscious that four out of five students have been shown to suffer from mental and physical distress if deprived of it. A study published by the International Centre for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change concluded: "most students [...] failed to go the full 24 hours without media".

In the words of journalist Will Self, there seems to be a "tectonic shift" taking place within our culture. The full ramifications of this tectonic shift - although yet to be completely established - will mean that the journalism industry we aspiring journalists end up in will have a completely new face.

So what can be done to prevent such illicit practices from taking place again? Many readers will doubtless be hoping that now that all this information is out in the open, it will encourage parliament to pass ever more draconian legislation limiting the ability of the press to do and print what it likes.

Almost against our better judgment, we must state our opposition to any such new rules and regulations. A free press is one of Britain's finest traditions and indeed one envied by the citizens of countless authoritarian dictatorships around the world. However, the issues raised by the current fiasco are more a matter of journalists failing to abide by laws already on the statute book than of a need to make new ones.

The press should be allowed to write whatever it likes about issues currently in the public domain: while this can obviously lead to hurtful lies and smears being printed, victims of such misrepresentation have recourse to the law, and should have all legal fees paid by the state, up to the point where they can be proved right or wrong.

The most important issue here is less to do with the hacking scandal itself and more to do with the world that most journalists move in. It is well known that most prominent journalists live in prosperous London suburbs, mix only with fellow members of their trade and seek to cultivate links and contacts with the rich and powerful rather than the "great unwashed" (ie their readership). This has a distorting effect on their worldview and leads inexorably to a situation in which they parrot the opinions of the powerful rather than standing up for the rights and interests of the majority.

George Brock, head of journalism at City University said:

However dispirited some journalists might feel about phone-hacking and the conspiracy to cover it up, those revelations don't destroy the value and importance of journalism. Aspiring journalists should take heart from the fact that the scandal wouldn't have been dragged into the light at all if it wasn't for one very determined reporter.

The best way to remedy this problem, it seems, is for the press to seek to cultivate and recruit new talent from a less restricted social and geographical spectrum. And principled, ethical newspaper proprietors and editors (although probably a small minority) should bunch together and launch a Britain-wide recruitment drive to pick out the best up-and-coming journalists from less conventional backgrounds. This, surely, would go a long way towards severing the links between the interests of the powerful and the journalistic instincts of those of us theoretically committed to exposing their abuses. In fact, I can think of two young journalists in particular who would be obvious beneficiaries of such a scheme...

Without doubt, journalism is entering a new paradigm, one which is more innocuous, cleaner and hopefully more prosperous. And this is the industry us aspiring journalists should be looking forward to.

Rahul Verma, freelance journalist and senior youth mentor at Live Magazine, said:

Personally I feel the phone-hacking scandal will be good for journalism as the industry must clean up its act and practices, otherwise public mistrust will translate into plummeting sales, which will be the nail in the coffin of the British newspaper industry. Hopefully it will also be the catalyst in ending the age of celebrity -- who really cares who Siena Miller is dating or who Hugh Grant hangs out with? This is not news and how it has become news over the last ten years is a tragedy for newspapers and journalists. I'd hope hackgate has focused the mind of newspaper proprietors in terms of what their newspapers write about, what is news, the lengths that you go to get 'news' and what is in the 'public interest'.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.