Archive for the 'Journalism' Category

World Press Freedom Day: a eulogy to international journalism?

Yesterday a group of students from Northwestern University joined a worldwide huger strike in support of the Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran for espionage.

roxana_saberiSaberi’s plight has brought world-wide condemnation of the Iranian government, after she was sentenced to eight years in prison in a closed trial that lasted only one hour. A reported 225 people have signed up to the “Free Roxana” campaign, after the Northwestern graduate started her own hunger strike in protest on April 21.

“The main point is to create awareness about the situation Roxana is facing and what many people are facing in Iran,” said student David Caratelli.

Saberi’s story is the latest example of how journalists around the globe are being persecuted for their profession. Fittingly, yesterday also marked World Press Freedom Day, instituted in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the past year, 60 journalists and media workers have been killed, 29 kidnapped and more than 900 attacked around the world. “Journalists been killed while trying to lift the veil of secrecy that governments seek to wrap around their military actions”, said Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

Speaking at a debate at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, he argued against the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”.

“The war on terror has been accompanied by a war just civil liberties and independent journalism,” he said, citing numerous instances of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan facing persecution. But despite the actions of repressive governments the world over, he argued that “the voices of those suffering are given life by journalists”.

Yet his point was hotly contested. Andrew Gilligan, the controversial Evening Standard columnist, argued against the motion, claiming that war correspondents today are so desperate for stories that they latch on to anything that they would normally dismiss as rumour or government spin.

He said: “The real problem for reporting on combat situations and the reason that so many stories from Iraq were wrong is simply this: wars create a sellers market in news”. Citing the practice of embedding journalists with troops in combat situations, he said that war creates a “sellers market” for news where journalists routinely succumb to a pervasive form of self-censorship.

“Even the most independent-minded journalist in the world is not disposed to write unkind things about somebody in that situation. No one needs to threaten or be threatened,” he said.

His co-speaker James Shea, Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General NATO, also countered the argument that web 2.0 technology is undermining government control of information.

“These days, everybody can be a reporter on reality”

“And if the profession has been democratised, why can’t the government also therefore enter the profession as a reporter on its own activity?”

He cited new NATO TV channels and the use of articles by eminent ‘experts’ in papers as examples of how the government is bypassing the media to get its message across and winning the war of words that has grown out of the war on terror.

Yet the most compelling of all the speakers was and Alan Fisher, a London correspondent from Al Jazeera who has reported from aljazeera1war zones around the world, most recently during Georgia’s war with Russia in August of last year. 

Descrying the debate’s Western-centric view on the success of the media, he said:

“People tend to think that if a tree falls in the forest, and an American broadcast network isn’t there to record it, did it really fall?”

Discussing the coverage of the war in Gaza, which prompted the theme of the debate, he said that Al Jazeera had been the only channel able to give full coverage of the bombings because it was prepared to tap the vast resources of local journalists already living on the strip, unlike many outlets which relied almost exclusively on Israeli news reports.

He also argued that the proliferation of international news outlets meant there are “more ways of accessing the truth” that ever before, creating a more varied and exciting perspective on international events. He said:

“We challenge authority more than ever before an we continue to and that is why the government cannot win.”

‘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.

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.

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. 

Comment is free but outrage is easy

The problem with blogging – and it is a trap I fall into myself – is that it encourages extremes of opinion.

For all the blurb about social networks and the global community, posting in the blogosphere can sometimes feel like shouting into a void and listening for an echo, which in the end only makes you shout louder.

Even so-called professionals can be guilty of this sin. Yesterday, on the Guardian’s  Comment is Free section, I read a post by one of their NY-based freelancers, Shahnaz Habib, on the lack of ethics in multinationals.loreal2

Habib is outraged that L’Oreal, the world’s biggest manufacturer of beauty products, sells lightening cream in India. A company that devotes several pages in its corporate responsibility handbook to “skin and hair diversity” and which has run ad-campaigns around their ranges of makeup for people of different ethnicities, she argues, ought to know better.

She writes:

“When international cosmetics companies enter the fairness creams market, peddling in India products that they would not dare stock in the aisles of the politically correct west, there is a layer of hypocrisy that is dangerous to ignore”

Although she admits that “all beauty advertising caters to culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”, Habib still believes selling whitening cream is tantamount to promoting racism.

“Even the most naive marketing chiefs at L’Oreal must have had a glimmering of doubt – ‘Wait a minute, is it racist to promote whitening? Would we put these words in a billboard on Times Square?’”

This, she tells us, proves the moral corruption of multinationals that claim to “think globally and act locally” but in fact are merely exploiting the vulnerable people of a developing country for profits.

And so it might seem at first glance. When I first saw lightening creams lining the shelves of supermarkets in India last summer, my first reaction was exactly the same – outrage. But then I started to think about it.

If lightening cream caters exclusively to Asian markets and is deplored by the west, how can it be said that it is imposed upon them? Multinationals may have the GDP of small countries and wield more power than many of them, but they cannot change social and cultural norms.

You can argue that, in India specifically, they are perpetuating the legacy of racism left by the British. But the caste system, India’s very own home-grown brand of prejudice, existed long before the British East India Company had even set sail.

Surely trying to impose western standards of political correctness on the Indian market shows a far more colonial attitude than catering to their “culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”. Is selling fake tan or promoting sunbeds perceived as racist in the UK?

This, I believe, is the danger of blogging: it encourages posts that spring directly from gut reaction. Habib is clearly not stupid or arrogant or morally imperious. She was seduced by the medium into writing something that, though researched and articulated with care, ended up as a self-defeating tirade.

But at least it’s a consolation to know that when comment is free, comments there will be – 88 and counting underneath Habib’s article.

Through a glass darkly: bias in Western news

A report today published by Al Jazeera has highlighted the bias of the Western press in reporting the conflict in Gaza.

Habib Battah compares the photographs of two women, one Israeli and one Palestinian, that were published side-by-side on the front page of an edition of The Washington Post last month. He writes:

“As the Palestinian woman cradled the dead body of one child, another infant son, his face blackened and disfigured with bruises, cried beside her

“The Israeli woman did not appear to be wounded in any way but also wept.”

When the photographs of the two women were published on December 30, over 350 Palestinians had reportedly been killed compared to just four Israelis. Battah argues that the disparity between the suffering on the two sides has not been reflected in the US media which strongly favours Israel.

In Britain, the freedom of the press is seen as a bastion of our society, even if we do not always value it. We descry the censorship of oppressive regimes, yet the bias in Western reporting is far more pervasive and, in many ways, far more dangerous.

Since Bush launched his “war on terror” in 2001, the conflict between the Muslim world and the West has extended into the discourse of the media. Words themselves have become a battleground and the men that print them, the purveyors of truth.

One of the most notorious figures of the world-wide media is Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, who owns News International is one of the most powerful and influencial men in the world and provided the basis for evil genius Eliot Carver in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

He is also a staunch and outspoken supporter of Israel.

The News International empire, worth US $43 billion, spans the globe and includes The Washington Post, The Sun, The Times, Sky and Fox. It also is the majority shareholder in NDS, a digital technology company based in Jerusalem,  which has grown from 20 to 600 employees in the past decade.

According to the Jerusalem Post, News International was one of three US companies lauded for their support of Israel at the America-Israel Friendship League Partners for Democracy Awards dinner in 2001. Murdoch himself co-chaired the dinner.

While every person has a right to their political views, Rupert Murdoch is not any old person. Over the years executives and editors alike have criticised the level of control he exerts over his publications.

Last January, the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil told the Lords Communications Committee that although he did not hold the title, Murdoch effectively acts as editor-in-chief of many of his newspapers.

When Murdoch bought The Washington Post in 2007, many feared that his particular brand of newsmongering would pervade the pages of one of the most highly-respected publications in the US.

One incensed blogger wrote: “Murdoch will defile it and turn it into another example of his legendarily low-brow offerings.”

Yet Murdoch is not the only guilty party. Israel has prevented journalists from entering the Gaza strip since the onslaught began more than 2 weeks ago, despite a high court ruling that ordered them to allow in foreign reporters. Al Jazeera is the only channel with a correspondent on the strip.

Israel has also begun to target news organisations in Gaza itself, bringing back memories of the American bombings of Al Jazeera in the Iraq war.

Journalists have been forced to rely solely on UN figures for information, which are based on reports from medical organisations on the ground. Out of the 854 people confirmed dead, the UN claim 25 per cent are women and children.

However, when this is reported in the Western press “women and children” has magically been changed into the far less specific term “civilians”. While not overtly stated, this implies that the rest must be militants.

The Gazan people, dying in their hundreds, have been cast as the agressors in our press. Conversely, Hamas claims that because there is enforced conscription in Israel, many of the Israeli figures claim that civilians are soldiers.

Robert Fisk in the introduction to Pity the Nation, which tells the chequered history of modern Lebanon, writes: “At best, journalists sit on the edge of history as volcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge, through the smoke an the ash of what happens within.”

We can only ever see the truth of what is around us through a glass darkly. Yet it is the responsibility of every journalist and ever reader to strain to see the light.

Barking mad

Rottweilers, the archetypal British guard dog, are being turned into docile house pets under a Dutch breeding scheme designed to engineer out the genes that cause aggressive behaviour.

The programme, introduced in Holland eight years ago, aims to stop dangerous dogs reproducing by only issuing pedigrees to dogs that pass a docility test. Breeders claim that the number of friendly dogs has nearly doubled since the scheme began.

Joanne van der Borg, who carried out the research at Wageningen University, said “The dogs born into this programme are much better behaved. There is a strong genetic element to aggression and it is possible that this is being bred out.”

As part of the study, 800 rottweiler owners were asked to rate their dog’s behaviour. About 16 per cent of the non-pedigree dogs were aggressive to strangers, which fell to just seven per cent among pedigree dogs.

This latest development comes in the wake of a series of scandals in the British dog breeding world. The BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, aired this summer, drew the media spotlight after it claimed that many show dogs had severe genetic conditions and lived their lives in constant pain.

The programme featured a prize-winning Cavalier King Charles spaniel with syringomyelia, a condition that occurs when a dog’s skull is too small for its brain, as well as boxers with epilepsy and pugs with breathing problems.

In response, the BBC decided to scrap coverage of Crufts next year after the Kennel Club refused to adhere to severe guidelines on which dogs could compete. Twelve breeds prone to genetic diseases, including the King Charles spaniel, basset hound, German shepherd, bulldog and St Bernard, would been banned from the competition.

The decision was controversial: the BBC has covered the show for 42 years and last year’s highlights attracted 14.5 million viewers. Caroline Kisko, secretary at the club, called the decision “illogical”, claiming it would only worsen the problem.

But the RSPCA’s chief veterinary adviser, Mark Evans, told the BBC: “The show world is about an obsession, about beauty, and there is a ridiculous concept that that is how we should judge dogs.

“It takes no account of temperament or fitness for purpose potentially as a pet animal, and that to me makes no sense at all. It is a parade of mutants; a freakish beauty pageant.”

The great sage Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

In a culture where shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are a national obsession, it is hardly surprising that our tastes have extended to contestants that can’t argue back. I only hope that at least one freak show will stay off the air.


August 2017
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