New Statesman Ai Weiwei guest edit shortlisted for Amnesty Award

Ai Weiwei, Cheng Yizhong and the New Statesman nominated.

Amnesty International have announced the shortlist for their 2013 Media Awards, and the New Statesman has been nominated for a series of three articles published in our 22 October issue guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Amnesty’s Media Awards “recognize excellence in human rights reporting and acknowledge journalism’s significant contribution to the UK public’s awareness and understanding of human rights issues.”

Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist and a free speech advocate. He was previously detained by the Chinese government on charges of tax evasion and is still prevented from leaving the country. He is currently appealing a fine imposed by the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau for $1.85m.

The New Statesman’s editorial team spent six months working closely with Ai and his team in Beijing to produce an ambitious issue dedicated to China and its future. The three nominated articles are : “Fact have blood as evidence”, an interview Ai conducted with blind civil activist Chen Guangcheng; the “The Virus of Censorship”, in which newspaper editor Cheng Yizhong reveals how journalists in China are kept in a state of fear and endemic self-censorship through government manipulation and policing; and “Meet the 50 Cent Party”, which saw Ai Weiwei expose the underworld of state-sponsored commentators by interviewing an unnamed twenty six year old graduate who explained the process by which he is hired to influence the thoughts of ‘netizens’.

The issue was published bilingually, produced as a digital issue in Mandarin and a print edition in English.  With original content from Chinese journalists, authors, artists and musicians, the magazine was edited in a foreign language for the first time in its history. It was a rewarding challenge that our commissioning editor Sophie Elmhirst outlined eloquently in this post-production blog.

The New Statesman and Ai Weiwei also jointly launched a Twitter campaign which posed the question “what is the future of China?” to ordinary citizen and collated thousands of responses, a selection of which were published in the magazine.

Following publication, we urged readers to download and to share the issue, for free, across social networking websites in an attempt to breach “The Great Firewall”. Our deputy Helen Lewis reiterated our commitment to free, uncensored journalism in this blog post - which offers links to the magazine as a sharable torrent file, magnet link and PDF.  

These three features revealed a side of China rarely seen in the west, and would never have seen publication in their authors’ home country. This issue was an act of solidarity with like-minded writers on the other side of the world; a promise that we would do our part to give a home to their stories, so often stifled. In his leader for the issue, Ai wrote:

I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future. My country has to recognise itself, which is a challenge to anybody at any stage in life.

…the only way we can be successful, in China and in life, is through greater communication and wider awareness, in constantly questioning our standards and our conditions. You, as readers, are part of this, you are active members of this family, and you can be proud of that. We should all be proud of that.

The New Statesman is nominated alongside Janine di Giovanni’s Seven Days in Syria, published by Granta, in the Consumer Magazine category.

The issue has also been shortlisted for the British Media Award’s Cross Media project.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.