When I worked at WITNESS, we debated hotly how to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2008. We wanted to do something that felt contemporary, that felt open as a campaign, and that anyone – anyone – would have a response to and could run with. What we came up with, and what ended up catching the imagination of quite a few people, was a simple question:

What image opened your eyes to human rights?

To kick things off, I recorded a load of interviews with interesting activists, researchers, journalists and filmmakers when I was at the GFMD conference in Athens. I’ve just put  a playlist of these short, sometimes spine-tingling interviews onto YouTube. Here, as a taster, is Mary Robinson’s answer:


As part of its UK Public Opinion Monitor research, which aims to track the UK public’s attitudes towards development, the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex recently released this 10-minute film pleading for better coverage by UK television of the developing world, and of issues related to poverty:

The film revisits arguments advanced over many years by the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT), One World Media (formerly the One World Broadcasting Trust), POLIS, and other civil society groups. [Five years ago, I wrote and researched IBT’s report, Reflecting the Real World 2, on how new media were impacting on UK TV’s coverage of the developing world.] These groups have consistently put forward the arguments – based on research they conduct and commission, and on interviews they conduct with senior decision-makers in the UK media – that coverage of the developing world by UK broadcast television is weak, and tends to focus on crisis, corruption, and conflict, in both news and other TV genres. They argue that this has serious implications both on how genuinely informed the UK public can be about large swathes of the wider world, and therefore on how constructive domestic public debate and opinion can be about why we give aid, to whom, and on what basis.

It’s encouraging that a serious institution like IDS is interested in addressing these issues. So why does the film itself leave me so disappointed – and what might they have done differently?

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I forgot to cross-post this, which I wrote in December for the UNA-USA’s The Interdependent:

How we communicate and connect, how we see and document the world around us, how we express ourselves—all have been transformed over the past decade. Hundreds of millions of us on every continent experience this directly in our daily lives, from receiving a text message or making a mobile call to video-chatting with relatives or colleagues around the world.

As 2011 made so pointedly clear, communication technologies and networks of this kind are now so intrinsic to how many of us live, work, and interact that they are influencing how we think about, claim, and advocate for human rights. As the UN celebrated International Human Rights Day on December 10, for instance, it chose to highlight how “social media helped activists organize peaceful protest movements in cities across the globe—from Tunis to Madrid, from Cairo to New York—at times in the face of violent repression.”

This new reality is something that advocates and activists need to face head-on, urgently and collectively. Human rights concerns are at the heart of the technologies we use, the more domesticated, indispensable and close-to-home they become. But what does this mean in practical terms?

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Earlier this year, I did some strategy work with a client to look at the documentary landscape in the UK, and here I’m sharing some of the overall findings and resources from that piece of work (some stats and market elements might have moved a little since then, but overall I hope it’s still helpful). It’s interesting that some of the recommendations I made overlap with a recent piece of research from the Open Rights Group – which finds that overall, consumers in the UK face “lack of availability, poor pricing and quality issues when compared with physical media.” I agree that UK consumers are very poorly served with visual media content, and face a fragmented and confusing landscape.

And there’s an evolving list of resources I used here – please feel free to browse and contribute.


  • Fragmentation in TV audiences  but increase in DVD, download, theatrical documentary markets. (DVD sales plummeted 40% in the USA in the last quarter (early 2011) as digital downloads take off)
  • Tech barriers to entry lower than ever for individuals to make, participate in, distribute documentary, competition for attention ever more fierce as opportunities to watch multiply.
  • Funding still fragmented, largely production-focused, further decreases threatened, and nothing systematically replacing financial and editorial support decreasingly offered by TV channels.  Crowdfunding online seen as potential option for some, commercial sponsorship for others.
  • Online viewing growing in length, web now first port-of-call for many producers to show portions of their film, generate interest, secure funding, conduct outreach.
  • Perception of growing interest in more authentic (i.e. direct) content from new perspectives/voices.
  • Many in each successive generation increasingly comfortable with use of video as means of communication, and with tools of creation – different expectations around participation, form of content, cost, availability.
  • With journalism seemingly in crisis, some expect that documentary should take on more “investigative” role.
  • New types of documentary content emerging (especially focus online on short-form or serial content, animation, and closer ties with photojournalism), but traditional ones still dominant.
  • Action-oriented/advocacy documentary a growing genre, with associated online action opportunities – with foothold in theatrical distribution, and many new entrants in online space. Quality uneven.
  • NGOs, public sector more credible in documentary space as partners/endorsers of filmmakers, less as producers. NGOs beginning to commission films directly.
  • Many online documentary networks and platforms (including for development/human rights), yet few truly comprehensive places online or offline dedicated to helping people watch, learn about, discuss, get involved.
  • Academic centres for study/teaching of documentary not up-to-date with converging practice – not holistic (Depts for TV, online, radio, documentary, journalism, media studies, etc, all doing broadly similar/overlapping things).  NOTE – state of research about documentary is very fragmented.
  • Landscape in the developing world looks very different… – long-term need for any/all of these to be catalysed or strengthened, almost everywhere…

Finally, a stat from the BFI’s research: in 2009, 56 documentary films were released, accounting for 11% of releases but only £12M or 1% of the gross UK box office – and of that £12M, £9.8M came from the Michael Jackson tribute documentary, This Is It (UKFC/Rentrak data). In other words, a total 55 documentary releases earned just over £2M in 2009. It’s not a lucrative career, at less than £40k per release, on average….

Today in San Francisco, I’m moderating a panel at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. I’ll be joined by Steve Grove (formerly of YouTube, now of Google+), Sam Gregory of WITNESS, Hans Eriksson of Bambuser, and Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation and Oslo Freedom Forum.

You can watch the video live here, or follow the tireless Katherine Maher’s liveblog here. And we’ll try to take questions via Twitter for about 20 minutes after the panel ends at the hashtag #rightscon.

(After the panel, I’ll add any videos or resources we bring up or show into this page.)