Monday 31 December 2007

A few selected quotes of 2007

“I had reported many times on the kidnapping of foreigners in Gaza. Now, as I always feared it might, my turn had come.”

BBC Correspondent, Alan Johnston

“Of course the Territorial Army is overstretched and there’s no doubt about it. The TA is too small - mobilising it at the pace that we are is ultimately going to break it.”

Professor Richard Holmes

“I realise how totally unqualified I am to think about war. I don’t know what Myspace and Youtube are. In my generation they gave you a cheese sandwich and a tin hat. And you walked towards anybody who put a verb at the end of the sentence.”

Alan Coren, Radio 4: News Quiz, on the US Military banning
their soldiers from using certain Internet sites.

“It’s under more serious threat in fact I think than at any previous time because people are now saying: ‘You’re not needed. You’re an absurd anomaly. This idea of trying to sift out what has actually happened. What we want is people’s opinions about what has happened.’ And I think we are in danger. I never thought of myself as an endangered species before, but now I think probably, perhaps I am.”

BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson on the role of the traditional correspondent

“Telling the story of what is happening in Iraq through a soldier’s eyes is a fraught project.”

Franklin Foer, Editor of the New Republic Magazine

Saturday 22 December 2007

I disagree with Derek Wyatt MP

There's no doubting Derek Wyatt's credentials as a commentator on the new media landscape. But that doesn't mean we have to agree with him.

In a letter published in The Guardian today he says the BBC has followed, and not led, new media developments. Pointing to the success of other projects such as Google, Napster, and the iPod, he asks rhetorically what the BBC has added to the cultural space in the last ten years.

It's possible, of course, his letter may have been edited, but it seems odd that he doesn't mention the BBC's website which is widely recognised as one of the best in the business. has around 16 million users in the UK, over 3 billion page impressions a month and had the third biggest reach for any UK website in March 2007 (Google 1st, MSN 2nd).

In some areas the BBC has been relatively slow in embracing the new media world, but it's easy to underestimate the technological and cultural challenge of adapting such a large organisation to the demands of the 21st Century. And one can hardly blame the BBC for the bright ideas of other enterprising individuals. The Internet space has, after all, expanded the potential for cultural exchange and innovation extraordinarily.

Whatever the success of the BBC Micro computer and Ceefax, I'm not convinced that the BBC should be held to account for a failure to invent things. Technological innovation is not the BBC's primary role. Wyatt lists new media inventions with consequences for BBC journalists. And if you want to criticise the BBC, you could argue that they haven't grasped these consequences as quickly as they might. But the organisation didn't invent the radio, the television, the satellite or the Internet, (to name but a few) so I don't see why they should be inventing the iPod, or Google, or Facebook or...

(It's not as if other 'big media' organisations are doing a better job of innovating: MySpace was created by a company called eUniverse; Wikipedia by Bomis Inc.; YouTube by three former paypal employees; Google by two PhD students; Facebook, by a Harvard student; and Napster by a student in Boston.)

UPDATE: At least a couple of others had similar thoughts.

Thursday 20 December 2007

Does the BJTC know how a blog works?

One of the reasons I'm keeping this blog is so I can better understand the trials and tribulations of the blogger. Regularly posting on a blog is hard work, but if you want to make a blog work there has to be a steady stream of new information for your readers.

Some particularly prolific bloggers post up to 10 or 20 times day. Given the number of blogs I'm currently trying to track I'm not sure I can keep up with blogs who post this often, but I reckon the six day gap between my last post is pretty unacceptable by good blogging standards.

I have been at a conference for the last couple of days and I've effectively decided that as of today I'm on holiday for Christmas but I thought I ought to make sure I've got at least one post up this week.

I feel that I'm better than some though: the Broadcast Journalism Training Council's blog was last updated in May 2007 making a mockery of it's claim to be:
"A commentary, a listening post, swapping and testing ideas, analytical, chatty, even gossipy, occasionally funny, hopefully rarely boring."
It's hard to fulfil most of these goals if you've only posted twice in the last 6 months!

Friday 14 December 2007

Shopping in Iraq: still proving deadly

The Baghdad dentist describes a near miss while on a routine shopping trip:

"I parked the car far from the supermarkets because there is no empty parking spot, and as I was getting out from the car a huge explosion happened, a car exploded. It was very near to me, in fact, it was the nearest explosion one could see without being dead.

The explosion took seconds but it was like years for me, I saw how the parts of the explosive car was flying in the air and landed on the floor to kill the people or destroy the cars, I saw how the windows' glass of the shops and houses have exploded, I saw the shells flying every where and the ball of fire swallowing everyone around it, I saw that young lady stroked in her back by a large shell (I think it was the door of the car), then there was the smoke that covered everything and the terrible silence, I can't be sure whether it was really that silent or it was my ears that couldn't hear a thing because of the loud explosion!

I was in shock, there was nothing on my mind for a moment, it seemed like time has stopped, I felt like I don't exist.Then there was a loud cry that got me back to reality..."

Some of his compatriots were not so fortunate. Read the full account here.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Milblogger leaves the National Review Online

More evidence that telling the story of conflict from first-hand accounts is a 'fraught project'. W. Thomas Smith Jr, who was blogging at The Tank, has left the NRO after his editor concluded that his reports from Lebanon exaggerated the size of a Hezbollah force in East Beirut.

The Editor of the NRO, Kathryn Jean Lopez apologises to readers saying:
"We should have required Smith to clearly source all of his original reporting from Lebanon. Smith let himself become susceptible to spin by those taking him around Lebanon, so his reporting from there should be read with that knowledge. (We are attaching this note to all his Lebanon reporting.) This was an editing failure as much as it was a reporting failure. We let him down, and we let you down, and we’re taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again." (Her emphasis)
In an open letter to NRO readers, W. Thomas Smith Jr says:
"Both NRO and I have taken far too much heat for something which would never have happened had I been more specific in terms of detailing my sourcing while blogging about Lebanon at "The Tank". That is a responsibility I have to accept."

Monday 10 December 2007

Iraq through the eyes of soldiers: 'a fraught project'?

An American soldier who wrote articles for The New Republic Magazine has had his articles completely retracted after months of speculation in the blogopshere and in the mainstream media about the accuracy of his accounts.

For a brief overview of the saga you can click here. But in this post I'd like to discuss the problems these events raise for milblogging.

Near the end of an article for The New Republic magazine, editor Franklin Foer says this:
"Beauchamp's writings had originally appealed to us because we wanted to publish a soldier's introspections. We still believe in this journalistic mission, especially as the number of reporters embedded in Iraq dwindles. But, as these months of controversy have shown, telling the story of what is happening in Iraq through a soldier's eyes is a fraught project. The more we dug into Beauchamp's writings, the more clear it became that we might have been in the realm of war stories, a genre notoriously rife with embellishment."
Although Beauchamp was publishing through a magazine, his accounts are little different in style to what you find on many milblogs. One of the advantages of the blogging phenomenon was supposed to be access to first-hand accounts without the interference of the mainstream media or other sources.

But how useful can it possibly be if the account is made up, or at best factually inaccurate, and how can we as readers spot the errors?

Beauchamp wasn't a journalist. He was surprised when the TNR came back to him and made such a fuss about whether one of the incidents he described happened in Kuwait or in Iraq.
Here's what Foer said:
"...we finally had the opportunity to ask Beauchamp, without any of his supervisors on the line, about how he could mistake a dining hall in Kuwait for one in Iraq. He told us he considered the detail to be "mundane" given the far more horrific events he had witnessed. That's not a convincing explanation."
It certainly isn't. But an understandable one if you have no training. For Beauchamp, the difference between Iraq and Kuwait was negligible. For a trained journalist, it's a fundamental error - the sort any good journalist would try to completely eradicate.

Milbloggers helped bring the Beauchamp accounts down but where does it leave milblogging? How do we know that milblogs aren't filled with similar errors?

Can we rely on the milblogging community to sift out the chaff?
Do we not need good, trained embedded journalists after all or are they just as error-prone as bloggers?

Friday 7 December 2007

British blog post from Afghanistan

Hardlyablog is one of the few British milblogs I've come across. He's serving with the TA in Afghanistan. He mainly describes life around the base. Here's an edited extract from his latest post:

"Waved Olly off from his final tour last night. Since he is leaving the army we tried to organise a surprise final meal for him on Tuesday....Just as the food got on the table the rocket alarms went off and then kept going off with various warnings for 3 more hours until the all clear was given so meal ate in a bunker. Then Long Way Round rigged up in the bunker on a long cable and projector from the office and some wine acquired off the French to celebrate his departure. Luckily we weren’t caught by the enjoyment police or indeed the military police as I don’t think they would have been impressed with the level of seriousness we applied to the situation."

Wednesday 5 December 2007

US blogosphere row comes to a head

Over the last few months there's been a pretty monumental battle in the US blogosphere over the authenticity of some first-hand reports from Iraq.

Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic (centre-left), has just published a massive article saying that the TNR can't stand by the stories they published written by an American soldier serving in Iraq.

In the meantime, a blog written by a former marine W. Thomas Smith Jr for the National Review Online (Conservative and critical of the TNR over the 'Scott Thomas' pieces) was exposed for some factual guesswork when reporting on Hezbollah in Lebanon. His apologia is here, and has sparked off the debate all over again.

The story begins nearly five months ago. In a piece entitled "Shock Troops" published in the TNR in July, a soldier serving in Baghdad, writing under the pseudonym 'Scott Thomas', alleged some pretty unsavoury behaviour by US troops including:
  • verbally abusing a woman with facial burns at an American base.
  • one private wearing the skull of an Iraqi child dug up from a mass grave on mission.
  • another private careering around Baghdad in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for no other purpose than to run over things, particularly dogs.
This raised several eyebrows, particularly those of Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard (centre-right). He wasn't convinced the accounts rang true. So he emailed Foer and mobilised the blogosphere to do some fact-checking:
"...we believe that the best chance for getting at the truth is likely to come from the combined efforts of the blogosphere, which has, in the past, proven adept at determining the reliability of such claims. To that end we'd encourage the milblogging community to do some digging of their own, and individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant information--either about the specific events or their plausibility in general."
Various bloggers weighed in, including (to name but a few):
And so did the mainstream media. Here's a piece by Howard Kutz in the Washington Post for example.

The row's bubbled away ever since. TNR decided to get Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of First Infantry Division to reveal his identity proving he was a serving soldier. But for his trouble the Army cut off all contact between TNR and Beauchamp as they carried out an internal investigation.

The fact that 'Scott Thomas' was a real soldier didn't halt the criticisms. The TNR tried to sort out some of the key facts promising to re-report every detail, but, after months of work, concluded that some of the facts in the stories could not be verified and that some of them were simply incorrect.

Now the accounts of W. Thomas Smith Jr writing on a blog called The Tank are under scrutiny.

The arguments over authenticity and accuracy have been hijacked on both sides for political purposes with right and left exchanging blows over whether the NRO or the TNR is more at fault, less patriotic, or less journalistically and ethically sound.

For more, see the New York Times's and the Washington Post's take on events.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Journalism in Iraq

The effects of war on the lives of Iraqi citizens is the most uncovered aspect of the conflict in Iraq according to journalists reporting on the country. The reason for this lack of coverage is the dangers facing journalists who venture outside of the Green Zone.

The research was carried out by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

This is one of the areas where blogging has been and can be such an important communications tool.

Salam Pax's blog from inside Iraq just prior to, and during, the US-led invasion became a global media phenomenon.

Although many bloggers have had to leave Iraq, there are still a number who continue to give a voice to Iraqi citizens on the ground from places where journalists simply can't go.

Iraqi Refugees

Here's an article providing useful context on the numbers of Iraqi refugees going to Sweden.

Monday 3 December 2007

Iraqis being smuggled (just over the border) into Sweden

Thousands of Iraqi refugees may be returning to Iraq according to the BBC, but an investigation by a Swedish radio station suggests that 70 Iraqis a day are being illegally smuggled into Sweden (and presumably, given the length of the trip, won't be returning any time soon). Apparently 20,000 will arrive this year.

That's a lot of people likely to be suffering from culture shock. Temperature in Stockholm currently 4 degrees Celsius; Baghdad, a mild 17. And that'll probably be the least of their worries. How easy it is for Iraqis to learn Swedish, for example?

An English translation of the report can be found here - very helpful for those of us not blessed with a working knowledge of Swedish. Needless to say, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation. I've emailed my (only) Swedish contact to see if this influx of Iraqis is something she's aware of.

Thursday 29 November 2007

The rise of blogs

In 2002, Dave Sifry started Technorati. It's a website that tracks blogs, allowing users to search and participate in the blogosphere. By April 2004, the site was tracking more than 2 million blogs. Today, the site is tracking 112.8 million blogs.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

4 Rifles in Basra

4 Rifles came home from Basra, Iraq last weekend after a six month tour of duty. If you want to find out what they've been up to for the last few months, Michael Yon, an 'independent' American journalist has been embedded with them. He's currently writing up a series of dispatches. Part One is introductory, providing some background on British operations in and around Basra. Part Two describes the battalion's first mission during the tour on 21 May.

Monday 26 November 2007

Ahmadinejad's blog in The Guardian

I can't think where The Guardian got the idea for this article from.

Thursday 22 November 2007

A Blog from Inside Iraq

My favourite 'inside Iraq' blog is written by a Baghdad dentist. He blogs at Last of the Iraqis. His latest post is rather conspiratorial and I'm not sure he has much evidence for some of his musings, but his observations about life in Iraq are fascinating. Here's a bit I picked out towards the end of his last post:

"And by the way when people outside Iraq is hearing about the improvements they have the idea that everything is very good and it's so safe now, well, I'd like to make a correction; the "Hot zones" are way much better, because they were very disturbed before, it's relatively OK now, but the rest of the areas are almost the same, for example while I was writing this post there was two earth shocking explosions, and there was the 10 missiles attack in AlShaab few days ago and even yesterday I was in Palestine St. when a side road explosive detonated very close to me, I saw it in my own eyes…"
This blog was a recent feature on BBC Radio 5's Pods and Blogs and it looks as if there's going to be something on Radio 4's iPM programme this Saturday.

Tuesday 20 November 2007


I set the iPM team the challenge of getting hold of the President of Iran to talk about uranium, US foreign policy, and nuclear power to discuss his blog for their Saturday programme. I reckon the opportunity to momentarily escape the whirlwind of international politics and have a cosy chat with Eddie Mair would be too good to miss. Surely.

Collecting Iranian blogs

What better place to start a collection of Iranian blogs than with Mr Ahmadinejad's irregular musings!

Friday 16 November 2007

Reporting strategy and tactics

Thursday 15 November 2007

Media Coverage of Israel-Lebanon War

I'm putting together a presentation on the Israel-Lebanon war, (or at least doing some preliminary investigations) for the MA Reporting War course I'm tagging along to at King's. Here's a BBC video about the media coverage of the conflict in 2006 and it looks like I might be returning to the subject at a later date for the PhD. Note the use of the blogosphere!

Tuesday 13 November 2007

The BBC Brand and BBC Blogging

Last Friday, I met one of the senior editors at the BBC. I only had a brief five-minute chat with him but he highlighted what I think is one of the key issues with BBC blogging. BBC blogs, he said, must be something that last and not simply the random thoughts of a correspondent writing the first thing that comes into his or her head. Crucially they must “protect the brand”.

Although the ‘brand’ may have taken a bit of a hammering in recent months, the BBC’s determination to provide accurate, impartial and honest news remains at the heart of the organisation’s thinking. This raises interesting questions for BBC blogs. After all, one of the common sense positions on the nature of blogging is that blogs are best when they provide off-the-cuff, opinionated, almost gossipy information.

I’m not sure this is necessarily true and blogging has evolved to incorporate a variety of different styles. Generalising about blogs is dangerous. But I think BBC blogging is different to a lot of blogging that is taking place. Just try comparing Nick Robinson’s blog with that of Iain Dale for example. So why is the BBC blogging? Does the BBC merely feel it ought to because 4 million other people are doing it? And how does the need to protect the brand affect the nature of BBC blogs.

In the case of war and terrorism, is it worth getting a BBC war correspondent to spend time writing a blog, when military blogs (milblogs), unconcerned with the need to live up to any sort of ‘brand’ may provide better insights? (They also may not – British military blogging seems scarce compared with the richness of American blogs on offer). In times of war, the BBC’s commitment as a public service broadcaster would complicate any blogging activity any further.

As far as I’m aware there aren’t any BBC defence correspondents blogging on a regular basis at the moment. (Stuart Hughes, currently defence and security producer, used to have one but has since stopped blogging). Is this the sort of thing people want to see? Would it improve the BBC’s coverage of war and terrorism?

Monday 12 November 2007

18 Months of Blogs at the BBC (Part One)

Robin's piece is here. I'm obviously more interested in the editorial post (Part Two) which is promised for Wednesday.

Post on BBC's Blogging Trial coming soon

If his Facebook status is anything to go by (and it usually is), Robin Hamman, BBC Blog Network guru, is posting a piece about the BBC's blogging trial on the Editors blog sometime today. I'm sure it will make interesting reading...

Friday 9 November 2007

Research at World Affairs Unit

I'm doing some 'research' at the World Affairs Unit at White City. At the moment this consists of sitting around and nosing at what's going on. Fergal Keane's just commandeered an office to have a shave (presumably before a TV appearance though I'm not actually sure), and the Defence team are working on a story about Nimrod.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Gordon Gentle Inquest

The coroner in the Gordon Gentle inquest ruled yesterday that a logistics error led to the unlawful killing of the young soldier. The jeep he was travelling in was not fitted with the latest radio jamming technology which protects vehicles from IEDs.

Pamela Gentle, Gordon's sister has written about the inquest's findings at Military Families Against the War. She says:
"Well the inquest has nearly finished and so far we have been told what we already knew - my brother was killed for nothing. Says in the paper it prompted allegations of Ministry of Defence failings. Well the more I hear of this jamming device not being fitted - it could have saved Gordon’s life and was in a store room. Would you not say that the MoD are failing? I wouldn’t say it was an allegation I would say it’s the truth. Wouldn’t you? It makes me sick."
"I just wonder how some off these MoD people would feel it it was their son or daughter? And not just the MoD but the man who decided that our boys and girls should have to go to a war zone that had noting to do with us....We were a happy family the 5 of us but now there's something missing. Gordon will always be with us but it’s not the same. How would he feel if he was to never see his son again, never see him smile again, never being able to give him one more hug. I don’t think you would like it. I will tell you why, because it hurts so much you will never know Blair."
I very much doubt Tony Blair is going to enter the fray, but the MoD has this to say about it all:
"The protection of our troops in the face of lethal threats is of paramount importance and the Ministry of Defence takes all available measures to minimise the risks...

The Ministry of Defence’s internal Board of Inquiry in 2004 had similarly identified failings that contributed to this incident and made 12 recommendations, all of which were accepted and have since been implemented.

Following an investigation by the Royal Military Police (Special Investigation Branch) into the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident, the independent Army Prosecuting Authority considered the case and concluded that disciplinary action was not warranted.

The Chain of Command similarly found no grounds to initiate administrative action against any individual.

Tragically, a unique combination of events resulted in the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle from an Improvised Explosive Device detonated by insurgents."

Here's a short extract from a video made soon after his death in June 2004. About halfway through Rose Gentle suggests that although she wasn't aware of it at the time, she saw images of the blown out jeep and her son on television before she was informed of her son's death by military representatives.

Political Blogging at the Telegraph

Yesterday evening I went to a panel on political blogging organised by Shane Richmond who runs the Telegraph's Technology blog. I had some trouble with Buckingham Palace Road's strange numbering system but eventually found the Telegraph's offices with its potentially ski-able escalator.

The panel consisted of Mick Fealty (and here), Tim Montgomerie, Lloyd Shepherd, and Alex Hilton and some other Telegraph guy who spoke exceptionally quietly. (Interestingly, no women). The proceedings were chaired by Iain Dale.

Here are some of the main themes to come out of the session.

1. Political blogging in the UK is two or three years behind the US. Panellists seemed frustrated by the state funded nature of British politics which hampered blogging activism, whereas in the States blogging and political debate is driven forward by the need for party fundraising.

2. There was general agreement that blogging democratised politics but scpeticism over how much influence the medium was having on politics. Tim Montgomerie: "Blogs are forming a new conversation". This "represents a massive decentralisation of power".

It was noted that blogs have not claimed any major political scalps as they have done in the US. Iain Dale wondered if political blogging in the UK was still moving forward at the moment.

3. The BBC's non-partisan political reporting was cited as a reason why political conversation has been diminished in the UK. Lloyd Shepherd: "[The BBC has] created a culture of political discourse which is devoid of energy". Mick Fealty described political reporting at the BBC as a "bland narrative".

4. Alex Hilton doesn't think the 'blogosphere' exists in any coherent sense and believes that bloggers are "micropublishers" feeding off, and feeding to, larger media organisations.

5. Mick Fealty thinks bloggers expectations have been too high in terms of what they can achieve. But says they provide a useful role in aggregating info and in-depth reporting.

6. Legal issues were discussed though nothing concrete really came out of these musings.

7. Some discussion of whether political bloggers are an elite cartel from the Westminster village. Not entirely accepted by the panel, but Tim Montgomerie admitted that most of those currently running politics blogs did have strong Westminster connections.

8. Tim Montgomerie: the best blogs have a specialist focus.

9. Nobody seemed to quite know where political blogging is going. Panellists seemed dumbfounded by the apparent inability of the major political parties to effectively use Internet technology. And there was some discussion about virtual political parties which could be started online and the possiblity that social networking might be used for political activism. It seems to me that these gaps are waiting to be exploited and the political establishment might be in for a rude awakening.

More reaction can be found here, and here.
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