bristol cable copies
Credit: Alastair Reid/
The Bristol Cable launched last year as a local media co-operative aiming to find the stories and communities that are "under-served" or "marginalised" by the decline in mainstream local news organisations.

Having just printed its fourth quarterly run of 10,000 copies, founders Alon Aviram and Adam Cantwell-Corn are proud of how the co-operative model is supporting independent, investigative journalism in a way they say has been missing from their area.

"We aren't relying on our audience being value based," Cantwell-Corn said at the Centre for Investigative Journalism's Summer Conference yesterday. "One of the things we're actively doing is sourcing content by going to communities and speaking to different interest groups or value groups... finding the stories and issues important to them."

If we're jeopardising stories by thinking about advertising then we'll just end up like [legacy] local mediaAdam Cantwell-Corn, The Bristol Cable
The vicious cycle of declining audiences and advertising revenues at traditional local news organisations has created a "democratic deficit", he said, where some newsrooms don't have the time, resources or inclination to pursue true investigative stories.

Sticking to the mantra "in print, online and on the street" has kept the founding team connected to communities and potential stories are regularly brought to weekly editorial meetings.

The pair detailed some of the exclusives The Cable has reported since launching last October.

Investigating the catering industry

One of the first investigations focussed on Bristol's catering industry which, with a workforce of roughly 14,500, employs a little over 3 per cent of Bristol's population.

Cable members surveyed 102 workers across the city, using not a little subterfuge to get past managers and employers.

"We spoke to people on smoking breaks, snuck into the backroom of restaurants, put up QR codes to the survey near the backdoor," explained Aviram, "generally just thinking of ways to reach people who might not otherwise be inclined to contribute."

Zero-hour contracts, no legal provision of breaks and vast amounts of unpaid overtime were the norm, and while there were some positive stories only one in five respondents thought working conditions were fair.

When the Cable asked Mayor George Ferguson to comment, he came out in support of the living wage, as you would expect from a former Lib Dem, but Cable research revealed one of his restaurants to pay below the living wage.

The story led to some "awkward conversations" with local business owners when the founders wanted to leave free copies in their establishments, but "if we're jeopardising stories by thinking about advertising then we'll just end up like [legacy] local media," said Cantwell-Corn.

University of Bristol's 'ethical investments'
Another exclusive came with the Cable's first foray into data journalism, investigating the University of Bristol's so-called "ethical investment" policy.

From £56 million invested in 189 companies the Cable found 205 ethical violations based on "verifiable NGO or media reporting" and sanctions from governing bodies.

It turns out the ethical guidelines only go as far as "anything which isn't illegal in the UK", said Cantwell-Corn, as the University fund manager sets a "very low ethical bar".

A £500,000 conflict of interest

One of the Cable's biggest stories came in identifying a clear conflict of interest in how more than £500,000 of European funding was distributed.

When Bristol was named the European Green Capital for 2015, the European Commission awarded £1.35m in grants to be distributed among environmental organisations.

cable ethical investments
Screenshot from The Bristol Cable's interactive data visualisation into the University of Bristol's investment policy

Mayor George Ferguson set up a limited company to distribute the funds, but over a third of that money – some £500,000 – went to organisations linked to the very individuals who decided how the money should be spent.

The aim, ultimately, is to be able to create a self-sustainable media cooperative, sustained by its members.Adam Cantwell-Corn, The Bristol Cable
A group of over 700 organisations tendered the bid to be Green Capital in 2013, 136 applied for funding. Thirty-two bids were accepted, 10 of which were linked to board members of the awarding body.

"We're ruffling a few feathers and possibly cutting ties to people who might give us funding," said Cantwell-Corn, "but it increased our membership."

Police handling of sexual crimes

Freedom of Information requests are often a strong source of exclusive stories. After submitting a request for information as to how Avon and Somerset Police handles sexual crimes, the Cable found less than 20 per cent of crimes recorded as rape and less than 21 per cent of recorded sexual assaults result in a charge.

What's more, eight per cent of rape or sexual assault allegations resulted in a 'no crime' status being recorded, but 40 per cent of those cases did not comply with the criteria put forward by the Home Office.

Avon and Somerset Police "ranked among the worst" of UK constabularies, Cantwell-Corn wrote at the time.

Construction ties between Bristol and Qatar

Another story in the first edition brought the Cable's first exclusive, in keeping with the age old tradition of giving an international story a local relevance.

Three companies with offices in Bristol or links to the council were found to have contracts with both Bristol City Council and for construction work in Qatar, where appalling working conditions are under regular international scrutiny.

After taking a poll of members, the next issue of The Bristol Cable will focus on environmental issues in the area.

Locally, Aviram said he wants The Cable to become the "go-to place for people with tip-offs" but the founders say they have had conversations with people in Manchester, London and further afield to emulate the model in other cities.

The 400 members have a direct say in key decisions at the outlet and enjoy local perks for their monthly contributions, but eventually Aviram and Cantwell-Corn hope to be able to step away from their creation to let it live on its own.

"The aim, ultimately, is to be able to create a self-sustainable media cooperative, sustained by its members," Cantwell-Corn said.

Update: This piece has been updated to clarify the outcomes of the Cable's research into the catering industry in Bristol. One of Mayor George Ferguson's restaurants was found to pay below living wage, not minimum wage as initially stated.

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