Tag Archives: media

The Independent gets a black eye*

The Leveson Inquiry is well into the first stage of investigating the culture, practice and ethics of the media.  The past few months have witnessed a fever pitch of celebrities, custard pies and denials of dubious practices carried out by dubious tabloid journalists and owners.

How disappointing, then, to see Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, being led down a dark alley and given a bloody nose during today’s hearing.  In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst proclaimed, “The Independent- of all the national newspapers- prides itself on taking a high ethical stance”.  Ms Patry Hoskins questioned what he meant by the phrase “of all national newspapers”, a clear side-swipe at News International.  Blackhurst gave the credible answer that the founders of The Independent in 1986 wanted to set themselves apart from “proprietorial influence… and union-restrictive practices that were dominating industry” at the time.  So far so good.  The Independent has reason to be smug, right?

Hoskins then questioned Blackhurst on the issue of checking sources.  He had stated that the source checking issue doesn’t arise very often at The Independent as most of the stories published are “relatively straightforward news reporting, comment and analysis, rather than investigative or in-depth feature pieces which might rely on a wider array of sources.” Proper news, you see.  It was clear Blackhurst was trying desperately to remove The Independent as far away as possible from the events and practices involving phone hacking last summer. When Hoskins asked about the practice of paying for tips for the diary page, Blackhurst was at pains to stress The Independent only takes tips from journalists they have a relationship with. Moving swiftly on then, to suspended journalist Johann Hari, the subject of The Independent’s own scandal last summer.

Johann Hari was the rising star of journalism, a staff columnist straight out of Cambridge and winner of multiple writer’s awards. I met Hari briefly at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 where I found him to be arrogant and quite rude.  I was eventually won round as his arrogance was put to good use in his excellent writings on the 2010 UK elections and commentaries on the budget cuts, student protests and corporate tax avoidance. I even started following him on Twitter.

In June 2011, Hari was accused of plagiarism. In his published articles, Hari had been attributing quotes to interviewees which were lifted from other interviews or books and not taken at the time of the interview. Amazingly, none of the interviewees had complained and it took an eagle-eyed reader to spot a plagiarised quote. On the 27th June, Hari posted an explanation and clearly doesn’t think he has done anything wrong,

“When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech…So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview”.

Surely the skill of (say) a journalist is asking the right questions during an interview to get the clearest answers, making sure readers “understand the point”? It shows such disregard for his profession it’s amazing Hari bothered to actually interview anyone at all.

It then transpired that, using a pseudonym, Hari edited the Wikipedia pages of journalists he disliked or had issues with.  Cristina Odone, editor of  the New Statesmen, was branded anti-Semitic and homophobic on her Wikipedia page.  Nick Cohen was declared an alcoholic and all reviews of his work deleted from his Wikipedia page apart from a damning review by Hari.

On September 15th, Hari accepted wrongdoing and published an apology, using almost the exact wording of the June explanation, but with a much humbler ending. In his apology, Hari says on his return to work, “I will footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.” He is also giving back the George Orwell writing award and has “taken unpaid leave of absence” to study journalism ethics at Columbia and NYU. Poor thing.

At the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst referred to an internal disciplinary report which alluded to Hari’s medical history being taken into account as some explanation for his actions regarding Wikipedia and concluded the offences were not serious enough to lose his job. Blackhurst confirmed Hari will return to the paper in “five to six weeks”, but purely as a columnist, not an interviewer.

Perhaps worse than losing his job, Hari has called his entire body of work into doubt and his reputation will probably never recover. Furthermore, he is now half a journalist after being barred from interviewing people, like the kid in class who’s not allowed to handle the scissors.  Most annoying is that he wasted an opportunity to be one of the best journalists we have and to inspire thousands of talented young writers. Maybe he still will, but for different reasons.

*The author would like to acknowledge this is borrowed phrase, originally used by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times Company, in describing the effect on the paper after the discovery that journalist Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarised hundreds of stories in 2003. There, not so hard is it?

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The Maldives on the map and finding a fan in Cameron.

Back in June, I was lucky enough to witness some of the goings on at the 17th meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, including an emergency session on the situation in Libya.  While unanimously condemned by the delegates, there was an absence of true revulsion at the situation until the Maldives took the floor. The delegate of this tiny group of islands (population 350,000) released such a passionate and hard-hitting condemnation of Libya it really took me by surprise and made the room squirm. Taking to Twitter (with something along the lines of ‘Go Maldives!” ) led to an RT by @ILoveMaldives, whose little blurb reads “1% Land & 99% Water- In the Maldives We Teach YOu The Art Of DOing Nothing- Please NO News And No Shoes here! :)” [sic]

From this, the Maldives sounded feisty, fun and I wanted to know more.   My interest was piqued in a bizarre interview with David Cameron in The Guardian recently when, and bear with me here,  street artist Eine hypothetically asked which 5 world leaders Dave would invite on hypothetical stag do, obviously organised by Berlusconi. Part of Dave’s answer was, “My new best friend is the President of the Maldives. He’s great.” What’s going on? Is this a bit like Gordon Brown attempting to boost his popularity by claiming a love for the Arctic Monkeys? Are the Maldives the new Arctic Monkeys?

The BFF in question, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been quietly creeping onto the world stage since election in 2008, taking office from a President who by all accounts ruled with an iron fist from 1978. President Nasheed’s activist roots at first makes you wonder what on earth he and Dave have in common…

Returning to the Maldives in 1989 after a British public school education and graduating with a degree in maritime law from Liverpool, Mohamed Nasheed (nicknamed Anni) was imprisoned and tortured by government forces for speaking out against the regime and accused of spreading Christianity. Nasheed was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 1991 and eventually fled the Maldives in 2004 to be granted refugee status in Britain. Following another few years of return, arrest, imprisonment, becoming an MP, losing his seat, regaining his seat, Nasheed was eventually elected President in the first major democratic vote in the Maldives for decades.

Enemies continued to accuse him of spreading Christianity in a muslim country. A BBC article in 2008 claims Nasheed “enjoyed close links to foreign organisations such as Britain’s Conservative Party which undermined the country’s faith. He has strenuously denied the allegations.” The article is unclear whether the strenuous denial applies to spreading Christianity or to having links with the Conservative party. However, it seems the Conservatives had quite a lot to do with Nasheed’s presidential campaign including campaigning advice and even funding.

Cynicism aside, President Nasheed seems to be doing an alright job: the United Nation’s universal periodic review of the Maldives in 2010 uncovers the problems you would expect from a country under transition from dictatorship to democracy, including the population getting to grips with the concept and entitlement of human rights.

Environmental credentials are impressive; as the Maldives is seriously threatened by climate change due to rising sea levels, the aim is for the entire country to be carbon neutral within ten years. Nasheed was named Time Magazine Hero of the Environment in 2009 and one of the UN Champions of the Earth in 2010. Also in 2010,  Newsweek  placed Nasheed at Number 2 in their top ten of the world’s best leaders. And Number 1? David Cameron. I get the feeling this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this ‘special relationship’.

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The Heroes and Villans of London Town.

It is amazing how much you realise your love for a place when it is threatened. I have lived in Hackney on and off for 12 years, sometimes experimenting with other parts of London but always returning and finally settling here.

My flat borders three areas which were targeted on Monday night: Mare Street, the Pembury estate on Clarence Road and Kingsland Road. A long night spent glued to the news, Facebook, Twitter and the view from my window for the best part of 12 hours, while fielding calls and messages from concerned family and friends in other parts of the world and down the road. My very own situation room. While I couldn’t see much from the window and could only hear sirens and helicopters, footage from Twitter and YouTube showed a bus on fire round the corner, major clashes on Clarence Road and Turkish shopkeepers defending Kingsland Road. Even the brand new library was attacked. It was like I had my own satellites focused on the area.

Information was easy to find but hard to digest. There was up to the minute reporting from Paul Lewis of The Guardian on the ground, regularly using Twitter to ask where he should report from next (although he repeatedly misspelt Pembury as ‘Penbury’), footage of an inspiring woman giving the rioters a massive telling off, depressing footage of an injured man being mugged and aphotograph of a woman jumping from a burning building. Those rioting didn’t have a lot to say so everyone else said it for them. Not to ever justify looting, but if they had been stealing food instead of TVs and trainers, the root cause could not have been ignored. So much is to be written on the cause and effects, heroes and villans, but this article is very good (thank you to Dom for sending it to me).

On Tuesday morning, information kept coming, opinions were formed and I noticed all the bins had disappeared from the street. We were treated to an embarrassing display from Fiona Armstrong interviewing Darcus Howe on the BBC. Just watch, it’s awful. The anarchist group Solfed released the most comprehensive comment on the situation and don’t get me started on Nick Griffin’s insights into the situation. Clarence Road seemed to be the only place not yet scrubbed of any trace of the night before. The road was scorched, reporters were still out in force, people were watching shop windows being replaced and when a van crushed the back of a car while turning into the road it was barely noticed.

Theresa May held the fort while Cameron and Boris decided whether or not to come back from holiday. She said “we don’t do water cannons” and I agree. After water cannons are sent in, then what? My feeling is that the use of these would have aggravated and prolonged the situation by days as there is suddenly a legitimate reason to riot against police brutality at that moment, which until now appears to have been restrained. But most importantly, despite Cameron stating there is free rein on “whatever tactics police feel they need to employ”, England does not possess any water cannons. They could be shipped over from Ireland, but due to recent unrest there I doubt the request would be accommodated. Bring in the army? Instead, they brought the Northumbria police. Coming from Newcastle myself, I would advise anyone still bent on trouble to run away fast. Joking aside, the threat of rubber bullets and an extra 10,000 police officers, swelling the numbers from 6,000 on Monday night to 16,000 on Tuesday night, seems to have calmed London but other areas of the country are suffering. It will be interesting to calculate the monetary cost of the policing and clean up compared to the amount of cuts to services in each borough. We may be right back where we started.

This year we have seen Twitter and Facebook praised for helping to mobilise protests in the Middle East and companies falling over themselves to be associated with revolutions (yes you, Vodaphone). In London, Blackberry’s marketing department must be deep in its own COBRA meeting over how to avoid the “Blackberry Riots” tag after reports its BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) app was used extensively to organise looting. BBM quickly allows the user to instantly message groups (one-to-many) even when there is no mobile phone signal and all for free, unlike PAYG texting. Using BBM is not like posting to social networks as it is encrypted, a feature which appealed to the original target consumer: business. Lots of young people now own Blackberry’s because they are cheaper than IPhones, heavily endorsed by celebrities and come in lots of shiny colours. 37% of British teens prefer Blackberry over other smartphones according to a recent OFCOM survey.

Whether Blackberry owner Research In Motion (RIM) will hand over details of encrypted messages to police or not is yet to be seen, although making public that it would cooperate with authorities led to its blog being hacked and a message being posted including :

“Dear Rim; You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all…”

British authorities are not alone in this request, Indian authorities requested access to BBM messages last year citing “security fears”. These are some familiar tactics more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, along with facial recognition technology which was used to identify protesters during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and is now being used to identify looters and calls to cut the BBM service altogether, as Egypt did with its internet. While British authorities are not using this technology to arrest legitimate protesters but those who committed crimes, they need to be careful of what they condemn in other countries and condone at home.

I’ve written nearly a thousand words here, but one tweet I read today sums up both the role of technology and the riots themselves in under 140 characters: You can’t close Pandora’s box.

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Response: Did the Internet matter in Tunisia and Egypt?

In response to Nabila Ramdani’s article and podcast on opendemocracy.net:

Freedom of information is now perceived as one of the biggest threats to governments on the verge of collapse.  Knowledge, at last, is power.  The part played by the relatively new phenomenon of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings certainly has value, in the speed at which information spread and the potential to mobilise people, but we shouldn’t be too hasty in crowning social media as the catalyst for revolution.

Social media sites are not free spaces, as Ramdani claims in the podcast with Tony Curzon Price, they are private companies with terms and conditions, run for profit. As Ethan Zuckerman wrote (and recently quoted by Sam Gregory of Witness),

‘Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech.’

It is uncomfortable to see civil unrest in the Middle East defined by the social media outlet used to publicise it.  To call the Egyptian uprising ‘The Facebook Revolution’ (and Ramdani is not the only one guilty of this) is frankly insulting. A revolution cannot be branded and we should be skeptical of companies using their incidental involvement as a marketing tool and opportunity for brand development amidst chaos and suffering. Is ‘The MySpace Uprising’ coming soon? I hear they could do with the publicity.

It is indeed telling that a government in a state of emergency will shut down the internet before rolling in the tanks.  Ramdani states that ‘Internet Service Providers were shut down’ [in Tunisia and Egypt], but this didn’t stop the revolution; so really how big a part did the internet play? In his article ‘Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ” Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”  In short, PCs don’t start a revolution, people do.

There is also the very real issue of how to protect activists using platforms which jeopardise their anonymity.  Morosov highlights in ‘The Net Delusion’ how social media can be used against activists, for example surveillance, and this issue needs to be seriously addressed before social media can claim its place alongside the revolutionaries.

Morodov and Gladwell’s arguments were not proved wrong by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they highlight the urgent need for enforcing the right to freedom of expression and reinforce a note of caution. If these tools are indeed now a staple of advocacy, activists need to learn to protect their safety and security online as well as offline and out on the streets.

Would these events have happened if social media didn’t exist? We must remember the initial event that resulted in the fall of two dictators, uprisings across the Middle East and a newfound empowerment of the people. The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17th 2010, was not posted on Facebook.

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International Women’s Day 2011: Women and Technology

There were some amazing happenings to celebrate International Women’s Day this week… even the bizarre (but arguably, valiant) effort  by ITN with their promo featuring Daniel Craig . The sun was shining and I flitted from a vigil outside the Swaziland embassy to a protest in Trafalgar Square to a talk at Amnesty International HQ, all the while receiving texts from the ladies I love celebrating, well, us.  I thought about my great-grandmother, who kept the family business running during the First World War and turned a handsome profit; my grandmother, who is very much the leader of our pack; my business executive mother, who was expected to give up work when she married my father (she happily informed  my father’s employer that as she was the bigger earner, this would not be happening) and the cunning entrepreneurs and creatives in my gang who are quietly smashing the glass ceiling.

Women are increasingly utilising technology to combat discrimination and change cultural norms.  During the Egyptian protests calling for the resignation of Mubarak, one of the poster girls was 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz.  Her vlog was a call to arms, radical in her own right, daring  the men of Cairo to accompany her to Tahrir Square.  Predictably, she received threats for daring to consider stepping outside unaccompanied, let alone joining the crowds on the street.  Sam Gregory from Witness recently blogged about how to combat the growing issue of visual anonymity in video and protect the vulnerable.  This will be discussed more in Witness’ upcoming report ‘Cameras Everywhere’ and word on the street is that Witness are also developing a new app around this area which should definitely be worth a look.

There has been a surge of initiatives to tackle street harassment of women and end its cultural acceptance. Comments to women about their appearance dished out by strangers on the street, from passing cars or on public transport, are not flattering or complementary- they are insincere and intimidating. Have you ever met a couple who got together after he shouted ‘nice arse’ at her while waiting at the traffic lights? The worse thing is, it’s accepted as part of being female and only really discussed amongst groups of girls like it’s a secret, which is a real shame as the boys I know were horrified to find out how widespread this kind of behaviour is as, obviously, it never happens when they are around.

Back to Egypt, I have been keeping an eye on the  Harrassmap project since it started at the end of 2010. This is an SMS service for women to text in incidents of catcalling, touching and worse on the streets of Egypt which are then mapped.  A similar initiative, Hollaback,  exists in the USA and UK as an app and a map and is currently being rolled out worldwide.  I like to think of these as a virtual alternative to a Mace spray, but what exactly will happen to the data once it is collected? Let’s hope these projects have teeth and go some way to changing cultural norms and encourage women to speak out about the unspoken.

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