Wednesday 30 April 2008

Links for today: Three Ems but only one Emily

Maitlis: BBC presenter, Emily Maitlis, will try to stay on top of the buzz in the blogosphere as part of tomorrow's coverage of the local elections in the UK. She'll be helped out by political bloggers like Iain Dale.

Media: The Press Gazette reports that 19,200 BBC journalists have completed the Safeguarding Trust training.

Middle-East: Peace Man is hopeful for a cease fire to end the cycle of violence in the Gaza strip.

Random thought on Facebook

Facebook works because it enables user-generated hyper-'local' news.

(Think of a 'local' not defined by geography but by interests and relationships.)

Tuesday 29 April 2008

RAF technician deletes blog after criticising Condoleezza Rice's visit to Afghanistan

Read the full story on my new blog at the Frontline Club.

My introduction to the Frontline Club is here.

Watch this space

News of my new blog venture coming soon...

RAF technician deletes blog after criticising Condoleezza Rice's visit to Afghanistan

I used to follow a blog about the life of an RAF technician who services Chinook helicopters. He called himself "Sensei Katana" and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in January.
Just over a month later his blog disappeared without warning and now all you see when you visit his website is this.
According to the Ministry of Defence, Sensei Katana became "concerned" about his blog and stopped blogging.
Sensei Katana’s Blog
Sensei Katana's been blogging since at least May 2007. Although his website has been taken down, I still have access to some of his blog posts. They’re mainly about his everyday life with occasional references to his work in the RAF.
In December, he told readers that he was going to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. I was looking forward to regular updates over the next six months, but he only wrote four posts from theatre.
In his final post before removing the blog, he described how poor visibility nearly caused a Russian cargo plane to crash land into a line of British helicopters. But it was the post prior to this one that caught my attention.
Published on 10 February, it chronicled the visit of US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to Kandahar Airbase three days previously. She was accompanied by British foreign secretary David Miliband.
Sensei Katana wasn't too impressed with Ms Rice's visit offering her several pointers:
"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."
"Please don't tell the media what you're going to do until you've actually gone and done it and are now somewhere else. Like France."
The final point was a small detail about the arrangements made for Ms Rice's visit to the base. Sensei Katana claimed that this was broadcast on Sky and Al-Jazeera, was picked up by a local militia and inadvertently triggered a rocket attack on the base.

He concluded with this advice to the US Secretary of State:
"In short, next time you feel like coming here, don't."
Blogging Regulations at the Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence has strict rules about blogging and although I admired his honesty, I wasn't convinced the reaction to such a post would be too positive among Sensei Katana's senior commanders.
A document released in August 2007 states that military personnel are not allowed to communicate in public without the explicit consent of a commanding officer. This directive (2007DIN03-006) specifically mentions:
"Self publishing or otherwise releasing material on the internet or similar sharing technologies, for example through a blog, podcast or other shared text, audio or video, including via mobile devices’
In a reply to a Freedom of Information request I made earlier in the year, the MoD told me that these guidelines are:
"not designed to stop our personnel from blogging but instead to ensure that if they do blog, or otherwise communicate in public, about their work they do so in a way that ensures that operational security is upheld, and that standards of political impartiality and public accountability are met."
Why did 'Sensei Katana' stop blogging?
Sensei Katana did not have official consent to keep the blog, placing it outside the MoD's guidelines, and for a while senior officers had no idea he was blogging.
At some point, officers became aware of the existence of the blog. But I was told by a MoD press officer that before the officers spoke to the blogger, "he approached his chain of command to say he had been blogging but had decided to remove it".
The press officer added: 
"The individual in question was not forced to take down his blog by senior commanders and did so entirely of his own accord".
Sensei Katana did remove his blog, deleting it in its entirety without offering any post to explain this course of action.
So why did he do this? Although he had not spoken to the blogger in person, the press officer said:
"Sensei Katana realised that putting up some of the information was not a particularly sensible thing to do. He became concerned that he might cause harm by doing this and decided he did not want to play with fire."
Why are there so few British military blogs? 
Sensei Katana is, (or was), only one blogger, but his story begs the following questions: Do these same concerns mean other British servicemen don't blog? And does this episode help explain why there are so few British blogs written by military personnel?
Apart from the Commanding Officers of HMS Somerset and Nottingham, a blog by a member of the TA, and a new project with The Guardian, there arenĂ¢€™t many British milblogs. In fact, I challenge you to find another one that is updating from theatre.
After the launch of Lachlan MacNeil's 'blog' (note: there's no space to comment) in conjunction with The Guardian, Audrey Gillan wrote this article.
I thought she was going to address the key issue that her article hinted at all along “why are there so few British milblogs when there are so many US servicemen and women publishing their experiences?"
But she didn't. I don't really have an answer either but I am willing to offer a few more ideas.
It's not because the regulations are different. US military regulations on blogging (OPSEC AR530-1) appear to be fairly similar to those of the Ministry of Defence. Military personnel must:
"Consult with their immediate supervisor and their OPSEC (Operational Security) Officer for an OPSEC review prior to publishing or posting information in a public forum."
"This includes, but is not limited to letters, resumes, articles for publication, electronic mail (e-mail), Web site postings, web log (blog) postings, discussion in Internet information forums, discussion in Internet message boards or other forms of dissemination or documentation."
So what are the other possible explanations? One possibility is that the US military establishment is more open to the idea of allowing their servicemen and women to blog. Or better aware, perhaps, of the value of blogs to the military PR machine than their British counterparts.
But other factors are worth considering. Culturally, blogging is a much more established medium in the US than it is in the UK, and there are far fewer potential military bloggers in the British armed forces.
There are still more US personnel in Iraq (due to be around 140,000 by the summer) than the total numbers enrolled in the regular British Army (just over 100,000). It may simply be a case of numbers.
The Ministry of Defence and Blogging
In September last year, General Sir Richard Dannatt complained about the “growing gulf between the army and the nation’.
"When a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand, he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing, and why."
I assume the point Dannatt was making was that the people down the pub don't know much about what is going on. But this is hardly surprising. Apart from the occasional documentary, and the odd news report, we hardly ever hear from troops on the ground.
We only usually only find out about our servicemen and women when they are a silent face, or just a name, in a news report telling us of another casualty in a far off distant land.
And when we do hear from them, it is always through a tightly controlled media-military complex, a relationship made more prominent in recent times by the increased necessity of embedding journalists on safety grounds.
Maybe the need for operational security means it has to be this way. But it doesn't seem to be the case in the United States, where the public still receive regular updates from their blogging soldiers despite tighter regulations. (Here is my current favourite.)
If the British public had similar direct access to the experiences of soldiers through a blog, it might mean they could take a more active interest in Afghanistan and Iraq, enabling them to more closely identify with, relate to, and engage with those on the ground.
I wonder why, then, the MoD hasn't encouraged more servicemen and women to keep blogs and keep them within the rules.
Why, for example, did senior officers not suggest to Sensei Katana that rather than closing his blog down, he might like to carry on blogging in a more acceptable manner, within the MoD's guidelines?
After all, according to acclaimed US milblogger, Matthew Burden, military blogs are the "best PR the military has", providing a direct link between the front line and the home front “a key relationship to maintain in any war."

Monday 28 April 2008

Random quote on rolling news

"When you stand at a distance and survey this level of nitpicking idiocy,
taking in the full landscape of stupidity and meaningless analysis,
it's hard not to conclude that 24-hour rolling news is the
worst thing to befall humankind since the Manhattan Project."

Charlie Brooker, Comment is Free, The Guardian

Saturday 26 April 2008

Citizen journalists, transparency and openness

New school vs old school: a debate between blogging evangelist, Jeff Jarvis and Guardian America Editor, Michael Tomasky.

Thursday 24 April 2008

LT G sorts out a couple of sheiks in Iraq

If I were a publisher, I'd be giving this guy a book contract. Here's his latest.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Paxman on UGC

Via, via cybersoc

Worth pointing out that this video was added in October, so must have been a while ago. I wonder if his views have changed since then?

Coming Home

'Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure' is over - at least for the time being. 'Bill and Bob' is one man by the way - a citizen soldier who volunteered to help train the Afghan National Army. He's just returned home.

He was delighted to meet his family, of course, but he had mixed feelings about being re-immersed in the humdrum of life in the United States. Here are some extracts from a post entitled Back in the USA:
"Coming home is an adventure all its own.
"I don't know about the rest of the guys, but it will never be quite the same again for me.
"I ran the last few steps, shedding my laptop bag and backpack, and knelt to hug my daughter and son, oblivious to the rest of the passengers passing through the terminal. My eyes stung. Sweetness.
"It's weird, too.
"Just a few weeks ago, I was in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, aware of the local happenings and the changes that were happening...Now I'm back in Ohio, and nobody cares about any of that.
"I took my children to the mall the week after I arrived back home. I've repeated many times the quote, "America isn't at war. The military is at war. America is at the mall." As I drove towards the mall with my little ones in the their car seats, it occurred to me that I was on my way to the mall now, too. How odd. I laughed to myself.
"But I am not one of them. They cannot see it, but I'm not one of them. I have been at war, and part of me is still there. Perhaps that's what we're actually purchasing with our time spent over there; the peace of mind to go to the mall and not think of Afghanistan or Iraq unless they see a report on the news."
Bill and Bob's writing reminded me of a famous novel written about the First World War.

In Erich Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front', the main character Paul Baumer is on leave in Germany:
'I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world....they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. Formerly, I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend...'

'When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, about their occupations, I feel an irresistible attraction in it, I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man's life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and the star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches'.
'They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise'.
Coming home from a warzone, whether that's in 1918 or 2008, is a strange experience. Joy, relief, comfort, safety and normality is the prize, but at the same time it takes time to adjust to the loss of comradeship, purpose and something that had become a part of your identity.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Random thought on blogging

"It's one of the things that many journalists
don't do enough of when they blog: Listen."

Kevin Anderson, Editor of Guardian Blogs

Read the quote in context here.

Monday 21 April 2008

Everything is new and shiny

Today is 'TV big change day' at the BBC. (And, yes, that is the actual title they've used on the information leaflet sitting in front of me.)

This means new stuff. (Indulging myself in the 'three-year-old-speak-theme' if I may for a moment.) Audiences will probably notice a few aesthetic bits and pieces including that exciting new BBC News globe that's already on the website.

Peter Horrocks has talked about the brand changes, here, on the Editors Blog.

But behind the scenes there are more important things going on: desk shuffling, new audio setup, new newsgathering system. It's another move towards a new multimedia newsroom at Television Centre, where TV, Radio and Online will become much more integrated than they are at the moment.

And in case you missed it, there's also a new blogging system at the BBC as well.

Friday 18 April 2008

Next week's work

A couple of days ago I printed off a few BBC documents about blogging:

Now I just need to read them...

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Blog from Gaza and Sderot

A fascinating insight into life from both sides of the Gazan-Israeli border.

The blog is updated by two friends. One lives in Sderot, a small town near Gaza on the Israeli side, the other in Sajaia refugee camp inside Gaza.

Highlights include a post by the blogger from Gaza known as 'Peace Man' describing his conversation with friends as they crossed into Egypt after Palestinians overran the border in January. And this post by Hope Man, the Israeli blogger, about a rocket attack in Sderot.

The two bloggers are campaigning for a one month ceasefire. Earlier today the BBC reported that three Israeli soldiers and four Hamas militants were killed in clashes at the security fence close to Nahal Oz.

First Blogging Workshop in Afghanistan

The Afghan Association of Blog Writers claims to have held the first blogging workshop in Afghanistan.

(It was good enough for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs at any rate).

The workshop brought together a University teacher, a poet, a journalist and various writers to discuss blogging theories and techniques as well as sharing their insights on the blogosphere.

Nasim Fekrat, who runs Afghan Penlog, hopes to develop blogging in Afghanistan and says students and young people are increasingly referring to the World Wide Web despite difficulties accessing the Internet.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Zimbabwe blog used on Ten O'Clock News

BBC Correspondent Allan Little's report on Zimbabwe this evening included screenshots from This is Zimbabwe - a blog opposing President Mugabe's rule.

This blog has pictures of victims of Zanu PF violence committed against people believed to have voted for or supported the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Little told us that such websites risked reprisals but enabled news to 'trickle through to the outside world'.

Monday 14 April 2008

Random quote for the day

“Success on the Web is defined by
spotting niches and serving them well.”

Micah L. Sifry, the editor of the blog

RAF servicemen killed in Afghanistan

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that two servicemen from the RAF Regiment were killed near Kandahar Airfield yesterday. Next of kin have been informed.

The end of the foreign correspondent

Solana Larsen, co-managing editor of Global Voices Online, recently suggested that foreign correspondents will have disappeared by 2013.

This debate has been rumbling along in the background for a while. Back in October, John Simpson, World Affairs Editor at the BBC, said he regarded the foreign correspondent as an 'endangered species' on a programme for Radio 4.

Reporting overseas, and warfare in particular, has become more dangerous. In an article entitled 'Journalism and the war in Iraq', Howard Tumber noted that while reporting twenty-one years of conflict in Vietnam 63 journalists were killed.

By August 2004, 50 journalists had already lost their lives in Iraq. Reporters Without Borders claim that 156 journalists have been killed to date.

Safety-conscious and business-minded media organisations are now reluctant to send their journalists abroad, let alone pay to have them there permanently. The axing of foreign bureaux has long been recognised, as this video (among other things) demonstrates:

I found this video on Frontline's Blog, as part of an excellent digest of what has been said on the future of the foreign correspondent and various related issues, including blogging, local journalists, and the middle class nature of the journalism profession.

Friday 11 April 2008

A day in the life fighting a counterinsurgency war

Regular readers will know that Kaboom: A soldier's war journal is my favourite US war blog and in my opinion the best milblog currently updating from Iraq.

In his latest post, LT G is interrupted trying to win over some hearts and minds with a game of dominoes out in the local village:
"Fighting in a counterinsurgency war isn’t always sleepless cycles of constant patrols and trying to decipher incomprehensible link diagrams. There are the finer moments; moments and events whose effects on my soldiers’ morale and spirits can’t really be quantified with a pie chart or a PowerPoint slideshow."

Random thought on journalism

The media's role as 'gatekeeper' is finished. Discuss.

War Reporting Conference: Part Two

Here's the second half of my update on the war reporting conference on Wednesday.

After Martin Bell had stepped down, Rafael Marques talked about the difficulties of reporting civil war in Angola.
  • In the general debate on the nature of a war reporter's duty, he felt the journalist was obliged to tell the stories of those who are caught up in the suffering of conflict.
Martin Huckerby, former foreign editor of the Observer, argued that journalists reporting war must have a degree of humility.
  • The facts, he said, are not always obvious and there is a need to recognise different approaches and analyses. (This has been brought to the fore by the space for discourse available on the World Wide Web, a place where a multitude of viewpoints are published.)
  • He also noted that journalists need to be aware that they can be co-opted in the information war by both sides.
Stuart Allan took us for a quick spin through the development of blogging and new media in war reporting.
  • The blogs he mentioned (Salam Pax, Baghdad Burning, Stuart Hughes's Iraq Blog, Chris Allbritton's Back to Iraq) do perhaps represent a new type of war reporting that might save the genre from the decline that Martin Bell predicts.
  • Allan's example of the coverage of Saddam Hussein's execution is indicative of the way in which the citizen journalist is much more likely to give us a raw, unedited account of an event. In this instance, it became apparent that the solemn silent coverage of the execution was rather misleading when it was compared to the mobile phone footage taken by a nearby guard. The audio track revealed a much more chaotic scene than the mainstream media had depicted.
Journalist Yvonne Ridley was concerned that there 'appeared to be deliberate attempts to target journalists that were not embedded' by US forces in Iraq.
  • She cited the cases of ITN reporter, Terry Lloyd, and the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad just over 5 years ago.
Jonathan Baker, deputy head of newsgathering at the BBC, said 'the face of war reporting has changed beyond all recognition'.
  • He noted that technology was leading some of the changes - editing in the field, satellite phone, 24 hour news on TV and radio.
  • He was worried about keeping track of all the information available on the World Wide Web, and argued that the BBC must use the same rigour online as they do for other sources of information.
  • But he believed that the BBC is in a good place to filter and sift through the information thanks to its network of correspondents in the field, the expertise of the language services and the work of the Monitoring Service.
  • In an age when 'everybody is potentially a reporter', the BBC has a role to play as a 'trusted guide' through 'the noise'.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

War Reporting Conference: Part One

I've just made the short walk from Fleet Street to my department at King's College, London.

I was at a war reporting conference at St Brides Church, the 'spiritual home of printing and the media'. The opening address was given by Philip Knightley and panellists included veteran war correspondent Martin Bell, leading media academic Stuart Allan, and Jonathan Baker from BBC Newsgathering.

The event was chaired with consummate style and ease by Magnus Linklater.

There were lots of interesting points made. Here are some of the key themes I picked up on:

Phillip Knightley opened up with an exploration of the competing duties that a war correspondent faces. He particularly brought to the fore the difficulties of covering a war in which the correspondent's own nation is involved.
    • There are two types of war, he claimed: the real one on the battlefield and the one presented to us by the media. The two rarely meet.
    • Hawks are newsworthy; doves are not.
    • Not covering a war would be a neglect of a journalist's duty.
    • He wondered whether journalists do have a duty to try to move events forward in the 'right' direction.
  • My view
    • A fairly uncontroversial start which comprehensively flagged up some of the key competing duties which face a working war correspondent.

Next came Martin Bell, whose outspoken views are only matched for boldness by an insistence on wearing his iconic white suit.
    • He developed a theme he had written about in The Guardian earlier in the year, arguing that 'war reporting' is over, adapting an idea borrowed from General Rupert Smith about the state of warfare in the 21st Century.
    • He maintained his general pessimism about the state of the media industry including a dig at the BBC's Madeleine McCann coverage, and various swipes at 'rooftop' and 'embedded' journalism.
    • He concluded by arguing that the readers of The Times in 1854 were better informed about the progress of the Crimean War than present-day audiences are about Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • My view
    • Although Bell has some valid criticisms of the media industry in general, and of war reporting more specifically, claiming that this represents the 'death of war reporting' or the 'death of news' probably goes too far. (But then it's less entertaining to be this conservative ((and wear a black suit)). War and war reporting are changing significantly but I'm not convinced Rupert Smith ever argued that war was over, merely that a new form of warfare needed to be addressed. The same could be said of war reporting.
    • One point, in particular, which Bell failed to address was the impact of bloggers and new media on war reporting despite being specifically challenged on the issue by the chair. Part of the antidote to the embedded and rooftop journalism that Bell criticises is the capacity of bloggers such as Salam Pax to provide audiences with unmediated accounts of places and events that these journalists cannot reach. This is especially relevant in today's war zones which everyone at the conference seemed to agree are far more dangerous for journalists than they have been in the past.
    • Indeed, if you turn to the blogs then I think you can build up a better picture of what is going on inside Afghanistan and Iraq. But that's not to say there aren't significant and troubling blindspots in what we know about the conflicts.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Random thought on blogging

The best way for journalists to use blogs as sources of information is by having a blog.

Monday 7 April 2008

When is a 'unique' visitor, unique?

Jemima Kiss at The Guardian has sparked off a sharp little debate about website visitor numbers and the popularity of political blogs.

She claims that Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale, two of the more popular political bloggers in the UK, have inflated the number of visitors they get to their websites by inadvertently misrepresenting their 'unique visitor' statistics.

Both Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale appear in the comments section denying the allegation.

Daily blog-news updates from Iraq

If you want a quick daily low-down on 'the good, the bad and the ugly' from Iraq then head over to LT Nixon Rants.

Here's his news from Iraq for April 7th.

War in Iraq: the first 'iWar'?

Lt G at Kaboom wonders what an iWar is, what it means and whether it applies to war in Iraq:
"iWar. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop culture kind of way. Perfect for this Era of Irony. No LOL-erskates for the whYkids, but they’ll get over it. iWar. It’s not my phrase, though I appreciate it and am happy to Oscar Wilde it. I got it from an article about blogging in the Iraq War that quoted me in it...

"...I War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? We’re still looking for it, five years later. How’s that for iRony?

Thursday 3 April 2008

Best of the BBC Blog Network

Here are my picks from the BBC Blog Network over the last few weeks:

1. Robin Lustig reckons that no news from Iraq is not necessarily good news. His piece includes extracts from an email he received about the daily life of an Iraqi medical student.

2. World Have Your Say publish several letters from Baghdad reflecting on 5 years of conflict.

3. (a) The Editors blog about BBC World going off air in China.
(b) A week later the BBC's blog reports that the BBC news website is being unblocked.
(c) Jon Williams, World News Editor, sums up the situation.

4. iPM links to a video blogging surgeon serving with the US Army in Iraq.

5. Internet Blog on social networking guidelines for staff.

6. Newsnight uses blogs to find out what's happening in Zimbabwe.

7. World Have Your Say presenter Ros Atkins tries to square the BBC's commitment to impartiality with Jeff Jarvis's call for more openness and honesty. This is something I've blogged about previously.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The Mahdi Army revolt from the US perspective

Lt G is fighting with the US Army in Iraq. His latest post provides a six day account of his platoon's action during the 'Mahdi Army Revolt'. I particularly like this extract:

Night 1
"A second passes, and then my entire room shakes with inevitability while a M240B machine gun on the roof of the combat outpost returns fire directly above us. I roll out of my bed, getting my legs wrapped up in my poncho liner, and land gracelessly onto my face. SSG Bulldog barrels through our door like a runaway freight train. “It on now, oh yeah, it be on now!” he booms.

"We all start throwing on our gear in great haste with the notable exception of SFC Big Country, who is yawning from his bed, scratching his head. “You probably have time to put on pants Sir,” he advises, causing me to look down at a pair of yellow boxer shorts decorated with shamrocks and beer bottles contrasting sharply with the combat boots, body armor, and helmet I did manage to get on my body.

"I peek my head out the doorway, and not seeing any terrorist hordes coming for my scalp, agree with my platoon sergeant’s assessment. The gunfire above us continues while I find my pants."

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Catch up links

Last week, I escaped the World Wide Web in favour of the World Wide View you get from up here:

And it was great to get away from my computer screen.

This is what I would have been reading if I hadn't been up this mountain.
  • News about an escalation of violence in Southern Iraq and Baghdad. Last of Iraqis wrote a daily update of the situation from the Iraqi capital.
  • This report suggesting that the US military use bloggers to gain the upper hand in the 'information war'.

April: A fresh start

March has been a bit of a wipeout on the blogging front. I was ill at the beginning of the month and I've been on holiday for the last ten days. Hopefully, April will see a return to more regular postings.

At the moment, I'm working on several projects including a blogging workshop for World Service journalists, and a chapter of my thesis on the organisational context of the BBC.

I'm also hoping to touch base with the College of Journalism to find out how the BBC train staff to cope with the new media world and observe some of the BBC's meetings about the use of blogs.

I'll continue to bring you interesting blog posts about war, terrorism and, of course, blogging.
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