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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.