Digital activism defines democracy in the 21st Century


For several years now, I have advocated that more intelligent use of the media options available to us in the 21st century can influence social change and a better world.

Earlier this month, we were reminded of such a campaign when TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall updated TV viewers on his ‘Fish Fight’ campaign.

For those who are not aware, Fish Fight started in 2010 when Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the ridiculous situation where, under the EU landing quota system, our fishermen were being forced to throw back into the sea over half of the dead fish they had caught.

Largely as a result of the Fish fight campaign, there was an emphatic vote in the European parliament in which MEPs voted 502 to 137 to end this ridiculous practice. The Fish Fight campaign has been, in every sense, ‘a political fight‘.

Here’s what you should bear in mind should you fish to fight such a cause yourself:

The audacity of simplicity

The less arguable your cause, the more effective will be your campaign. Let’s face it, Fish Fight is a no-brainer. Would any sane person, or should I say non-politician, not agree that once you have caught some dead fish, there’s no point chucking them back into the sea? No less than 870 million people go hungry in this world. These fish need eating.

Identify your target

If you are seeking social change, at some point or another you have to engage with politicians and/or civil servants. In my experience, people who work in the public sector are slippery. You have to pin them down. Put them in plaice.

A human being (not a job title)

Make sure your target is a living, breathing human being – and identifiable as such. There’s no point baiting an abominable no-man. You need someone who has the power to say yes – and, ideally, someone who has something to lose. Fish Fight’s target was the EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki. You may not have heard of her, but let me tell you she has heard of Hugh’s Fish Fight!

Cause celeb

Celebs are very important in society today. They do not have to be high achievers or, for that matter, to do or have done anything at all: no intelligence; no insight; no industry; not even good behaviour. They don’t even have to be pretty (although it helps). Fish Fight landed Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Paxman. If the skipper of your campaign, the captain of the ship if you like, is a celeb like Hugh so much the better.

Rent a quote

Celebs know how to make news. Jeremy Paxman said this about Fish Fight: ‘If this policy is conservation, I’m the Mad Hatter’. Sensible people don’t care whether Mr Paxman sees himself as the Mad Hatter or not. Luckily, for you, the media do. Celebs make news.  

Play the media

The media aren’t interested in the merits of your case. But they do write and talk about celebs. Large sections of the media don’t do anything else. Play them at their own game. Feed them titbits. Make them bite. Reel them in.

Don’t pay the media

Unlike consumer products or price comparison websites, you haven’t got the money to buy the media space you need to present your case. You are a sprat, not a mackerel.


TV is vital. Whatever people tell you about ‘digital’, television is the most powerful media channel there is. But TV is expensive. So you need to persuade your celebrities to persuade a production company to persuade a commissioning editor to persuade a TV channel to broadcast a documentary about your cause. Fish Fight has been watched by over 3million in the UK and repeated in 28 countries worldwide. Hugh knows the TV game. He is a celeb.


Now we’re talking! Fish Fight  has attracted 258,777 Faceboook likes; 51,052 followers on Twitter; 349,688 views on YouTube; 12million page views on the web page. Whatever your ‘digital’ agency might tell you, these numbers alone are not enough. Oh no, they’re not. You have to activate these people – get them to do something.

Activate your followers

870,000 Fish Fighters from 195 countries signed the petition. 174,000 sent emails to Ms Damanaki and other MEPs. German Fish Fighters sent 29,400 emails to MEP Werner Kuhn. Blimey, that’s more than I get after each post on this blog. ‘When people take action, politicians have to listen‘, says Hugh.

Retail pressure

Second only to celebs, the media love news about supermarkets. If you can get your supporters to boycott products or, preferably, whole chains of supermarkets your campaign is in the basket. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says supermarket is backtracking on its public pledge to sell sustainable fish. ‘Top chef accuses Tesco: If you care about our oceans, take this tuna off your shelves’.


‘A dumb European law has actually been changed, by a British TV chef and the hundreds of thousands who got behind his Fish Fight campaign. That’s bloody brilliant, moving even.’

So there you go. That’s how Fish Fight hit the back of the net.

That’s enough of this.

I need a drink….

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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