A few months ago I noted the start of the ‘new’ blogs section on the Al Jazeera English website, and the utter lack of imagination that had been put into them, not least by the correspondents, who seemed to think that describing the tedium of their journey to their latest interview was a suitable substitute for in-depth analysis and investigative reporting.
Since then I have been watching with a growing sense of despondency the accumulation of lazy, pointless hackery which only serves to bolster the ego of the correspondent (as they weren’t bolstered enough by useless managers and acquiescent editors) and leave the audience wanting, especially while the excellent Focus section of the same site dwindled and atrophied.
Fortunately there have been some rare exceptions, including one excellent posting in February from Jane Dutton about her visit to Eritrea to interview the country’s president – now, you can follow the link if you like, but as of today, it goes to an Error 404 page, as it seems the article has been removed from the Al Jazeera website.
The posting, when it existed, was the perfect example of how to use blogs and first person narrative to get behind the story, and give the audience more understanding about the context of a piece – in this case using a blog written after the fact to get around the government minders and reporting restrictions so often imposed on journalists by dictatorial regimes.
Now though, it has been removed, the blogger has been censored and the truth has been lost, probably on the orders of some invertebrate, obsequious lickspittle of a manager who knows nothing about news and journalism, and cares even less about his audience.
A quick Google search explained why – Qatar is doing business with this secretive and brutal African regime for its own ends, and the Eritrean president is lapping up their money and their largesse, while his people are trapped in their own country, and will be shot if they try to leave – no wonder the emir of Qatar wanted the truth about Eritrea suppressed, and since he pays for Al Jazeera, he calls the shots.
So much for Al Jazeera’s code of ethics, and its claim to be editorially independent, impartial and objective.
Fortunately as well as being spineless and brown-nosed, Al Jazeera’s managers are also remarkably stupid, as the article had been published long enough to be cached by Google and many other search engines; however in the interests of freedom of information, here is the article in full:
Eritrea’s president declares me ‘insane’ – by Jane Dutton
We hadn’t even arrived in Eritrea when I started to get a sense of the man I had been sent to interview. Our flight from Dubai airport was delayed. Nobody told us for how long or why. Four hours later, when the plane finally arrived, we found out the president had decided to borrow it for the morning, on a whim.
We were on our way to one of Africa’s most secretive regimes.
Granted a rare interview with the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a man constantly ranked in the top 10 of the world’s worst dictators and accused of helping turn the Horn of Africa into one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
Our plane – Eritrea’s only carrier – was one of the few international flights that still fly into the country: a desolate place blighted by years of war with Ethiopia and Yemen, and increasing political isolation.
At the airport we were met by unfamiliar silence – no network connections, no SIM cards, no blackberry! And Rafael, our minder. Rafael is a man of contradictions: even his backcomb appears to grow forward.
“Let me tell you the truth,” he would say every couple of hours, immediately followed by anything but. He also ominously warned that he could keep a watch on our every movement if he chose to do so, at our hotel, on the job.
Our interview was scheduled for Saturday and we were told it would take two hours to get to the city of Massawa, the president’s new bunker retreat on the coast. He is reported to spend more time there after an attempted assassination last year.
The roads are manned by checkpoints. The population’s every move seems to be watched and noted in this country. And it probably is. Eritreans need a visa to leave and there is very little chance of them ever getting one. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands escaping every year.
The UN estimates that 63,000 sought asylum abroad in 2009. Around 1,800 brave the shoot-to-kill police orders to cross over into Sudan every month. The majority say they are fleeing the permanent military service and repressive nature of the regime.
After several shouting bouts with Rafael, we finally get to Massawa, an exotic port city built by the Turks in the 14th century – a fascinating place with narrow alleyways and looming mosques. It is supposed to be the hottest place on earth. And I would concur.
I noticed then it wasn’t just the capital that was surprisingly clean – everywhere we went in Eritrea was immaculate. The streets are shiny bright, the hotels are spick and span, even the food is safe.
Our interview was delayed by a day and instead we were corralled into watching Massawa’s 20-year celebrations of liberation from Ethiopia. We decided to shoot a promo for our interview while we were there. People were out in that sweltering weather to see their long-time leader, carefully controlled by police.
What amazed us was that the police had no qualms about beating women and children with sticks a few feet away from where we were shooting. A truly shocking scene. And our cameras were still rolling.
The next day we were all set up and ready at our interview location in time for the planned dawn o’clock interview. We guessed the president would keep us waiting, and he did. Six hours later he arrived. We were all drenched with sweat and jangled with angst by the time he sat down.
Was he going to throw us out of the country for asking the questions we wanted asked? Why is he helping Iran supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi fighters in Yemen? Why does he order the police to shoot-to-kill anyone escaping from the country? Why is there no free press or free speech? Why were all of his political opponents whisked away never to be seen again? How come he refuses to let aid agencies feed the two-thirds of his country who are starving?
This was a man who came in on a promise of liberating his people 20 years ago. Every question I asked was met with a blank stare, a flat denial, cold laughter and finally allegations that we were making it all up. And he told me personally I am simply “insane”.
Back in the car and back on the winding roads, climbing thousands of feet to the cooler capital of Asmara. You can smell coffee percolating through the streets: thick, lovely and freshly brewed – the legacy of Italy’s colonial rule under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
All the buildings boast a beautiful jaded art deco influence, and the streets are full of old men cycling with their hats doffed to one side alongside colourful Fiats from the 1960s. We ended the day with a piece to camera from the tank graveyard on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of armoured vehicles dismantled and stacked heading for the trash heap.
They were used in the 30-year battle against Ethiopia. And although that was two decades ago, Eritrea remains on a permanent war footing. The majority of the population is conscripted – whether it be in the army, in the hotel bar, as a street cleaner or our ever present minder Rafael. They remain braced for an Ethiopian attack that may never come.
So I heard through the grapevine today that those clueless wonks at Al Jazeera English had launched a new blog section on their website. Obviously “new” is a relative term for them because the “blog” is a product of Web 2.0 and therefore already well past its sell-by date (and yes, I am aware of the irony of saying that in my own… blog).
Still, the BBC have had blogs for years, as have CNN, so I guess it was only a matter of time before Al Jazeera English copied them; which is a shame because to date, the Al Jazeera website had stood firm against the stereotypical “blog” and focused on its excellent feature writing instead, often bringing these together under a single subject or reporter name, rather than just giving them their own blog-branded new media ghetto.
One hopes that these one-day-wonders won’t replace the well-written and truly original journalism that Al Jazeera regularly put onto its website’s Focus section, but I’ll bet they do, and then try to pass it off as “convergence”.
(You can always tell when a Newspaper or a TV executive is lying about convergence, and using it to cover up cuts in spending – their lips move.)
Obviously whoever is in charge of innovation there must be on long-term sick leave because the blogs are now “the in thing” while elsewhere on the site all of their excellent comments have been shut down on both the website and their YouTube channel – so much for being the “voice of the voiceless”.
The head of common sense must also have been having an off-day because while the new blogs have been mentioned fleetingly on-air, there’s absolutely no mention of them at all on the Al Jazeera English front page to date.
Come on Al Jazeera, you can do better than this.
(Oh yes, if you want to see these wonders of the new media era, they can be found languishing at their own site – and one further observation: Why didn’t the Asia-Pacific region qualify for its own blog?)
Normally I keep my political comments restricted to UK and US, but one of my e-mail alerts this morning drew my attention to a shocking video that’s starting to do the rounds about the views of young people in Israel about the recent speech given by President Obama on the Middle East.
I watch what is happening in the Middle East with utter dispair sometimes, it’s almost as if neither side wants to a budge an inch and that all the leaderships involved are quite happy for the fighting to continue because it’s become the only thing that defines their power.
In contrast then was Obama’s eagerly-anticipated speech in Cairo which basically said “the status quo is not acceptable, there must be change, but the only people that can make that change are the people of the Middle East themselves”.
Although the speech appeared to hit the mark with all concerned, especially both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, guaging the reaction of people on the ground was slower in coming, although when it did, the considered response was also welcoming.
One wonders though how much of the story we’re actually hearing, and when you hear the one of the vanguards of 21st Century news, The Huffington Post, is censoring content that runs counter to the preceived wisdom, one has to start questioning how the narrative is being constructed.
The piece that was removed from the HuffPo is a short video vox-pop of young people in Israel giving their views on the Obama speech – the views expressed, especially those from the young American Jews, and the language used are utterly shocking – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED:
Even the people who produced it, Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana were shocked at the views expressed, and the forcefulness with which they were made, but were further shocked when an administrator at the HuffPo removed the video from the site, claiming, according to Blumenthal that: “I don’t see that it has any real news value”.
So I suppose there was “no real news value” last year, when Al Jazeera English broadcast a vox-pop of people attanding a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio, and shocking the world with a similar level of ignorance:
Now I can see many reasons why an old media organisation might remove such a video from their site, or indeed, choose not to publish it at all – some of these, such as the question of taste and decency, are arguably legitimate, and indeed I myself thought long and hard about whether to embed the video or just link to it because of the foul language used.
For a premier blog to remove it because they consider is has no “real news value” is extremely dangerous; it’s exactly the kind of nebulous reason that would be used to justify censorship by an old media outlet like Fox News.
There’s no doubt The Huffington Post has made a massive contribution to the development of the interwebs as a space for news/information that engages with its audience rather than just preaching to them, but the kind of editorial arrogance they’ve displayed over the Blumenthal video will only serve to raise so much unnecessary speculation about their editorial credibility.
The problem is that its co-founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington seems to spend more time getting her face on the old media with guest spots on MSNBC and guest hosting Squawk Box on CNBC, which only serves to make her look more and more old corporate and old media; a perception I would be running a mile from if I was running the best politics site on the planet.
The financial downturn, the difficulties faced by old media companies and the collapse of the newspaper industry is the time for organisations like the Huffington Post to be rising above the frey, consolidating and leading the way, not pracing around on TV while quietly adopting the same tired old editorial dogmas they claim to have moved on from.
As for the morons on the video their disgusting comments seem to show where the real oppositon to change in the Middle East lie, and that there is a bedrock of racism and bigotry both in Israel and among American Jews that is going to be Obama’s biggest and toughest obstacle.
These people, the same people who supported the killing of over 1,000 Palestinians in January in the most one-sided war in the history of mankind, all hide their hate behind the shield of victimhood, claiming that the world is against them.
Well here’s newsflash – it is, and on the basis of this kind of disgusting bigotry – is there any wonder why?
If I had a penny for every article I had read about the pros and cons of blogging and its effect on mainstream journalism, I would be a very rich man – I would probably have enough to be a full-time blogger, rather than writing my posts in my own time.
With so many blogs, some of which are becoming professional concerns, it was inevitable that the war of words between bloggers and journalists was never going to end, especially now that so many lazy mainstream journalists have learnt to feed off the blogs.
So it was with some interest that I read an article on TechCrunch this morning entitled “The Morality and Effectiveness of Process Journalism“, which came about as a result of this piece of angst-riddled insecurity from The New York Times.
I’m not going to go into the details of this particular example of “handbags at dawn”, although from the exhibits presented by both the plaintiff and the defence I can say that Mr Darlin of the NYT probably wouldn’t last five minutes in any newsroom run by me.
From where I’m sitting, TechCrunch reported a rumour as exactly that and published it with more caveats than a dossier on WMD:
Today, though, rumors popped up that Apple may be looking to buy Twitter. “Apple is in late stage negotiations to buy Twitter and is hoping to announce it at WWDC in June,” said a normally reliable source this evening, adding that the purchase price would be $700 million in cash. The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations. If these discussions are happening, Twitter is keeping them very quiet indeed. We would have passed on reporting this rumor at all, but other press is now picking it up.
If only many mainstream journalists were as assiduous about highlighting so-called facts which are, in reality, rumours.
Eniment journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis has also written about this, which he describes as Product vs Process journalism: The myth of perfection vs beta culture; I totally agree with his sentiments – the idea that a story is, once written, an entity which cannot be changed is a product of the old way of producing news, where you had a single product, be it a TV programme or a newspaper edition, into which the “finished” story was placed.
OK, stories might move over a period of time, and one only has to watch All the Presidents’ Men to see how that worked, but even then, the story presented in each edition is a complete, rounded item, drafted, edited, honed until it is as good as it could be.
Only with the advent of 24-hour news and, later, new media have we been able to see news as a constantly evolving activity, from ‘Breaking News’ to the retrospective documentary, a story moves, grows, evolves like a living being, often with just as much complexity, and to characterise a story only in terms of locked off “editions” makes about as much sense in the interweb age as carbon paper.
It’s also interesting to note that this was written for the NYT‘s Business section, and we all know how much esteem they’re held in after the recent meltdown in the world’s economy.
So what is the moral of this incompetant piece of naval gazing by the NYT? As Jeff Jarvis so eloquently puts it:
The problem with this tiresome, never-ending alleged war of blogs vs. MSM … is that it blinds each tribe from learning from the other. Yes, there are standards worth saluting from classical journalism. But there are also new methods and opportunities to be learned online. No one owns journalists or its methods or standards.
The upshot of this is that these days it doesn’t really matter what hacks like Damon Darlin churn out, if they get it wrong, they can be called out within minutes and the facts of what was really said and what was missed can be blogged and published for all to see faster than you can say “libel writ”.
And you know what? Mainstream journalists could do the same, if only they’d get their heads of the sand and their mindsets out of the past.
I was going to entitle this post “When Social Media goes bad”, but decided against it because in this case, Social Media was very much the winner.
A few day’s ago The Guardian invited a London herbal remedy company, Neal’s Yard Remedies, to answer questions from readers, having already had successful discussions about other subjects, such as Fairtrade and food in a series of articles called “You ask, they answer”.
Only in this case, someone didn’t read the script – I urge you to go and read the ensuing comments thread, it’s funny, intelligent and challenging, and unfortunately for the company concerned, fairly unforgiving.
NYR ended up declining the invitation to answer any of the questions raised, much to the disgust of many of the contributors, some of whom are now demanding a follow up, but the best we’ve had so far is a lame article about the PR implications including an interview with Max Clifford.
More interesting is what this says about the power of Social Media, as well as not responding to the questions, many posters noted the company were removing comments from their own website and Facebook pages.
Not only that, but bloggers and tweeters have jumped on the story and it’s already going viral, making the PR situation for the company ever more difficult.
One also wonders whether business and political leaders would act in such a stupid and arrogant way if they had been forced to face this kind of fact-checking by their workers or their customers – would GM be going to the wall today if they had faced closer corporate and public scrutiny in the last decade?
It’s going to be interesting to see where this one goes…
So I logged into WordPress this morning for a quick look at what’s going on and by chance spotted one of the featured blogs and the intriguing headline: 10 reasons why Google just reinvented online communication.
“Yeah, right”, I thought.
So I read, and I followed the links, and then I watched the video:
Two hours later I sat back and took a deep breath.
Google Wave is a radical step forward, and even better, it’s open source.
First of all I watched this as a computer-user, sick and tired of continually switching between my e-mail, IM, browser and blog, either in windows or in tabs.
Then I watched this as a content producer, a writer and began to ask myself about how the dissemination of information would be changed by a toolkit such as this, not just between friends or colleagues, but between a media organisation and their audience.
The whole video is very interesting, but if you haven’t got a spare 90 minutes, check out some highlights including – blogging (0:20), accountability (0:33), concurrent editing/collaboration (0:35), spell checking and linking (0:45), productivity tools (0:50), twittering (1:00) and translation tools (1:13).
The whole landscape suddenly took on a whole new view – there’s a party coming and everyone online is invited.
A British charity worker has been given the so-called “World’s Best Job” – becoming the caretaker of Hamilton Island, which is part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland.
Ben Southall (34) was selected for the £73,000-a-year job after a ‘rigorous’ reality TV-style selection process which involved testing his ability to snorkel, barbecue and blog; there were more than 34,000 applicants from all over the world.
Well done that man, being paid to be permanently on holiday on a Pacific island is, many would contend, a dream come true, although whether it is, truly, the best job in the world remains unproven.
In true Quardlepleen style though, there has to be a few questions raised about what was, in effect, a cynical marketing ploy by Tourism Queensland, who were desperate to raise their profile while the world’s economy was being flushed down the toilet.
The job involves reporting on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most beautiful natural features, a reef which is currently under threat from climate change.
Did anyone stop and think whether any of the applicants were in the least bit qualified to report on the reef in anything other than the most superficial way? Did anyone stop and think that the last thing we need right now is important issues like the destruction of our coral reefs being reduced to a circus side-show? Did anyone stop and think how much good could be done with the huge amount of money that has been spent on this ridiculous spectacle?
Obviously not, so maybe every qualified marine biologist should now form an orderly queue so that a tourism officer from Queensland can personally slap them across the face.
[EDIT/Another question: If your job is to be the caretaker of a Pacific island, where do you go for your holiday? An office block?]