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.
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