Archive for April, 2009

‘One man’s spin is another man’s subjectivity’ – Westminster and the politics of online journalism

The Damien McBride affair was result of the incestuous relationship between Westminster and lobby journalists, political blogger Iain Dale said yesterday.

Speaking at a debate held at the Foreign Press Association, Dale told the assembly of foreign press that journalists had failed to expose McBride earlier because they had become too close to the politicians they are meant to keep in check.

Also on the panel were Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, the anti-establishment blogger who broke the recent “smeargate” scandal and Nick Jones, a former BBC correspondent and author of several books on the dark world of political spin.

“It’s now possible for anyone to get a scoop” said Staines, explaining that that the reason the “smeargate” whistleblower had come to him was because he is not constrained by internal lobby politics.

Staines, who says that he blogs from 6am-11pm every day, describes himself as a journalist who happens to blog. With bloggers like his around working for next to nothing – his own site costs £100 a month to run – he argued that traditional media’s costly business model is defunct.

However Dale, a self-confessed Tory, argued that he saw the remit of bloggers as political commentary, rather than to report news. “I don’t regard myself as a journalist; my blog’s not there to break stories”, he said.

In the end, all of the panelists agreed that the key to survival, for any journalist, is trust: “If people don’t trust me then they won’t read my blog, so I care about what I write,” said Dale. Yet they also argued that current regulations are stifling the traditional media’s ability to break stories.

“We have a very politicized media”, said Nick Jones, arguing that an increasing number of newspapers are using the internet to post multimedia content, such as Telegraph TV, presenting severe problems for broadcast outlets which cannot compete with the far less regulated press.

Taking the video footage of Iain Tomlinson being attacked by a policeman minutes before he died at the G20 protests as an example, he argued that newspapers such as the Guardian, who broke the story, are now able to post footage on their websites that the BBC could not broadcast due to the severe legal restrictions imposed by Ofcom.

But it was Paul Staines who went the furthest in advocating freedom of expression: “In a sense, pornographers are the greatest defenders of freedom of the press”, he said.

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To have and to hold…at least til the contract ends

Ask your average man on the street what he thinks of marriage and you’re unlikely to hear the word “pleasure” enter the conversation.

But ask your average Muslim what they think of a “Mutah” marriage – meaning a “pleasure” or “temporary” marriage – and you will get a quite different reaction.

Mutah marriages, specific to the Shia form of Islam, have always been a controversial subject. Dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammed, it allows a man to have a short-term contact with a woman in which he enjoys all the benefits of a marriage but few of the responsibilities, such as providing for her or sharing the same bed.mutah

It can last for anything from one hour to 99 years.

“It’s totally hypocritical,” says Ahmed Asfahani, a Shia journalist from Al Hayat who moved to the UK from Lebanon more than 30 years ago. He argues that while Mutah is formalised and regulated by families in Shia communities in the Middle East, in the Western world it is used as an excuse for hypocrisy.

He says: “Mutah was originally created to allow older women – widowers or spinsters – to find companionship late in their life when no one will do a Nikah [permanent] marriage with them.

“But in places like Britain and America, it is used by young men as an excuse to sleep with Western girls. They don’t care because it means nothing to them, but for the boy, it is an excuse to pretend he is not breaking his beliefs.”

This bias is clear in the difference in popularity of Mutah among men and women. A quick trawl of Mutah.com, a dating website for Muslims around the world to advertise for Mutah relationships, reveals 122 entries under the male profiles but only 3 under the female.

“I need a companion with whom I can talk to, somebody who shares some depth in life, somebody with dignity and self-respect,” reads one male testimony.

“I need a partner who can fill the void in my empty life. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t wish to be a hermit.”

Writing under an alias, the young British Muslim says that he cannot wait til he can afford to be married. “There is no way that I can wait till my late 20’s, early 30’s – when most people seem to be getting permanently married. This is far too long to wait for somebody who doesn’t want to slip.”

Yet Mutah is controversial even in Muslim circles. Few Shias and even fewer Sunnis agree with the practice, which stems from Qua’ranic verse 4:24. It reads:

“As to those whom you married for a fixed time (mutah), give them their agreed dowries; and there is no sin for you in what you mutually agree together after what has been settled.”

In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, this was taken as meaning that soldiers could form temporary marriages while they were away from their wives, but it was banned by Umar, the second caliph, and later abandoned by most schools of Islamic law.

Sunnis, which form the vast majority of the 2m Muslims living in the UK, often treat the practice as impulsive sex, not far from prostitution. Although the “Twelver” Shias, who predominate in Iran and Iraq, disagree, actively promoting the practice as essential to the sexual health of a society, the stigma attached remains rife in the West.

And it is particularly pronounced among women. Although Mutah is prohibited for virgins and between Muslim girls and non-Muslim men, it is often viewed as at best a form of laxity or at worst, an excuse for adultery and prostitution.

In Iran, prostitution has increased by an estimated 635 per cent since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.

For this reason, statistics on its prevalence are hard to come by. A recent review by four Government departments – the Treasury, the Work and Pensions Department, the Inland Revenue and the Home Office – has concluded that 1,000 men in the United Kingdom are now polygamists.

But because Mutah marriages require no formal contract and are not recognised under British law, no statistics are even collected.

Yet there are those among British Shias in the West that advocate the practice as an important way for Islam to accommodate the practicalities of love and life. Sheikh Ali Al-Hakim, of the Islamic Centre of England, editor of Islam & Feminism; Theory, modelling and applications, argues that Mutah offers an alternative to the lax morality of Western morals.

“In Mutah, it is a marriage it is a contract,” he says. “Without it, people have no responsibility to each other. If a man walks up to a woman and propositions her, what is she meant to say; ‘I have a boyfriend?’ That means nothing.

“Look at this 13-year-old boy who is having a baby [referring to boy-dad Alfie Patterson]. it is easy to exploit religion but at least this way this kind of thing cannot happen.”

Dubai: a mirror to our own failings

Dubai, once hailed as the shining star of Arab enterprise, has hit the headlines in recent weeks for all the wrong reasons.

I am currently watching a BBC Panorama investigation into the horrific conditions faced by foreign workers left destitute by the downturn in the country’s construction industry and last week Johann Hari, of the Independent, wrote an article about how the recession is revealing the corruption at the heart of “Dubai Disneyland”.20380_dubai_towers

As Dubai’s illusory wealth vanishes in the stark reality of recession, the scene is ugly. Yet in the sprit of free debate, I thought it only right to publish a reaction written by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a journalist based in Dubai.

If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country

I recently figured that if British journalists such as Johann Hari (Tuesday, 7 April, The Independent) who come to Dubai don’t send back something sensationalist it won’t get printed and they won’t get paid. After all, sleaze sells. I called a British journalist friend of mine and said: “I’m going to write an article about London, the same way your compatriots write about Dubai.”

By the time I was back at home I had come to my senses, it’s not fair to London, a city so dear to my heart, or Londoners to be judged by the actions of a few. It’s easy to generalise about a country when figures are manipulated to sensationalise and sell papers.

Say for example that I had written an article that states that, in wealthy first world Britain there are 380,000 homeless people, many of them mentally ill, starving and abandoned in sub-zero temperatures to live on the streets.

Say then that I wrote an article that states that Britain, the so called “jail capital of Western Europe” sentenced in 2006 alone a staggering additional 12,000 women to prison and that up to seven babies a month are born in jail where they spend their crucial first months.

I could have written an article that stated Britain, victor in the Second World War, had given refuge to 400 Nazi war criminals, with all but one of them getting away with it.

Or one stating that the number of Indians who died while serving the British Empire, to build your Tube and grow your tea, is so large it is simply unquantifiable by any historian.

Or say I write an article about the 2.5 million-strong Indian volunteer army who served Britain during the Second World War, where 87,000 of them died for their occupiers’ freedom and yet until recently those who survived continued to be discriminated against in pay and pension.

I could have written an article that stated that, in civilised Britain, one in every 23 teenage girls had an abortion and in 2006 more than 17,000 of the 194,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales involved girls below the age of 18.

torture-abuI could have written an article stating that Britain, the human rights champion, not wanting to get its hands dirty, had resorted to secretly outsourcing torture to Third World states under the guise of rendition by allowing up to 170 so called CIA torture flights to use its bases.

Or that Britain’s MI5 unlawfully shared with the CIA secret material to interrogate suspects and “facilitate interviews” including cases where the suspects were later proven to be innocent.

I could have written an article that stated that the Britain of family values is the only country in the EU that recruits child soldiers as young as 16 into its Army and ships them off battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting it in the same league as African dictatorships and Burma.

I could have written an article that states that Britain either recently did or has yet to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict or the UN’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.article-0-05e80fa00000044d-109_468x3681

I could have highlighted the fact that liberal Britain is responsible for the physical and racial abuse of hundreds of failed asylum-seekers at the hands of private security guards during their forced removal from the country.

I could have written about the countless cases of slave-like working conditions of immigrant labours such as the 23 Chinese workers who lost their lives in 2004 as they harvested cockles in the dangerous rising tides in Morecambe Bay.

I could have written about how mortality rates from liver diseases due to alcohol abuse have declined in Europe in recent decades but in Britain the rate trebled in the same period reflecting deep societal failures.

I could have written about how in “Big Brother” Britain maltreatment of minors is so serious that one in 10, or an estimated one million children a year, suffer physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.

Or that according to Oxfam 13.2 million people in the UK live in poverty – a staggering 20 per cent of the population in the sixth richest nation in the world.

I could have written all that, but out of respect for Britain, I decided not to. Because when you stitch together a collection of unconnected facts taken out of context, you end up with a distorted and inaccurate picture: something that Britain’s Dubai-bashers would do well to learn.

Queen tells off Berlusconi

It’s almost enough to make you a royalist.

Media 2.0: the saviour of local journalism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, wrote Charles Dickens as the opening line of his novel of the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. Written by one of the most famous journalists of his age, this paradox could well be applied to the plight of the modern media industry, which is currently in the throes of its own cultural revolution.
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Yet the story is fast becoming a tale of two industries: as newspaper circulations decline, online news continues to flourish. Despite the contracting economy, UK online publishers have predicted a 16 per cent growth in digital revenues this year as readers abandon paper for free online sources.

News is going digital and it is hitting traditional media organisations hard. But for regional news outlets, which have felt the worst of the media downturn – a study release last month by Princeton university found that only 15 US cities have competing local papers compare to 689 a century ago – web 2.0 is offering a glimmer of hope for the future.

Linda Preston, creator of local news site Darwenreporter.com, believes that the wealth of information created by web 2.0 means that many beleaguered journalists unable to find work are starting their own local websites to fill the vacuum left by the decline in local papers.

She says: “The public still wants someone who can reach out to them on a local level who has an intimate knowledge of the area. Someone still has to hold corrupt officials to account.

 “I’ve found that many journalists facing redundancy are considering following my example and using their skills and long experience to work their own postcode.”

Even for local papers struggling to survive, the web if offering new possibilities. Elaine Helm, new media editor at the Herald in Everett, Washington state, believes that the power of social media is creating a new golden age for online local news outlets. She says:

“For individual and small groups of journalists, there hasn’t been a better time to be doing what we’re doing and getting it out there.”

During the latest “hundred-year storms to hit Washington state, Helm used social networking to keep local residents informed of the latest developments. She sent out a tweet asking people to use a common hashtag – a metadata naming convention – for all information relating to the storm: #waflood.  

Within minutes, a network of journalists from the area were all using the common tag and soon other contributors from the region were joining in. The information was then picked up by federal and state agencies and soon a mass co-ordination of effort by the state, journalists and locals was providing real-time information on the floods.

For Helm, the wealth of information instantly available on the internet means journalists must stop seeing themselves as the gatekeepers of knowledge, but rather the curators. “There’s a role to play for journalists in sorting through all the stuff that’s out there,” she says.

 “I’ve heard people talk about finding the patterns in the noise. We’re more about looking for and tagging the most relevant and original reporting and trying to bring it to our audiences.”
But relying on citizen journalists has its own pitfalls. Last year the Huffington Post, one of the largest digital media current affairs sites in the world, caused a stir by launching OffTheBus, a project which used 12,000 citizen journalists to cover the US presidential election race.

obama-crossIt was hailed as a resounding success. Mayhill Fowler, a 61-year-old failed novelist with no journalism training, broke two of the most memorable stories of the election: Barack Obamas guns and religion blunder and Bill Clintons fuming at a public rally.

However, the coverage also brought into question the viability and integrity of relying on citizen journalists. Barack Obama’s comments were officially made off-record and while for a citizen journalist they are fair game, for a professional breaking confidentiality could potentially undermine journalistic integrity.
It is the lines of integrity and accountability that will mark out journalists from citizens in media 2.0. “For anyone who wants to be part of the journalism world then having people trust them is the most important thing, says Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media and fellow at  the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. 
Gillmor believes that the advent of web 2.0 will not replace the work of traditional journalists but rather make them more accountable. He says: “I dont think citizen journalists are going to take the place of professionals. They will do things that traditional journalists have never done but we cant replace the good things that they have done. 


April 2009
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