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February 3, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:51am

Bristol Cable’s co-op member model helped it ‘persist’ with long-running slavery investigation

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Bristol Cable’s co-operative membership model helped it sustain a long-running investigation into claims of modern day slavery at an ice cream business, one of its co-founders has said.

The Ice Cream Slavery Case uncovered allegations of workers being kept in modern slavery conditions by Bristol businessman Salvatore Lopresti, as well as wider underpayment of staff.

The investigation won the Local Journalism prize at the British Journalism Awards last month.

Judges praised the team – Cable co-founders Adam Cantwell-Corn and Alon Aviram (pictured, centre and left) – and colleagues Matt Woodman and Will Franklin, for sticking to the story “with grit and determination”.

But the investigation, which began with a tip-off in 2014, could have tailed off, Cantwell-Corn told Press Gazette.

“As a journalist you’re always thinking about the resources you’re pouring into something and the cost and what the pay-off is going to be for your readers and so on,” the 29-year-old said.

“There were definitely moments where we considered just packing it in and leaving it there. As the police investigation went on for quite a long time… it was quite frustrating because we didn’t know if it was ever going to materialise to anything.”

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Cantwell-Corn said the Cable, which publishes a website and free quarterly magazine, was able to keep at it because of the “democratic mandate” it has from its 2,100 paying members to invest in longer-term projects.

“We’re not based around advertising so we don’t have the same need to continuously publish stuff in order to generate advertising,” he said.

“But we can invest in this longer-term and riskier work that, in this event, obviously did yield a very good and important story, but in many cases potentially won’t.

“That’s the risk and the cost/benefit of investigative journalism like this.”

The Cable’s funding model makes every member a shareholder, “which means we metaphorically and legally can’t sell out”, Cantwell-Corn said.

Having paying members, who pay as much or as little as they like from a minimum of £1 a month, also means its work can remain free to all, providing journalism as a “public service”, he added.

The Cable’s average monthly donation from members is currently £3.50 and its income is made up of 30 per cent membership, 60 per cent grants, and 10 per cent advertising and other forms.

Slavery investigation

The Cable first reported on allegations against Lopresti in 2017 and referred evidence it had gathered to Avon and Somerset Police.

After Lopresti and his son Robert were arrested, the team had to hold fire on reporting new claims gathered through interviews with dozens of sources, many of whom had come forward following its initial stories.

Cantwell-Corn said there was an extra challenge in managing sources during this hiatus, telling them: “We’re still trying to seek accountability for what’s happened, but it’s also going to take some time.”

Eventually, a trial date was set for May last year with Lopresti facing assault and modern slavery charges, but shortly before it started the businessman was deemed unfit to stand trial having been diagnosed with dementia.

Police imposed a Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order on Lopresti to stop his activities as a boss. The charges against his son were dropped.

The Cable reported on the legal developments and then, as the risk of contempt of court had gone, published its full story with the allegations against Lopresti, including that he kept two workers in “slave-like conditions” and housed tenants in “squalor” through his landlord business.

A statement from Lopresti’s family published by the Cable said that although he did not oppose the risk order made against him, he “does not accept the truth of all of the matters alleged against him”.

Cantwell-Corn said: “We feel proud and I guess we feel relieved but I think most of all we feel grateful that the two individuals that we know of that were suffering such extreme exploitation are now free of that. That is the biggest and most important thing.

“Then also that the dozens of others were able to see that there was some form of accountability for the things that they’d experienced in the past.

“Then looking forward, that we had surfaced and exposed this individual and the business’ practice so that we were building awareness within the city, amongst the public, amongst the council and amongst the police and others that we hope will prevent and deter not just them but also others who might be operating such unacceptable practices in their business or in their properties as well. That’s hopefully the longer term impact.”

Cantwell-Corn added that he hoped the reporting would contribute to the public discourse around modern-day slavery and show it can happen “in scenarios that don’t necessarily fit the popular vision of what extreme exploitation can look like”.

The five-year investigation “in a way… tracks the story of the Bristol Cable,” he said.

The first tip-off about Lopresti’s employment practices came to Aviram when he was working in a restaurant. The Cable’s journalists had to hold down more than one job in their first couple of years running the website and magazine.

“It’s a very strong local journalism story in the sense that there was all of this happening, but it just hadn’t been investigated and it just needed the resources of a couple of local journalists to dig into it to really expose what was at that point a very vague rumour,” Cantwell-Corn said.

The Bristol Cable now has eight full-time editorial and operational staff, and also uses various freelances.

Future of public interest journalism

Cantwell-Corn said the Cable’s next steps will include growing its core Bristol membership off the back of “continuing to do quality public interest journalism that’s rooted in local communities”.

But, he added, the team will also continue to work across the UK and Europe to “pioneer and advocate for a new model and a reimagining of how local journalism can work, particularly as we all know at this moment where local journalism specifically and media overall is suffering so much from the business model viability issues”.

The Cable team responded to the Cairncross Review into the sustainability of public interest journalism and have continued to call for more support and Government incentives for media organisations that are “leading on new approaches that are fit for the future”.

Cantwell-Corn remains broadly optimistic, saying “given the crisis that local journalism is in, in particular, there are some things to take heart in”.

He said these included that there are “rumblings of actually acknowledging that it’s a crisis and trying to come up with solutions and resolutions to it. There’s a hopeful note out of the general negativity that is within the sector.

“It’s just a question of what is going to be the next generation of media and journalism because it’s going to survive in some form, but [we don’t know] how and who and what.”

Picture: Press Gazette / The Photo Team

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