Wednesday 27 February 2008

Links for today: Iraq and Social Media

  • The leader of the national union of journalists, Shihab al-Tamimi, has died in hospital after being shot. (BBC)
Dentists seem to make good bloggers - at least they seem to in Iraq.
  • Baghdad Dentist has just moved back to Baghdad after escaping to Mosul for a year. He's noticed an improvement in living conditions in the capital:
"As for baghdad, it's great. Now it's on the way to heal and stepping forward in the road of revolution and good future. Except for some what I call "defects" here and there, one may say that the city has settled down."
  • Last of Iraqis says that the 'fanatics and criminals' have had to resort to new tactics in light of the changed situation in Iraq. They have found their movement has been more restricted and are no longer blowing up their own vehicles. Instead, they are attaching explosives to civilian vehicles and using a timer or a remote control to detonate them. He says the government has had to make some advertisements asking people to check their cars for explosives before they drive them.
  • This is a useful website for those of you who are interested in blogs from Iraq.

Social Media: Twitter

  • Paul Bradshaw, senior lecturer at Birmingham City University's School Media, has been blogging about Twitter, here, and here. Some of his students are taking up his advice and twittered the earthquake in the UK.
  • Twitter was also the subject of a recent article in The Guardian by Jeff Jarvis, who clearly thinks telling the world what you're doing in 160 character updates is the way forward.
  • If you don't know what Twitter is check out their website.
  • I am Dan_10v11 if you want to follow me on Twitter.

Mapping the Earthquake in the UK

Today, just for a bit of fun, I've decided to set up a little social media experiment. I'm asking people in the UK to send me their postcode and a short description of their experience of the earthquake.

I'm uploading these onto a Google map to try to get a picture of the range of the earthquake.

You can view the map here.

If you want to participate you can send an email to

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Film of 101st Division, US Army in Iraq

Sean Smith is a photojournalist for The Guardian newspaper. His short film of Apache Company, 101st Division of the US Army recently won a Royal Television Society Award in the UK. Any comments on the substance of the film would be most welcome, especially from my American readers.

Monday 25 February 2008


  • For those of you interested in the progress of this Freedom of Information request, I did receive a reply from the Ministry of Defence on the 8th February. Though the response was fairly lengthy, a couple of aspects of my request were not really dealt with because the information I was looking for was not held 'centrally'.
  • I'm still hoping to find this information at a more local level, but have not yet had a reply to my email asking exactly where I can access the data I asked for. I'm hoping to reveal my 'findings' - they're not very exciting - at some point.
CNN Sack Blogging Producer
  • CNN's press office just haven't replied to my email about the sacking of a CNN producer for keeping a blog. But they did talk to the New York Times:
'Barbara Levin, a spokeswoman for CNN, said she could not discuss specifics because the network does not comment on personnel matters, but she said in a statement, “CNN has a policy that says employees must first get permission to write for a non-CNN outlet.”'
  • Rather intriguingly the man who fired Chez Pazienza has just resigned.

Friday 22 February 2008

Coalition Casualties in Iraq

This project map is an interesting way of looking at coalition casualties in Iraq.

Thursday 21 February 2008

Blogging and the BBC - some fundamental challenges

Yesterday, I popped into Bush House for a small training session for BBC World Service journalists. I thought I was going to talk to the Head of Training about the possibility of organising a future workshop but ended up being roped in to form one half of a two person 'panel' on blogging.

I was woefully underprepared but rather enjoyed having the opportunity to share and discuss some of my preliminary ideas and half-baked ideas. Hearing the views of journalists is obviously very valuable to me as well.

The other half of the panel was formed by Sunny Hundal from the blog Pickled Politics. He did most of the talking and had lots of interesting things to say about political blogging in the UK, which provided some useful background.

But from the session, I reckon what journalists would really appreciate is a little guidance on how to find interesting and useful blogs and how to use blogging within the context of the BBC.

Using Blogs as Sources

Achieving the first part is a matter of giving busy journalists some helpful shortcuts so that they can navigate their way round the blogopshere. I spend hours researching and reading blogs; they don't have that sort of time. A few sessions on identifying and finding useful blogs, reading them, keeping them, managing them and the like would be a start.

The second part, concerning how the BBC can blog as an organisation, is inherently problematic, has an impact on the very identity of the organisation, and has no easy answers.

There are two fundamental problems that face the BBC when they use blogs. The first concerns the competing identities of the BBC.

Is the BBC a 'Corporation' or is it a 'Public Service Broadcaster'?

If it is the former, then there is no reason why BBC journalists who blog should not present a BBC line on their blogs. In practice, that might mean liaising with the press office to ensure that certain confidential information was not blogged about - eg internal disagreements, editorial errors etc.

If the BBC is the latter, then BBC blogs could and perhaps should be used as a way of providing greater openness and accountability.

Personally I think openness is the way to go. Not least, because if the BBC doesn't do it, the danger is that somebody else will. The mainsteam media can get into all sorts of trouble if it is even perceived to be hiding certain information from an audience in the digital age as this recent episode demonstrates.

I suppose the real debate is just how open can any organisation be and still function? There must be a line somewhere.

Using Blogs as Content

The second problem is the notion of impartiality - a founding principle of the BBC. In his book, Can We Trust the BBC?, ex-BBC journalist Robin Aitken argues that the idea of impartiality at the BBC doesn't stand up, suggesting that every journalist brings a certain set of assumptions, and prejudices unavoidably to their work. (In academic speak, I think the postmodern challenge is finally reaching the profession of journalism.)

Everything is relative though - the BBC is not Fox News. The attempt to remain impartial surely has some value.

Much successful blogging rests on partiality. It works because opinions are expressed, people tend to be open about their viewpoints and considered/heart-felt/intelligent /angry/vitriolic/pointless/ill-informed (delete as appropriate) debate takes place.

The blogging style and tone that appears to be most successful at the moment doesn't fit with the BBC's guidelines, or ethos.

If Rory Cellan-Jones were to write a technology blog post suggesting that the Mac is better than the PC, a few eyebrows might be raised. But imagine a similar blog post written about Israel and Palestine or, for the sake of impartiality(!), Palestine and Israel.

What's the answer?

A radical solution would be to throw 'impartiality' out of the window but do taxpayers really want the BBC to become overtly opinionated? And, of course, the solution is rather irrelevant given that it can't do so in any case because it would be illegal under current broadcasting regulations.

The other solution is for the BBC to use blogs in ways that enhance the content they provide and facilitate debate. Arguably, the BBC's most successful blogs have been those that actively invite audience participation (Newsnight, PM, Have Your Say) and thus a sense of ownership in a programme.

What is certain is that BBC blogs cannot be modelled on political blogs, but blogging is not limited to this style. Finding new voices, styles, tones and niches is the challenge for programme-makers. Oh - and don't forget to make some good radio and television in the meantime.

© Daniel Bennett 2008

Wednesday 20 February 2008

CNN - Still shutting down their blogging journalists

In 2003, CNN employee, Kevin Sites, started a blog which provided readers with a personal commentary on his reports from Iraq.

On 21 March 2003 CNN asked him to stop blogging. A spokesperson claimed that Sites’ should be fully engaged filing television reports. Sites agreed to stop blogging explaining that he had little choice but to comply - CNN were paying his cheques and had sent him to Iraq.

At the time, this was seen in the blogosphere as an assault on blogs by the mainstream media.

Today, CNN is still getting rid of its blogging journalists. Chez Pazienza, a producer, who has a popular blog at Deux Ex Malcontent was fired last week for his blog posts.

He claims he was fired because he had not had his writing vetted by CNN in accordance with the employee handbook.

Needless to say he doesn't seem too happy about the state of television news and fires a warning shot to the mainstream media:

"CNN fired me, and did it without even a thought to the power that I might wield as an average person with a brain, a computer, and an audience. The mainstream media doesn't believe that new media can embarrass them, hurt them or generally hold them accountable in any way, and they've never been more wrong."
You can read Chez's version of events here

I've emailed CNN to (hopefully) get their take on this.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Blogging in Afghanistan

Global Voices Online have interviewed Afghan blogger Nasim Fekrat. Nasim talks about a couple of new media projects in Afghanistan and the obstacles that must be overcome in order to keep a blog going in the country:
  • "When journalists want to say something freely, they may be forced and intimidated by a local governor who was previously a fighter and commander. Meanwhile, the government in the capital is weak and doesn't have the ability to help journalists."
  • "We Afghan bloggers face severe conditions. We always have power outages. That is normal here. Within 24 hours we have 5 hours electricity, but also periodical outages."
  • "Bloggers in Afghanistan are really poor, and I am sure international organizations could help us...Second-hand computers, laptops, cameras and flash disks would be a big help."

4 Rifles in Iraq last year

Michael Yon has written the final segment of his account of 4 Rifles deployment to Iraq last year. Part VIII follows the battalion to the border with Iran.

Guarding the border in sweltering heat was no easy task for the Rifles. According to Yon, 'we could probably put the entire Coalition on the Iraq-Iran border, and the area would not be sealed'.

Monday 18 February 2008

British soldier killed in Afghanistan

A soldier serving with 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment died on Sunday while on a foot patrol near Kajaki in Helmand province. The Ministry of Defence press release is here.

Reading the Iraqi newspapers and other tales

Bit busy for blogging today but if you're desperately short of something to read, go and read somebody who does it much better than me. LT G in Iraq reflects on the military oath, Iraqi newspapers, and winning wars without Microsoft Office.

Friday 15 February 2008

The new prominence of blogs at the BBC

Old BBC home page - blogs are nowhere to be seen:

New home page - blogs have their own expandable menu:

Thursday 14 February 2008

Breaking News - At least 15 injured in Northern Illinois University Shooting

  • University website with live updates
  • One of several Facebook groups set up can be found here by typing group.php?gid=7880939436 after\
Update 23:20

'Police are confirming that the shooter is dead by a self-inflicted gunshot' according to University website.

Update 23:35

Fox News first to 'digitally doorstep' Facebook Group, 'Pray for Northern Illinois University Students and Families'

"I am a reporter with Fox News in Chicago. We are so sorry to hear about the shooting. Right now... we have reporters on the way who are looking for people to interview. If you saw anything today or have any information please call our news desk at 312-565-5533. Thanks so much for your help."

A letter to Condoleezza Rice

Today, Condoleezza Rice has been told by President George Bush to visit Kenya in an effort to help find a peaceful solution to the post-election crisis engulfing the country.

Last week, the very same US Secretary of State was in Afghanistan visiting troops in Kandahar with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. (They've clearly grasped the 'standing shoulder-to-shoulder' routine).

But one British RAF servicemen at Kandahar wasn't too enamoured by Rice's visit and has written her a 'blog-letter' with a few gentle "pointers" for next time she shows up on a military base. Advice includes:
  • "Please dress accordingly - on a base full of people wearing nothing but camo/combat clothing, arriving [in] a business suit is going to 'stand out' somewhat."
For the whole letter, head over to Sensei Katana...

I wonder how she'll be received in Kenya?

When is a 'terrorist', a terrorist?

'ONE LESS TERRORIST, ONE MORE EUPHEMISM' cries the blog 'Biased BBC'. The author of the post, David Vance, is not happy about the BBC's decision not to describe Hizbollah leader, Imad Mughniyeh, as a 'terrorist' in a headline for an online article:
'Mughniyeh was a senior terrorist within Hezbollah, and his death has seen him eulogised him as a "jihadist" and as a "martyr" by those who hate Jews and Americans. This monster was involved in a series of bombings that took the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people. And yet, the BBC headline describes him as a "top Hizbollah leader."'
David Vance says this choice of language leads to inaccurate reporting and 'moral relativism'.

A comment on the blog post notes that later on in the article a spokesman for the US state department describes Mughniyeh as a "cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost".

One of the other problems with Vance's position is that accurate descriptions vary depending on where you are in the world and which side of the very long Middle-Eastern argument you are coming from.

In an interview with Al Jazeera television in October 2001, the British Prime Minister was reminded by the interviewer that:
‘Hizbollah, Jihad Islami, Hamas, other radical organisations based in Damascus in Syria…are considered freedom fighters’ while ‘they are considered by you [Tony Blair], maybe, or the Americans, as terrorists’.
The BBC sets out some of the thinking behind why it tries not to use the word 'terrorist' in its Editorial Guidelines:
'We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them.'
This position is backed up by academics view of the word terrorism. In her book, Mass Mediated Terrorism, Brigitte Nacos says that calling ‘an act of political violence terrorist is not merely to describe it but to judge it’ (p. 17).

It could be argued that calling Mughniyeh a terrorist is not merely descriptive but the sort of value-laden judgement that the BBC tries to avoid. (Though the process of description is itself usually a result of a series of judgements
, prejudices and selections).

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Escaping Iraq

Last of Iraqis is one of the few Iraqi bloggers still in Iraq. In this post, he tells us the story of his efforts to get into neighbouring Jordan.

Monday 11 February 2008


Do you know any insurgents you can pick up? We're here for another hour...

An insight into counterinsurgency from the Afghanistan Milblogs

I've found some new Afghanistan milblogs thanks to this very useful resource.
  • 'The word 'infantry' just doesn't seem to cover everything we do here' according to a US Infantry Platoon leader in Afghanistan. He discusses the provision of medical supplies, the role of the US Army in winning hearts and minds for the Afghan government and 'collateral damage'.
  • Over at 'Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghanistan Adventure', an old hand has some new faces to look after. Some of them, he says, just don't get counterinsurgency:
'I think that he thought that he was going to be hunting Taliban every day. Snooping around the rocks, tossing grenades into every suspect cave opening and generally scaring the living hell out of everything; walking like some kind of KISS band member through quivering Afghan villages who will toss their Talibs out in the street just so that this otherworldly killing machine will be satisfied and leave them alone.'

Thursday 7 February 2008

NATO troops in Afghanistan - the ins and outs

Lots on Afghanistan in the news today after David Miliband and Condoleezza Rice visited Afghanistan to try to patch up relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Back in Europe, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is in Vilnius trying to convince the other 26 defence ministers in the NATO alliance to step up their commitment.

  • Here's all you need to know about the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. How many troops there are, where they are, where they're not...
  • The Guardian (UK) looks at the problems facing the NATO mission, including NATO tensions, deployment issues, testy relations, Taliban and drugs.
Mainstream Coverage:
  • Robert Gates in Vilnius urges NATO members to at least some send equipment if they can't send troops into combat. (AFP)
  • Should we stay or should we go: the Canadians are due to vote on an indefinite commitment to Afghanistan. But only if NATO agrees to deploy an extra 1,000 troops. (National Post)
  • It's all quiet on the northern front, which is why Germany want to send an extra 200 troops there rather than anywhere else. (Deutsche Welle)
  • The Economist (UK) says its time for the sniping to stop. Internal sniping that is, not Taliban sniping...
From the Blogs:
  • Meanwhile, far away from the diplomatic circus 'Sensei Katana', a member of the RAF, has been settling into his new temporary home in Kandahar. He offers his own assessment of troop numbers at the base he is at and, in the final sentence of the extract here, inadvertently gets to the heart of the problem:
"Kandahar is definately an American base with nearly as many Canadian forces as well. Next in size would be the Dutch, with us Brits coming in at 4th place. There are also Romanians & Estonians too. There are a couple of other nations but they really don’t have enough of a presence to make any real impact."

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Afghanistan on BBC's Newsnight

I've just watched the Afghanistan piece that Newsnight have done on BBC 2. They decided to go with the angle that the US have agreed to help out reinforced British troops in Helmand province.

So the Newsnight team opted to have US General Wesley Clark (who spoke a lot of sense by the way) and former UK Secretary of Defence, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, discussing US and British military roles after a package by Diplomatic Editor, Mark Urban.

The problem was that this all became a bit of an Anglo-American love-in with Rifkind and Clark interrupting one another to pay tribute to US and British military strategy, forces, equipment etc respectively.

Presenter Kirsty Wark floundered around trying to bring up some sort of disagreement between the pair, pressing the line that US troops have better technological support compared to most British infantry units. Interesting? (To a specialist perhaps). But how relevant is this to the real news story here?

As I was watching, I felt that this discussion had become a poor sideshow to the two main issues: namely NATO's organisation and military structure in Afghanistan and the role of NATO's member states in implementing military strategy.

I wanted to hear from the Danes or the Germans or the Italians. I wanted to hear from a senior member of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Basically, I wanted to hear from somebody, (almost) anybody representing a different point of view on the story, not two people batting for the same team.

But then you can't always get what you want...not least when it comes to Afghanistan, as the UK and US governments are finding out.

I used to write 'history' - where Culture Secretaries never change.

I'm finding that keeping up to date is less of a losing battle; more a state of permanent defeat. At the beginning of January, I started a draft introduction for my research project on blogging. After a few weeks of reading around some of the issues I was missing out, I went back to this early draft.

This morning, I was having a quick read through my original effort, (while trying to ignore the noise from a huge construction vehicle stripping the road outside.) Several paragraphs down I arrived at a small section on Culture Secretary James Purnell's plans for public service broadcasting in the UK.

Seeing as Mr Purnell's now moved to the Department of Work and Pensions, I fear most of this is rather redundant and will have to be scrapped. I don't even know who the new Culture Secretary is...It must be Wikipedia time.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Contact in Iraq and other links

From the American Milblogs:
  • Lt G at Kaboom experiences his first contact in Iraq...
In Iraq:
On blogging:
  • A Kenyan blogger believes 'bloggers are the ultimate source of primary information in Kenya today'.

Monday 4 February 2008

Reading today - Web 2.0, 4 Rifles, doctors and 'operationalising independent variables'

It's all rather quiet on the blogging front. Maybe the bloggers have joined the other 300,000 people in the UK who call in sick on the first Monday in February.

Admittedly, I've cut my searching time for today because I have lots of 'methods' reading to do. (It's as exciting as it sounds). Here's a few links for lunchtime:
  • The BBC Pronunciation Unit tells us how to say Web 2.0 without making a fool of ourselves. Nobody in their right mind would call it 'Web two dot zero', would they?
  • Michael Yon delivers Part VII of his series covering 4 Rifles in Basra last year. (Michael's website is down at the time of writing.)

Friday 1 February 2008

Blood out of a Stone Act 2000 Part II (could be one of many)

I had a couple of visits to my blog yesterday from Ministry of Defence IP addresses but I obviously don't know if they were anything to do with my FOI request. (My blog is mainly about reporting war after all - it's not unfeasible that somebody in another department might have stumbled across it). If it was to do with my FOI request then it would be better to contact me directly in any case so I know what's going on.

And seeing as no one has done this, well over two months after my initial request, I've decided to officially complain to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Apparently I'm supposed to complain to the MoD first, before complaining to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). I can't really see the point of this in my case, (if the MoD won't contact me, how am I supposed to find out the result of my complaint?) so I'll be sending on my complaint to the ICO in due course. Here are some 'highlights' of the email I sent to the MoD:

"This is an official complaint regarding the handling of my freedom of information request. On 29th Nov 2007, I requested several pieces of information...

"The deadline for a response to this request is listed as the 3rd January. This deadline passed and, as I'm sure you are aware, this represents a breach of Section 10 of the FOI Act 2000. Section 16 also states that an organisation has a duty to provide advice and assistance. (I have hardly had any assistance at all as the following clearly demonstrates.)

"I have still had no contact from the MoD whatsoever in regard to my request. I am appalled by the manner in which my request has been handled. I would prefer not to have to spend time complaining, as it creates more paperwork for everybody involved. But the fact that nobody from the FOI team has had the common courtesy to even acknowledge my request, any of my follow up emails, or the messages that were no doubt left for them, leaves me with no other option.

"I am not particularly hopeful for a response to this correspondence. I am aware that I should wait for an internal review of the handling of this complaint by the MoD, before I can complain to the Information Commissioner's Office. But I am fed up of waiting, and unless I receive a reply to my request later today, I will be forwarding this email to the ICO in due course."

Update 4.30pm

I have finally had a response acknowledging my 'unsatisfactory experience'. Somebody else from the Information Access Office at the MoD is now chasing it up for me, promising a response as soon as possible from a member of the FOI team and an explanation for the delay. Let's hope it materialises.

(I should just point out that I've nothing against the MoD. Last year, I was very fortunate to be allowed access to film a Territorial Army battalion on exercise and SaBRE, an arm of the MoD that helps TA soldiers and their employers, were very helpful in agreeing to do an interview).
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