Journalists in Trouble

Two journalists find themselves without liberty, in two very different situations.

First, via Mash at the Dr Strangelove Blog, we hear that prominent journalist Tasneem Khalil arrested by military police in Bangladesh. Khalil is only 26, and works for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper. He also campaigns for Human Rights Watch, who have issued a statement regarding his detention.

There are rumours that this detention will be shortlived, and that he might be released by the weekend. Regardless, the Internet is already being used to co-ordinate a campaign for his release: There is a possibility of a protest outside the Bangladeshi embassy in London, and campaigners will be raising awareness within the Bangladeshi community in the UK, at the Brick Lane Mela this weekend. Pickled Politics has more information.

Meanwhile, BBC reporter Alan Johnston has been missing for 60 days. In his case, his captors are a local militia group in Gaza.

An online petitions has been created for Alan Johnston, with another planned for Tasneem Khalil. However, I wonder whether this is as important as simply spreading awareness on a word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog) basis throughout the relevant communities. In neither case are the captors (The Bangladeshi ‘caretaker government’; and the Jaish al-Islam group in Gaza) directly accountable to the populations they pretend to serve. But one hopes that a rising wave of discontent coming from within those populations will eventually persuade those who make the decisions, that releasing their prisoners is the best course of action. By contrast, disapproval from outside these ‘constituencies’ – say, from the BBC or the British Government – might not be as persuasive.

Good luck Alan and Tasneem.

Alan Johnston banner

Tasneem Khalil has now been released. Worryingly, his detention was apparently “not due to his journalistic work and had nothing to do with his functions at The Daily Star … In fact, it was because of the contents of his personal blog and some SMSs he had sent recently…” Hmmm.

Cometh The Hour…

I am greatly enjoying the BBC Reith Lectures 2007, given by the economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs. He offers an optimistic world-view, and offers critiques against this notion that it is human nature to war, and our destiny to fail. It is as refreshing as it is inspiring.

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. – President John F. Kennedy, 10th June, 1963

One thing Sach’s stressed was the need for good – even great – leadership in order to build the trust required to effect global change. Kennedy (who he quotes often) had that gift, and was able to use diplomacy and rhetoric to bring about a Nuclear Test Ban treaty, just 18 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sach’s does not say it, but crucially George W Bush does not have these leadership qualities. After the disintegration of Iraq, this fact has became very clear to the American people, as evidenced by the Republican’s loss of Congressional control last November.

But it was ever thus. When people criticised President Bush’s approach, they were dismissed as either jealous, partisan, or simply elitist. When he failed to heed those critics, alter his demenour, or indeed, make concessions to opposition in his own country, he was lauded by supporters as strong and honest. But no-one followed, and all he demonstrated was a kind of faux leadership, epitomised by the charade of his ‘Mission Accomplished’ party on board an aircraft carrier. In fact, his attitude caused much of the United States, and most of the rest of the world, to distrust him and his administration. And if your own people do not trust you, what chance have you of convincing the rest of the world to do the same?

The change cannot come soon enough. Can Barak Obama win the trust of the American people and the world? He is certainly trying:

This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.

This will require a new spirit – not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence. It will also require a new leader. And as a candidate for President of the United States, I am asking you to entrust me with that responsibility.

Attempts On Her Life

The National Theatre have today launched a micro-site for their production of Attempts on Her Life, which I am working on for Fifty Nine. There is an ambitious blog for audience reviews, and a short trailer which previews a couple of the scenes we have been working on.

And it is an ambitious production. Written by Martin Crimp, the play is billed as “a roller-coaster of late 20th century obsessions”. The ‘attempts’ deal with idolatory, fetishisation, and control.

Anna-Nicole SmithI think these obsessions have become particularly acute in the past few weeks. Anna-Nicole Smith was fascinated by Marylin Monroe. Just like her heroine, she died young and in the media glare. And just like Norma-Jean, she was objectified to the point of destruction. When we apply convenient euphemisms like ‘former Playmate model’ and ‘widow of the billionaire,’ we conceal the seedy truth: she was paid money by men who used her as an object for their own gratification. As the ever honest Onion put it, some seven years ago: ‘Anna Nicole Smith Awarded $450 Million In Nonagenarian-Fucking Fees’. We should feel uneasy about her life and descent into drugs and death. Instead we gawp, and then offer the judge in the custody case for her child a TV contract.

And always, always, the deceased woman is depicted in a red dress. Why is that?

Meanwhile, when Britney Spears chooses a haircut which does not fit with the conventional image of feminine beauty, she inspires more column inches and moral panic than when she drops her baby. Marina Hyde manages to stay above the fray as she discusses Britney’s hair in today’s Guardian supplement… along with some pertinent comments on Danielle Lloyds redemption via a series of underwear photos in Maxim, and a woman who, instead of living her own life, spends her time impersonating the obnoxious yet popular Naomi Campbell.

Another 20th Century obsession and (for me, at least) an overarching theme of Attempts On Her Life, is our relationship to The Screen. In many places, the show uses the language and conventions of TV and cinema to critique and satirise western consumer culture. Editing together the images produced, its hard not to be reminded of how pervasive these media are. It catalyses and magnifies these other obsessions. There is no escape from the larger than life icons that surround us. They are like an ever-present ambient noise, which we cannot help but absorb. No wonder there are legions of us who seek to be on The Screen for its own sake.
Continue reading “Attempts On Her Life”

Terrorist disrespects Islam

CCTV Footage of Yassin Omar (from the BBC website)A couple of London’s evening papers yesterday published pictures of Yassin Omar, alleged terrorist, caught on CCTV as he escaped London… dressed in a burka.

In the two versions of the story I read, in the Lite and the Evening Standard, there’s a detectable but unspoken subtext, which is that these garments somehow undermine the ability of the security services to keep us safe.

No more than other head coverings. Yet “criminal flees justice dressed in hoodie” (or motorcycle helmet, or baseball cap, or Halloween mask) is not front-page news, because pretty much every criminal will conceal his identity from CCTV cameras in such a way.

If the Burka is sacred to some people, then it is they who should be outraged in such a stunt. Indeed, Omar’s insensitivity suggests that his ideology (whatever it may be) is far removed from mainstream Islam. But “terrorist disrespects Islam” is not the message I get from either the Lite or the Standard.

Today in the media…

A full schedule for a lot of people today, it seems.

Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics is going to begin a media blitz today, with an article in the Guardian and some radio appearances, promoting his New Generation Network.

Edinburgh blogger Devil’s Kitchen is making an appearance on 18 Doughty Street today too.

Finally, the BBC Asian Network Report will be airing a documentary Sex, Lies, and Culture, co-produced by the BBC and myself for Fifty Nine:

Are young Asians taking unnecessary risks with their sexual health? Brook Advisory Services, the national sexual health charity, are calling for further investigation into worrying information about Asians visiting their Birmingham clinic. They found higher proportions of Asians were likely to have unprotected sex, and to request emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and referrals for an abortion. They were also less likely to be tested for sexually transmitted infections. The Birmingham clinic saw aImost 4, 500 Asians under 25 years old last year, fewer than other ethnic groups. In Sex, Lies and Culture Anita Rani investigates whether the strict attitudes of older Asians has created a generation which isn’t informed about safe sex.

There should be some media coverage of those issues on the BBC 6 o’clock News, and also in The Times.

More soon…

The Fear mongering Metro

The Metro is a useful companion on a lonely Monday morning bus ride… but far too often it provides fodder for an annoyed rant. Apparently,

“Scottish children are getting fat because parents fear they will be preyed on by paedophiles, an expert has claimed … [Dr Lawrence Gruer] claimed the health of children was suffering due to fears generated by high-profile murders, including the death of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall in Livingstone earlier this year.” [no link yet]

Thankfully, Dr Gruer goes on to point out the absurdity of this situation, calling on parents to “reassess the dangers”. His campaign is facing an uphill struggle, however: it is inaccurate reporting by the Metro which exacerbates our fear. For starters, Rory Blackhall died in 2005. Its a minor point, but the news article is wrong, and it implies that such murders are occurring with greater freqency than they actually do.

From the same edition of the paper, we hear that “Muslim Radicals take a bite out of Apple”. The Apple shop in New York has come under fire from muslims, because the new square store looks a bit like the Kaaba at Mecca. Further proof, if any were needed, of the intolerance of Islam…

Only, the whole thing is bunkum. The story first appeared on the Middle East Media Research Institute website. This was duly picked up and reported verbatim by the main-stream media organisations. However, as alt.muslim points out, the “extremist” website that was apparently the source of the complaints went unnamed. The story was totally unsubstantiated.

This was all written last week, yet the Metro printed the initial, unchallenged allegations in today’s paper. I found the story via Andrew Sullivan, who was keen to pass on the initial claim, but also quick to link to the debunkings. Shame the Metro could not have done a few extra click-throughs, before ripping-off a story from the blogosphere.

Update

Dave Hill highlights another, better, example of shoddy editorialising – this time over Gingerbread “people”…

Readership of One: The Citizen Journalist

I read that William Hazlitt warned of the danger, with the advent of the popular press, that:

“every one, high and low, rich and poor, should turn author”

(I think this is from ‘The Influence of Books’ New Monthly Magazine, 1828).

For the many who concern themselves with the rise of Internet publishing, a constant worry is the possibility of good and informed writing being diluted by the virtual reams of chatter and crap. When Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, unveiled his plans for an online “revamp”, the cry from many quarters was that the corporation site would degenerate into a glorified MySpace, with each page winning a readership of only one or two.

I’m not worried, however. Many others have written on the importance of dedicated journalists and analysts providing news and comment for the rest of us to consume. I take the term ‘citizen journalist’ to mean someone who has other commitments – a day-job, perhaps (if not, then they’re simply an unemployed freelancer). The ‘professional’, on the other hand, can make the time to do their reading and research which leads (we hope) to better articles.

One of the reasons why I love the BBC is the sheer breadth of information it provides. For example, the quantity of obscure, conference-league football matches that are covered by the corporation is to be applauded. Part of the point of public service broadcasting is to provide information that the market will not. I’m not sure the commercial stations could or would provide the same level of coverage.

It is in this realm that the ‘citizen journalist’ becomes useful. These people can provide the information that the professionals cannot – local and niche news. Why stop at conference-league football results for example? Why declare 1000 fans as the cut-off point for relevant sports news? Why not 100? Or one? To labour the example: There are thousands of other football matches played every day – sub-conference regional leagues, pub leagues, university leagues, schools leagues, and youth football for every year-age group from under 8. Citizen journalists can provide the information, and the BBC provides a public service by creating an ordered place for that information to be filed, and then found. Sure, only one person may be interested in the Crookham Rovers vs Hadley Town U13 bottom-of-the-league mud-fest… But if that one person is a grandpa, under arthritic house-arrest, who reads (and even sees digital images) about grandson Bobby’s goal-mouth scramble… then I would say the public has been served.

Remember, we are concerned with online news here, where the marginal cost of providing this data is near-zero. For ‘football matches’ you can read any other sport; or local produce prices; support-groups and voluntary organisations; amateur arts; or street- and tenement-level local politics.

The operative word in ‘citizen journalism’ is not the latter, but the former. It is not about the army of Hazlitt wannabes, talking to themselves. It is not about reaching the global, but the local instead. It is an integral part of what Michelle Kasprzak calls the ‘Smallweb’. It is about the stregthening of civil society, catalysing those unseen and unreported interactions between people, forging and reinforcing bonds, those that the ‘professional’ journalists keep telling us we have lost.

I was a couple of hours ahead of Jay Rosen’s post at the highly informative PressThink. He ask in what ways citizen journalism could be better regular journalism, and how the media can tap into that unique knowledge.

Hypocrisy

The Independent‘s Saturday front page is shockingly, embarrassingly hypocritical.

independent-climate-change

Chief Scientist warns bigger rise in world’s temperature will put 400 million at risk.

And an advert above:

WIN Return Flights to New York

More at Chicken Yoghurt, from where the illustration was pilfered.

Little Guys

Like many others, I’m obviously very interested in Comment is Free from the Guardian, a ‘superblog’ similar to The Huffington Post.

Arianna Huffington today suggested that the ‘little guy’ finds a level playing field online. This is true in many ways, not least because governments can no longer control the media, and dissidents can find a voice. However, Tim Worstall points out that Arianna’s examples are hardly members of the disenfranchised:

A former editor of the Times, Guardian columnist, a man knighted for services to journalism, very definitely one of the Great and the Good, is one of the little guys? [On Simon Jenkins presenting real time opinions]

Arianna is one of the bloggers posting on Comment is Free, along with other high-profile names. I somehow wonder whether the new venture will help level the playing field at all…

At the Press Gazette blog, Justin from Chicken Yoghurt asks whether the mainstream media are blogging properly:

I have yet to see a newspaper blog where the writer has got down and dirty with the readers. This defeats the object of blogging to a large extent and is seen as poor etiquette by many non-newspaper bloggers

I might add to this, that linking is also a huge part of blogging. The web is a perfect place to cite others, take their arguments to task, or to new places. Not only should bloggers correspond with their reader(s), but allow those readers to link elsewhere too. The first article I read on Comment is Free was by Brian Brivati, on the discrepancies between The Left’s responses to Iraq and Darfur. Could I leave a link to my earlier thoughts on the same issue? No I could not… and my comment appears devoid of context, like some fucking chump who doesn’t know to type properly.

I could blame The Guardian’s editors for this, and suggest that they really don’t care about anyone else’s opinions. However, the truth of the matter is that because the The Guardian is a highly visible part of the media business, it must ensure that none of its comment is offensive, libellous or (in these heady days) blasphemous. Moderating comments is already a Herculean task for them. Moderating links would be impossible. The result is yet another site that cannot fully exploit the power of the internet. Only the little guy, operating from his bedroom or surreptitiously at work, has the time to moderate comments properly. He is the only true blogger. The mainstream media are desperate wannabes, spending money to join the club, but always on the periphery.

Funny how the two bloggers I quote directly in a post entitled “Little Guys” are actually two of the most read in the UK…

Adverts

A correspondence on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, on the wish that advertising to children should be banned:

On days when he gets to watch TV, our relationship is instantly transformed from that of child and provider to child and denier. The kid is being manipulated and you know it – and you are too, as a parent, because the advertisers know that you – or enough of you – will eventually cave.

For a while, I have been perfecting a taxonomy of adverts. I have whittled it down to six types, with all adverts falling into one of these categories. Are there any that I’ve missed?

The Sexvert

The Sexvert says: “Buy this product, and you will get laid.” It might be disguised under some tenuous notion of marriage or male-female friendship, but that’s just a smoke-screen. All consmetic and hygene products are obviously of this type.

I’ll tell you the commercial they’d like to do, if they could, and I guarantee you, if they could, they’d do this, right here. Here’s the woman’s face, beautiful. Camera pulls back, naked breast. Camera pulls back, she’s totally naked. Legs apart. Two fingers, right here, and it just says, “Drink Coke.” Now I don’t know the connection here, but goddamn if Coke isn’t on my shopping list that week … Damned if I’m not buying these products! My teeth are rotting out of my head, I’m glued to the television, I’m as big as a fucking couch. “More Snickers, more Coke!”

And, according to Bill Hicks, junk food.

The Kidvert

The kind of ads that Andrew mentions above fall into this category, but also some aimed at adults too. Their message is “buying this product will make you a better parent.” McDonald’s put out nothing but Kidverts, and anything with a grandparent in it is actually a Kidvert in disguise.

Comedyvert

Funny adverts. Very rare. These do often overlap with Kidverts, but since they almost always involve young men making fools of themselves, I am yet to be convinced that they are not actually a sub-genre of Sexvert.

Worldvert

Also dubbed the Cynical Multinational Global Ethnic Diversity Shitvert, these are usually the preserve of faceless corporations trying to convince us that their utopia is the only one around. Purveyors include oil companies and credit-card companies. Likewise with the comedyvert, I don’t trust these not to be sophisticated sexverts in disguise – especially when young ladies in national dress are concerned.

Budgetvert

These are adverts that naively try and sell a product, usually sofas. Bless them.

The Elusive Sixth Element…

… is the car advert. Sweeping shots of rolling hillsides and mountains, flashes of lightning, tumbleweed and wild deer. How this convinces anyone that the car in question is just what they need, to drive the kids three minutes down the road to school, is totally beyond me.