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The New European: A pop-up publishing project as messy as its Brexit shitstormspiration

12 Jul

A newspaper for annoyed Remain voters that is only intended to run for four issues met with a yawn from the media, looks like an A-Level In-Design project and has no clear editorial agenda. What’s the point?

Strong feelings have been aroused in me by a new newspaper launched last Friday, called The New European. I was made aware of it on the day of its launch when I came across a photo of its cover on Twitter; I then had a read of the press release about it from Archant, a publisher of local newspapers across the United Kingdom, and a look at the media coverage of the launch. I’ve had a stab at reviewing the media coverage, then the design and content – which makes for a long and possibly quite disorganised read. But what are blogs for?

The launch issue cover of The New European

The New European is a weekly newspaper being published under a ‘pop-up’ model, with Archant committing to just four issues and then letting sales figures decide if it continues. Its intended audience is those living in the UK who voted to remain in the European Union: it has been rushed out, from concept to news-stand, in nine days to capture the post-Brexit mood while it lasts. Its first print run was 200,000 copies selling at £2 apiece (or all four issues for six pounds if you subscribe) and editor Matt Kelly, also Archant’s chief content officer, has said that he would be “delighted” if they shifted 50,000 of those.

First, what is a New European? Who knows. No one’s saying. 

Having re-launched two magazines as their editor, and being a journalist, I take a serious interest in these things. So I’m disappointed with the lack of interest in the launch from the media itself. I have only come across one in any way substantive article about it – at vice.co.uk – otherwise there has been no thoughtful analysis. Merely, depressingly, cut-and-pasted quotes from Archant’s press release in workmanlike, disinterested news pieces, even from The Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade, whose only job at the paper is to talk about media happenings. Nobody appears to have contacted Archant or Kelly for any insight or comment that goes beyond repeating what is in the press release. Twitter hasn’t lit up about it either. Steve Hewlett, editor and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, broadcast every Wednesday, didn’t see fit to mention The New European in its launch week, though it got a name-check in The World This Weekend two days after it came out – but no mention of the content or response. The Daily Politics gave Kelly a spot, but Andrew Neil’s opening question missed the point, and he seemed to forget that Archant has only committed to four weeks: “So, what do you think are its chances?” Neil’s other guest, Miranda Green, a seasoned hack, editor and founder of a newspaper herself, basically gave a ¯\_()_/¯ when asked what she thought.

The shrugging text emoji, for the uninitiated, is used in social media contexts to convey feelings of meh-ness, of “nihilism, bemused resignation, and is a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe”. These are sentiments the British voting public know well and that I think plague world-weary media workers too, to the point where too many of them think cutting and pasting from a press release counts as a publishable story. Shrugging text emoji man actually seems to sum up the media response to this launch. The problem is that if the media doesn’t care about the project, it won’t support it, and the newspaper will struggle to keep attracting attention. I’m sure the editor would say that A) its first crop of celebrity columnists is itself media support and B) the paper doesn’t need or desire media support. But that is the world we live in. Actually, Kelly knows that: he’s made sure that the Miranda Sawyers and James Browns are in there, saying anything at all, so they have a reason to tweet about this launch and tell their readers to go and buy a copy (though Sawyer seems to only have managed a re-tweet about it, not commenting herself). On Sunday night, after I tweeted Kelly enquiring as to why he ran a topless photo of one of his contributors, lads mags-era publishing guru James Brown, on the cover, Kelly tweeted back: “because I liked it. it’s a personal indulgence. I’ll pass on your wishes when I see him for breakfast tomorrow”. I’m quite po-faced about that response because it’s defensive and bitchy, not to mention being horribly “famous person A is my mate and that’s why he’s on the cover”, which I find grubby, but predictably media. My boyfriend thinks he was just being sarcastic – he also says I’m picking on the village idiot (the paper, not the editor) and that’s why much of the media has ignored it – but such flippancy would be even less palatable to me than sleb name-dropping.

Armchair experts

The New European presents its crop of media commentators as its ‘experts’ (challenging head on Michael Gove’s infamous comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and right at the top of the cover), but they’re not. They’re hacks. I guess there are different grades of expert. For example, the government has been talking with the ‘Big Four’ consulting firms, mostly known by Average Joe for their skill in helping rich folk and big companies avoid taxes, about helping it navigate the way from Brexit vote to actual EU exit and beyond. Four days before The New European launched, KPMG appointed a head of Brexit, regulatory specialist Karen Briggs, bringing together various colleagues to form a crack team to help worried businesses ready for doomsday. Given that none of us have ever exited the EU before, these firms cannot claim any specific expertise in this area, but that is not an impediment. They are viewed as go-tos by government and business, so view them as your Brexit-makers. It is people like Briggs who The New European should get to contribute, so that readers can hear from the individuals who will really inform the political decisions that will shape our lives and those of our children. I don’t mind Louise Chunn‘s slim piece on women in leadership roles, but there are any number of people who can write on why women are suited to lead in tough times. We’ll find out in the coming months, I guess, whether – as Chunn postulates – “women, especially middle-aged women, have more empathy for others than men”. Her assertions come across as total cod science and are in very dangerous waters well contested by a range of informed commentators. Kelly is right to stick something about women leaders in the paper, given that’s the way it was going while the newspaper was in gestation; and we’re going to endure a lot more of that from the media as May’s premiership gets under way. But it doesn’t strike me as ‘expert comment’ to talk about women in the way someone working at, say, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in 1963 might. 

Kelly writes in his first editorial that Archant went with the newspaper format over other mediums because “print is committing” – a comment clearly at odds with the pop-up model – then added that, after its four week-long print run, it could turn instead into “a digital platform, or a social media community, or an event.

“Or it may just pass, like the summer wind; no more than a fleeting curiosity in a season of madness”.

Summer wind is a workable cliché here. The editorial approach inside The New European is consciously light-hearted (I wonder if a portion of that is down to its team being drawn entirely from existing Archant staff who are still probably doing their day jobs while contributing). The cover is just bizarre, dominated by a large cartoon of a dog’s thought bubble about stupid voters, and middle-aged publishing eye candy from a topless James Brown – there’s other stuff crammed on there, but it can’t divert my attention from a half-naked man looking like he’s about to start crying because it’s Sunday, he’s run out of croissants and it’s too damp to go on a Sainsbury’s run. I enjoyed his piece on his formative experiences holidaying in Germany and how it formed his European world-view, and I think it’s good that it’s in there. But that cover photo is actually the opposite of what he’s saying: that it’s good to go and explore Europe, not stay back for the comforts of home. It’s a great piece to introduce the more wiffy-waffy cultural half of the newspaper but it’s not right for the cover, and I don’t need to see him de-robed and starved of breakfast breads by the British climate to be compelled to read him. It really undermines the paper’s raison d’etre, which, even if delivered in a light-hearted way, is still very serious – discussing how we’re to shape a future relationship with the EU when we’re outside it and what we’ll lose in so doing, culturally, economically and in formative backpacking trips.

Setting the ‘agenda’

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has the first ‘spread’, of sorts, with a note on the emerging ‘Left Behind’ – Brexiteers who reside in poorer parts of the UK, who allegedly voted to leave as a protest at being left behind by politics and society. His two-column piece is jemmied between three very large images of street demonstrations in the past year or so. The stand-first devotes most of itself to bowing to Freedland’s profile instead of telling me what I’ll gain from reading the piece, and there are no cross-heads in the article, which makes the reading experience a little breathless. The top of each page that carries the name of the sections, called the folio, introduces the 12-page section this piece is in as ‘Agenda’, a well-trodden, safe-as-houses name for a front-of-book section that you don’t really know how to name, but need to make sound vital, ‘newsy’ and authoritative. It means bugger all and can’t really help persuade me that the copy is worth a look, since a weekly newspaper can’t easily deliver ‘newsy’. It cannot set the agenda, or any agenda worth setting, when the main columnist in its launch issue has opened his editorial by writing that the government is without a prime minister, and then six days later, we have Prime Minster May by default. Such is the velocity of things at the moment. So The New European literally carries yesterday’s news. That said, Archant says that each issue should be treated as a collectors’ item. But I can’t see why anyone would look back at this paper versus another well-established one for a set-in-aspic record of such astonishing times as these.

The “What’s on in Europe” spread. Photo @UnitedKingdomEU

The second big editorial spread in Agenda is simply comprised of large-font, space filling quotes from around Twitter, with big screen grabs of a selection of Brexit-themed internet memes: the Teresa May/Game of Thrones one, the shadow cabinet resignation bingo one, the MEP face-palming at Nigel Farage being rude one. The kind of editorial fluff that unpaid, overqualified interns are employed to compile from an easy hour online for the ‘and finally’ or ‘from the web’ corners of a newspaper – one that actually has to earn its keep every day or week – takes a starring role in the launch issue of The New European. Pages 8 through 11 carry what those in publishing usually call ‘nibs’ – 50-word articles – in a column all the way down the left and right hand sides of each spread, the purpose of which is not explained, but seems to be a roll call of interesting things that have happened around the EU. Some are genuinely interesting nuggets for post-work drinking banter. I now know that in The Netherlands, national carrier KLM has developed a trolley that can dispense draught beer at high altitude, but has not yet received the necessary permission to use it. Then there are irrelevant factoids such as German band Beginner launching its international tour.

Towards the back half, after its slew of superstar columnists where most editors think their readers are starting to get weary, is much of the ‘celebrating Europe’ stuff you can flick through half-asleep on the Tube. It’s much more magaziney than newspapery. There’s a page devoted to a photography competition seeking images of Europe; a spread devoted to “What’s on in Europe”’; a piece by young journalist Josh Barrie – he has no byline and I’d never heard of him, but Twitter says he’s online editor for Town & Country House – about his jaunt around some of Europe’s more quaint backpacking attractions way back in 2011; a spread of smart-phone photos taken last week in Glasgow; a piece about watching the footy in Prague and a listicle of the ten best cafes in Paris. A sort of Metro newspaper for the metropolitan, Eurostar and EasyJet generation (that’s me), but not just the social media generation, suddenly giving-a-shit 48 percent, then? Yes, but then a map of The New European‘s subscriber base tweeted by Kelly suggests that subscriptions have been taken out in very many non-metropolitan areas of Britain, including Plymouth, Norwich, Chester, the Kent coast and south Wales.

The New European’s subscriber map. Photo @mk1969 (Editor Mark Kelly)

Columnists Suli Breaks, Ajit Niranjan and Jonathan Freedland are saying the same thing from different perspectives. Wouldn’t it have been a better use of their copy to create a big four page feature comprising all three articles about the topic of the relationship between Remainers and Brexiteers, and how and why Remainers can and should reach out to them, to lead the way forward, whatever your background? That could have been a strong and diverse cover, a call-to-arms. But instead – surprise! – the white, middle aged, famous media type gets the first spread on page 4 and the not-white, younger, less established writers saying the same thing languish together on page 19.

Demonstrating integrity

Inconsistent use of and incomplete bylines is poor practice and it means I can’t tell sometimes what is what, so integrity is called into question. Some articles have detailed bylines (Jonathan Freedland; Dr Paddy Hoey, Osman Ahmed) and others carry nothing but the author name. So I can’t tell if the pieces on pages 8-9 are letters sent in by concerned and opinionated readers, or commissioned articles by journalists? Both have the email address letters@theneweuropean.co.uk sitting directly under the author names. I don’t know if this is saying that these are independent opinions sent in by readers and the editor is inviting more, or if it’s saying that these are articles written by journalists and the editor invites readers to respond. The first on the spread, written by Angela Jameson and spanning both pages, is about jobs being under threat in Hull because agreements to build wind farms have been put on hold after the Brexit vote. Who is Angela Jameson? Why does her letter deserve almost two pages? If she is writing a letter – not a column – she must be a business leader, perhaps a consultant? Nope! She’s another hack (sorry – ‘expert’). The second letter/article, about English Remainers who are threatening to move to Scotland, is by Mark Nicholls. Who he, you ask? Yup! A freelance journalist who runs a news and features agency. I literally have no idea what either the title or the stand-first on a piece about the Tour de France piece means so I haven’t been persuaded to read it – and who is Michael Bailey, the author? He’s one of Archant’s sports writers, Twitter tells me – hence the subject matter. So say that in his byline!

This authenticity thing. I have no problem with journalists writing things – if I did I’d be out of a job – I just want The New European to be clear why people are writing things because context is so important. There are articles on things like the idea of reintroducing Lynx to rural Britain, on something called Tauromania, and a piece by a bloke called Steve Snelling about the Polish in Britain that only state the author name and no information that explains why it is them writing and not some other hack.

Perhaps this is not poor design and signposting, but just that Archant and Kelly don’t think readers care much who is writing or what their legitimacy is. I’m coming at this as a curator of communities around magazines and their brands, where enfranchising your readers by connecting them to your contributors – making them your contributors too – is the goal. You need to demonstrate legitimacy and transparency to deliver that, which means crystal clear and complete contributor bylines, stand-firsts, making sure readers understand who they’re reading and why and how they can get in touch to agree or disagree with these views. Legitimacy can be found in famous contributor names, but Miranda Sawyer’s views on Brexit are no more valuable than my mum’s just because I know her name. She isn’t an expert. Repeat after me, everybody: hacks are not experts. They collect, collate, understand, distil and communicate other people’s experiences and opinions in ways their readers can access, enjoy and learn from. They are not experts when it comes to a newspaper talking about Brexit and calling the section where much of this comment is housed ‘Expertise’ is just pushing it a bit too far. Calling the section for James Brown’s piece ‘Eurofile’ comes across dated – I get the play on words but wouldn’t something like ‘Citizen’ or ‘The European’ be a bit slicker and more focused on the person writing than the newspaper acting as a file of stories of people who like Europe? But that is a very personal thing, and section names can cause very intense debates.

Perhaps a newspaper with a four-week life may simply not think like that. But I don’t think life expectancy or medium excuses these simple housekeeping rules on reader experience.

A final whine. The outside back page with 48 facts about something to do with the number 48. Please, no no no. Stop it. It’s screaming ‘we didn’t know what to do with this page’ to me. You want people to pay for the newspaper over the next three weeks, either on the day or by subscription. Stick a house ad there. If someone reads and enjoys the paper and then see on the final page how they can subscribe or share their views on it, they can get on their smart-phone and do it while the mood takes. That page should work harder for the project than 48 things about the number 48, though at least now I know how how old Kylie is.

The New Day, which lasted barely three months and had an apolitical agenda just as The New European has taken, is still fresh in the memory. What was the point? Launching on the back of the Brexit vote result shock but stating that it is not a political paper and will not invite politicians to contribute, nor write about the political processes involved, is a strange decision for a newspaper trying to capture the mood of millions of people who are pissed off about the most important political event for the UK of the new millennium. And please, por favor, bitte, s’il vous plait,  per favore, proszę – Matt Kelly, stop telling people you’re capturing “the zeitgeist” or that you’re being “zeitgeisty”.There is already barely a wet cigarette paper between being British and any episode of The Day Today right now.

The Guardian: five ideas for the future of the sustainable built environment

25 Jun A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT'S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

Another write-up for the Guardian newspaper, this time from a live discussion they organised with four panellists and their readers on the future of the built environment. I was careful to edit out any use of the word ‘paradigm’ from the panellist comments – anytime corporate people talk about something that they think will change their industry, it rears its ugly head, but it’s just a buzzword – and I learned some really curious, interesting factoids about how planners and developers think. I’m pretty curious about the 20-minute living idea.

Have a gander.

A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT'S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT’S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

Pressed by societal trends and government agendas to consider how they can help craft “sustainable lifestyles”, the construction, architecture and building industries are pondering the built environment of tomorrow. Ballooning populations, natural disasters as a routine, unaffordable energy prices and scarcity of resources are just some items on the list of problems to be solved. How can those industries come up with the house, commercial use building, town or city of the future?

With this question in mind, Guardian Sustainable Business ran an online discussion with readers and three expert panellists. Catherine Dannenbring, director for sustainability at Skanska Commercial Development was joined by Ben Hanley, an associate in asset management solutions at IBM Global Business Services and Melissa Sterry, a futurologist, design scientist and transformational change strategist to construction, utilities, manufacturing, design, publishing, media and communications businesses. Together they focused on five ideas.

20-minute living

How does the idea of living no more than 20 minutes’ travelling time from where you work grab you? Impossible, maybe? Not in Portland, Oregon. The traffic lights in downtown Portland are timed to the speed of a cyclist, so motorists see little point in driving faster than the cyclists, since they won’t make the lights. The effect, according to Catherine Dannenbring, is not only that the city feels safer to cycle around, “but you actually feel empowered as an urban biker, rather than fearful. I imagine the effect is that more people decide to bike and aspire to live within biking distance of downtown”.

That principle is being used by Portland’s property developers – calling it “20-minute living” – so that everything you need is within a 20-minute walk or bike ride of your home, therefore reducing traffic, pollution, fossil fuel use, saving money and making the city more sustainable. “If we can make sustainable living not just better for the environment, but a more pleasurable way for people to live, we have a win-win,” she adds.

Plan in regular Biblical floods

A 2012 exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art explored the idea of building to accommodate floods, rather than trying to keep water away. It brings together architects and inter-disciplinary teams to re-imagine the New York and New Jersey coastlines constructed so that they can survive sea-level changes. “Rather than try to develop systems for keeping the water back from our current low-elevation border areas – a la Thames barrier – the idea was, ‘let’s accept that solution as unsustainable, and permit the water to encroach…now how do we need to adjust our built environment to work with this new reality?” says Dannenbring. “A visionary- type exercise, but one that I think starts to address some of the issues.”

Watch emerging markets for innovation

British planning laws are bemoaned as a hindrance to building innovation, and many in the West look to emerging markets for the best new ideas on the sustainable built environment. Brazil is less hindered by policy, and as a fast-growing economy it needs to provide more housing and more work places as quickly as possible – while considering the environment. “This is significant, because it enables experimentation – ideas going from paper to build, which in turn enables learning, so that the R&D process can motor along at pace,” says Sterry.

Collaborate

The biggie – how to move from fossil fuels to renewables – matters hugely to the future of sustainable built environments. In the UK, buildings account for about 45% of energy consumption, but only around 6-7% of UK electricity consumption is derived from renewables. Could car-pooling (because of the cost of running a car), home sharing (ditto), or even home swapping, revolutionise our attitudes to city living?

“The first challenge is around how we help the renewable energy industry grow such that the renewable energy share increases. Second is how we incentivise building managers and owners to make energy more core to their strategy,” says IBM’s Hanley. “How do we encourage building owners to invest in solar panels or implement the measures that will wipe 10-20% off energy costs?” He points to the Eco Island project on the Isle of Wight, in which island residents are working on becoming energy self-sufficient and even to export energy to the mainland.

The tweeting house

Computer geeks with a love for saving money and the planet will love Andy Stanford-Clark’s idea. IBM’s chief technology officer for smart energy, Stanford-Clark has adapted his home so that it can tweet him updates about its energy consumption. A series of meters collect information about energy use, appliances being switched on and off, windows being opened and more. His smartphone receives tweets from these meters so that wherever he is, he can monitor the house’s efficiency – and he can switch things off in the house remotely from the phone. Gathering this sort of data in real-time using applications like Twitter can build an accurate picture of the life of a building – or even, perhaps, a city – its changing needs and where improvements can be made.

On top of tweeting houses, how about dashboards that display metrics – electrical consumption, water use – and thermostats that communicate with your phone? “We hear a lot of talk about ‘smart cities‘ – cities that anyone, anywhere can access as long as they have Wi-Fi and a personal communications device,” adds Sterry. How sustainable that is in itself is another debate.

The Guardian: A discussion on child labour

21 Jun Child weavers. Photo by www.sadashivan.com - http://members.tripod.com/sadashivan_nair/freephotos4ursocialstudy/id5.html

A write-up I did for the Guardian Professional Network on a discussion they had with four pannellists and readers, on the International Labour Organisation’s lofty aims to eradicate child labour. Turns out that the ILO couldn’t get governments or companies to make enough efforts to bring about change that would show progress on that target, so they had another pow-wow and decided to make a shorter term target of eradicating “the worst forms” of child labour by 2016. I’m a cynic so I can’t see that happening either. But I thought it was good to see that some of the people working in the field could come up with some modest ideas for things companies could actually start to do to weed out child labour from their supply chains – and recognising that in some poorer countries where companies send a lot of their production work, families will keep sending their children to work so they can all eat and get a roof over their head if there is no other choice. Thus why I called the piece “Pragmatism and best practice”.

Have a read.

Pragmatism and best practice: how can companies tackle child labour?

Can child labour be good? The mouths fed by children who pick cotton and embroider the garments it eventually becomes may think this a rhetorical question. Western companies are under pressure to prove they are weeding out child labour from their supply chain, under the shadow of concerned NGOs whose damnation can move share prices. But the pressure on those companies to engage, directly or indirectly, in child labour to produce more for less, and faster, remains as sovereign as a daily meal is to the aforementioned mouths. How can companies serve the bottom line and tackle child labour at the same time?

To mark World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, Guadian Sustainable Business ran an online discussion to explore tackling the root causes of child labour with readers and four expert panellists. Marianne Barner, Ikea’s senior advisor on sustainability and Joanne Dunn, a senior protection advisor on child labour at UNICEF, joined Carmel Giblin, general manager at Sedex – an information exchange on labour standards and business ethics – and Julia Kilbourne, who leads the apparel and textiles department at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

What policies or guidance form Western companies’ current response to child labour?

In 2010 the International Labour Organization (ILO) published its roadmap for achieving the elimination of “the worst forms of child labour” – those deemed most likely to cause harm to the child – to reinvigorate its 183 member states in the overarching aim of eliminating all child labour, as enshrined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and the ILO Convention, 1973 (No. 138).

The roadmap commits member states to enacting national legislation against child labour and for developing “cross-sectoral national action plans” to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; for regularly reviewing and updating national lists of hazardous work prohibited for children and enforcing sanctions against perpetrators of the worst forms of child labour, strengthening the inspection and monitoring that brings cases to light, documenting relevant court cases and ensuring access to justice for children and families. Its labour market policies require member states to work towards regulating and formalising the informal economy, strengthening state labour inspection and enforcement, and towards “creating an environment” that aims to combat child labour in supply chains.

Principle 2 of the Children’s Rights and Business Principles, published by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children in March 2012, states that all businesses should “contribute to the elimination of child labour, including in all business activities and business relationships”. The Children’s Rights and Business Principles identify good practice as companies taking steps to prevent child labour, enforcing corrective plans that consider the child’s best interests where instances are identified.

How important is local culture to companies trying to eradicate child labour from their supply chain?

How can companies implement a policy on suppliers in regions where child labour may be an accepted fact of life, a necessity for families to survive, or even state-supported? “State-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan (cotton picking to be more exact) is an ongoing problem despite many global brands pledging to avoid cotton from the country,” said reader Helmikelmi.

Dunn says that a zero-tolerance approach to child labour is often undeliverable, suggesting a more pragmatic approach for companies to instead ensure a living wage is paid to its adult workers and that their children have access to school. “Our experience is that efforts to impose exclusionary criteria unfortunately often lead to child labour being hidden or removed from reporting systems,” she says. “Whilst most corporates and local authorities or large purchasers can monitor the first level of their supply chain, subcontractors or homeworkers who provide specific pieces are too often missing from formal systems, providing employment on an ad-hoc informal basis – frequently involving children.” She recommends that companies install collaborative monitoring systems, rewarding suppliers that provide decent work and are transparent in addressing the drivers of child labour.

How much influence do Western companies really have?

It’s on the wane. Julia Kilbourne says ETI’s supply chain map shows Western brands only take a fraction of production from key supplier countries, while non-Western companies are placing more orders with local suppliers. This means Western companies only have a fraction of the influence in driving change.

How can companies take action?

More and more large companies are drawing up anti child labour policies, moving from a pass or fail approach to seeing success as a continual process of improvement. Ikea’s Marianne Barner works with UNICEF and Save the Children on programmes supported by the business to address the root causes of child labour in rural areas (mainly in India).

Drawing up a company policy which includes the Children’s Rights and Business Principles would engage employees in clear corporate thinking. “People working in a company can be great advocates for children’s rights when policies are clear,” adds Barner.

UNICEF’s Joanne Dunn suggests companies appoint a senior board member to report on progress against such a policy and to check newly selected suppliers comply also. That individual can ensure any supplier risk assessment includes an understanding of local realities, says Dunn, “and that business practices do not reinforce bad practice by paying inadequate wages that cannot support a local family,” or automatically exclude suppliers who admit to using child labour.

Can companies support the aim while doing businesses with suppliers that may still use child workers?

That’s why pragmatism is crucial in tackling child labour. Reader Desus argues that in countries where child labour has been officially banned, children have ended up in drug dealing or prostitution. “For millions of families, the only safe alternative to a sufficient income is having their children working. In my opinion, for as long as children are main providers of their family’s wellbeing, corporate responsibility means taking education and safety for children to the workplace”. ETI’s Kilbourne suggests that if a company discovers children in its supply chain, the focus should be on moving swiftly to secure their transition from work into good quality education. That may take time – but however modest a start, it would demonstrate corporate will to meet the ILO’s overarching aim.

The Guardian: the ‘mature’ intern comes of age

13 May Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

My second feature for the cover of the Guardian’s Work supplement on 12 May 2012. A subject I’m passionate about, alternate routes into work and to a richer palette of experience – this time, for ‘older’ people who want to do internships or apprenticeships. Very enjoyable to research and my only grumble was that I didn’t have enough room for all the comments of all the people I spoke with for it.

Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

Interns are getting older. Flickr/National Library of Australia

A tuft of grey chest hair pokes out of the top of Alan Kean’s stripey shirt. It catches my eye as we drink tea amid the deafening chatter and the expensive fig trees in Portcullis House where Alan, 55, is six months into life as a parliamentary intern.

In recent months there has been much gnashing of teeth over young people flooding into these positions, unpaid or poorly paid, with scant observation of working rights, desperate to get a foot on the career ladder. That has left little room for discussion around a lesser-known trend: of the 457,200 apprentice positions started in 2010-11 in the UK, 182,100 were started by people aged 25 or over, according to the Data Service. Five years ago, only 300 people aged 25 or older took up these roles.

Of the overall rise between 2006-7 and 2010-11, 68% were in the 25-plus age group, according to the National Audit Office (NAO); an increase it attributes to Tony Blair’s government, which, in 2003, widened the age eligibility criteria for government-funded, private company-runapprenticeships to include over 25s.

Many people presume that interning, or being an apprentice (the two are used almost interchangeably) is for graduates or school leavers only and the newly-launched National Careers Service doesn’t disabuse would-be applicants of that notion.

Jobs websites bring up advert after advert seeking “ambitious graduates” with a “work hard, play hard attitude” to fill numerous unpaid or minimum-wage internships and apprenticeships – wording that barely complies with age-discrimination law and makes plain the cultural advantage younger, cheaper applicants have over older ones. Part of the problem is that the National Apprenticeships Service pays up to 100% of the training cost of placements taken by 16-18 year olds, and up to 50% for ages 19-24, but makes only an unspecified “contribution” for placements taken by those aged 25 or over.

“The impression is that the government doesn’t provide routes for older people like that. We know there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore, but culturally, we’re yet to develop that broader attitude,” says Rosemary Thomas, a research assistant at the Work Foundation, previously a work psychologist at Jobcentre Plus.

“At Jobcentre Plus I worked with lots of long-term unemployed, or over-25s that hadn’t worked out what they wanted to do. An apprenticeship or internship would have been a perfect solution for them, but it was so hard to come across anything. We tended to guide them down the voluntary route.”

What kind of people make “mature interns”? A Leicestershire boy who left school with no qualifications, Kean fell into hotel work and meandered through “low administrative level” jobs in the NHS and the local branch of the Department for Work and Pensions, later working in the community football stadium in Doncaster where he and his wife relocated, before moving again to London. After a short employment contract with Harrods, he worked as a volunteer with Locog interviewing other potential Olympics volunteers. Then he saw that the Social Mobility Foundationwas offering nine-month internships working for parliamentarians, paying £17,500 for that period.

“I did wonder if I was too old to apply because most interns are 18-25, aren’t they?” says Kean. “Once upon a time someone like me would be at the end of their working life. But I’m not ready to lie down,” he adds. “Like most working-class people I’ve not had a career, but I’ve shown in my work that I can do almost anything – I’m flexible and the labour market has a need for that. Being stuck in a rut is a luxury of years gone by. The more strings you have to your bow, the easier it should be to find paid work.”

The forthcoming rise in retirement age makes refreshing your skills and competitiveness important. And while older interns and apprentices are doing that, they’re providing the UK taxpayer with value for money. In a February 2012 report, scrutinising the government’s apprenticeship programme, the NAO found that its advanced and intermediate apprenticeship models produce returns of respectively £21 and £16 for every pound of public funding they receive (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates those returns at respectively £24 and £35, using a different calculation).

At 27, Ben Harford is an older intern, one of many thousands trying to break into the creative industries, where, though much criticised, poorly-paid internships are all but mandatory. Redundancy last Christmas brought a small sum of cash that Ben ploughed into a career change, retraining from public sector administration to graphic design. A Gumtree advertisement led him to a full-time internship designing sponsorship collateral for a Premiership football club. The commute costs him £500 a month, taking up most of his minimum-wage salary, and he relies on his girlfriend’s income to shore up their living expenses.

The work is enjoyable, says Ben, but could end at any time. “It was meant to be six weeks, but it always gets extended for another week, another two weeks … they keep their cards close to their chest, so you’re always in limbo,” he says. “In this industry you’ve got to earn your stripes by working for not much money. Even junior positions expect one year’s experience. So you’ve got to start with an internship.” His fellow interns, most of whom graduated last summer, “have rich boyfriends or live at home rent-free – they can enjoy being 21 and survive on the minimum wage with their parents’ backup. They don’t have the responsibilities I’ve got.”

But it can work. Mike Mann was 39 when he joined Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ Headstart scheme in 2007 – its equivalent to a graduate scheme, but for those without many formal qualifications – leaving behind a long-established career in sound production. Apprentices are paid a salary to work full-time and study for their accounting qualifications.

He now manages audits for the businesses he was attached to when he started. “I was fed up working in an environment where we were incredibly experienced technically and commercially, but had no real business understanding. I wanted to understand what makes businesses succeed and felt strongly that I needed a mixture of hands-on work and formal training,” says Mann. “It was very daunting at first, but being in an environment where everyone is enthusiastic about learning is so refreshing.”

He adds that one of his oddest apprenticeship experiences was revising for exams at the kitchen table alongside his daughters who were studying for their GCSEs and AS levels: “Not what you expect to be doing at 40.”

The Headstart scheme pays between £16,000 and £20,000. Can an older apprentice survive on that? “This has been the hardest part, but in less than five years I’m back to a healthy salary and over the next few years it will easily surpass what I could have earned before changing career,” Mann says.

The NAO report says that completing an advanced apprenticeship is associated with raising earning power by 18%, and completing an intermediate internship raises salaries by 11%.

The cultural barrier to older people accessing these positions remains strong. Some think employers presume they will want too much money, defend their workers’ rights too strongly or even show them up professionally. “Employers might be put off because they think they’ll expect lots of money, but they might have come out of a well-paid career and aren’t motivated by money any more,” says Rosemary Thomas.

Kean, the oldest participant on the parliamentary interns scheme, agrees. “So many MPs and their interns have no expertise and haven’t worked anywhere else, so I’ve brought in some procedures here to make things run smoothly,” he says. “But I think some employers might be intimidated by someone a bit older with a mind of their own like that. We’re more likely to stand up for ourselves, while young workers are new to the workplace and don’t know what’s expected of them – which is why they are abused.”

The government intends to invest more in apprenticeships, and given the return on investment older participants appear to provide, it makes sense to give them more funding.

But Chris Ball, chief executive of The Age Employment Network, sees the cultural blockade at its strongest within the government’s apprenticeship machinery. “There are huge issues around economic inactivity among older people, and the fact is the government has put far more energy into supporting young workers than older workers,” he says.

“Older people need to feel there is somebody out there working for them, but they’re just not a priority – they have to wait six months before they’re allowed onto the Work Programme, in which time demoralisation and self-pity can set in. You’ll look like a far better prospect to an employer if you’re doing something like interning than if you’re out of work.”

Case study: the translator

Well travelled and multi-lingual, Marta Rodriguez, 34, is the epitome of the progressive European prepared for tomorrow’s labour market. A BA twice over, and currently studying an online Master’s degree as a mature student, she is highly experienced in translation work.

She is halfway through a six-month internship with a west London translation company, on a scheme operated by the European commission which aims to “help students to adapt to the requirements of the EU-wide labour market”.

For Marta, it’s a shrewd way to see how her translation clients work from the inside while getting paid. The position was advertised unpaid except for €500 for living costs. But Marta got lucky: her employers pay her £500 per month on top. “They’re happy because I think they were expecting an intern with whom they had to spend a lot of time teaching and explaining things.”

Marta is the agency’s first intern and is seven years older than her manager.

“At the beginning they thought I’d be working on their database all day long, but I’m translating, I’m proof-reading translations from our freelance translators, and I’m about to do some project management,” she explains.

“They weren’t expecting me to be as experienced as I am or to know what I’m doing. They can rely on me and delegate things.

“I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of being an intern before. I thought my employer Erasmus wouldn’t accept me because of my age – that they might think ‘oh, she must be a loser’,” Marta admits.

“That’s about my preconceptions – that there’s an established way. You finish university, you do your internship, then you get a job, you get a better job and that is what you do with your life – so I thought that was how society would behave towards me.”

The Guardian: Is the office job falling out of fashion for the working woman?

6 Mar Aww, that's nice...but self-employment for women has changed. Flickr/The National Library of Wales. 2012

I have had my first ever story published by The Guardian. This featured in the Work section on Saturday 1 March 2012, on the front page of the supplement! I was pleased, I can tell you. You can read it in situ with all the comments here or see it below.

Aww, that's nice...but self-employment for women has changed. Flickr/The National Library of Wales. 2012

Aww, that's nice...but self-employment for women has changed. Flickr/The National Library of Wales. 2012

The Grauniad’s subs changed my suggested title and standfirst to ‘rise of the odd-jobbers’ (it was “From office monkey to business owner: a surge of ‘odd jobbers’ may not not be evidence of entrepreneurial zeal, but there’s plenty of proof the newly self-employed wouldn’t go back to office life”) though the piece is actually about people leaving classic, ‘professional’, desk monkey life for self-employment – and how the bulk of those who have done this in the UK in recent years are women, although historically the vast majority of British self-employed are men. I added a little afterthought at the bottom official statistics suggesting that there has also been a surge in people moving into ‘elementary occupations’ – what is usually termed unskilled work, pulling pints or moving lawns. I think the term ‘unskilled’ can be rather pejorative myself. I mean, I can’t pull a proper pint but there is a huge market demand for pints – and to serve it could be a skill. But I digress.

Self-employment: the rise of the ‘odd-jobbers’

Job insecurity and a lack of opportunities have swelled the ranks of the self-employed – and the charge is being led by women, finds Melanie Stern

It was my mother who summed it up. “I’m in my late 50s and I don’t have a degree. All that’s available to me is boring little jobs in offices or supermarkets. Then I thought, ‘Why not make a job out of the things I do at home anyway?'”

And so she and her business partner, an estate agent, set up Shabby Little Secret last October to sell the quirky vintage finds and “shabby chic” soft furnishings I grew up watching my mum sew or paint at our kitchen table.

My mum is a member of one of the fastest-growing clubs in the UK, that of the self-employed, whose ranks had swelled to a record 4.1 million – or 14.2% of all employed people – according to the Office for National Statistics, by last autumn.

As a woman, she’s one of their hardcore. While two-thirds of the self-employed are men, 60% of those who have become self-employed since 2008 are women.

There is some dispute over the meaning of this trend. Some think it is an entrepreneurial boom; others, including John Philpott, chief economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, points out that between summer 2008 and summer 2011, nearly 27% of the new self-employed moved into “elementary occupations”, or unskilled, intermittent odd-jobbing.

“It’s likely that most would take a job with an employer if only they could find one,” says Philpott.

Yet many who have become self-employed amid the current economic crisis, find themselves glad to be there. Between the loss of job security, the erosion of employment rights and a working quality of life people got used to in the past decade, there is a sense that classic “employment” is a thing of the past for the groups who dominate the new self-employed.

Financial recruitment consultancy Robert Half says 29% of human resources executives in the UK cite work-life balance as the main reason employees leave. Paul Wilson, who works with self-employed clients at accountant Beever & Struthers in Manchester, notes his newest punters: a PR consultant and kitchen planner “who realised they could do their jobs better if they did it for themselves”; a computer vendor “who reckoned he could do the same job in his pyjamas from his front room”; and three guys who set up a solar panel business. “They’re making so much cash I can’t keep track of the noughts,” he says. “One of them turns up to our meetings in a Bentley. Or his Mercedes, if he’s roughing it.”

Dan Smith, 35, quit his media advertising career a year ago, exhausted by the culture. With no money coming in, he found himself labouring for a friend’s building firm – but is now looking into apprenticeships in the building field. “I was on £35,000 and had a budget to entertain clients. But I hated it,” says Smith. “I left because my boss was an idiot. The company agreed, but said he was too expensive to sack.”

While Smith admits labouring is not well-paid, he enjoys “being outside, doing different jobs every day, knowing what’s expected of me and not dealing with office politics. I’ve spent a decade filling the pockets of my shareholders and my bosses.”

Many in the new wave of self-employed people are now discovering their true potential. Many, like Wilson’s clients, came to self-employment voluntarily when they realised that without much job security they were better off. Many were laid off and saw no other options. In the middle of this, Venn diagram is a group of individuals digging out business plans put aside years ago, finding skills they didn’t know they had; discovering ways to balance work and life that employers can’t compete with.

It’s not so much of a leap for those who have decided to make a living out of something they already enjoy outside of work, turning a hobby, interest or a even a bugbear into a business. Last March, Hayley Chalmers turned her perpetual search for decent work clothes to fit her 5ft 1in frame into Short Couture, designing, manufacturing and selling these very products online. Redundancy from her IT management job drew her to dusting off the business plan she’d drawn up five years before but, with no fashion industry knowledge, found too daunting to pursue at the time. Now she thinks life is better outside the corporate world. “Years in big firms gave me experience in so many business disciplines, which is a real help now. But it took me too many years to realise I don’t really fit in at large corporates. They don’t like people who question things,” she says.

“Though I’d always wanted my own business I didn’t know exactly what, but I’d reached a point where that world was no longer for me. I’ve worked for too many ladder-climbers that don’t care about doing things well.”

Last autumn, Bibiana Tellez-Garside turned what she knew – a career in marketing and the saleable beauty of her home country – into specialist Bolivian travel agency High Lives, taking a part-time marketing job elsewhere while she establishes the business.

In August 2009, York-based events management specialist Sophie Jewett set up the chocolate-making business she’d wanted to have, Little Pretty Things (and last year, the York Cocoa House) for many years.

Tellez-Garside’s and Jewett’s launches were the product of much preparation while still in employment, in jobs specifically chosen because they allowed more time to focus on other things. Tellez-Garside left a large financial publisher for a small marketing consultancy last April, to start work on her business plan. She was laid off less than a year into the job, seeing it as a chance to focus on High Lives.

Jewett moved from a catering job on 70 hours a week into a more nine-to-five events management role for a university, but resigned in May 2010 before redundancy hit her department. “I started off doing some activities while I was still working just to see how they went, easing myself into having my own business,” she says. “By the time I left I had been running it for one year, having to turn opportunities away because the day job was getting in the way.” Both turned their existing contacts into business.

Much has been said about women bearing the brunt of mass job shedding. But a picture of the working world is emerging that reveals a culture still essentially hostile to family life, which still seems to plague women more than men.

In February, Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, tweeted a chart that showed employment rates for the UK among women with children compared to women without. The rate for women with dependants between 2008-09, was 78%; without dependants, it was 65%. “Look what can happen to female employment rates when childcare costs are very high,” Pearce says.

Robert Half’s UK managing director, Phil Sheridan, says companies risk losing their “star employees” if they don’t provide “help with balancing work and their personal lives”. The recruiter suggests companies offer flexible working – but only as “a strategy best reserved for top performers”. The problem getting women into board-level or other top roles in business is well documented, so it seems unlikely that many women will qualify for these rewards.

Laura Rigney turned that problem into her motivation for becoming self-employed and into her business model, founding Mumpreneur in 2010. It offers events, advice and support for mothers thinking of becoming self-employed. “I was employed until I had my third child and going back to it just wasn’t an option. The cost of childcare would completely suck up all my wages,” she says.

When a mum starts a business, nine times out of 10 she will start it when she is on maternity leave, Rigney says. She adds that mums tend to grow it slowly while their children are young. By year four of the business, with children at school and more time available, it hits a growth spurt. That’s one reason, she thinks, why women-owned startups often find it impossible to secure bank loans, growing too slowly to provide the financials bank managers want to see.

Though parents of children aged 16 or younger have the legal right to request flexible working, BusinessHR.net says employees can be reluctant to ask if it runs “counter to a dominant long-hours culture”, to the extent that they’d rather leave the company than raise the issue.

The promise of flexible working is a myth to many. “Companies talk about it, but in reality the number of flexible working opportunities is tiny,” says Rigney. “Ten years ago, mothers were the preferred employee; we were considered a safe bet. But now around 70% of British companies prefer not to hire a mum because of the potential for additional maternity leave or time off for sick children.”

Her business is growing as more working mothers choose self-employment, with Mumpreneur’s fourth annual conference expecting double the delegates of its launch event, a national roadshow in the pipeline and daily requests for regional events. Eight in 10 delegates she surveyed at The Baby Show event in October 2011 wanted to start their own business within six months. Her punters won’t have to beg their managers for the right to fit their work around feeding times, school runs and parent-teacher meetings. “It’s not the easy choice, but it’s the more workable,” Rigney says.

A regular salary is a compelling comfort blanket when you’ve spent the working day “managing expectations”, battling with bureaucracy and giving away good ideas. But for many it’s no longer enough of a trade off. “Regular pay is no compensation for not being allowed to do a job well,” says Short Couture’s Chalmers.

Jobs for the one-man-band

Between summer 2008 and summer 2011, nearly 27% of those who became self-employed moved into “elementary occupations” – or odd jobs.

Gumtree, the online board for classifieds, saw a 57% rise in adverts with “odd job” in the title in the year to January 2012. Reflecting the ONS data, these ads spiked last summer, and have now hit a two-year high.

School-leavers, newly redundant nurses and hard-up retirees make up some of the ads. Some are a little unusual: the “Husband For An Hour” odd-job man working in the Ascot area offers anything “from picture hanging to building an extension”, accompanied by a snap of him grinning wildly while bottle-feeding a baby tiger.

Another seeks a “professional couple” to keep house, cook and chauffeur. “The cook must have imagination and find it second nature to produce pleasing meals. Salary negotiable depending on past experience.”

What about a full-time, live-in vacancy in a Bournemouth pub? If you’ve got a joinery background, don’t mind splitting your week between pot-washing in the kitchen and pulling pints between odd-jobbing, then Bob’s your mother’s brother.