Power journalism – in more than one sense

POWER JOURNALISM FLYERHow did it happen that we all became victims of power, instead of having it serve us?

The American stand-up comic and satirist George Carlin once said that “electricity is just organised lightning”. He might have added that government-owned corporations are organised exploitation. They enjoy monopolies, but unlike private monopolies if they get into financial trouble the state will bail them out. So we citizens lose in two ways: from price gouging and tax theft.

My apologies to Eskom, the SA power utility, if I damn them unfairly. We do know that there wouldn’t be such an energy crisis in this country now if the government had followed Eskom’s advice a decade or more ago to build more power stations. We are paying the price for that lapse. It happened on President Thabo Mbeki’s watch; and one of the last things he did as departing President was admit he’d been wrong.

The politics of power has now administered shock treatment in the form of extraordinary hikes in electricity costs. And we are proceeding to build new fossil fuel stations to solve our crisis in what may be just the wrong way, the way of the dinosaur.

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The new Medupi Power Station : billions over budget and still counting

These thoughts are prompted by an upcoming workshop in Power Journalism at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg on 12-16 August. I’ll be facilitating talks, discussions and tours of SA power facilities for a group of Nigerian journalists (as well as locals). It’s an intimidating brief: to pull the whole energy picture together in a week and get it all to make sense.

From coal-fired dark satanic mills to green alternatives that may not be so environmentally friendly after all… someone’s got to tackle the energy crisis on a level of voter understanding. How did we get here and what’s the way out?

Throughout the world, governments are looking for ways to broaden electricity supplies and lessen dependence on fossil fuels. We as citizens must critically appraise how government goes about this: whom does it depend upon for expertise, what interests do they represent, and what eventual outcomes will we be saddled – or blessed – with? It’s one thing to talk about technologies but another to review the decision-making and aims of technocrats, bureaucrats and plutocrats with their hands on the controls.

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Power illuminates street marchers in Brazil

So the workshop has to deal with technology but from a right-to-know perspective. I imagine that the Nigerians (all of whom are said to be experienced in the field) are coming here to see what we do and how we do it in solving the energy crisis. We have to look at big and small installations in the four elements: earth (coal and nuclear), water (hydro), fire (solar) and air (wind) with an eye to sustaintabiliy, renewables, innovation and commercial expansion. And then there are the policy-makers and academics who must answer our call.

The event is bound to generate publicity in African and world media. You can’t put 12 journalists together to hear about a topic without expecting coverage here, there and everywhere. We’ll invoke the spirit of social media to get attention in the streets. My feeling about power (in both senses) is that it’s one of the issues underlying street demonstrations throughout the world in 2013. People are tired of paying for what they aren’t consulted about. And they want delivery, not talk.

Fortunately for me in planning this exercise I’ve run science and technology tours before, for international bloggers and journalists from abroad, so at least I have some contacts and some tools or organisation. We’ll pull it off and maybe open some new power horizons.

The singer Johnny Cash (name very appropriate) lit up the way ahead pretty well:

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

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